D istance learning is rapidly becoming an integral part of America's education system. More and more universities are offering courses through technology-enabled learning, and the proliferation of these opportunities is pushing the boundaries of conventional teaching and learning.
As Nancy Knowlton, president and chief operating officer of SMART Technologies Inc., observes, "Distance education will soon be a fundamental part of learning at all levels through multiple modes of delivery." According to Knowlton, this trend is directly tied to advances in interactive technology and a growing comfort level using it. "Technology is becoming increasingly easier to use. Electronic teaching tools are much more stable and no longer require constant technical support." She adds, "People are also more technology savvy. They're able to troubleshoot problems and solve more technical issues on their own, making teaching with technology an attractive and viable option."
SMART is a pioneer in creating products that actively support distance collaboration and learning. For example, the SMART Board is an interactive whiteboard that can be hooked up to a computer and an LCD projector, enabling teachers to display and control computer applications from the Board's touch-sensitive surface. Students and teachers are able to write notes over top of applications and then save, e-mail, or post them on the Web. The Boards, which range in size from 47 inches to 72 inches diagonally, deliver a bright, easy-to-see image in real time using conferencing software. This allows an entire class to view and interact with information presented during the class--no matter where they're geographically located in relation to the person conducting the seminar or lecture.
A certain infrastructure must be in place to deliver distance education courses. In short, there are two necessary components: 1) Audio, so that remote students can listen and participate in class discussions; and 2) A data stream that enables students to view class notes and interact with the instructor. Therefore, distance education classes must have access to technologies such as computers, SMART Boards, long-distance telephone services, and audio-conferencing equipment. Additionally, technical assistance and support for both instructors and students will help to ensure a seamless, hassle-free delivery of course material.
What's next on the horizon? "We predict that a more diverse spectrum of educational institutions will implement distance education as part of an enhanced curriculum," says Knowlton. She also acknowledges the opportunity for distance education programs to help bridge universities with the greater community. As Knowlton describes, "We're beginning to see universities use these technologies to collaborate with corporations and research institutions around the world. It's redefining the way we think about education--the boundaries are limitless."