Exciting Things Ahead for Long-Distance Learning
The ways of undertaking higher education are constantly evolving. One increasingly popular and wide-spread form of university education is the phenomenon of distance learning. Long regarded with skepticism by many traditional higher education institutions, distance education has now moved firmly into the mainstream. Australia has been a pioneer in this field, and it is estimated that over 15 percent of students at Australian universities now study by distance education. For international students, distance education represents a path to gaining a high quality education overseas without having to relocate to a different country.
A Phenomenon with History
Distance education is by no means a new phenomenon. In Australia it can be traced all the way back to 1911, when the University of Queensland established its Department of Correspondence Studies, aimed at serving small communities scattered across the Outback. We have come a long way since paper-based postal deliveries of correspondence courses, though these still exist. Professor James Taylor, Vice-President of the University of Southern Queensland, was onto something when he said in 2001 that we are witnessing the emergence of the ‘fifth generation’ of distance education, characterized by increased capitalization of Internet and Web features.
Changing with the Times…and Technology
The Internet, computers and mobile phones have transformed the way we can study across oceans and borders. At the same time, today’s tech-savvy students are expecting modern technologies to be reflected in teaching and learning. As Professor Colin Latchem, former President of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, told The Diplomat, it is this generation of ‘digital natives’ that are ‘driving the wider adoption of distance education, because of its openness and flexibility.’ The deployment of new technologies along with more sophisticated instructional approaches also means that distance education courses can be delivered across the world, reaching whole new populations of students.
Evolving into the Future
Today, all of Australia’s public universities deliver programs at a distance and/or via the Internet. They are also continually seeking to improve their methods of distance teaching to ensure a more satisfying and real student experience. The University of Southern Queensland experimented this year with a new virtual induction program, while Central Queensland University provides an off-campus mentoring program, in which experienced distance education students link up with first year students. Innovations like these ensure that distance students are well supported and connect them to university life, without the financial and time pressures of being physically on the campus.
Benefits of ‘Going the Distance’
Distance education programs are a key way in which higher education institutions can reach underserved populations of students. For Latchem, these programs clearly bring ‘great access and equity benefits to overseas students who are unable to travel to Australia or other countries to study. It also exposes the students (and the staff) to new and progressive ideas.’ At their best, distance programs can result in better inter-institutional and cross-cultural understanding.
Distance education, and specifically online learning, further allows the cost of providing university courses to be reduced, savings which can be passed along to the student. To quote Taylor again, fifth generation distance education has the potential to deliver a ‘quantum leap’ in cost-effectiveness. This mode of learning is increasingly facilitating what has been termed a ‘borderless’ education experience for students, transcending the physical boundaries of both the university and the nation state.
It is making higher education more accessible and equitable than ever before.
Images: Tulane Publications (top), Yohann Aberkane (bottom).