Distance Learning

Among the numerous definitions for distance learning, three in particular stand out. The first is provided by the Instructional Technology Council:

the process of extending learning, or delivering instructional resource-sharing opportunities, to locations away from a classroom, building or site, to another classroom, building or site by using video, audio, computer, multimedia communications, or some combination of these with other traditional delivery methods.

Asecond definition, this one from the International Association for Continuing Education & Training’s website, suggests that “distance learning is a process through which knowledge and skills are acquired through distributed information and instruction.” Instead of meeting at a common place and time, learners and teachers interact using a variety of technologies, alone or in combination. These modes of interaction range from written correspondence courses to audio, video, and computer media.

The third definition of distance learning, from the United States Distance Learning Association, suggests that it is “the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance.”

Methodologies

Distance learning can be administered in a variety of methods. For example, eArmyU, created in 2004, enables eligible members of the armed services to work toward college degrees and certificates “anytime, anywhere” at 28 regionally accredited colleges and universities offering 145 certificate and degree programs. In another example, the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland, confronted with space limitations on campuses, mandated that all of its universities encourage students to take at least 12 of their credits outside of the classroom, preferably online. Further, in Mississippi, an e-learning center sponsored by Delta State University is making college preparatory courses available to students whose high schools are unable to offer them.

Changes in the educational environment are demonstrated by the fact that American high school and college students are signing up for online tutorials in mathematics and science being offered by an educational service that draws on academics thousands of miles away in India. To this end, The Washington Post reported in May that an anticipated 1.775 million college and university students may be enrolled in online programs today.

Current distance learning technologies include but are not limited to voice-centered technology, such as CD or MP3 recordings or Webcasts; video technology, such as instructional videos, DVDs, and interactive videoconferencing; and computer-centered technology delivered over the Internet or a corporate intranet.

Legal Issues

Accreditation and licensure standards, which have been built around the traditional classroom paradigm for delivery of higher education, must shift radically to accommodate the use of new distance learning technologies. Researchers in the area have noted a need for new accreditation and licensure strategies to ensure accountability, program quality, and consumer protection, while at the same time permitting distance learning programs to grow.

New legal questions arise regarding distance learning, because it is different from learning in a traditional classroom, and there is a lack of reliable and consistent answers at either the state or federal levels. Questions include the following: What instrument is used to assess the quality of a program, and how is assessment conducted? What entity receives accreditation—is it an institution, a program of study, a delivery system, or something else? Who is doing the accrediting and what are their qualifications to do so? How are the students evaluated? Is the delivery system accessible to disabled students? What instructional designs best fit with the mode of education delivery? How are privacy of student data, verification of student identity, and protection of intellectual property secured?

Each state has legal authority to regulate education within its own jurisdiction. The numerous state regulations present difficult problems for distance learning programs and educational institutions who wish to offer courses across jurisdictional lines. Identification of the applicable regulations, multiple applications and fees, periodic audits, and reporting to each jurisdiction are just a few obstacles to be overcome. Additionally, most states do not mention distance learning in their regulations.

New federal laws offer guidelines on how to use copyrighted material in the digital classroom. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998) put narrow limits on how copyrighted materials may be used in distance learning, and the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act, 2002) loosened these restrictions if certain conditions are met. Still, teachers using copyrighted materials face a challenge in obtaining, keeping records of, and updating permissions.

Legal issues will continue to arise as the use of distance learning develops a stronger presence not only in educational institutions, but also in business and military settings.

Kenneth E. Lane

See also Electronic Communication; Technology and the Law

Further Readings

  • Bobby, C. L., & Capone, L. (2000). Understanding the implications of distance learning for accreditation and licensure of counselor preparation programs. In J. W. Bloom & G. R. Walz (Eds.), Cybercounseling and cyberlearning: Strategies and resources for the millennium. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association. 
  • Heeger, G. A. (2007). A close look at distance learning. USDLA Distance Learning Today, 1(1), 1, 5, 11. 
  • Johnson, L. (2006). Managing intellectual property for distance learning. Educause Quarterly, 29(2), 66–70.