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Online education is growing by leaps and bounds. Cover story hed: Learn anytime, anywhere dek: distance education is a win-win. dek: online education is growing by leaps and bounds.

When it comes to learning, these are exciting or terrifying times, depending on who you ask. The rise of the Internet may not have proven fruitful for many dot-coms that have not thought out their business plans. However, investments in technology that support online learning are reaching billions of dollars, with no end in sight.

Conservative figures show that from 2000 to 2003, some $10 billion will be invested in online tools and technologies for higher education. During the same period, online corporate training investments are expected to top $11 billion. This year alone, Market Data Retrieval’s College Technology Review estimates that $3.3 billion will be spent at colleges and universities for online learning technologies.

Why spend so much money on online learning? The answer is, as Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers said in a recent Forbes magazine article, online education is the killer app of the Internet. Virtual learning promises to solve many educational woes we’ve had in the past while enriching student experiences and reducing costs. Issues abound, however, on all sides of the online education picture. Many of the tools and technologies we are currently implementing to support online learning are rudimentary at best. These first-generation tools often lack the interactivity that keeps students engaged while online.

But leading experts see other issues, too. Cheryl Waldrup, a vice president at iLearning Inc. says, “Technology producers are beginning to create second-generation tools for online learning that are highly interactive, yet they cannot roll them out to a wide audience due to a lack of available bandwidth options in many areas.”

There are issues with curriculum, too. In many cases, first-generation online classes try to mirror the curriculum content and presentation offered in offline classes. Administrators, educators, and instructors need to better understand what the online medium has to offer and how best to leverage current and emerging tools and technologies.

Pat Portway, president of the International Internet Learning Association (IILA), says, “Some school systems are beginning to teach educators how to better leverage online tools and technologies to create a much richer experience for students. In addition, some teachers’ colleges offer programs that include the monitoring of new programs to gauge how successfully the educator adapts curriculum presentation to available online technology.”

These challenges will be overcome slowly. The bandwidth adoption rate is much slower than many analysts expected. And slower still is the adoption of teaching skills that maximize the medium. Yet the spending continues to accelerate, and all indications are that eventually, online learning will be the norm for most higher education students and post-graduate learners.

Train the trainer

iLearning’s Waldrup echoes the thoughts of IILA’s Portway. “Many teachers are reluctant to move to online teaching because they fear they’ll lose control,” she says. We need more facilities to train the trainer before we can even begin to take advantage of the huge improvements that online learning can offer us.

The notion of losing control is a scary proposition for many educators. But, that is not the mindset of the Internet and the future of virtual education. Online learning is an entirely different animal. Instead of giving an educator and a few aides the keys to knowledge, online learning boasts global knowledge sources and available tools that support collaborative learning. In online learning environments, the instructor or educator takes on more of a facilitating role than a controlling one.

For example, the University of Michigan Business School teaches a collaborative class called “Competing in the New Economy.” Students and instructors in this class take an open-source approach to learning by working together to define new best practices for running a business.

Other educators fear that online learning will bring an end to location-based coursework and thus potentially impact their livelihood. But experts claim this attitude supports the myth that multiple media compete with one another rather than complement each other. IILA’s Portway and iLearning’s Waldrup both feel that traditional offline classroom programs will not disappear and, in fact, will benefit from the richness of the online world.

“Virtual learning will never completely replace the offline classroom,” says Waldrup. “There will be smart shifts of coursework into online classes when it makes sense to teach curriculum in that way. Some classes just don’t work in an online setting.”

Universities also need to address more controversial issues, such as the idea of how credits may be applied. Many lifelong learners may not need to take an entire course to gain the knowledge they seek. For example, software developers experienced in a particular programming language, such as Java, should not be required to take an entire class on the subject merely to gain knowledge of a new functionality such as Enterprise Java Beans. A component-based approach to learning would allow post-graduate learners to just learn what they need, thus avoiding redundancies.

Online learning can be leveraged to provide pre-assessments that can gauge how much or little material the student may need in order to receive credit for the subject matter. This will help many students advance more quickly and accurately in their chosen fields of study.

Get a passport?

IILA’s Portway sees a new model that might support incremental measures and tracking of student advances. “In Finland, there is an educational passport model that tracks what students learn throughout their lives,” he says. A variety of models will need to be examined for privacy concerns and other issues before we can define new ways to measure student progress.

Once all of the issues are addressed and online learning matures a bit, students will be the real winners in the online education picture. They can choose the types of programs and settings that works best for their lifestyle. Some students will prefer the on-campus experience with educator-based lectures. A more common option these days is coursework that blends offline classroom work with online research and assignment completion (see sidebar).

And some students will choose curricula presented in an online-only format. For many, this method is the most flexible way of continuing education. Students who live in remote areas or cannot otherwise attend offline classes due to busy schedules are ideal for online-only programs.

K through 12

University students aren’t the only ones expected to benefit from online learning. Kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) teachers and students are adapting to the new paradigm, too. Experts expect that K-12 classes will not move to online-only programs at present. Rather, educators are beginning to use online tools and techniques to increase collaboration, participation, and communication. For example, today many high school teachers use Listserv technology to maintain a discussion list with the class in which anyone can ask a question or comment about the subject matter.

Other schools are using dynamically updated Web pages to keep students and parents aware of assignments and student progress. For many busy parents, going online to see how Junior is doing is a huge help. K-12 educators who leverage online tools generally report an increase in student performance and family involvement.

Fast track

Online learning is also growing at a phenomenal rate in the business community. Small and large employers alike are realizing that offering ongoing learning can help retain employees who use their continually newfound knowledge to give the company a competitive advantage. In addition, businesses are finding that online courses can cost 50 to 90 percent less than sending staffers to traditional classes. This is due to a reduction in travel expenditures as well as reduced fees for online programs when compared to offline classes.

Corporate online training is not without its problems, however. A debate has emerged among business leaders and corporate learners: How can a company support ongoing learning while keeping productivity up? Many employers want their staffers to take coursework in the evenings or on the weekends. But many experts feel that this sort of arrangement will have the opposite results that employers hope for. As employees struggle to balance the regular workday and add after-hours learning to the mix, productivity is likely to slip.

iLearning’s Waldrup feels that companies are far better off if they can supply a quiet area at the company where online learning can be done in modest amounts that balance with work: “Staffers who leave the desk for a short period to take online coursework in a quiet learning center are more likely to put their new skills to work right away and less likely to get distracted by ringing phones, e-mail, and the like.”

Corporate learning is also beginning to blend with higher education. Many universities now partner with companies to supply customized online learning programs for staffers. Competition for corporate partners among universities and vendors offering skill programs is heightening. The real winners are the corporations and their learners because they can choose the programs that best match their needs.

Equipment maker John Deere and Co. recently partnered with Arizona State University to create an online learning course for its managers. Recently, 35 new managers graduated from a two-year customized MBA program developed by the two organizations. The curriculum provided immediate benefit to the company since the program was tailored to the real issues the managers were encountering in their professional lives at the company.

Export business

One other interesting byproduct of online learning is the fact that trainers and educators are able to reach a global audience should they so choose. Students from Minnesota will be able to collaboratively study online with students from England or any number of other countries.

This new wrinkle will present some interesting challenges for governments. Policymakers around the world need to clearly define the parameters of borderless learning. And institutions offering globally accessible online programs will feel the heat of added competition as learning institutions around the world vie to create the most compelling programs.

Indeed, for anyone involved with learning, these are exciting times. Though many of the changes may seem somewhat terrifying, the net result will be a strengthening of the educational process and an expansion of knowledge around the world.

Sidebar: How is technology changing education?

Statistics in the College Technology Review 2000-2001 (the report surveyed 4,726 colleges and universities) from Market Data Retrieval shows that $3.3 billion will be spent on technology in education with Internet access growing, online offerings expanding, and even university services gaining online smarts.

Colleges and universities connected to the Internet 100% Classrooms connected to the Internet 64% Colleges offering distance learning programs 70% Colleges offering accredited degrees online 41% College and university administrative offices offering online services 53% Institutions with centralized technology purchasing 79%

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