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The blended virtual classroom

The virtual campus is still under construction.

By all accounts, our recently completed readership study was a rousing success. Nearly 3,000 of our 2 million readers responded, which was among the highest ratio ever received in similar studies conducted by Verified, the company we hired to conduct the study. We will use this information in our long-term planning to better tailor our content to our readers. But I don’t want to wait until the next editorial calendar cycle to do so. I want to use some of it now. So here goes.

One of the questions we asked was “What is your job title or role?” About 15 percent of readers filled in Executive/CEO/Owner; a similar number filled in IT Management; again about 15 percent of our readers are divided between Network Support/Administrator and Computer Technician. About 15 percent of our readers develop hardware or software–for these, I lump together Programmer, Analyst, Developer, Engineer, and the like. About 12 percent of our readers are IT consultants or contractors. Another 5 percent are either educators or learners in IT-related courses. A significant segment of our readers are graphic artists or Web site designers. And we have another large chunk of retired IT workers who pick up our publication.

For the most part, the question validates that we are serving the folks we try to reach with our content. While these folks do move around in their careers, most of them already have degrees or certifications. So are we really serving our readers with an issue devoted to training-related topics? The answer is yes for two reasons. First, IT workers must continually expand their learning horizons. The industry isn’t moving quite as quickly as it did in the late ’90s, but IT people still need continuous training and education. Second, we also want to reach people who are considering a career shift into IT. And we have some numbers to back up our claims that non-IT people also pick up our publication. About 10 percent of our readers are not in IT careers. These folks checked Other and wrote in Waitress, Folk Singer, Driver/Actor, and a slew of creative titles. My personal favorite is Amorphous Blob.

For all you amorphous blobs out there who somehow manage to pick up our publication without opposable thumbs, we have all the information you need to help your career take shape, at your, um, fingertips. My feature this month advises you on training and education tracks that will lead to the degrees and certifications needed for your desired career. Molly Joss’s feature (which you can get on our Web site if it doesn’t appear in your local edition) helps you get over the experience hump. And our cover story by Robert McGarvey will give you a sense of how to augment classroom training with distance training. It’s called blended learning, and it’s changing the way we think about distance learning. Rather than insisting that distance learning is a replacement for traditional classroom learning and lab training, we have conceded that its best place is as an additional learning venue for time-challenged professionals.

Actually, this month’s cover story is part of a three-part series spanning July, August, and September. It’s been a long time coming, but a lot of analysts are starting to finally predict good things for distance training, and we want to cover this (slowly) emerging trend thoroughly. Next month’s cover story will focus on the collaboration technologies that make distance learning richer than, say, CD-ROM training. And a special section in our September issue will guide users through the process of selecting a distance learning provider, complete with a directory of providers.

It seems like I’ve been following distance learning since I began my journalism career a decade ago. In fact, a couple of years after I started my career, I was pursuing a master’s degree in a field related to distance education (yes, I’m still working on the thesis). I got my first big break at the time when I was named editor of Technolog, a student magazine for the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. I hold in my hands the Spring 1995 issue of that publication, titled “Virtual Campus.” It contains three features describing cutting-edge distance learning environments. Suffice to say the challenges addressed in that issue still dog distance learning and what was cutting-edge then is still leading-edge now.

Why has it taken so long for distance learning to reach maturity? There are a number of factors. First and foremost, broadband adoption was supposed to grow much faster than it has. You can’t deliver rich-media courses over dial-up. And forget about teleconferencing or other advanced communications tools without a fast connection. To this day, the people who could most benefit from distance learning are the least able to do so. But the broadband landscape has changed drastically since the days when ISDN was the fastest connection you could get. Still, slow broadband adoption is one reason distance learning providers have shifted their efforts to the corporate world, where T3 connections are common.

Secondly, distance learning has to overcome the negative credibility surrounding degrees over the Internet. Because of the preponderance of fly-by-night Internet degree programs, the legitimate providers have suffered through credibility problems. The providers who have had the most success are ones whose primary business is in the classroom, especially the credible universities. The fact is, it can be just as hard if not harder to get a degree over the Internet as it is in the classroom. But if the provider does not have credibility outside of the Internet, HR professionals presume it’s just like a mail-order degree.

Back in 1995, I wrote about the biggest single limiting factor for distance learning in my editorial: “Cyberspace cannot replace face-to-face.” To wit, there is no technological substitute for time with an instructor. Teleconferencing and other advanced collaboration tools can reduce the need for face time. But you just can’t eliminate face time without degrading the learning experience. This is especially true in a lab setting.

All these challenges point to blended learning as the solution. Mixing classroom with distance learning places fewer demands on the broadband connection. If a provider offers blended learning, it already has the credibility of a brick-and-mortar outfit. And if students can see their instructors in the flesh at least once per week, they satisfy the most basic need for human validation. Yet, rather than needing to spend several hours outside of work on continuing education, learners can learn on the job and even integrate some of their lab work into the unique experiences related to their jobs. In short, blended learning offers the best of both worlds.

And for those of you who don’t do face time, distance learning is steadily improving. The good news is, no one knows you’re an amorphous blob over the Internet.

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