Distance Learning in 2011

What does distance learning in 2011, look like?  A recent study found enrollment in fully online distance courses in the United States grew by 21% in comparison to campus-based enrollments experiencing around 2% growth.  These figures aren’t surprising with the continued boom of the technology industry and push for more independent learning.  In addition schools are looking for ways to compete for the best students, enhance their offerings, and look for ways to generate revenue.

Reflecting over recent events we remember in February 2009, President Obama stated in his speech to congress, one of his goals was to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.  Shortly after, the funding flood gates were open and for the past 2 years, many schools have expanded technology, software, and personnel, funded through grants and stimulus money to promote this dream. Unfortunately, much of that money is now beginning to dry up and schools are facing tough decisions about what to cut.

In mid 2010, the for-profit online schools took a hit from government agencies cracking down and calling for across the board accountability beginning with questioning recruiting/admissions practices, rising student loan debt, and sky-rocketing dropout rates.  Expected to make a strong long-term recovery, many of the for-profits will be taking major losses in the short-term as they begin to restructure and increase accountability.  Unfortunately, many schools are facing scrutiny who have been lumped into the clan without any criteria other than they are a for-profit.

In 2011, the same challenges that elude distance learning remain-faculty resistance, lack of training from instructors and students, unknown costs, and failure to execute a well laid out plan.  But in 2011, many new opportunities are available and distance learning has the potential to overcome challenges and become the most effective type of learning yet.

The new learning model requires a successful online instructor to understand his/her student.  They are well versed in the content and require classmates to learn the content by practicing principals and integrating them into their own life.  Whether it is creating character profiles from literature using their own peers, implementing marketing practices in conjunction with their monthly Bunco group, or applying leadership practices to their current job, instructors look for ways to make the content come alive for the student.  Instructors are flexible and willing to accept opposing points of view as long as a student can argue the case of relevancy.  A successful online instructor reaches out to all students, won’t accept minimal engagement, and utilizes an array of technologies to support the student including social networks, video clips, and virtual exercises.

Distance learners look different in 2011, too. No longer are students accepting a face-to-face class that has simply been uploaded on a computer screen as an online class.  Rather they are demanding an engaging learning environment which allows them to glean from others’ experiences.  Students push for technology integration that provides them with flexibility to learn and do anywhere.  They want to have student services that support their lifestyle and resources to learn.  Committed students expect to get a high quality education, that to a certain degree, does cater to them.

Lastly, 2011, provides an enormity of resources and options to fulfill promises made by online learning programs.  Although some claim open source educational resources can be a nightmare (I would agree with this statement in certain situations), one thing is for sure, the resources are out there and available.  Open source does come with its own set of challenges that require a well laid out plan, IT support, and commitment to follow through.  No more excuses exist for schools who say they simply can’t find the right stuff for online programs.  Never have there been more choices of high quality curriculum.  Learning management systems (LMS), only 7 years old, are necessary to launch a successful online program but even they have evolved to a beast unrecognizable from their origins. They are growing in capability, customization, and analytics.  Delivery of content will improve but all parties will have to remember that while content is delivered, learning is not. It just happens.

So, what’s on the horizon?  The key word for 2011, will be evolving-like a rapidly moving revolving door. You’ll need to get in or get out of the way. Distance learning will continue to be a phenomenon that has a life of its own and will become synonymous with independent, personalized learning.  I predict ‘open learning’ becoming a popular descriptive term that promotes and supports what we are all trying to do.  Get smarter…and remember you heard it here first.