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June 10, 1997

Distance Learning: Where Is My Teacher?

by Stephen McClurg and
Christopher Brewin

Distance learning might allow some collegiate programs facing termination by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) to maintain a presence at their university. This August, ACHE will be releasing a list of non-viable programs -- that is, programs that do not meet the standards of the annual average number of conferred degrees set by Act 96-557, passed by the Alabama State Legislature in 1996. If the program is non-viable, it will have a period of three years to devise a plan to continue offering degrees in the field of study, including distance learning, or will shut down and teach only classes for core requirements

Distance learning uses a form of technological communication (computers, print, and/or video) to bridge the gap between teacher and students who are separated by a physical distance. In order words, a student can sit in a classroom at one university while the teacher is lecturing from another classroom across the state. It is said that distance learning can provide cheaper education for a greater number of people, especially those that are re- attempting to earn a degree or those limited by time, distance, or a physical disability. However, it is uncertain how much money is actually saved.

Flexibility is a key to this approach. The goal is to use a mixture of media to meet the instructional needs of the learner in the most effective and economical way. This also means that the instructors would have to be trained in many more formats of instruction and develop ways to assess the learning levels of distant students. For this approach to be effective, it also requires an on- site facilitator to act out and follow the directions set forth by the distant teacher. The facilitator must set up equipment and collect assignments. Without two-way communication, distance learning can turn into a correspondence course, leading students to feel isolated and unfocused. Given this, some have asked why bother with distance learning if the classroom needs someone to be there anyway? Are these facilitators going to be students trying to work through graduate school, or will they be full-time professors?

The number of questions such as these will be increasing as Alabama institutions of higher education (especially the humanities departments, as they will be the hardest hit by the "productivity standards") get ready for the cuts proposed by ACHE. Students who were questioned at the University of South Alabama are shocked to hear about these measures and the lack of effort put forth by university officials to educate students on these forthcoming regulations.

Jeff Whitmeyer, a vocal performance and dramatic arts major, is "extremely outraged" about these plans. He feels that the ACHE is "insensitive in regards to the fields that have to deal primarily with artistic expression" and he feels that "distance learning is an impossibility in most arts that contain performance qualities."

"I haven't been told anything, but it seems unethical and alarming that no one knows on campus," says Ian Combs, a music major at USA. "It seems like a battle of practicality and idealism. It's logical to not want to put money in a program that is not thriving; when money is thin, practicality wins, but it would be ideal to have and enjoy all of the programs one possibly could. I lean towards idealism."

Angela Jones, a psychology major, feels that it is "ridiculous that we don't know anything about this. The least they could do is let us know so we could plan around it, if necessary."

These three students are unsure how these plans will affect them in the long run. The possibility of distance learning programs leaves students unsure of not only the exact methods by which they will receive their education, but just how economically feasible this approach to learning will be.

The authors wish to acknowledge L. Sherry and Tania H. Gottschalk for their helpful information in preparing this article.

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