As the availability of Internet resources ushers in changes in traditional forms of ed- ucation, it simultaneously offers a new dimension to some alternative forms of ed- ucation already moving past the four walls of a classroom. Distance education is literally defined as “the delivery of the educational process to receivers who are not in proximity to the person or persons managing or conducting the process” (Lewis, Whitaker, & Julian, 1995, p. 14). It has existed in some form for years, often serving students in rural areas who were not able to reach a school or students who for some health or behavior reasons could not attend traditional school.
The correspondence model of distance education, which has served as the defin- ing model of the field, was usually built around the teacher sending out course ma- terials via regular mail. Upon receiving the materials, the student worked independently to complete the assignments and then mailed them back to the teacher for grading. The technology that most aided this educational exchange was the tele- phone, giving students and teachers a chance to discuss necessary topics of concern. Although this arrangement allowed some school participation for large groups of students who otherwise would not receive education at all, it amounted essentially to a strict delivery of education, with a minimum of guidance aimed at actually in- citing learning (Berge & Collins, 1995).
With the advent of a global network of telecommunications, distance education has had new life and possibilities breathed into it. No longer is learning away from a traditional classroom the exception, but rather it is becoming a learner-centered standard many educational models strive to replicate. Email and chat groups have provided a forum for relevant, content-rich, supportive online discussions between teachers and students as well as among students. Instead of sitting isolated at home working on assignments, the distance learner can experience the feeling of being part of a collaborative group of learners, a member of a class that is right there in the room. This feeling is called social presence (Mason, 1994).
As students gain greater access to computer hardware and connections to the Internet, the chances for them to learn at a distance from one another increase. Students in small districts who would normally have a limited selection of courses available to them can learn from content experts anywhere in the world. Adults who desire additional education can fit the courses they need into a time schedule that fits with their work constraints. Parents who choose to teach their children at home have available a world full of content and the chance for social contacts that will enrich their children’s learning environment.
The research on distance learning from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century clearly demonstrates that students who learn from a distance, whether it be the old correspondence method or modern-day web-based learning, achieve as well as students learning in traditional settings (Russell, 1999). This is good news, as virtual learning opportunities for high school students, and those even younger, abound. Seventeen states either have or are developing online high schools and about half of the fifty states have provisions for “cyber” charter schools (E-Defining Education, 2002). Other states are examining ways to test students online.
Students taking courses from a distance include both those who attend tradi- tional public high schools as well as those who are home schooled (Doherty, 2002). The majority of students enroll in virtual courses so they can take courses that their schools do not offer, while others say that the flexibility of taking online courses helps them fit learning into busy extracurricular schedules. Programs report diver- sity in both ethnic and gender groups, as well as regarding technology skills of their students; not everyone taking an online course is a computer expert, an idea designers of online instruction need to remember as they design learning materials. In fact, a majority of students report some technical difficulties while trying to take online courses.
As many as 1,600 teachers taught online courses to K–12 students in 2002 (Blair, 2002). The 200 schools that participate in the Virtual High School agree to trade the time of one of their teachers teaching an online class of twenty students in return for twenty slots for their students to take other online courses (Trotter, 2002). The experience of teaching in virtual settings is clearly different from being faced with students in traditional classrooms. Whereas some teachers report stronger relationships with their students because of more frequent email dialogue, others say that quality “face time” with students is missing, even despite efforts to create community from a distance (Blair, 2002). Teachers feel isolated not only from students but also from colleagues. Making things tougher on teachers used to teach- ing in traditional environments is translating their teaching styles into the electronic environment. Many teachers do not realize how great a task it is to engage students in learning through often theatrical means that are not as easily replicable in online settings.
In the rush to install virtual programs, states must consider the reality of edu- cating students from a distance. In order to maintain quality, the following questions, from E-Defining Education (2002), are worthy of consideration:
- Are online courses aligned with state academic standards?
- Who is responsible for students’ technological needs when they are taking online courses?
- Are online teachers trained effectively to teach via the Internet?
- Should parent approval be required before a child enrolls in an online course?
- Will students receive the same amount of credit for an online course as they would for a face-to-face class?
- And how will states ensure the quality of online courses, especially when students are taking them from teachers in other states or countries?
What a student can learn is no longer limited by the knowledge of individuals who are employed at one particular school building. As people experiment with the types of learning that are possible through the Internet to students at a distance, and as it becomes easier for educators to use and contribute to the online world, the struc- ture of learning undoubtedly will change. Where now many distance courses are de- signed to closely resemble instruction that occurs face to face, new learning theories will be depended on to guide new forms of learning for the online world.