The education market has gone through many changes over the years. Advances in technology seem to have provided the biggest differences. Just think about it: computers are more commonplace than ever and many kids don’t even know what a typewriter is.

One of the newest offerings in this market is distance education, or distance learning. This has been steadily gaining in popularity not only in traditional educational institutions, but in the corporate world as well. In fact, the lines blur when one tries to figure out who benefits most from this type of comprehensive combination technology/methodology.

Distance learning has allowed many to take advantage of programs despite circumstances that would have otherwise prevented them from doing so, such as geographic location, physical limitations and time constraints. Distance education has become a solution to many such barriers since it establishes a level playing field for everyone—a virtual one.

According to the United States Distance Learning Association (www.usdla.org), distance education can be defined as follows:

“The acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance.”

The basics

There are a few basic elements, all of which rely on various systems for their related operations, in distance education. Some of the most popular parts include:

• Voice: Including streaming audio, conference calling, etc.

• Data: Including bulletin boards, chat, e-mail, etc.

• Video: Including videoconferencing, streaming video.

• Print Media: Including supplemental materials that are used to support the other functions.

The systems used to support and operate these functions varies, but all need to be high speed, usable and scaleable. Interoperability is critical since more often than not the distance education program will be a part of the bigger, overall educational offerings of the institution.

Aspects of the Internet

Other portions of a distance education system generally include various aspects of the Internet. In fact, most of the basic elements listed above use the Internet for their associated functions. Some use IP telephony as a means of operating the voice and data aspects while others use the Internet itself to operate Web-based applications such as online communities and interactive bulletin boards that allow for members of the education program to communicate with one another.

Wireless plays a critical and popular role in distance learning. Though this is not the only choice available, its popularity has increased mainly because more and more education institutions have deployed wireless networks throughout their facilities. Also, it is scaleable, so adding on an application such as distance learning is an easy choice.

Wireless is also a good choice on the other end of the distance education equation if the remotely located “student” may not want to run high-speed cable in their house. The wireless option is more popular in corporate settings since many already work off laptops and thus have that part of the mobile technology at hand.

Pick a delivery system

There are two choices here—synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous is more desirabe since it is the choice that allows for real-time participation. Though it has numerous advantages (such as computer conferencing, real time chat, etc.) the one drawback seems to be the same one that always rears its head—the cost factor.

Because asynchronous is less expensive, many have chosen to go this route—at least initially—to see whether or not distance learning is something that will have longevity in their organization.

Overall, the systems portion of distance learning is something that can easily be accomplished since the technology not only exists, but also is readily available.

Many of the truly technical choices are ones that may have already been made in the past. If this is the case, then distance education becomes an add-on feature. There are ample software programs around that can accomplish this goal.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is updating the educators. Because of this, training is extremely important, as is ongoing program updating. Staying abreast of current offerings in this area will help keep distance education programs running smoothly and operating at peak performance.

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.