A number of prominent distance learning journals have established the need for administrators to be informed and prepared with strategic plans equal to foreseeable challenges. This article provides decision makers with 32 trends that affect distance learning and thus enable them to plan accordingly. The trends are organized into categories as they pertain to academics (including students and faculty), the economy, technology, and distance learning.
Knowledge and Information are Growing Exponentially
One cannot dispute that there is a proliferation of new information: “In the past, information doubled every 10 years; now it doubles every four years” (Aslanian, 2001, p. 5; see also Finkelstein, 1996). This growth in information will certainly continue to dramatically impact higher education and learning in general.
The Institutional Landscape of Higher Education is Changing: Traditional Campuses are Declining, For-Profit Institutions are Growing, and Public and Private Institutions are Merging
Changes in institutional landscape may magnify competition among educational providers and allow new models and leaders to emerge. Currently, only 4-5% of all higher education students are enrolled with for-profit providers, but 33% of all online students are enrolled with these same providers (Gallagher, 2003). Dunn (2000) projected that by 2025, “half of today’s existing independent colleges will be closed, merged, or significantly altered in mission,” and that “the distinctions between and among public and private, for-profit and nonprofit institutions of higher education will largely disappear” (p. 37).
There is a Shift in Organizational Structure Toward Decentralization
Much of a distance education program’s success or failure can be attributed to how it is organized. Hickman (2003) has observed a movement “from a highly centralized core of administrators, coordinators, [and] marketing and support staffs to a more ‘institutionalized’ approach in which continuing education personnel were assigned to academic units within a university” (p. 6).
Instruction is Becoming More Learner-Centered, Non-Linear, and Self-Directed
Instructional approaches are becoming more learner-centered, “recursive and non-linear, engaging, self-directed, and meaningful from the learner’s perspective” (McCombs, 2000, p. 1). Whereas most instructors previously followed a “transmission” or lecture-style approach to teaching, more instructional diversity is occurring among teachers who are trying a larger variety of approaches (Eckert, 2003).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Unbundling of Faculty Roles: Entails the division of traditional faculty tasks. No longer are all faculty designing their instruction, implementing it, and then conducting the assessment of learning. More and more, different people or technological devices are performing these and other functions.
Decentralization: Represents the move away from a tightly grouped core of administrators and personnel that facilitate distance education, to a system that is more integrated into the different units of an institution.
Seamless Education: Seamless education refers to learning where boundaries between educational levels dissolve. For example, the transition between high school and college is becoming less distinct.
Lifelong Learning: Learning that extends beyond formal instruction and beyond the classroom. Distance education is facilitating the education of countless individuals in later stages of their lives.
Academic Accountability: The emphasis from society, government, and academia that education should lead to beneficial outcomes and learning that can be measured.
Outsourcing: The growing practice in distance education of using external organizations to perform functions necessary to postsecondary institutions or programs.
Competency: The recent focus on competency that comes from employers stands in contrast to previous ways of acknowledging learning, such as seat-based time or diplomas. To an increasing degree, graduates are being judged by what they can do, not by what they know.
Learning Objects: Available information (usually on the Web) that is reusable and applicable to many different learning contexts.
Learner-Centered: Education that focuses on students and their learning, rather than on teachers and their methods. There has been a significant paradigm shift toward learner-centered education in the last decade.
Technological Fluency: In addition to traditional literacy, technological literacy is increasingly becoming a necessity in higher education and in society. With the abundance of available information, information literacy is also growing in importance.