Distance Education Program a Holistic Approach to Learning
Distance education programs have historically been viewed as providing educational opportunities to learners who would otherwise have no access to an organized learning environment. Typically characterized by the separation of time and/or space between and among learners and instructor, it is generally associated with one or more forms of electronic media and technology.
The ubiquitous nature of information technology today allows for increased educational access through the Internet, higher levels of mediated instruction and the opportunity for increased interaction among participants. This is particularly advantageous to the individual seeking to pursue graduate study. Often these individuals are working, have family responsibilities and need the flexibility that distance education brings to education.
Recently, distance education has come to include a wide spectrum of learners with many diverse academic goals and needs. To successfully address the myriad needs of today's distance learner, colleges and universities must adopt a holistic approach to the design, development, implementation and assessment of distance learning environments. This approach is the foundation upon which every aspect of a distance education program is built. However, identifying the elements that constitute a holistic approach to distance education can be a challenging task, because these threads are so subtly woven into the fabric that fortifies an educational community. The challenge for educators is to recognize these traditionally transparent factors.
While quality is often difficult to define, generally people know it when they see it. Distance learning programs can be viewed in much the same way - students know a quality program when they see it, or better yet, when they experience it. The whole of a distance learning experience is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, to identify a quality distance education program from a holistic approach, the parts must be examined in terms of the qualities displayed by the whole. So, in a quality distance education program, what are the qualities of the whole and what are the parts that make it a quality program?
An organizational structure that provides leadership via educational opportunities, empowering its members to actively meet the needs of the student is critical to the success of any distance educational program. Nothing can be more frustrating for a distance learner than to enter a new learning situation without guideposts to mark the way, or worse yet, conflicting guideposts, or to be caught in the web of organizational bureaucracy. A coordinated program that is designed with the learner in mind is essential. Just as it is important that a web site be easy to navigate, it is equally important that the structure of the distance education organization be easy to navigate. Single points of contact, easy access to logistical information, faculty and staff that have answers and are empowered to make decisions in a timely manner, and a mindset that is not only responsive but anticipates learner needs are key traits of a quality distance organization. A distance learning program's web site speaks volumes.
A quality distance education program is about helping learners succeed. An essential element of that mission is to support their learning efforts. This inclusive enterprise covers technical support of the administrative, instructional delivery and interactive technologies used in a distance education. It includes supporting the logistical aspects of providing access to and assistance with the application, registration, payment, and financial aid processes for distance courses or programs. Supporting the distance learner also includes providing them with career and academic counseling, access to tutoring and supplemental educational assistance, and full access to library and other educational resources.
Supporting communication mechanisms, both synchronous and asynchronous, allowing learners to interact with one another and with faculty is also an essential part of maintaining a high quality experience. While many distance learners value the flexibility of an independent approach to their distance courses, the importance of a learning community should not be overlooked as a vital part of a holistic approach to distance education. In addition to the exchange of ideas and knowledge that being a part of an organized learning environment brings, a sense of belonging is a powerful tool. A quality distance learning program will encourage and provide opportunities for learners to be part of a variety of learning communities.
Programs of Interest and Value
Having a range of educational programming available for study is important for a quality distance program. What is more important, however, is that these programs meet the needs and interests of the distance learner, and that they have value - the latter dependent on the learner and the situation. Currently, programs in information technology have tremendous value, because the job market actively seeks out individuals with this knowledge and skill set. Course and program value is also determined by the college's or university's reputation - a top tier school earns a reputation because its excellence runs throughout the entire university, not just in one area. When choosing a distance learning program, individuals should look at the portfolio of courses and programs that the program offers. It is usually fairly obvious to see what has real value!
The technology in distance education is key to establishing a quality program. What is important is that the program views technology as a tool to assist in the teaching and learning process, not the driver of the process. Mature distance learning programs know that there is no one 'best' technology, except that which works best for the learner. What technology and a good technological infrastructure does is provide options and alternatives for faculty to choose from when designing their course. Today's technology breaks down many of the barriers of time and space, providing faculty with teaching tools that allow the previously unallowable to occur - such as in the case of virtual reality over the Internet in veterinary medicine.
In a quality distance education program, the most important part of the whole is the people. A competent and caring faculty and staff are essential ingredients for success. Not that distance learners can't succeed without a program's personnel - it is just not necessary. There are too many institutions involved in distance education to settle for a program that does not value the critical roles of faculty, learner and support staff. A quality distance program will attract quality faculty - those who are superbly knowledgeable, outstanding communicators, experts in their field and talented researchers. A quality distance program will also attract quality support staff and administrators - those who are highly skilled, who work as a team, and who place value on the customer - be that student or faculty.
Growth in educational opportunities through distance learning will continue to occur as people seek more time, more flexibility and more knowledge. For those pursuing these opportunities, it is important that they find a program that meets their needs and expectations.
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