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Distance Education: Closer Than You Think




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Distance Education

UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek has identified Distance Education as an important academic area to explore as part of UTK’s  Journey to the Top 25.  With over a decade of experience educating master’s students online, CCI’s School of Information Sciences (SIS) is well positioned to take a leadership role as UTK expands its DE offerings.  

SIS has a current enrollment of almost 220 active students with 70% of those being distance education.  Hadi Dudley, Library Director for the Bentonville Public Library in Arkansas and 2004 SIS graduate said, “My experience as a DE student really prepared me for the reality of the workplace.  I often participate in virtual meetings and I need a strong working knowledge of technology for my job.  Developing skills to communicate in any environment using all forms of media is essential today.”  Dudley also said her degree from the UT would not have been possible without the DE option.  She lives and works in Arkansas and would not have been able to relocate to Knoxville for a  residential program.  Dudley now gives back by serving on the SIS Advisory Board.

The reality of today’s workplace is that it often incorporates virtual communications at some level.  The need to prepare students to meet those requirements helps make the case for providing at least some DE courses.  From 2006 to 2018, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred are expected to increase 16% and the number of master’s degrees by 28%.*  How will CCI and UTK meet those demands without incurring significant physical resource expenses?  One way to economically meet the demand is to provide online courses where the curriculum is conducive to the format. 

A Sloan Consortium report  found that when comparing learning outcomes of online to face-to-face options, 67% of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education the same or superior to those in face-to-face. ** This number has been steadily climbing as educational organizations become more adept at conducting online classes. 

As Vandana Singh, SIS assistant professor, pointed out in her recent presentation at UTK’s Deans, Directors and Department Heads Retreat, the front-end workload is heavy for faculty as they build their online classroom. The class material and the online classroom must be prepared before the start of the first class.  Assignments and in-class activities must be modified for the virtual environment.  Distance education also means evening and weekend teaching for many faculty members.  DE also allows a broader range of students to access the learning environment.  For example, the incoming class for SIS has students attending online from twelve states. 

On the student side, DE requires work to become comfortable with the technology.  UTK uses Blackboard Collaborate as its online delivery tool.  The information sciences classes are synchronous, meaning everyone is in the virtual classroom at the same time.  The tool has the capability of hosting multiple speakers, multiple videos, chat, breakout discussion rooms, peer-to-peer communications and AppSharing. 

A side benefit of distance education is the opportunity for master’s students to act as support for the classes (earning while learning).  Some SIS faculty members have also elected to share their online classroom material via iTunesU. 


*According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “Projections of Education Statistics to 2017 Report” (36th Ed.).   U.S. Department of Education.

**Allend, I. Elaine and Jeff Seaman. “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011.” Babson Survey Research Group.