From professional development courses to graduate degrees, online learning opportunities for educators continue to grow. Leslie Bowman, an online education consultant, talked about how you can get started learning online. Included: Tips on evaluating online learning programs.
Leslie Bowman, through her consulting firm E-Learning Innovations, works with universities and professional development providers to design online professional development and graduate courses for educators. Bowman has been a teacher for more than 20 years, at both the elementary school and the college levels.
Education World: What are some of the practical benefits of getting a degree online?
Leslie Bowman: The most practical benefit is the ability to obtain a degree without disrupting work and family life. Distance learning means no travel time to and from class and no set in-class time. Through distance learning, people can read, study, write, turn in papers, work in groups, and participate in intensive discussions right at home, on their own schedules.
Another major -- although less obvious -- benefit of distance learning is the level of communication and discussion that takes place in an effectively led distance-learning course. In an asynchronous forum, students contribute to discussions at different times. This type of online communication provides opportunities for interaction that are not readily available in traditional classrooms. Learners in online classes have the opportunity and freedom to explore alternative pathways to knowledge and develop their own learning styles. This type of interactive learning is simply not possible in a time-restrictive traditional class.
EW: What are some of the online degree programs offered for educators?
Bowman: Degree and professional development programs via distance learning can be found in all areas of education, including educational technology, early childhood and elementary education, reading, math, special education, curriculum and administration, subject specialization, and more. More distance learning degree opportunities exist for educators today than existed even a year ago -- and those opportunities continue to grow at a rapid pace. Next year, the opportunities will be even greater.
EW: How can educators determine how rigorous courses are?
Bowman: The key is regional accreditation. If an institution is regionally accredited, then the degree will be universally accepted -- whether obtained by traditional means or through distance learning. Transcripts and diplomas do not contain the words distance learning or online, so there's really no difference for the degree holder.
Beyond accreditation, prospective students also should check the quality of the program and courses. The single best way to do that is to talk to someone in the program or someone who has completed the program. Even in a good program, however, quality of course content and instruction is not uniform. Just as in traditional programs, some courses will be outstanding and some will turn out to be a waste of time, except for the credits gained.
The quality of online courses depends on two interrelated elements: course design and course instruction. The course format should be easy to navigate, and the content should be organized and challenging. The instructor or professor should be skilled in facilitating online communication as well as in creating online learning environments conducive to communication and collaboration.
EW: What are some of the drawbacks to getting a degree online?
Bowman: Honestly, I can't think of a single drawback. Keep in mind, however, that distance learning is not for everyone. If you're not suited to this mode of learning, then you'll have difficulty achieving success. Distance learning students are self-motivated, independent learners who are willing and able to take responsibility for their own learning. They can accept a learning environment in which the instructor is a facilitator of knowledge application rather than a dispenser of information.
Many colleges and universities now include orientation to distance learning for new students. Most are optional, but some are required. My belief is that orientation to online learning should be a prerequisite for registration for all students who are new to distance learning.
EW: Do people view online degrees as less "real" than on-campus degrees?
Bowman: I think in some cases that's true, although not as much as it was a few years ago. That mindset about distance learning is rapidly changing. Several years ago, it was rare to know someone who had gotten a degree online. Today it's not unusual at all. Many schools now offer distance-learning options for professional development for teachers. From online professional development courses to an online degree program is a very small step. I believe that within the next couple of years, online learning will be the norm rather than the exception for teachers.
EW: What can be done to help make parents and educators more comfortable about online learning for K-12 students?
Bowman: Start small and gradually build up to more-advanced online learning activities. A classroom teacher can design and incorporate simple online learning activities for students to do in class or at home. A perfect example is a WebQuest. Simple WebQuests have been created for students in kindergarten and advanced WebQuests are available for high school and college students. The Web offers a wealth of resources that teachers can use to create interactive online activities for their students. Free and low-cost online workshops show teachers how to design those learning activities.
Once parents and teachers begin to get students involved in the online learning process, a natural progression to more-advanced online learning activities will develop. Many states now provide online courses for high school students. Those opportunities are growing at a rapid pace, just as online degree programs for adults are. With growth will come acceptance.
The best and simplest way to help parents and teachers become comfortable with online learning is to simply make the opportunities available. An effective way to begin the process is by offering traditional face-to-face computer literacy workshops followed by online workshops and learning activities. As with anything new, developing the skills that allow a user to reach a satisfactory comfort level takes time. Experienced online learners will tell you definitively that the end result is well worth the learning process.
This e-interview with Leslie Bowman is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2005 Education World