ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — November 13, 2007 — November 12th though the 16th of this year is National Distance Learning Week sponsored by the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA); this observance showcases distance learning course programs across the country for current and prospective students.
The Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) has its own distance learning program, the Online Learning Academy, which began in 1986. Twenty-one years later DoDEA is still providing online learning programs for its students.
Students enrolled in the Online Learning Academy generally take online courses if their particular school has a small number of students, if the student has a schedule conflict or if one of their semester courses is out of sequence or not taught at their school.
According to the USDLA, there are more than 2.5 million college students enrolled in online courses and/or earning their degree online. Approximately 700,000 high school students take one or more of their courses online and 40 states have state-wide or state-lead virtual schools. Earlier this year Michigan became the first state to require for high school students to take at least one course online to be eligible for graduation.
Most of the courses are taught by DoDEA teachers and a portion of the others are contracted through a Kindergarten through 12th grade distance learning provider. Subjects offered range from mathematics to fine arts. Course lists are posted on Blackboard and students make course requests through their counselors. Once their requests are approved, they can sign up for courses on a first-come first-serve basis.
The Online Learning Academy provides a vast variety of courses to students online in everything from mathematics to fine arts. The list of these courses is posted online though blackboard. Interested students make course requests though their counselors and once approved they can begin signing up for courses on a first come first serve basis.
Courses provided through the Online Learning Academy are open to any DoDEA student who needs or wants to complete an online course though students that are usually enrolled in distance learning courses are high school juniors and seniors. For the 2007-2008 School Year, 437 students are enrolled in 39 courses throughout the DoDEA system, and there are indications that there is a need to accommodate more middle school students into the program.
"We are starting to see a growing number of middle school students who need advanced language and math courses," said Patricia Riley, Distance Learning Program Coordinator.
Riley has been with DoDEA's Distance Learning Program for the past four years and has more than 20 years' experience in Distance Learning Programs, starting out as a high school distance learning psychology and sociology teacher. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Sociology and a Master of Arts in Education Administration from Texas State University.
According to Riley, it is not uncommon for some students to take more than one Distance Learning course especially if they are taking an Advanced Placement (AP) course and an elective or a computer course and an AP course.
Although the work is done remotely, the courses provided through DoDEA vary little in the amount of time a student spends working on the course online compared to the amount of time that a student would spend at a desk in a classroom.
"Courses follow the same type of semester as a traditional classroom," said Riley. "Sometimes the courses that students take through the contractor have a shorter seat time compared to the traditional course. This is done because often students can work wherever they have access to a computer so many students would rather take the course at home. The DoDEA courses work to match students to a traditional school schedule," she added
DoDEA courses are designed so students do not have to be on the computer at the same time that their teacher is. This aspect is crucial since many DoDEA students live in different parts of the world.
"There are many features that are synchronous," Riley said. "If students have questions they can communicate with their instructor through instant messenger (IM) or their instructor can call them. Many students also communicate routinely with instructors via email. All students have DoDEA email to use with their online courses."
All courses have facilitators who offer help and guidance to students; they might lead discussions, distribute and grade assignments, or supervise assessments, which are taken at school. They are also available to help students with technical difficulties or any general questions about the program.
"Facilitators are like liaisons between the school administration and the distance learning program. Many times their role is as an advocate for students," said Riley.
According to Riley, distance learning is constantly changing because of changes in technology. New tools are routinely introduced into the Online Learning Academy as new technology helps to further simulate classroom interaction. To keep up with the change in technology the Online Learning Academy is expanding its course offerings to provide more coursework to students who may need it.vRiley also mentions that there are new tools to use with the courses' content delivery systems and that students have better assessment information; now, when students complete quizzes online they can receive instant feedback.
"If a student needs to review or needs more work, we can channel the resources they need," said Riley. "It's getting easier to tailor courses to students' needs."
Riley cautions that distance learning is not for everyone, explaining that while technology is important, it is primarily a tool to assist students in their learning.
"Technology is merely a tool; what is more critical is interaction. There are three different types of interaction in distance learning: student-to-content, student-to-student, to help build a community of learners; and building a rapport with instructors."
While students enroll in distance learning courses because they often need to fulfill a course requirement, Riley believes that DODEA students enroll because the courses appeal to their interests.
"Students can get the coursework they need and have it appeal to their interests. Online courses challenge them to grow in many ways. They make students autonomous, more self-reliant and directed," she said. "Distance learning allows different ways of communicating and helps the student become more responsible for their own learning. Learning that occurs in distance learning is an opportunity to help students prepare for life-long learning."
Riley adds that students interested in distance learning courses should talk to their guidance counselor to find out if it is right for them.
For more information on National Distance Learning Week visit: http://www.ndlw.org