Advancing an Inclusive Future for Distance Learning
Senior Research Associate, American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC)
President and CEO, American Distance Education Consortium
The Ubiquitous Internet
in the World Wide Web during just the past two decades has been phenomenal,
especially with the Internet’s development and our abilities to easily link
with other massive amounts of information. For example, the number of Web sites
has grown from 130 in 1993 to more than 70 million as of August, 2005 (Zakon,
from the Pew Internet & Life Project support this unstoppable notion by
suggesting that the “Web has become the ‘new normal’ in the American way of
life; those who don’t go online constitute an ever-shrinking minority” (Rainie
& Horrigan, 2005, pp 58-59). Bill Gates said something similar in a
In essence, the Internet with its connections to huge amounts of data is becoming ubiquitous and fundamentally changing how people access, think about, and use information. Unfortunately, as the well off can’t live without the Net, many hard to reach people have limited exposure to the latest technology. Unless addressed, this situation continues to divide those who most need educational opportunities from societal “haves.”
The 2005 Katrina hurricane disaster illustrated so well those
who do not have equal access to opportunities in our society. In many respects the
storm and its aftermath was a wake up call for many white people. Most people
In this paper we provide information on technology changes impacting distance education and some initial ideas on how to rethink the approaches used to reach learners in light of the dilemmas raised above. We describe how our distance education efforts can be more relevant because of increasing amounts of digital resources from various cultures and languages. The availability of such information allows learners to better construct their own reality. We concentrate some practical suggestions on how to develop more inclusive lifelong learning environments, provide greater opportunities for self-directed learning, and make more appropriate technology choices.
Technology Choices and Resources
As the ubiquity of the Internet becomes increasing more a reality throughout much of our society, there are a number of digital resources available for distance educators and lifelong learners to use. Given space limitations, we illustrate only a few of them here. For example, the National Science Digital Library is a rich resource of varying kinds of multimedia. Google provides an increasing number of resources related to all types of human knowledge that tie to various search mechanisms. The Million Book Project at Carnegie Mellon has digitized several hundred thousand books and Google has created a consortium of libraries to build a massive digital collection that will ultimately result in more than 10 million online books in various languages. Google Scholar provides a means for distance learners to search for information across many disciplines and sources within the world of scholarly research.
There are an increasing number of online museums, too. For
example, the Digital
Museums Projects links a multitude of museum collections and exhibits. The
Another illustration of an important resource that has been
digitized for online acquisition is the National Digital Newspaper Program.
This is an ongoing effort to create a national, digital resource of
historically significant newspapers from all states and
Increasingly, the power of broadband Internet helps people come to think of it as there “go to” source for the information they need to navigate through life. As one person from the study described in the next session said, “Anything that you want is there. The whole world in a computer!” Tapping into that world and helping learners who can access the Internet and its many resources becomes an important goal for distance educators in efforts to supplement their learning efforts.
Tapping into the Internet to Build that Inclusive Distance Education Environment
It is our contention that distance education programs will be more effective when learners are encouraged to not only tap into the Internet, but also to take increasing responsibility for their own learning. The Internet and the ubiquitous notions described above becomes a powerful tool in supporting such self-directed learning (SDL). Bulik and Hanor (2000) suggest that the Web supports self-directed learning by both increasing learner control and providing mechanisms for learners to determine what information is pertinent to them. Mathai (2002) even goes so far as to suggest that the Internet is an ideal tool for enhancing SDL because of its ready access to massive amounts of information and its ease as a communication tool.
Draves (2002) provides a list of reasons why he believes the Internet enhances learning, including such advantages as being able to learn at a peak time of the day, learning at your own speed, accessibility to much information, an ability to track personal progress, and the capability to test personal learning efforts. He also believes cognitive learning via the Internet is actually better than in-person learning. Kerka (1997) mentions the time and place flexibility of the Internet in supporting SDL. Ruelland (2003), too, likes how the e-world provides flexibility in the learning rhythm. Candy (2004) stresses the liberating value of the Internet in terms of continuous access to information and no geographic boundaries or restrictions.
ADEC manages a multiple-year grant that is examining ways
the Internet can be used to enhance such learning by providing broadband
Internet to people living at the edges of the “network” via hybrid
networking—the fiber of Internet2 combined with wireless satellite (VSAT
technology) and various new applications. This nearly 5 million dollar grant
from the National Science Foundation was matched by a similar amount from
numerous cooperating higher education institutions across the
Three rural settings (two in
A 47 year old male and beginning
I’ve used it for references on different things, for medical problems, . . . I have used it for to look up, with my diabetes, and since my Dad got cancer they have a, I think it’s called cancer.com where you can speak with other people who were diagnosed with cancer.
A 40 to 59 year old woman in
Oh my gosh, I learned a lot off the Internet.
A 19 year old male from
A lot of my learning is really based on the computers because that is where I learned most of what I know.
A 47 year old female from
. . . it makes it a lot more interesting and exciting than just trying to search through 100 books at the library.
I'm really excited about what I can do and I'm really excited about what I'm going to learn to do, the future of it,
There is no doubt the Internet has impacted the way rural people learn as well as the other hard to reach individuals involved in the NSF grant, how they use the Internet to access learning resources they need, and how they undertake various learning activities. Many of the people interviewed in the rural and other settings had become very excited about the Internet as a resource for new learning activities. Even though interviewees weren’t using terms like self-directed learning, personal control, and self-motivation, you quickly got the sense that learning by themselves had become rewarding and even habit forming.
Building a more inclusive distance learning environment involves making technological choices built on flexibility and an ability to respond quickly to changes in constantly evolving technology and informational resources (Hiemstra & Poley, in process). Collaboration, involving teachers, mentors, and instructional designers who truly represent hard to reach learners, and a willingness to invest monies in developing a cyberinfrastructure that reaches all learners regardless of where they live will be crucial. However, society needs such change if we are to eliminate the existing differences between those who have the access to information needed for productive lives and those who do not. As noted earlier, we will be happy to dialogue electronically with anyone desiring more discussion of this important topic.
Alter, J. (2005, September 19). The other
Bulik, R. J., & Hanor, J. (2000). Self-directed learning in a digital age: Where next to browse is informed by reflection (pp. 265-276). In H. B. Long & Associates, Practice & theory in self-directed learning. See http://sdlglobal.com/ to order.
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Roger Hiemstra is
Senior Research Associate with the American Distance Education Consortium, NSF
Janet Poley is CEO/President of
the American Distance Education Consortium. She develops collaborative distance
education initiatives with 60 land-grant university members. She was inducted
into the International
Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves on
the organization’s Board of Directors. She received the Charles Wedemeyer Award for
Outstanding Practitioner in Distance Education in 2000 and serves on
the Editorial Board for the American
Journal of Distance Education. She is a professor in the
Address: C218 Animal Science,