Since the 18th century millions of people around the world have undertaken some form of distance education. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the mounting use of computers and the Internet in facilitating learning seems likely to provoke an explosion in distance learning. Certainly, these technologies are radically (and rapidly) changing the academic, industrial, and economic milieu.

Distance education--essentially the practice of delivering educational materials in a manner that does not require students to be in the same room as their teacher--is not a new concept. For example, correspondence courses by mail and lessons by television have been popular modes of distance education for years. But with personal computers delivering the latest lesson plans directly to a person's home or office, the need to physically attend a nearby evening course after a hectic day at work is becoming distinctly less attractive.

Students, Students Everywhere

But distance education is not only an educational portal for busy professionals and other "nontraditional" students who are trying to boost their education after hours. People in remote, rural settings now have opportunities to attend virtual classes along with students in cities. Physically disabled students can take lessons with greater ease, and eager students needn't miss out on interesting subjects simply because their local university doesn't carry a specific course.

An even more pervasive advantage afforded by the infusion of technology into distance education is that students are no longer constrained by the clock. Indeed, the opportunity to attend class in pajamas, avoid rush hours, and set flexible schedules has won over many students contemplating a virtual, online education.

Even students on established brick-and-mortar campuses are turning increasingly to virtual courses. For example, the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2000 report states that over 82% of 609 students enrolled in distance education courses also attended regular classes at the University of Colorado, Denver. As a result, many universities are designing curricula to accommodate courses that can be taught electronically to their resident students as well as to those who are geographically dispersed.

Only last month, New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) passed a rule requiring that its students take at least one course offered by distance education. "If we are preparing global citizens, we believe that our students must be facile with the Internet," explains J. Michael Adams, president of FDU. Trans-Atlantic collaborations have also begun to form, with the University of Oxford in England establishing an electronic "alliance" with Princeton, Stanford, and Yale Universities to offer combined distance education courses.

More Students Attending, More Institutions Offering ...

The luxury of logging on to a course offered hundreds or even thousands of miles away, 24 hours a day, entices many students to participate in "virtual education." So it is not surprising that data published in the Indicators report show that the number of distance education enrollees in the U.S. doubled in the late 90s--over 1,632,000 people signed up for courses in 1997/98. Mirroring this surge, the percentage of public 4-year institutions in the States offering programs taught by distance education jumped from 62% in 1995 to 79% in 1997/98. Even so, only a fifth of higher education institutions actually offer full degrees that can be completed entirely through distance education.

Federal Support of Distance Education

The U.S. government is also pumping funds into distance education programs and related technologies. The Clinton Administration asserts that federal spending on educational technology has increased by over 3000% in the past 6 years--from $23 million in FY1994 to $766 million in FY2000. Schools and universities in rural settings--where traditional access to educational materials can be difficult--are also getting special attention: Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced in late September that $18.7 million was to be devoted "to promote the use of technology in education and medicine." Most of that cash (over $11 million) will go toward the support of 49 distance learning projects that encompass over 300 educational facilities in rural America.

Carving Out an Online Niche

Those up-and-coming facilities may find it tough to attract students. Because there are so many courses available to so many people, carving out an academic niche in the distance education world can be extremely difficult. Stroll through any brick-and-mortar university campus today and its identity will be evident almost immediately: Football mascots plastered on walls; insignia and emblems stitched onto sweatshirts; buildings named after prominent alumni. ... But on virtual campuses, it's a different story: Traditional universities that offer distance education programs may easily lose their identity and, with that, their reputation and the associated ability to attract students.

Buy a Book, Enroll in Class ...

And universities are not the only organizations that are bolstering the distance education boom. The book giant Barnes & Noble, for example, has created an electronic "university" that offers nonaccredited enrichment courses free of charge to customers who register at their Web site. And as Sunil Maulik explains in his essay for this feature, start-up companies are beginning to cater to the instruction of scientific disciplines exclusively online, whereas some well-established life science vendors have created "Web classrooms" that help to explain how their products work. New York University has even created its own for-profit company to sell educational materials and programs to the business sector.

Distance Education Has Its Problems

Ventures such as these are raising concerns about the violation of intellectual property rights. With academic and editorial documents and content zipping through the ether, many are wrangling over the issue of who lays claim to the ownership of course materials. Not surprisingly, faculty and universities are particularly caught up in the debate: Do instructors who create courses own the rights to their distribution online? Or do those privileges belong to the institution that pays the instructor's salary and hosts the course?

There is also the possibility that research data used in distance education programs that provide information over the Internet might invalidate manuscripts sent to peer-reviewed print journals; some of these journals may consider presentation of novel data in this medium to constitute "prior publication."

And, ironically, it could even turn out that the technologies developed to diffuse education to the masses might be the same ones that hamper the development and progress of quality teachers and instructors. Some are concerned, for example, that faculty and instructors may become "redundant" after they've created coursework that can be used indefinitely; or that after designing course materials, future teachers may be paid less because they are facilitating delivery of preexisting materials rather than putting a new spin on fundamental concepts.

A Virtual Reality

Computer-based learning presents many problems to the existing status quo, to be sure. But, as with many technological and social issues, these problems are eminently solvable ? in time. For now, however, the infusion into established educational practices of teleconferencing, online chat rooms, and the Internet in general is quickly making the virtual classroom a bona fide reality.