Digital Diplomas

Welcome to the world of virtual classrooms, where learning is mandatory, but presence is optional

March, 2003

The picturesque sailboats speeding by in an afternoon regatta couldn’t do it. Nor could the multihued coral clusters dancing just beneath the ocean’s surface. Not even the lingering scent of mouth-watering Caribbean cuisine could distract Lani Yukimura from her task at hand: hunting down an Internet connection in her Bahaman hotel.

“It really didn’t matter that I was on vacation, thousands of miles away from my classmates,” says Yukimura, marketing manager for Kauai’s Wilcox Memorial Hospital and a 2002 graduate of the University of Hawaii’s first-ever Neighbor Island MBA (NIMBA) program, who ultimately secured a connection through her hotel’s business center. “My professor was waiting on me, and I had to get my post in.”

By “post,” she means her required contribution to the thread of daily discussions in her online class. It’s part of a new-fangled jargon associated with the newest boom in education: distance learning. With distance learning (also known as e-learning), students augment or replace traditional classroom learning with Internet-based classes, e-mails and online discussion boards, and even teleconferencing and live streaming video. These days, distance learning is being offered more as a medium for education on campuses throughout the United States and is garnering worldwide attention. Local scholars take pleasure in the modality as well, because it affords students like Yukimura educational opportunities otherwise unavailable to them, and the convenience of learning anything from anywhere at anytime.

E-Learning Is Burgeoning
While no one is asserting that distance learning will be the demise of traditional brick-and-mortar campuses, the numbers make it hard to deny the growing acceptance of distance education by universities nationwide. According to research firm IDC, the annual investment in distance learning by colleges and universities will increase from $900 million in 1999 to more than $2.2 billion in 2004. Furthermore, IDC estimates that the number of students enrolled in distance-learning courses during the same time period is increasing at a compound rate of 33 percent, with enrollment expected to top 2.23 million in 2004.

In Hawaii, the trend is no different. A mere four years after offering its first online course, Hawaii Pacific University has boldly mushroomed its distance-learning program – which now consists of 44 online classes and an enrollment of 800 students. The University of Phoenix offers a complete online curriculum, a sophisticated delivery system and has 1,400 students taking online courses through its Hawaii campus. And UH, which first introduced a handful of online classes in 1990 to a meager 65 students, now dishes up more than 250 distance-learning courses to more than 5,000 students.

“I think UH realized there is a huge market for distance-learning, and it’s not theirs. Others are chopping it up and having a great time at it,” says Ed Nakaya, graduate of UH’s NIMBA program.

The push for more distance education is going on at the secondary school level as well. Last June, the state’s only “virtual school,” Myron B. Thompson Academy, graduated Hawaii’s first class of six online-instructed high school students. The public charter school now has 112 students statewide, and a growing wait list. The State Department of Education has also been methodically beefing up its E-School program, which offers supplementary online courses to intermediate and high school students, since it began in 1996. E-School now services 350 students in 43 schools statewide.

Does It Make The Grade?
Distance-education programs may tout convenience and time-savings, but are students really ready to hock their hardcover books and schoolyard milieu for laptops and a flexible schedule? You betcha. “If I could take all of my classes online, I definitely would,” exclaims UH senior Katrina Balmaceda, who recently completed her first online course at Leeward Community College. “The online class was really convenient. I didn’t even have to leave my house to get there.”

Students especially enjoy that e-learning courses let them learn at their own pace. “Sometimes if I’m having a bad day, I’ll go home and unwind and then hop online late at night, when my head is clear, and I’ll get a lot more accomplished than if I were forced to be in a class at a certain time,” says Kevin Chan, who takes classes online at the University of Phoenix. “Plus, I don’t have to pay for parking or waste time in traffic.”

Chan’s sentiments reflect those of the growing legion of students eager to flee the confinement of traditional classroom walls. But for all the praise, there’s something to be said about the cons of distance learning. It is, after all, still in its infancy. Take teachers, for one. Not all of them are ready to make the transition from the desk to the desktop. “We definitely need a lot more teachers that can teach in this environment,” says Elizabeth Blake, chief operating officer of the Myron B. Thompson Academy. “There isn’t a program that offers a widely accepted online-teaching degree, at least in Hawaii. That definitely needs to happen.”

The technology isn’t ripe yet either, and new glitches are encountered daily. Program administrators are also still working out the bugs in terms of cheating. If students are doing it in the classroom, right under the teacher’s nose, isn’t it twice as easy when they’re completely out of sight?

The biggest bump in the road ahead, however, is figuring out how schools are going to implement seamless online learning with one another. As more students discover the hybrid-education path, the more they’ll no longer settle for the closest campus. They will seek and demand the best, cheapest classes. It’s already happening.

“I think all brick and mortars need to get into the school of thought that just taking one or two classes – without having to get into a whole program – is okay,” laments Melodie Schnardthorst, another NIMBA graduate. While enrolled in the UH program, she attempted to take a single online course from the University of Virgina Tech, but it wouldn’t allow her to unless she enrolled in an entire program. “I think if schools made more classes available on an unclassified basis they’d have more participation,” she says.

How Distant Is It?
Like a hefty TIFF image revealing itself through a dial-up connection, we are slowly piecing together the different components of distance learning, and individual entities are determining their roles in the movement. Last September, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made its contribution to the worldwide Web of knowledge with an $11 million pilot program, offering its course material online for free to anyone who chooses to access it.

MIT joins a slew of prestigious universities charting a course for distance education, although some e-learning proponents say the largest gains to be made are not with traditional students, but rather in corporate education. As the costs associated with in-person executive training programs continue to rise, thrifty managers are turning towards Web-based certifications and training services to educate employees. IDC reports that as late as 1997, U.S. companies were spending almost nothing on online training, but that by 2005, corporations will drop close to $18 billion into the e-learning bucket.

Whether e-learning will ever be perceived as equal to the traditional classroom, in offices or on campus, is yet to be seen. Regardless, at the core of this new alternative-style of learning, is the ability to transcend space and time to deliver equal access to quality education. That alone is motivation enough for some local schools to adopt very progressive stances on distance education, and they’re being recognized for their innovation. The Myron B. Thompson Academy, for one, has managed to attract the attention of a New Zealand university, which is in discussion with the school to potentially offer online courses to 16,000 New Zealand high school students. The school is also looking into a partnership with Florida-based Nova Southeastern University, which would essentially create a comprehensive high school through college virtual education system.

“This is what the future of education looks like, and we’re already doing it. And we’re not the only ones. We keep seeing more and more universities jumping on the distance-learning bandwagon,” says Blake. “People talk about distance learning as though it’s a ways off, but it’s actually in the not-so-distant future.”

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