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Electronic Learning Generations

Fifteen years ago, I switched jobs within a university. My previous job had a standard academic label that contained the word "Dean." My new job title was something like, Director, Instructional Telecommunications. I was thrilled with my new position, which paid me the same amount I had been earning before, but did give me the license to turn new ideas into realities. Of course, I called my mother right away to tell her the good news. She listened as I excitedly listed my new activities involving distance learning systems. When I told her my new title, she said, "Well, dear, that's wonderful. But what d'es it mean?"

Few people today would ask that question. The words distance learning would at least be familiar, even though we would not all attribute the same meaning to them. Every time I ride a bus or subway, I am assailed by advertisements for institutions offering degrees and high-technology skills via distance learning, but I can never tell from the advertisements what they mean by distance learning. If I signed up for the course, would I get a package of books in the mail with a snail mail address to which to send my assignments? Would I sign on to a Web site and read someone's lecture notes? Would I be asked to turn to a cable TV station from 3:00 to 3:50 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to view a previously recorded class session? Or, would I go online and find myself in a rich, personalized learning environment?

There are so many variations on the activities that make up distance learning, no one can really know what to expect. Even though well over two-thirds of the colleges and universities in the U.S. now report offering some type of distance learning, there is still no easy way to describe a typical distance learner's experiences.

Some people in the academic community are starting to suggest that it's time to regulate these distance learning activities. But it seems to me that before we can really regulate anything, we have to define it. The tools used for distance learning are evolving so fast, that only the most dedicated followers of electronic journals are aware of what is possible. The speed of tool evolution is matched only by the expanding opportunities related to human imagination.

I was recently privy to an online discussion among distance learning professionals who were concerned about a new Web tool that will be released soon. Some thought that faculty would lose control over what their students read and where they went on the Web. Another group pointed out that students will explore whatever sites they want to, regardless of a professor's instructions. Younger students are working and learning in a way that most of us could not even comprehend, much less match.

The time to regulate these new learning opportunities is on the horizon. For now, however, we are only beginning our transition from a mind-set of teaching in the classroom to one of arranging electronic learning environments. I am not even sure that my generation will be around to see the stabilization of this field. People who grow up with the Web will understand how to use it to help others learn and work. I can just imagine the day, in about 15 years, when my daughter calls me about her new job. She'll be doing tasks far beyond my current awareness, using words that are yet to be introduced into the language. I fully expect to hear my mother's words echoing through my brain, "Well, dear, that's wonderful. But what d'es it mean?"

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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