As technology advances, distance education is becoming more relevant and accepted; however, as Huett, Moller, Foshay and Coleman (2008) wrote, "We just need to choose to view e-learning as the question rather than the answer" (p. 66). There are many unanswered questions about distance learning in regards to academic integrity and fidelity, but it is a trend that will impact the world in ways we cannot yet even imagine.
For example, Moller, Foshay, and Huett (2008) wrote, "We believe that the dominant [distance learning] approach now realizes very little, if any, of e-learning’s transformational potential..." (p. 70). Technology is advancing rapidly, but it takes time for education to evolve. In fact, many of the educational systems that are in place which were designed for a different era (Robinson, 2010). Breaking away from the norm takes time and some trial and error while new ways are being tests. Huett, Moller, Foshay and Coleman (2008) wrote, "What we are witnessing with the current evolution of distance education and the technologies that support it is nothing less than the single most important reorganization of how we will engage learners since we started to gather students together in school buildings" (p. 65-66). Yet now learners are gathering online and participating together in ways that were laughable even five years ago (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.). This is how education will reach the masses and make a difference in the world as the playing field is leveled for everyone. (Well, at least everyone who has access to technology, but that's an issue for another day.)
With the creation and implementation of Course Management Systems (CMSs) and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) like Blackboard and Moodle (among many others), instructors "of conventional face-to-face courses [can] provide learning resources and conduct course-related activities, such as discussions and testing, outside of normal class time" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacke, 2012, p. 183). In fact, I know many instructors and students who used CMSs/LMSs in web-facilitated and hybrid/blended courses, and I am currently enrolled in a distance education program that is wholly presented via an LMS. The bottom line is that more and more people are being exposed to the elements of distance learning and people are beginning to imagine the possibilities available through the tools presented online−e-mail, chat rooms, blogging, wikis, social networking, video conferencing, etc. They're all tools that can be used in any classroom to enhance learner interaction, but "the key to success in an online classroom is not which technologies are used, but how they are used and what information is communicated using the technologies" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 115). That is where the instructional designer comes in and though "no one approach to course design is ideal" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 173), an essential part of the instructional design process calls us to "consider the components of a successful learning system [including] the learners, the content, the method and materials, and the environment, including the technology" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 152). That information will help us frame the learning experience in a meaningful way.
Nevertheless, there are people who don't seem to completely understand how those tools can be utilized in a distance learning environment to interact with their professor and classmates because "an issue identified [with online learning] was interaction with an instructor...[and] classmates" (Schmidt and Gallegos, 2001, p. 5). Yet the technologies are there and instructional designers need to ensure "teaching methods [are] chosen based on the characteristics of the instructor, students, content, and delivery system" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 203). Also, learners who are new to distance learning "need guidance as to what they are expected to do within the activities, using the technology, how to efficiently and effectively communicate with peers and with the instructor, and how to demonstrate their knowledge" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 225), so instructional designers much be intentional about providing training and support systems for new technologies that may be used.
Yet, whether learners are ready or not, distance education is making waves that will impact the near future. Georgia Tech offers an M.S. in Computer Science via MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for the low, low price of $6,600 (Kahn, 2013). Many think this could hurt Georgia Tech's reputation and even the quality of their program, but as Zvi Galil, the head of the school of computing for Georgia Tech, said, "There is a revolution. I want to lead it, not follow it" (Kahn, 2013). Yale, Harvard and Stanford all offer MOOCs as well, but those courses are free and not for credit (Kahn, 2013). Georgia Tech is making history and making everyone take notice. Critics believe the Georgia Tech MOOC will be a watered down version of the master's degree program and interfere with the school's academic integrity−"when the educational program offering is truly equivalent to the quality and standards of the institution"−and fidelity−"measures the nature and extent of integrity or equivalency between on campus programs and online degree programs" (Gambescia & Paolucci, 2009). However, Georgia Tech representatives say the new program "is intended to carry the same weight and prestige as the one it awards students in its regular on-campus program" (Kahn, 2013).
Distance education is here to and impacting education as we know it, even though doubts and imperfections remain. Gambescia and Paolucci (2009) quoted Judith Eaton, the president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, who said, "Whatever our opinions may be about distance learning and its future, there is no disputing the evidence that some elements of the distance learning experience are significantly different from the site-based educational experience. The task for institutions and accreditors is to identify and scrutinize those differences to protect quality." Moller, Foshay, and Huett (2008) remind us that "poor quality hurts everyone involved in e-learning" (p. 71), so as instructional designers, it is our duty to uphold the best practices of instruction that begin with an analysis of "the learners, the content, the method and materials, and the environment, including the technology" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 152) and using that information to create "good instructional goals [that] form the basis for instruction, regardless of the medium used" (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 158).
Gambescia, S., & Paolucci, R. (2009). Academic fidelity and integrity as attributes of university online degree program offerings. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(1). Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring121/gambescia121.html
Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Coleman, C. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63–67.
Kahn, G. (2013, July 23). Georgia Tech's Computer Science MOOC: The super-cheap master's degree that could change American higher education. In Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/07/georgia_tech_s_computer_science_mooc_the_super_cheap_master_s_degree_that.html
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n.d.) The Future of Distance Education. [Video Webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_3398790_1%26url%3D
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 1: Training and development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75.
Robinson, K. (2010). Ken Robinson: Changing education paradigms. In YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html
Schmidt, E., & Gallegos, A. (2001). Distance learning: Issues and concerns of distance learners. Journal of Industrial Technology, 17(3). Retrieved from http://atmae.org/jit/Articles/schmidt041801.pdf
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.