The classroom is packed with some of the most unusual-looking characters you have ever seen. Down in front there is a seat affording you a perfect view of the teacher. You sit here. But of course, so does everyone else in your class. Don’t worry, though. There will be no shoving. None of you is really here anyway.

This is the virtual environment, a game-like simulation of either an actual school, its people, and its architecture, or an anything-goes fantasyland where rocks stand in as seats and, perhaps, the teacher enters with a quiver of arrows strapped across his broad back. The design of the classroom is up to the teachers and the school, and to enter you create your own online personality, called an avatar. Once inside class proceeds as normal. As it were.

If this sounds like the future, it is not. Virtual reality is happening right now in colleges around the country — including Rider, Princeton, Seton Hall, and Rutgers — and is one of the more spectacular tools being used to further the ever-expanding area of distance education. Where once distance learning involved volumes of mail and rigid television schedules, it now involves instant and ubiquitous access to the Internet from wherever students happen to be. Technology is transforming the way students — particularly working adults with families — are earning their college education. And it is changing how their teachers, real and virtual, are teaching them.

“It’s really mind-boggling,” says Henry van Zyl, assistant provost for distance and independent adult learning at Thomas Edison State College in Trenton. “Technology is just expanding phenomenally.” And with it, distance learning. Though TESC does not yet have the avatar-populated classroom, van Zyl said it is coming — because it is inevitable.

“There is a big upsurge in video gaming,” he says. “Kids are so accustomed to approaching the world in a game environment; they expect that kind of thing.” Already van Zyl, who studied and taught at the University of South Africa (itself one of the largest open universities in the world, with 300,000 students), says he has witnessed virtual reality training programs for emergency personnel and soldiers stationed in the Middle East. The programs offer real-time simulations that push and twist scenarios into whatever the trainers want them to be.

Schools engaging students in the virtual world mostly are doing so through Second Life, a popular online simulation game in which players create avatars in an existing world or create a new one. Rider is one of the schools pioneering this use of technology in the class environment — Princeton, Seton Hall, and Rutgers still largely use it to provide extremely realistic campus tours. Bruce Vilic, dean of Rider’s College of Continuing Studies, says the school uses Second Life to introduce students to teachers, provide tours, and let them interact with each other from the privacy of their computers.

Vilic, born and raised in Zagreb, Croatia, earned his bachelor’s in administration and management from La Roche College in Pittsburgh in 1996 and his master’s in marketing from Duquesne the following year. He came to Rider 10 years ago. Much of his ability to straddle generations comes from his home life — his mother ran the largest nursing home in Croatia. “I kind of grew up with adults,” he says. His father was an electrical engineer and vice president in the Croatian branch of Ericsson NT.

The major advantage of using virtual reality in college, says Vilic, is that through the creative use of cyberspace, schools have removed what traditionally has been the biggest obstacle in distance education — lack of interaction

Under the old way of teaching from afar, students received course texts in the mail, watched videos, or watched scheduled programs broadcast over public-access channels. While the content was not a sticking point, interaction between students and teachers was. Assignments were mailed back to teachers that students rarely met and whatever a student got out of a course was what he interpreted from the voice on the television.

But with computers being so advanced as to allow educators to craft real-time classes, multimedia projects, and virtual reality environments, lack of interaction is no longer a concern. Students, says Debbie Kell, director of Mercer County Community College’s Virtual College, have instant access to teachers and other students through cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerries, and computers. Course work is available at any hour and unlike telecourses, which are one-way delivery systems for information, online learning offers links and multimedia that allow students to branch off on their own. “It’s no longer simply a process of linear learning,” she says.

It also is not an environment for the skittish. A decade ago some feared that the Internet would insulate the socially awkward and destroy society’s ability to connect. But Vilic says online communications have had the opposite effect on education. “Online you can’t hide,” Vilic says. In a standard classroom you can sit back and coast without having to do all the work other students do. But online, where you have no shoulder over which to peep, you by nature must be more involved in the discussions because the teacher is demanding answers from everyone. “There are no wallflowers online,” he says. “It would be very obvious if you didn’t read the assignment.”

With technology making distance learning asynchronous — that is, not bound to class times, programming schedules, or even by standard September-to-December semesters — students now can log in anytime, from anywhere, and go to class. They can sign up for courses on a rolling basis and choose their own level of involvement. This, says Kell, is a quantum leap in education, particularly for working adults, who typically comprise most distance learners. The reason for this is largely attributed to the fact that working adults are usually more self-disciplined than fresh high school graduates and usually need of the flexibility that distance learning can provide.

If there is one quality educators say is irreplaceable in distance education it is self discipline. “Distance education is not for everybody,” Kell says. But working adults are drawn to it for its major advantages — convenience, typically smaller costs, and flexibility in the schedules. Those adults who juggle jobs, marriages, children, and social engagements already have the time-management skills needed to be successful at learning from a distance, even if they don’t have the seemingly innate grip on technology that their kids have.

Kell has been part of Mercer County College for 22 years. Born and raised in Monmouth County, she refers to herself as “a first-generation college graduate.” Her father was a welder and her mother was a secretary. Kell earned her bachelor’s in education from Rowan University in 1976 and her master’s in education from the College of New Jersey in 1982. She began her career at MCCC by teaching GED courses at the James Kearny campus in Trenton and by the 1990s was teaching distance courses.

While advanced, youth-friendly programs like Second Life are a growing part of the landscape in education, they are still a small component of distance learning. They are, however, indicative of the gradual maturation of distance education, which, out of necessity, has always kept pace with technology. Higher education’s embrace of such technologies and the increasing number of online courses traditional schools offer also indicate academe’s willingness to accept distance programs into the fraternity. Dismissing online and remote learning, says van Zyl, is now done at a school’s peril.

Van Zyl developed an appreciation for education at an early age. Though his parents were decidedly blue collar — his father was a leather and wood craftsman and his mother, a housewife, spent much of her time helping him — they instilled a love of learning. “In my home books were sacred objects,” he says. Originally van Zyl wanted to be a medical doctor but says he fell in love with teaching in high school. Ultimately he got to be a doctor, but as a Ph.D. in distance education. He came to the United States in 1997 and has worked at TESC ever since.

Distance education, of course, is not a new idea. Correspondence schools offering high school diplomas or certificates in specialized programs by mail have been around longer than most people alive today. But as technology grew up, ambitious educators in the 1960s realized the potential of television and established the Annenberg Project to provide college-level courses through public access broadcasts. One of the earliest to capitalize on the method was Thomas Edison State College.

By developing course work around these broadcasts, says van Zyl, TESC was able to build business-related degree programs. The caveat? “These courses were not at all seen as valuable educational experiences by the established brick-and-mortar schools,” van Zyl says — even though TESC beat the technology curve by more than a decade when it built a rudimentary, private E-mail-style computer network for its students around 1980. As home video proliferated, so too did TESC’s reach. Now courses could be tailor-made and broadly distributed to areas that have no access to local cable channels. American military personnel stationed around the world, for example, benefited hugely.

Mercer County College, too, latched onto television and video as a method of delivering education in the 1970s and ‘80s. While TESC, founded specifically as a college no one had to actually attend, developed entire degree programs around distance learning, schools like Mercer peppered their degree programs with individual courses that compiled credits. This approach, though not widespread, became the norm in distance education.

Then, of course, came the Internet. And van Zyl admits that schools, even TESC and his alma matter in South Africa, did not at first grasp the scope of what the technology could provide. In the 1990s few people knew what to make of the Internet and schools that tapped into it did so in simple ways — promoting archival research and using E-mail to correspond. But no one foresaw the Web 2.0 approach, which integrates the Internet with aspects from our daily lives.

Once educators saw the light, van Zyl says, schools that had long-standing distance programs embraced online learning with gusto. By the turn of the century traditional schools were offering courses in a broad variety of subjects, following the established distance education model of supplementing degree programs with individual courses.

Limitations made themselves known early. Though Mercer embraced online and multimedia quickly, the school was hampered by simple logistical problems. Advanced mathematics, for example, could not effectively be taught from a distance because standard keyboards do not have calculus symbols, Kell says. The same was true for science courses, such as physics, that also deal with complex functions and specific symbols. Chemistry often requires experimentation and supervision in the lab.

Foreign languages proved a problem as well. “You need to be able to hear,” Kell says. Online programs fell short in that many of them lacked the audio necessary to listen. But they also lacked the ability of students to be heard. If you are studying Polish and botch a sentence, no teacher would be around to correct your mistake. Fixing such logistical issues proved to be expensive — translation software for symbols or foreign languages are often well beyond the reach of small schools like Mercer — and impractical with earlier technologies.

But as technologies inevitably advance old problems become easier to figure out and software becomes more affordable. Mercer has solved its mathematical dilemmas, Kell says. And if the program was “a little slow getting out of the gate,” it is now fully functional. She does not, however, expect to wait long to see interactive language programs available. These days nothing sounds impossible — just a little further off in the future. After all, what used to be impossible has become so ingrained that basic computer literacy is no longer even considered a special skill, she says. Like the ability to drive and use a microwave, the basics are part of the everyday.

On the flip side, as technologies inevitably advance new problems and new possibilities will always arise. The wireless world we now inhabit has broken us free from the umbilicus of the plug-in computer. Mobile phone and Internet technology lets us be anywhere, anytime, and still connect to everything the web has to offer, including school courses.

For Henry van Zyl mobile learning is distance education’s state of the art, even if the term itself can be vague. “There are as many definitions of mobile learning as there are programs,” he says. But for TESC the aim is to make course materials deliverable across the wireless spectrum, whether it is as formatted content specifically designed for mobile phones or as audio visual materials that can be played on video-compatible MP3 players. Either way it represents a distinct challenge for educators to be able to capitalize on ways to exploit technology while it grows and changes right under everyone’s feet. But keeping up with advances is unquestionable. “There is a whole generation out there that does not understand how not to learn with technology,” van Zyl says. “We have to think of how to easily put videos up in a world where You Tube is available. We have to be prepared for that type of future.”

Mobile technology’s advantages are significant, the greatest of which being that work can be done offline. This is especially beneficial to military personnel and people in remote areas where staying connected for long periods of time is impractical, he says. Once the material is downloaded it is there until it gets erased. Van Zyl relates the concept to Amazon.com’s vaunted Kindle E-book reader that stores up to 200 full-length books but does not have to be connected to the Internet for them to be read. While TESC does not plan to introduce Kindle-specific course materials (the device can only read text, not graphics), it is developing E-books that can be formatted for BlackBerries and other handheld devices.

Bruce Vilic says Rider, which offers online learning through its degree programs as well as its continuing studies, is putting a lot of faith in mobile learning too. As the increasingly tech-savvy youth comes in, he says, the school simply must meet it with ways of learning that their parents either would not understand or even see the value in. “Students just expect to learn in a technological way,” he says. The rules are continually rewritten because the game keeps changing, especially for the kids.

But what to do about the grown-ups, who still make up the lion’s share of distance learners? Today’s working, family-oriented adults still come from a time when using calculators in class was considered cheating.

One thing to keep in mind, says Vilic is that older adults acquire and process information differently than young ones. Adults, he says, need applied learning. They need to be able to relate what they are doing with something else they are doing; to transfer knowledge in practical ways between related tasks or goals. Online course designers are struggling with this and continually raising the bar. And what will work with today’s 35-year-olds might not work as well for the 35-year-olds two decades from now. “Only 28 percent of adults in the United States have a bachelor’s degree,” Vilic says. “The challenge is how to give adults education while they work.”

Teachers pose another dilemma for schools when it comes to distance learning. They are, after all, expected to know how to use new technologies to disseminate information either to people their age who are not accustomed to it or to younger people who know it far better than they. Van Zyl says that advances in technology and TESC’s age-old method of contracting teachers on an as-needed basis have allowed the school to hire younger teachers are already savvy with technology.

Mercer, however, is still unwilling to hire teachers who live far away. The overwhelming majority of online teachers at MCCC are full-time staff, Kell says. The rest are adjuncts who come physically to the school to teach. “We don’t just meet applicants online,” she says.

Still, there are snags. Learning to teach digitally requires rethinking the ways in which teachers engage their students. Kell says Mercer’s staff continues to undergo training in teaching methods that seem foreign to them. And it takes a learning curve.

Of course, online learning is not strictly the domain of the young and matriculated. East Windsor Community Education, over the past three years, has built an arsenal of online courses. In addition to its 70-plus traditional courses, there are now 300 courses through Education ToGo (or EdToGo), the world’s largest provider of online courses for adults.

Jill Horowitz, coordinator of community services for the East Windsor Regional School District, which runs EWCE, says online learning — about anything from journalism to starting your own business — has become wildly popular, particularly with adults 45 years and up. “It’s a lot easier to be able to sit at home with your laptop.”

Still, as fantastic — and irreversible — as technology’s stamp on distance education might be, no one sees online education totally replacing physical schools, even for small, community-level programs. Rather, educators say they see the inevitable proliferation of distance studies as a supplement to traditional education. More than anything, says van Zyl, the future is a matter of foresight. No longer are educators surprised or reticent that new technologies are invading and rewiring the world. Now they realize they have to find way to exploit social networking trends and reach a word that is increasingly cozy in its digital environs. They’re not sure what lies out there. They just know it’s something everyone needs to be prepared for.

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