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Distance education offers a wealth of formats and options


Distance education has become popular across the country and throughout the world. Distance courses are available in undergraduate and graduate nursing schools, and many healthcare organizations offer distance continuing-education (CE) programs for nurses.

What exactly is distance education? It’s any variation in the traditional time and space dimensions of traditional learning. Unlike traditional face-to-face education where teacher and students occupy a physical classroom at the same time, in distance education teacher and students are separated geographically. They may also be separated by time. In fact, four types of distance education exist. (See Time-space dimensions in educational settings by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Some definitions of distance education involve four distinct elements:

  • It’s institution-based; the locus of the learning process is either an educational institution or a healthcare organization.
  • Teacher and students are in separate physical locations.
  • It uses interactive telecommunication tools as primary or adjunctive media to promote learning. These tools may take various forms, including groupware programs (such as
    Webex and Skype); teleconferencing applications; web camcorders; presentation applications (such as Powerpoint); and learning management systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT, Plateau, eCollege, Flex Training, Travantis, Lectora, and Moodle).
  • Participants share an abundance of experiences—crucial for enhancing the overall learning process. Students and teacher discuss assigned topics, independently accessing
    learning resources (electronic and/or traditional formats of journals and books) and sharing experiences in the context of structured course content.

Increasing use of distance education

Every 5 years, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, part of the U.S. Department of Education) surveys higher-education schools (those offering 2- and 4-year degree programs). Its most recent survey, done during school year 2006-7, found two-thirds of schools claimed to offer online, blended or hybrid, or other distance-education courses. Of these, 65% offered degree-granting distance-education programs and 23% offered noncredit-granting classes. Of the 61% of schools providing online courses, 35% have blended or hybrid types while 26% have other formats for college-level, credit-granting courses.

These numbers have increased significantly since school years 1996 and 2001. In the 2001 survey, about 3,077,000 students were enrolled in various distance education programs (continuing education, vocational, or undergraduate and graduate courses). This represented a 44% increase from the 1996 survey, which showed just 1,363,670 students enrolled in distance education. Moreover, the 2006-7 survey found 56% of these institutions had varying levels of distance education programs, with another 20% planning to start their own educational offerings.

Over the last 5 years, distance education has become even more popular. The 2006-7 NCES survey showed an estimated 12.2 million students registered in various distance-education courses, with about 75% enrolled in asynchronous courses (where students and faculty at various locations participate in courses at different times). Thus, total distance-education enrollment (all students enrolled in some form of distance education) jumped ninefold from 1996 to 2006. Reasons cited by schools for offering distance education include the ability to provide flexible scheduling, cater to more students than otherwise would have access to education, make more classes available, and increase student enrollment.

Distance-education formats

Distance education can be categorized according to the locus and level of education—higher
education, online continuing education, online training, military online education, and noncredit online education.

Higher education

Higher education refers to education beyond the secondary level, meaning at the undergraduate or graduate level. Four general types of higher education courses exist:

  • Online courses, where students aren’t in a physical classroom when they attend the course. They can take the form of a single course, a certificate program, or a degree program.
  • Blended or hybrid courses, which provide a mix of traditional classroom and online teaching methods. These courses allow more flexibility for faculty and students to engage in face-to-face classes and online discussions on a convenient schedule.
  • Online certificate programs, generally consisting of a series of fewer than 10 courses that are similar and related to a larger knowledge domain or skill. For instance, a nursing student might attend four different online courses related to wound care modalities, or eight online courses in electrocardiographic interpretation and hemodynamic monitoring.
  • Online degree programs, which award educational degrees when the student has successfully completed all required courses and credits.

Online continuing education

These courses are given to nurses and other professionals so they can maintain their licenses or certifications or stay current in their specialties.

Online training programs

Businesses and industries use these programs to educate staff on new concepts related to their field and to improve their skill sets. They’re convenient for both employers and employees.

Military online courses

These programs are offered to American service members as part of their work benefit. Service members can attend any educational institution that offers online degree-granting programs at the installation to which they’re assigned. Military online courses typically honor
credits. Also, because courses are conducted online, students are permitted to complete their
courses even while deployed, as long as Internet access is available in the military service station to which they’re assigned, and if their schedule permits. This arrangement is made possible under the Service members Opportunity Colleges Consortium, a group of U.S. schools and universities in foreign military installations that have agreed to let service members complete courses wherever they’re assigned.

Noncredit online education

This term refers to online programs and courses on topics of interest to some individuals. Examples are courses in photography, day trading, and wedding planning.

The case for distance education

Despite the increasing popularity of distance education, not everyone favors it. Some critics claim students don’t learn as much as they do from the traditional classroom format or that computer technology eliminates engagement and disrupts classroom relationships. Others assert distance education requires students to have advanced computer skills, or that use of technology leads to changes in development of the individual as a student. Still others base their opposition on the presumption that distance-education students can’t immediately access faculty when questions arise.

Some research studies substantiate counterarguments to these claims. One study that compared a hybrid online course with a traditional lecture class found significantly higher end-of-course grades for students in the hybrid course. Another study underscored
previous findings that no significant difference exists in test scores for students attending a hybrid (online and in-person) course in nursing research compared to those in a face-to-face
classroom format. Still another study compared critical thinking between students in a traditional classroom and those in a computer-mediated hybrid course; the latter had better results. Other research concluded that using various pedagogical approaches in an online nursing research course enhanced participants’ sense of community. Community-building strategies, such as posting students’ pictures and self-introductions, use of “cafés” in discussion boards for informal and social topics to boost students’ engagement, frequent use of chat rooms and whiteboards for topical discussions, and encouraging team work and assignments are examples of approaches that can be used to increase the students’ sense of community. Also, computer applications, computer programs, and course management systems have become more sophisticated, user friendly, and intuitive, which helps students with varying degrees of technical skill more readily adapt to distance education.

Studies also show distance-education students get the same attention and immediate guidance from faculty as traditional classroom students. Teacher responsiveness to students’ questions and help-seeking needs is influenced by such factors as teaching style and approach, personality style, and engagement level. Generally, teachers in distance education programs are considered facilitators, not teachers. They’re encouraged to promote discussion and allow students to debate among each other. As facilitators, they foster independent thinking among students by staying in the background, validating or confirming views expressed in discussions and affirming students’ work and conclusions. Such validation and
facilitation serve as the guidance and attention that traditional faculty provide to students. Faculty address students’ questions on a case-by-case basis or as the need arises. Students always have access to professors and classmates through e-mail or discussion boards. In many cases, students respond to each other’s questions, with faculty interjecting only when necessary.

Addresses many concerns

Distance education addresses many concerns about educational access, such as inability by many individuals to attend classrooms physically because of transportation difficulties, scheduling problems due to competing family and other responsibilities, and additional costs of traditional school attendance (such as gasoline, parking, tolls, and vehicle maintenance). More and more healthcare and academic institutions, including nursing schools, are offering formal distance-education courses and professional CE programs. These courses are particularly helpful to working nurses enrolled in baccalaureate nursing programs and those completing coursework for graduate degrees, as well as nursing students juggling multiple roles and responsibilities. Many hospitals and other healthcare organizations offer training updates or professional-development courses to nurses, especially when staffing and service priorities compete. Clearly, distance education has many benefits and advantages.

Edmund J.Y. Pajarillo is associate dean for faculty services for the College of Nursing at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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