Distance Learning and the Future of Education

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 03:  A trainee uses software simulating a milling machine at a Siemens training center on Septemb
BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 03: A trainee uses software simulating a milling machine at a Siemens training center on September 3, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Nearly 400 trainees began their apprenticeship training programs today at an in-house educational facility at the Siemens factory in Berlin. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

There is a lot of discussion in higher education about rising costs and a hope that technology could be used to make education more efficient and effective. Distance learning and digital education is the latest fashion in education. It appears to be an excellent way to enable American universities to globalize especially when compared to the effort by some American universities to establish physical satellite campuses outside the United States. There is clear value in raising these issues and in incorporating new technologies in education. In the global brain-based economy of the 21st century, our workforce requires ever greater levels of education and constant learning. New communications technology can make education and new knowledge more available to the people who need at. While I doubt it will really lower the overall cost of education to society, it should increase the amount of education available throughout the world.

The information on the World Wide Web and its easy accessibility via the internet and other technologies opens up the possibility of a more democratized knowledge economy. The digital divide that concerned many of us a decade ago is being breached by the smart phone and cheaper information and communication services. Just as public libraries once made learning accessible to anyone nearby who knew how to read, electronic resources are making information accessible to people who are nowhere near the local library. While I am not arguing that access is anywhere near cost free, the cost of information continues to go down while access to information continues to go up.

The force driving all of this is the ease and familiarity that young people have with electronic information. The technology itself has gotten easier to use and the students I teach expect the world's information be instantly and always available at their fingertips. When I pursued my doctorate at the end of the 1970's I relied on punch cards, mainframe computers, and libraries that were filled with these things we called "books, journals and paper documents." Information that took weeks to find back then today can be brought to my screen in seconds. I may get nostalgic about the library stacks once in a while, but I never miss the computer center at three in the morning at SUNY/Buffalo's Ridge Lea campus. Not only have information media changed, but today's students obtain and digest information in a different way than I did. While they enjoy and use live interaction with colleagues and teachers, it no longer holds the monopoly position it once held.

Even classes that meet in person are making greater use of the web in delivering course content. Students set up web pages and use web services to communicate with each other. Most classes have course web sites that contain lectures, assignments and other resources. It has helped me in my own teaching. I teach a graduate course in Sustainability Management to about 150 students. Over the past two years the first 20 minutes of each class was devoted to two group briefings presenting opposing views on a management issue. This year we required student groups to video their presentations and then post them on the course website. We also required students to view the tapes on the course web site, post comments on a class electronic comment board and then vote for one of the two management options. The videos and comments have been wonderful, deepened our case analysis, and enabled me to save another twenty more minutes of class time for live discussion of the case.

As comfortable as today's students are with the technologies of distance learning, they wouldn't be going through the expense and challenges of renting apartments in New York City if they did not value proximate education as well. There is clearly a type of learning that takes place in the lounges, cafes and bars in and around campus that simply can't be found on a Facebook page. The designers of distance learning programs have developed what they term a "hybrid" model that combines live with distance learning to deal with this issue.

There is a type of communication that requires that we sit in the same room and interact with each other. Even today's high definition video screens and tomorrow's three dimensional holograms just won't cut it. We seem to need to hangout together. That is why we find ourselves flying thousands of miles to break bread with a treasured colleague or driving all night to close a deal with a valued partner or customer. That is why distance learning will not replace live and in person communication and learning. It will augment live education, but will not eliminate it. Educators should not worry that robots will replace them.

School teaches technical information and important skills that can be taught both live or online. But at the undergraduate level it also helps young people make the transition to adulthood. In high quality graduate schools, in-person education socializes students and teaches them how to think like a professional and act like one. It helps students build the connections and friendships that a successful professional life requires. Those experiences require a real address, not just a virtual one.

Distance learning technologies should be seen as one more tool at an educator's disposal. Some educators have an almost ideological reaction to distance learning. They hate it and think its evil, or they love it and think it is the solution to all of our educational problems. The specific tool used should be the one best matched to the educational objective. Just because you have a tool and you know how it works, doesn't mean you have to use it. Form should follow function.

Some believe that distance learning provides a way to reduce the cost of education. I very much doubt that will be the case. Advanced technology has not reduced the cost of health care, quite the contrary. It has increased the type of treatments that can be offered to cure illness. It has helped us live longer and healthier lives. But more products, more services and better outcomes are not cost free. Advances in educational technology provide new ways to teach, new ways to learn, and new ways to measure the effectiveness of educational offerings. Modern economies and technologies require life-long learning. Education, like health care, must advance its content and delivery systems to keep pace with emerging needs. Distance learning will be one part of our educational future. But it won't be the only part.