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Distance ed brings classes to students
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Students typically come to teachers for education, but technology is enabling the education to come to students, especially in rural areas.
Distance education is the term applied to any form of teaching in which the student and the instructor are not in the same place. Distance education can include broadcasts, two-way interactive video, mailed videotapes, telephone, wireless transmission and the Internet as the information is sent from one location to a student in another area. It has a great potential impact on the rural South that is already being realized.
The Southern Rural Development Center, headquartered at Mississippi State University, recently released a report on this subject titled "Distance Education: Taking classes to the students." It was written by Timothy Collins, a private consultant, and Sarah Dewees, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies.
"One issue that is especially important to rural communities and potential students in rural areas is that they will have access to educational resources that they did not have access to before," Dewees said. "This is a radical change that has the potential to break down the geographical barrier to education."
Institutions of higher education have used distance learning the most, but there are already virtual high schools across the South where students can earn their diplomas in remote areas from a central institution. Distance education also has become very important in continuing education training for primary and secondary teachers.
"There is a high cost of providing teacher technical assistance and training in rural areas, so the ability to offer distance education to teachers has been very important in rural areas," Dewees said.
But providing an education from a distance has its difficulties. The publication listed four potential challenges that must be overcome before distance education can live up to its promise.
- The South must be prepared to handle short- and long-term organizational, management and educational changes.
- The digital divide, or groups' limited access to technology, is an ongoing problem among certain Southern populations and could restrict these groups' participation in distance education.
- Teachers must learn new teaching approaches to adequately serve their students. Mentoring and monitoring students from a distance also can be a challenge.
- New programs offered via distance education will need to follow a set standard for quality assurance.
While each of these issues can be a problem, the authors state that distance education is both a reality and a vision for the future.
"If implemented properly, rural Southerners will benefit from distance education by attaining high-quality education from around the region and the world," the publication states.
Success of distance education depends on many factors. These include a high-level governmental and educational system support capable of handling rapid change; effective leadership so that specific needs and priorities are met; and appropriate funding.
"Distance education's promise is the potential for bringing education resources to remote, rural areas, but the challenge is making sure you have the physical and social infrastructure to help people gain access to these resources and coordinate learning," Dewees said.
This February 2001 Southern Rural Development Center report can be viewed online at http://ext.msstate.edu/srdc/publications/distance_education.pdf.
For more information, contact: Sarah Dewees, (410) 516-3957