Many engineering advancements have aided in the progress and quality of education. In previous generations, distance and distributed learning did not replicate the quality of learning available through traditional face-to-face methods. Recently, distributed and distance learning (better known as e-learning) has evolved from video taped recordings to satellite broadcasted web lectures. Supported by new collaboration technologies and connectivity through the World Wide Web, the quality of education through digital content has dramatically improved. This new generation of learning can revolutionize the way people learn by providing online collaboration and quality education, with the flexibility to learn at anytime and from anyplace. This paper will examine the differences between distance and distributed learning, e-learning benefits, and the immediate need for technology-integrated learning.
In Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, the author paints a morose picture of a brainwashed, technology-dependent society deprived of the basic element of education — books. In today’s society, new forms of technology, like the World Wide Web, have the potential to replace the fundamental tools of education, arousing fears that our society may evolve into Bradbury’s futuristic world. The fear that these advanced technologies will corrupt and diminish the quality of traditional forms of education has sparked much debate over the pros and cons of integrating technology with education.
However, history has revealed that technology has assisted and promoted education since the dawn of man. For example, the abacus, invented in 300 BC, made counting and calculating easier. In the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press enabled the widespread dissemination of books and information. Without such inventions, the distribution of information may have never taken place and would have drastically altered the advancement of education through the centuries . Today, high performance computing, collaboration technologies, and the World Wide Web are revolutionizing the way people learn. The era of life-long learning has arrived and engineering advancements such as distributed and distance learning should be viewed as educational achievements that help, rather than cause damage to mankind.
What is Distributed and Distance Education?
Distance learning and distributed learning are often considered synonymous because of their similarities. However, there are subtle differences between the two forms of education. Distance education refers specifically to instructional training that enables students to participate in a course remotely or at a distance (see Fig. 1). Although the most popular form of distance education is televised delivery, there are a variety of other distance learning course designs, such as web-based training, CD-ROM instructional software, and computer-based training. Depending on the design of the course, distance education can be synchronous, occurring at the same-time, or asynchronous, occurring at different times.
Distributed learning, on the other hand, refers to the integration of computer-based learning materials in a course, such as lecture notes, homework solutions, practice exams and other tools used to supplement the course. These educational resources help students gain a better understanding of the subject matter taught in class. Both distance learning and distance education are new methods of e-learning meant to promote teaching effectiveness and improve student access to quality education. With further advances in technology, new forms of distance education may develop to help improve students’ learning experiences while tailoring to students’ needs.
The Debate Between the Benefits of Distance and Distributed Learning
Although distance and distributed learning promise to provide improved tools, there is much debate over the quality and efficiency of these educational media. In “Teaching at an Internet Distance,” a group of sixteen tenured professors from the University of Illinois firmly believe that online education hinders the efficiency and productivity of instructors, who must communicate at length (via writing), in order to match the feedback exchanged in traditional classroom settings. Such requirements result in not only higher costs, but also diminish the quality of personal interaction between students and instructors  (see Fig. 2). To an instructor, the remote student is just another name, rather than a unique individual with special learning needs. As a result, the professors of the University of Illinois feel that distance education programs come at too high of a price, without significantly benefiting the faculty or students.
On the other hand, many other universities and companies disagree, believing that e-learning will greatly benefit faculty and students around the world by delivering quality education, without dramatically increasing time or costs. In fact, companies such as International Business Machines (IBM) and Cisco Systems Corporation have distance education programs implemented to train employees, new hires and the public. Many universities including Harvard, Stanford and University of Southern California also have programs to educate students, especially those unable to attend class on-campus.
The Dispute of Time Consumption
In many distance education programs, the design of the course plays an important role in ensuring that the time instructors spend teaching a distance education course is about equal to that of a traditional class. In televised lecture-based courses, remote students receive the same high quality courses as on-campus students because the same instructors and course materials are often used. In fact, at some universities, while the instructor is teaching in the classroom, he or she is videotaped and televised to remote students in real-time. Dr. Ellis Horowitz, the former Director of Distance Education Network (DEN) at USC states that “[At USC], there is no extra time required to communicate with the student unless the instructor goes out of his/ her way to arrange for it. Students with questions have the instructor’s e-mail and have the opportunity to phone into the classroom while class is in session to ask questions.” As a result, the communication between professors and students closely resembles discussion in a traditional classroom (E. Horowitz, personal communication, November 2, 2000). USC is proof that not all distance education programs require additional time on the instructor’s part. Well-designed programs can optimize learning and eliminate needless repetition, saving instructors time and effort. This suggests that distance and distributed learning can be (and should be) effectively used to improve student education.
Why the Need for Technology Integration in Education?
Personal and professional needs for new knowledge and skills, combined with the rapid change in our global, knowledge-based economy, have made the necessity of distance education even more apparent . These changing times reveal the necessity to restructure education to satisfy the needs and demands of an increasingly diverse student population. Numerous benefits with distance and distributed education can be seen for full-time students, but even more advantages can be seen for working students or students with physical or learning disabilities.
Advantages For Students With Physical Disabilities
There are a growing number of students with disabilities who are entering institutions of higher education. According to the HEATH Resource Center for College Freshmen with Disabilities, 9.2 percent or over 140,000 of all college freshmen report having some type of disability, up significantly from 2.6 percent in 1978 . For students with physical disabilities, success in school is dependent on not only the ability to access traditional learning environments, such as classrooms, laboratories and libraries, but also to learning materials. Having course information and materials readily and easily accessible on the Internet can effectively reduce the stress and hardships related to attaining the information necessary for survival in the course . Furthermore, by learning with computers, people with disabilities can customize their computer settings at home to use supportive technologies such as on-screen keyboards, screen readers, screen magnifiers or speech recognition software not available in traditional classroom settings. Thus, e-learning has allowed people with physical disabilities the power to overcome their challenges by enabling them to learn with more comfort and ease.
Advantages For Students With Learning Disabilities
Another group of students that has found a substantial benefit to e-learning are those students with learning disabilities. For these students, the challenge of understanding and absorbing information is already a challenge in itself. Consequently, the need for distance and distributed learning is essential for success. Among the full-time, first-term students reporting disabilities, the largest growth, both in number and proportion, is among students with learning disabilities. By 1994, students with disabilities accounted for 3 percent of college freshmen; of all students that reported disabilities, one-third were listed as learning disabilities.
Between 1988 and 1994, the percentage of freshmen with a reported learning disability more than doubled, increasing from 15.3 percent to 32.3 percent . As a result, there is great need to integrate distributed and distance learning in education. At USC, the DEN program can be molded to accommodate the student’s personal needs. For students who enjoy participating during lecture, the courses can be synchronous. For students with time constraints or for people unable to attend class, the class can also be asynchronous. At USC, an archive of the recorded lectures are also available online for viewing at anytime and from anyplace. Students who need to watch the video multiple times or pause the video for ease of writing notes can comfortable do so.
Advantages for Working Students
With many students balancing a full-time job and an academic schedule, distance education enables them to study and learn at their leisure. Asynchronous distance learning provides working students the opportunity to save money on transportation costs, save time from commuting, while still providing students with a quality education. For many companies, educating employees is critical for success and advancement of the company as a whole. As a result, distance education is the perfect solution. Employees are encouraged to continue their education, not only to benefit the company, but for self enrichment. The skills learned by the employees will help them stay on top of the dynamic technology around them. Louis Ross, CTO of Ford Motor Company, states that “In your career, knowledge is like milk. It has a shelf-life stamped right on the carton. For example, the shelf-life of a degree in engineering is about 3 years. If you’re not replacing anything you know by then, your career is going to turn sour fast .” As a result, employee education has increased significantly over the past few years. More and more, companies are turning to distance learning to educate their employees. With well educated employees, companies such as IBM and Cisco Systems are better equipped to advance.
Advances in distance and distributed learning are heralding a revolution in the way students learn. Both distance and distributed education are new methods of e-learning meant to promote efficiency, teaching effectiveness and improve student access to quality education. Based on successful experiments with this media, universities and businesses should encourage and integrate these technologies into their curricula. With further advances in technology, new forms of distance education may develop to help improve students’ learning experience and further tailor to students’ needs. Rather than fearing the negative downsides of technology, as dramatized in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, society should embrace e-learning as an efficient, productive and creative way to reach broader, more diverse audiences.
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