Vol. 16 : No. 9< >
Editor's Note: Clarence Huff presents a history of infusion of technology into the classroom. He documents the progression of distance education as it changes from correspondence to telecommunications to computer. He makes some interesting suggestions for curriculum revision in higher learning that become practical when basic technology skills are acquired by students before they enter college.
Technical Skills Required in Distance Education Graduate Courses
Clarence Huff, Ph.D.
Twenty-five years ago, a high school student contemplating going to college would have set his or her sights on a local college or a university within the state. The student would either get information from the high school counselor or write to the college for information. Today, it is possible for the same student to either use the high school counselor or go online to several colleges and universities. Nowadays, high school and adult learners face an overwhelming amount of information. A radically new trend in how education is offered to learners is distance education using electronic media. Such online education programs at regular colleges and universities are still in their infancy.
The purpose of this paper is to identify the technical skills that are required in distance education graduate courses as identified by stakeholders at a selected institution of higher education. Specifically, the objectives of this paper identifies effects of the changes in the transition from traditional training to training delivered by technological methods, and the skills required by graduate students to use the technology tools. An important implication drawn from this paper is that the technical skill "basic understanding of word processing" ranks as a critical technical skill for graduate students. This means that students will need to demonstrate proficiency in using technology to retrieve, interpret and present information in various formats. This technical skill will probably be acquired during middle school. Being fluent with information technology will be a must for all students in the future.
"Distance education has been a part of the educational experience for well over 100 years, with the introduction of print-based correspondence study in the late 1800s" (Fudell & Hardy, 1998, p. 1). Therefore, distance education is not a phenomenon of the 21st century. Already in 1892, Pennsylvania State University offered distance education to farmers. Then, the distance between professors and students was bridged by the "rural free delivery system" (Maloney, 1999, p. 1). Maloney (1999) also states that in the early 1990s the combination of the World Wide Web, computer availability and the Internet "created a boom in online education" (p. 1). Today, distance education courses are delivered by such media as satellite, interactive videotape, audiotape, computers, and the Internet (Maloney, 1999).
Fudell and Hardy (1998) remind us that the latest electronic media, however sophisticated, are merely a new form of the early correspondence courses. Today, the thought of distance education inevitably evokes the image of technology. Keegan (1983) pointed this out when he linked the use of technical media as one of the essential characteristics of distance education. Two other essential characteristics also suggested by Keegan (1983) are the "separation of teacher and student" and the "provision of two-way communication" (p. 13). These characteristics are present in online courses even today, and an excellent example of this is the virtual university. Twigg and Oblinger (1996) define virtual university as "instruction based on communications and computer technology using learning-on-demand and learner-centered instruction" (p. 1). Those on-campus students who prefer a rather "individualized, self-paced, self-directed learning experience" profit most from the virtual university because they have the option of reducing the time to completing a degree (Twigg & Oblinger, 1996, p.1).
Over the years, there have been three generations of development in distance education technology; correspondence, telecommunications, and computer (Garrison, 1985). Garrison describes the term generation as "the building upon previous capabilities" (p. 235). He further states, "The development of the generations of distance education represents, in systems terminology, a hierarchical structure with an increasing differentiation of technological capacity for integrating unique delivery systems" (p. 236). Twigg and Oblinger (1996) explained the term generation as the combination of recent technology and media with previous ones. They add that each generation of technology and media augment the user experiences.
The earliest generation of distance education - correspondence - relied on the postal system to deliver the printed learning material (Garrison, 1985). The second generation, on the other hand, combined printed material and telecommunication. Telecommunication adds the transmission of voice, video, and data communication. Finally, the computer generation has allowed for an even more effective and efficient means of delivering instructions (Garrison, 1985). In the late 1980s, Garrison noticed that correspondence education was recognized as a forerunner in distance education, although Internet courses had rapidly increased.
Today, the latest generation of technology such as audio-conference, videoconference, and computer conferencing facilitates learning at a distance. These delivery technologies, however, have not influenced the traditional learning theories applied in the classroom (Fudell & Hardy, 1998). With these technologies, the on-campus student at the traditional residential colleges and universities benefits from the possibility to combine both online and on-campus experiences (Twigg & Oblinger, 1996).
Brown and Brown (1994) view the constant change of technology as the primary reason for the reluctance of educators to implement delivery technologies in distance education. As soon as the learner accepts a new technology, it seems that the very same technology is already obsolete. This is not only a problem in the American distance education system, but it appears to be common in other parts of the world, and prevents governments from opening their learning prospects for collaboration across borders (Brown & Brown, 1994).
Although the latest technological generation focuses on telecommunications as the delivery mode for distance education (Fudell & Hardy, 1998), a review of several sources of distance education delivery modes, makes clear that distance learning by telecommunications cannot be considered in isolation (Brown & Brown, 1994). Distance learning as practiced today encompasses everyday media as print, such sophisticated media as the smartcard and everything in between from the fax to CDROM.
Williams, Paprock, and Covington (1999) suggest that more and more hybrid distance learning environments can be expected that combine in one virtual classroom the elements of all the distance learning technologies such as the Internet and the World Wide Web.
Emerging Issues in Distance Education
Drucker (2000) claims, "Education is already grabbing a major chunk of America's gross national product"(p. 84). He estimates that approximately $1 trillion is spent on "education and training" (p. 84). He also predicts, "The amount spent on education will increase rapidly" (p. 84), but that the increase will not occur in customary school. The growth will be in "continuing adult education" (p. 84).
Dede (1996) points out, "How information is created, delivered, and used in business, government, and society is changing swiftly" (p. 5). Harris (1999), on the other hand, argues, "Distance education is not a new phenomenon. Correspondence courses have been around for many years. Instructional television is a much newer phenomenon, but we nonetheless have decades of experience" (p. 87).
According to Harris (1999), for distance educators entering the information age, the evolution of mew media means that "an increasing number of citizens need some sort of education or training beyond secondary school in order to be a full participant in the workforce and in our democratic civil society" (p. 87). Harris continues that such an education most probably will become a life long learning process. He foresees that this process will require a steep increase in investment. "Even doubling the amount of money spent on post-secondary education and workplace training will not be enough" (p. 87).
In his article, Online Distance Education in the United States, Harris (1999) gives three reasons for the heightened request for the Internet technology by institutions of higher education. "The first is that there is a clear and easily documented need. The second is that the technology to meet this need is here now and will only improve. Finally, a variety of businesses of various kinds see massive online education as an important emerging market and therefore as a business opportunity" (p. 87). A National Center for Education Statistics (1999) study stated that in 1997-98, "91% of public two-and four-year institutions either offered or planned to offer distance learning courses in the next three years" (p. 3). The study points out that in fall 1995, 62% of public four-year institutions offered distance learning program. During the time span from 1997-98, already 79% of the above-mentioned institutions had distance education courses online. It was predicted that over the next three years, an additional 12% of higher institutions intended to add online courses to their curriculums. The statistics support S. Williams' (2000) findings that the two major influences on academic institutions are the "Internet and the growing demand for courses via the Internet" (p. 1). He attributes these influences to the shift from "industrial age to an information age" (p. 1).
Dede (1996) predicted, "New media such as the Internet means that we can readily reach wider, more diverse audiences" (p. 5). The Internet has provided universities with the capability of delivering courses throughout the world. This turned out to be not only an opportunity but also a challenge because of the competition of other institutions (Kroder, Suess, & Sachs, 1998). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (1999), smaller institutions appear to face the greatest challenge in providing distance online courses.
Gaskill (1999) warns that distance learning classes are not necessarily easier than traditional classes. In fact, Gaskill believes that they are harder. The literature review shows that most online programs require students to complete their assignments on schedule. Twigg and Oblinger (1996) observed that in order to reduce the time needed to obtain their degree, "some students choose to complete courses in residence while simultaneously fulfilling other graduation requirements online" (p. 1). Both students and educational institutions must be careful that the courses offered online meet the learning objectives necessary to earn a degree (Kroder et al., 1998).
Moreover, the learning mode with online courses differs from face-to-face methods. In her article, Conquering Cyber Campus, Gaskill (1999) quotes Bob Sellani, director of Nova Southeastern's Virtual M.B.A., as saying, "With many online programs you learn less from listening and more from discovering and doing" (p. 94). Cooper (2000) believes that students taking online courses would benefit from at least one traditional face-to-face meeting with their instructor and fellow students. Such a meeting Cooper says, "furnishes students with an explanation of what an online course is and how everything works" (p. 1). However, this does not work for those courses that have students in remote areas such as Germany, Iceland, or Israel.
Kleiner (2000) found that most graduate students prefer the traditional institutions for reasons that were not directly related to the learning process but are linked to the social interactions found on campus. From the viewpoint of working adult students, however, the flexibility and efficiency of online education are the most important points for choosing exclusively online courses (Twigg & Oblinger, 1996). Harris (1999) says that the working adult student is best suited for taking distance education courses over the Internet. They do not shun the cost of paying a higher tuition in order to choose where and how to learn.
In regard to the effectiveness of online classes, the National Center for Education Statistics (1999), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, presents inconclusive results. Russell's (1999) research shows that traditional on-campus students and students enrolled in online courses have comparable learning results. However, the study cites other reviewers, for example Phillips and Merisotis, claiming in 1999 that several questions regarding Russell's research method remain. They found "gaps in the existing research base in distance education" (p. 7).
Technical Skills for Distance Education Graduate Courses
Knowledge has become a commodity in the new economy, and technology has finally become indispensable. As technology accelerates the way we as humans interact with it, technology should remain on solid ground. In the Internet Age, working with new and exciting technologies can give one a competitive advantage in the job market. Since the economy of today depends so critically on knowledge and technology, education is simply the most important investment that a person can make. A few obstacles, however, often hinder making the step to improve one's education. One hindrance is the distance to and availability of higher learning institutions. Another is time. Adult students are often full time employees, and parents. They may also be active in their communities, and thus have to juggle these responsibilities and their education schedules.
Two survey sets were designed for use on the Internet, one for a group of technical experts and one for faculty members. The group of technical experts was selected from the literature review of distance learning journals. The faculty members in the present study were recommended by the Director of Distance Education at the selected Institution of Higher Education.
The following finding results were produced from the present study.
The primary question, what technical skills are required in distance education graduate courses as identified by technical experts in a selected institution of higher education? produced the following results. All of the technical experts agreed that the following categories were valid for technical skills: Basic computer knowledge, computer communications knowledge, and computer application knowledge.
Under the basic computer knowledge category the majority (66%) of the technical experts agreed that the following technical skill was required in distance education graduate courses: Understand basic type of computer hardware (Laptop, desktop, others). One technical expert provided the following comment to support his selection of this skill. "Basic computer knowledge needn't go beyond knowing word processing, knowing to access the Internet, how to upload and download documents, send documents as attachments, mail to individuals, to groups of people."
The next category, computer communications knowledge, defined the following technical skill as required in distance education graduate courses: Understand Basic Internet Access (Modem type, speed). This technical skill ranked as a "should know or should have knowledge of" during the final round of the Delphi study.
The last category, computer application knowledge, produced the following technical skills as required in distance education graduate courses. Demonstrate basic understanding of word processing, Demonstrate basic understanding of presentation packages, Demonstrate basic understanding of email capabilities, Know how to do software installation, Understand how to do chatting, Know how to access a listserv, Know how to use Web applications. These technical skills rankings were mixed with only two of the skills receiving a "nice to have and productivity enhancement" category. Both the technical skills Demonstrate basic understanding of word processing and Understand how to do chatting received the majority (100%) of the votes from the technical experts. Their ranking was "critical, absolutely necessary" and "should know or should have knowledge of.."
The second question, What technical skills are required in distance education graduate courses in a selected institution of higher education as identified by faculty members teaching or having taught graduate courses online? produced the following results from the faculty members. The faculty members voted unanimously that the technical skill "Demonstrate basic understanding of email capabilities (sending, receiving, and attachments)" was "Critical, absolutely necessary." This was followed by Demonstrate basic understanding of word processing and Understand Basic Internet Access (Modem type, speed) as "Critical, absolutely necessary" technical skills required in distance education graduate courses. All of the faculty members responding to the study had adequate computer skills in distance education courses to produce a successful educational experience.
With information technology, people are able to do a number of tasks such as send e-mail to family and friends, do banking online, and pursue hobbies. In order to accomplish these technical tasks more adults will require technical skills not common today. Individuals with a good understanding of the structure and operation of the Internet will be in a better position to search out various sources to make informed decisions. The National Research Council study (1999) pointed out that, as information technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, it is important to understand the impact of technology and the potential invasion of our privacy.
Implication for Graduate Students in Distance Education Courses
The findings of this study have some practical implication for graduate students in distance education courses at selected institution of higher education.
An important implication drawn from this study is that the technical skill "basic understanding of word processing" ranks as a critical technical skill for graduate students. This means that students will need to demonstrate proficiency in using technology to retrieve, interpret, and present information in various formats. This technical skill will probably be acquired during middle school. As pointed out by Weiser (1998), our relationship to computers has been "one of service." This has changed now to more of a personal relationship with computers. Being fluent with information technology will be a must for all students in the future. A push for a "High School Computer Science Curriculum" dates back to the early 1990s (National Research Council, 1999). The proposal at the time stated that all high school students be required to have some type of computer science education. The core computer applications recommended included gaining a basic understanding of the following areas:
Students with a background in these areas could almost eliminate the need for institutions of higher learning to provide basic technology skill courses for students. This would allow those institutions more flexibility to offer students the opportunity to take more courses in their own major field of study. All of the experts and faculty members in my study agreed that the technical skills, word processing and desktop publishing, as well as electronic mail were required. This finding, as pointed out in the National Research Council (1999), should be a focus for course development for major institutions of higher learning. Wieser (1998) points out that we are in the third wave of the technology revolution. This wave, closely associated with ubiquitous computing, has added more technology into our life. Technical skill alone is not enough to really understand how we can fully take advantage of this technology revolution. We will need a number of other crucial enablers to assist us. One such enabler would be to improve our knowledge of algorithms and data structures. This knowledge would allow us to understand more complex objects, which assists us to define problems and quickly assimilate relevant data to find solutions.
No matter how many people try to tell the future - no one can tell what will happen in the future - and speculations and predictions about the future of technology often do not hold true in the industry for long periods. For example, technologies such as interactive enterprise, computer-aided design, and engineering analysis were supposed to be a time saver for large corporations. However, after a few years of using these technologies, the corporations discovered that training and software updates were very costly. In the end, several corporations abandoned these technologies. Other technologies such as networking, client/server technology, knowledge management, and computer-based training, for example, shared the same fate.
Today, the field of education is experiencing some of the same concepts with technology. As Fudell and Hardy (1998) pointed out, technologies used to facilitate learning at a distance have not influenced the traditional learning theories applied in the classroom. The link between technology and the distance learning environments according to Williams et al. (1999) will combine in one virtual classroom. This will require a better understanding of the elements of all the distance learning technologies such as the Internet and the World Wide Web. In this study, the analysis of the collected data was to identify the technical skills that are required in distance education graduate courses as identified by stakeholders at a selected institution of higher education. In addition to the primary question, other relevant questions were answered. The responses from the survey demonstrated the clear change in attitude of learning and technology advancement. Nasseh (1996) in his recommendation for future research, emphasized the need for research in the role of competency and technology.
The list of technologies that are available today continues to grow. These technologies are powerful, exciting, readily available, and increasingly affordable. As one strives to keep abreast with computer technology, in fear of becoming obsolete in one's career, it should be the educators' goal to improve their students' learning capability. Because of the rapid development of technology, technical skills need to be maintained at the same pace. With a combination of new technology and lifelong learning, both complementing each other, most citizens can benefit indirectly from new ideas developed by the introduction of the new technology.
While a college degree may be the goal for many students, it is not the only tool required to get a job in today's market. In the future, we must cope with computer technology changing to a faster processor and smaller size every six to eight months. This means, for example, that even such everyday technology in our daily lives as, toasters, microwave ovens, and automobiles, will require us to adapt to new gadgets at a much faster pace.
Furthermore, the dwindling price of computer technology will cause older computers to become obsolete faster. Today, for a little more than two thousand dollars, the average home computer offers the capability of having multimedia, plug-n-play technology, telephone, answering machine, connection for television, music on the web, virtual reality software, and 3D graphics. In the future, one can expect to buy the same system with more advanced technology for about half the price.
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About the Author
Clarence Huff has a BS in computer science, master degree in computer information systems and a doctoral degree in Educational Human Resource Development. His dissertation topic was A Forecast of Technical Skills in Distance Education Graduate Courses as Identified by Stakeholders at a Selected Institution of Higher Education. Dr. Huff has over 25 years of experience in the planning, managing, engineering, and developing of information technology systems. He has special interest in software engineering, distance learning, networking, office integration, data warehousing/mining, and advanced database management systems. He may be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarence Huff, Ph.D.
The MITRE Corporation