istance learning is a promising education technology, but when it is combined with the dubious but fast-spreading idea of awarding college credit for “life experience,” the result is a major rip-off. The upcoming congressional Higher Education Act reauthorization could turn it into a federally subsidized rip-off.
Also known as “virtual education,” distance learning is the opportunity to study and learn online rather than in schools and classrooms. Higher education is abuzz with such options, and the K-12 sector is hastening to catch up. The technology is new, but the concept is not. It all began more than a century ago with “correspondence courses” delivered by Pony Express, and it slowly evolved into “open” universities, televised “continental classrooms,” audio and video courses, interactive video, and more. The Internet added enormous potential and many variants while accelerating the evolutionary process: today, dozens of for-profits and non-profits—including major and minor universities—are striving to widen their markets by delivering education in this fashion. How one’s mind gets educated and how one obtains career credentials has ever less to do with where one’s body happens to be.
Distance learning is also redefining what it means to attend college and earn a degree. As the Council on Higher Education Accreditation’s (CHEA) Judith Eaton observes, “The college degree, traditionally the culmination of a distinctive institutionally based experience, is coming to represent . . . the completion of an idiosyncratic amalgam of educational experiences selected by the student from a number of unrelated institutions and delivered by a mix of technological as well as physical means.”
Because so many of our higher education assumptions and procedures have for so long been place-based and institution-specific—with admissions, student aid, course requirements, labs and libraries, lecture halls and dorms, and stadiums and seminar rooms all on one site—this new arrangement has far-reaching implications. Consider, for example, the basis on which Uncle Sam bestows financial aid: a student must be enrolled (for at least a minimum number of credit hours) in a duly accredited and state-licensed institution that the federal Department of Education also judges to be financially stable. The school helps him calculate his financial need based on the difference between the cost of attending that school and the student’s (and his family’s) resources. To keep getting aid, he must meet several obligations, such as remaining in good standing, making academic progress, and maintaining a drug-free record. All of this hinges on Washington’s relationship with the school, not the student, and on the assumption that the student is tethered to a particular institution. It all changes, however, when “going to college” instead means picking up a few credits here and a few there, gradually melding them at an ever-changing pace, perhaps engaging several education providers at once, and seldom or never turning up “on campus”—if indeed there is one to turn up on.
The idea of awarding credit for “life experience” rather than course-based study, lectures, discussions, term papers, final exams, and the rest also began reasonably: as lab work, field trips, internships, moot courts, practicums, student teaching, and other ways of “learning by doing.” In some cases, students may indeed learn better by engaging in such activities than by reading and hearing about them. Such education gurus as Howard Gardner, with his notion of “multiple intelligences,” accelerated the trend, and it got a further boost when Outward Bound’s “expeditionary learning” design was chosen for replication by the New American Schools Development Corporation in the early 1990s.
In addition, the past decade’s “competency-based” reform push has accelerated the trend toward “learning by doing” by tying education judgments to performance on standardized tests rathe