The issue of online distance education seems to bring out very different opinions from different people -- and with good reason. There are a variety of entities offering distance education and they all do it in somewhat different ways, from MIT's OpenCourseWare project to what appear to simply be diploma mills. Salon.com is now taking a very detailed look at the state of online distance education, including a review of its somewhat up and down history. It basically went through the whole dot com bubble thing -- with too much hype, money and expectations, but now that things have calmed down, it's really catching on in some places. There are plenty of existing colleges and universities now offering distance learning as an extension of their regular offerings -- and in some cases the lines are blurring between distance and local learning, with some "on campus" classes barely meeting at all in person. Also, private, for profit distance learning programs are doing quite well. Of course, not everyone's thrilled. There are some who fear that distance learning simply can't be as effective or personal -- though, there seems to be plenty of evidence that it really depends on the subject matter, the professors and the students as to whether or not it works. Another issue, however, is that in some of these for-profit offerings, it really appears like they're trying to mass produce education -- boiling it down to its bare essential elements, where the "professor" is simply taking a pre-built curriculum and pre-written materials and "delivering content." The schools claim that it makes them more efficient and lets them easily customize classes (say, for a commercial client who wants to teach its employees a class using bits and pieces from various course offerings). However, that seems to take the personalization and the actual teaching right out of the process, leading to odd stories like the one distance learning professor who appears to teach at five different online universities all at once. What's clear, reading through all of this, is that there's a ton of potential for distance learning programs, but like just about everything, some are abusing the system. That doesn't mean the whole concept is bad, but it does mean that people need to be aware of what they're getting into.
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