When does an idea evolve from faddish to fundamental? Many of us never imagined a world where online learning would play such a major role and make it possible for people to get a degree without ever entering a traditional classroom. Now, of course, many of us cannot imagine a world without it.
The National Education Foundation reports 42 states have used some sort of virtual learning for their students within the last year. For motivated students led by online tech-savvy teachers, amazing learning outside of the traditional classrooms can take place and expand their curricular possibilities.
Lindsay Lewchuk graduated top of her class as valedictorian of N.C. State University’s class of 2008. Although a rare, environmentally-based auto immune disorder kept her from pursuing a degree in person on campus, it did not stop her from excelling in her studies. The committed Lewchuk began to take all courses by distance learning and graduated with a degree in philosophy.
The 2008 valedictorian took advantage of the wide range of distance-education-delivery methods currently available to N.C. State students – ranging from independent study and video-based lectures to live, two-way Web courses. And, MCNC, the parent of the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), provided the necessary assistance to make it all possible. Lewchuk explains that the NCREN team facilitated setup of the live feeds, installing the software and hardware necessary to make it work, and even helped correct bandwidth issues that surfaced from the download/upload links.
According to N.C. State University, 7 percent of the university’s enrolled students are distance-education students. Seventeen percent of enrolled students took at least one online class. Lewchuk's achievement illustrates the rise in distance education as more and more students find themselves unable to attend traditional classes. Some may hold full-time jobs. Others may not live near a college campus or be able to afford room and board. Older students may have families and other responsibilities that make it difficult to show up for class.
Flash forward a year, and the 27-year-old continues to pursue her dreams of higher education while undergoing new treatments for her medical condition in Toronto, Canada. She recently began a distance-education- based master's program in philosophy at Charlotte's Southern Evangelical Seminary. She also is working part-time as a Web designer and is publishing her first children's book to be released in 2010. Her overarching goal is to obtain a doctorate and someday provide online teaching to future students.
Though she acknowledges she missed out on making friends and participating in campus life, Lewchuk credits distance education with opening doors for her and has a tremendous appreciation for the opportunities she's been given. For one thing, she says, being isolated led to good study habits and a 4.0 grade point average. "I have such a restricted life that I threw myself into my education," she adds. "I was happily surprised that all that work paid off."
Lewchuk, who became ill at age 16, obtained her high-school diploma with the help of a liaison from her school and online courses available from a Web-based high school. During her seven years of undergraduate study, Lewchuk says her professors would routinely go above and beyond to ensure the virtual education she received was on par with those of her brick-and-mortar-based classmates. "Though the benefits of distance education are more easily articulated in the scope of offering accessibility for disabled students, distance education classes are an option for all students," she adds. "I watched the same lectures as the in-class students, and in some respects, I even had greater access to the professors.”
Besides the course content, students like Lindsay who participate in online classes learn an important set of skills enabling them to communicate effectively in cyberspace. The first is being able to express oneself clearly in written form. In addition to improved writing skills, students also gain the skill of working from a remote location, which could have a positive impact on future possibilities in the workforce, such as telecommuting or conducting online research. Students also are developing skills for effective collaboration and interaction with others, despite the distance. The additional skills being developed through distance learning yield great benefits and should be factored in when assessing the efficacy of online education over the long term.
MCNC through NCREN, provides the foundation for accelerating innovation, speeding the path to commercialization, and increasing the economic vitality of the state. Since its inception, NCREN has offered equitable access to 21st century teaching, tools, and technologies to ensure all students are prepared to work and live in a global economy. Without it, Lewchuk may not have had the opportunity to achieve her education goals. “I’m so grateful,” she closes.