Higher education institutions have gradually adopted online education, and there is a significant growth in the number of students participating in distance programs in colleges and universities around the US. Many states, agencies, and organizations have been working on comprehensive strategies to incorporate online education in response to these improvements in the enrollment criteria. At the same time, misinterpretations and myths related to the difficulty of teaching and learning online, technologies available to support online instruction, the support and compensation necessary for high-quality instructors, and the online student needs present opportunities for such vision statements and planning papers.
As higher education absorbs hundreds of e-learning platforms (e.g., electronic books, simulations, text messaging, podcasting, wikis, blogs), this uncertainty swells in part, with new ones beginning to surface each week. Such systems challenge teachers and administrators at a time of simultaneous budget cuts and rethink. Adding to this problem, bored students drop out of online classes while asking for more engaging and richer online learning experiences. Given the growth of online learning, the proliferation of new technologies to integrate into teaching, financial concerns, and development opportunities, we argue that online learning environments are facing a “complete e-storm,” connecting pedagogy, technology, and learner needs.
Given the comprehensive uncertainty produced by the perfect storm surrounding e-learning, it is not concerning that there are mixed opinions about the advantages of online teaching and higher education. As demonstrated in various issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education over the past decade, e-learning anticipation and enthusiasm contrast with an all-encompassing sense of e-learning doom, frustration, bankruptcy and litigation, and countless other claims. An issue emerges, appropriately, as to where online learning is headed. Exploring online education requires an appreciation of the existing state of online learning and the possible path it will take.
Online education has created considerable excitement both within higher education and outside it. For some, it provides the potential to provide new audiences with learning; for others, it provides the opportunity to incorporate learning delivery and the competitive landscape fundamentally (Poehlein, 1996). The arguments differ among those institutions which have better-defined reasons for adopting online education, but most fall into one of four specific categories:
- Expanding access. Most states need to expand access to education to meet the training and education needs of public people and businesses, as well as educate underserved populations. For many individuals in the past, academic institution calendars have not matched work and family responsibilities, and program offerings may not have met the needs of the learner.
- Alleviating capacity constraints. There has been a rise in student numbers which are no longer able to accommodate current university facilities. Some intend to exploit online education’s scalability so as not to overpower their bricks-and-mortar capabilities (Weill and Broadbent, 1998).
- Capitalizing on opportunities for the emerging markets. The increasing acceptance by the public of the value of lifelong learning has fueled increased demand for higher education services among people outside of the traditional age range of 18-24. Emerging student sectors such as those looking for further education and working adults may be more valuable than traditional markets.
- Serving as a catalyst for institutional transformation. Many higher education institutions are being compelled to adapt rapidly to a reduction in government funding and to an increasingly competitive market. Distance education will catalyze the transformation of the institutional framework.
The rapid growth of the internet as a potential course delivery platform, coupled with the growing interest in continuous learning and budget constraints, has created a major opportunity for universities to develop online programs. As the technology is now available and fairly user-friendly, those universities that do not accept it will be left behind in the globalization and technological growth race. If we want universities to make the fullest use of the Internet, the crucial success factors influencing the online delivery of education must be defined and understand. Indeed, if we continue to implement conventional approaches borrowed from passive transmission-oriented classroom or distance education, we can expect only marginal improvements, and may well simply increase costs.
Distance learning is probably the best-known and the oldest concept. It was originally designed to adapt particularly for students who were disadvantaged because of their geographical inaccessibility from campuses. The UK’s Open University and imitators in countries as diverse as India, Israel, and Australia have shown that technology allows us to offer good and fairly cheap higher education outside a physical campus, even without the help of the internet. Traditional (such as print and telephone) or newer technology (such as electronic communication) can be used in the course materials and in interaction with instructors. Thus distance learning can be described as an approach to the delivery of education that substitutes a traditional classroom’s same-time, same-place, face-to-face environment.
The online delivery is a form of Internet-enabled distributed learning. Uses can include providing access to learning tools for students, promoting contact and collaborative work among and between students and academic staff, evaluating individual students or student groups, and providing administrative and student support. Online delivery goes beyond conventional machine learning because it uses the Internet and other emerging technology to their full potential. Online delivery can promote distance learning by making material for the course available anywhere. It offers major advantages over conventional technologies, such as:
- Collaborative tools providing a vibrant, collaborative, virtual environment where interactions between students do not occur between an individual and technology, but as many as many, interpersonal communication. The contact may be synchronous (i.e. in real-time) with, for example, a chat site, or asynchronous video conferencing.
- Interactive tools such as simulations or self-administered assessments that allow the student to progress through required exercises and self-assessments at his or her own pace. Such interactive devices are limited in that they do not allow for contact with other students or an instructor; the student only communicates with the application.