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Distance Learning

Distance learning in higher education includes video-based, web-based, CD-ROM/DVD-based, and blended learning, which features face-to-face instruction supplemented by one or more of the technology-based formats. Courses may be provided synchronously—in which all students receive and interact with course materials and other participants during the same time period—and asynchronously—in which students access the course at various times and interact with the instructor and classmates through e-mail and web-based discussion areas.

Current State of Application

Although previous generations of distance learning employed different standards for different end devices, for the use of video delivery, many of the leading distance learning providers are migrating to a common platform—MPEG4, or H.264, which makes it possible to send one signal to a range of different end devices, including desktop computers, laptops, and mobile digital media devices.
An array of options can be attached to devices, facilities and environments to provide timely, engaging, personalized, tailored learning. For example, Self-paced learning systems can track the progress of the learner in real-time, and send content, based on progress. (EG, Interactive Distance Learning)
Broadband networks enable geographically dispersed students to communicate and share information in real-time and provide faster and easier access to information using
  • mobile, portable digital media devices
  • digital game-based learning facilities
  • Internet-based 3d virtual worlds
  • open online educational resources

Emerging Applications

Broadband will enable multipoint video communications, and the expansion of social networks with user generated content. The increased capacity of broadband networks, combined with advances in data storage technology, will spur increased video on demand applications, and live, mobile TV applications (using new devices like iPhone).
Broadband networked gaming applications can provide students with the ability to connect in real-time (by voice and video) with multi-person, high resolution 3d complex games, with fast action, on mobile devices (Mobile Gaming).
In the past, technology limitations have tended to divide distance education programs into one of two categories – unidirectional video based broadcasts, or interactive, but severely limited online collaborative environments.  What is emerging is the merger of these two environments into multi-point rich and interactive learning environments enabled by:
  • Increased broadband deployment to the end user
  • Increases in computational horsepower at the personal level
  • Increases in fixed and mobile storage capacity along with reduced cost
  • Explosion of wireless and mobile computing and communications
  • Improvements in video and audio compression protocols
Tremendous growth in these areas has enabled educators to develop rich and engaging educational experiences outside of traditional classrooms and well beyond the scope of now “traditional” distance education.  Education in cyber-space, enhanced by the graphical and visual capabilities inherent in this new landscape of rich media exceeds the boundaries of what is possible in the classroom.
Very advanced visualization environments, 3d applications, simulations, high definition video audio and virtual reality applications are becoming more commonplace in distance education programs.  These tools can create highly effective learning environments in a wide variety of applications.   The advances in technology noted above greatly facilitate their adoption in higher education.

Minimum Technology Requirements

For basic video streaming – current minimum data rates start at 500 Kbps, with typical files sizes of 300MB.  (represents minimal interactivity, two way video, single course meeting).
Video conferencing applications require T-1 connection (1.5 Mbps).
The chart below presents a continuum of bandwidth from low to high, along with typical bandwidth requirements for sample applications:

Business Aspects

Primary benefits to distance education are avoidance of travel costs,  commuting time, and childcare expense. Distance education programs increase efficiency because students can participate in classes from home or the workplace.
Modern distance education programs originated due to high demand expressed by businesses for support of education of their employees without the heavy cost of sending employees off to campuses, travel time to and from campus and lost productivity due to employees being away from the office.  This cost-avoidance potential of distance education is well understood.
Employers recognize that through distance education programs supported at the place of employment or the employee’s home, the employees can remain productive at work while they expand their education and work skills.
Today’s distance education programs managed through wide bandwidth computer networks take advantage of business computing infrastructure, rather than requiring the separate technology and support infrastructure needed for older systems (such as analog satellite television or cable television systems).  This merger of distance education with the business infrastructure provides further return on the business infrastructure investment, while reducing some of those costs to the providers.
Distance education supports the Governor’s goals for telecommuting in the Commonwealth.  People drive not only to their workplace but to their institutions of higher education as well.  Enabling rich environments from the home or workplace reduces traffic congestion on overcrowded roads and highways.

Obstacles or Barriers to Further Deployment

The most significant barrier to further deployment of advanced learning environments is the incomplete deployment of broadband and wireless distribution infrastructure to the office and home.  All of these rich environments require broadband infrastructure – not just tospecialized rooms or locations, but broadly distributed infrastructure reaching individuals where they work and live.  Higher education is increasingly broadband enabled, and those without access may be left behind.
Another related obstacle to further deployment is the cost of broadband access.  Broadband delivery in urban areas tends to be less costly than in more rural areas due to large number of potential subscribers in the more densely populated areas.  The cost of broadband delivery into more residential or rural areas can be prohibitive to some, limiting their ability to participate in advanced education opportunities.