Early in the education technology boom, “distance learning” generally described courses for college students, and later high school students, in which the lecture was delivered through a classroom television set via satellite. That technology allowed students to attend class at a location any distance from where it was actually being held.
Now that use of technology in schools is more sophisticated, distance learning refers to a whole host of e-learning options open to college and, more recently, precollegiate students. Courses are being delivered over the Web, via TV, and through videoconferences with live or "asynchronous" class sessions. These courses are often supplemented by telephone and e-mail contacts, online assessments, videotapes and lab equipment mailed to homes, and even in-person get-togethers and field trips. Thanks to technology, teachers and students can be miles apart but working together in a variety of ways.
Distance learning is probably still most common in higher education, where university and college instructors frequently lecture not only to the students right in front of them, but also to students at another campus, at a satellite facility, or—because of space limitations—in the overflow classroom next door. However, distance learning is also becoming a more common option in precollegiate education as more providers begin to offer online curricula.
Nationwide, approximately 25 percent of public schools have distance-learning programs for teachers and students. Schools in rural areas tend to have greater access to distance-learning opportunities, compared with urban and suburban schools (Market Data Retrieval, 2003).
A growing trend in distance learning uses the Web to deliver online curricula, an approach also known as "virtual classrooms." Virtual-classroom curriculum materials tend to be regular classroom materials formatted for use on the Internet. Virtual classrooms are beneficial for schools that are not able to provide a wide range of electives on their own. For example, in some rural areas, schools don’t have enough teachers to provide instruction in certain subjects, such as foreign languages. This is a situation that virtual classrooms can address, allowing a student to go to the computer lab for an online Spanish class—or even a Latin or Chinese class taught by a teacher in another school or state.
Online curricula can also be targeted toward distinct student populations. A five-year initiative financed by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of migrant education, called ESTRELLA (Encouraging Students Through Technology to Reach High Expectations in Learning, Lifeskills, and Achievement) gives laptop computers to children of migrant workers whose home base is Texas. The program allows migrant students to access their home schools’ curricula even while living out of state.
The increasing availability of online curriculum programs has led to the creation of entire "virtual schools." One of the first and largest, the Florida Virtual School, offers 60 courses for high school students in subjects ranging from algebra to Latin. According to surveys of the students using the FLVS, 58 percent say its courses are "better" or "much better" than courses in traditional high schools (Technology Counts, 2002).
Original research studies on the effectiveness of distance-learning programs are rare and often inconclusive. But the research that does exist tends to focus on measures such as grades and test scores and students’ attitudes toward, and overall satisfaction with, distance learning. A review of the research on distance learning in college and high schools indicated that while there is no suggestion that students fare better in distance-learning courses, they appear to be as effective as courses taught in conventional classrooms (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1999).