We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
—Pink Floyd
Another Brick in the Wall

An investment in knowledge
pays the best interest.
—Benjamin Franklin
inventor, diplomat,
guy on the hundred dollar bill


The value of education has been debated forever—from Benjamin Franklin to Pink Floyd. Some people feel it is invaluable and some feel it is of no value. The debate will rage on, but while it does, the “delivery” of education will change. No longer are students required to be planted in a hard wooden chair in front of a Ben Stein-like teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Students of all ages and abilities can learn on their own, in groups, or collaboratively through distance learning. Many systems have been used over the years to provide distance learning, but it wasn’t until the Internet the took over our lives has distance learning fulfilled its age-old promise.

Learn Shorthand—In Your Own Colony

The first distance education system could be traced all the way back to 1728, when shorthand instructor Caleb Philipps advertised shorthand lessons to “persons in the country desirous to learn this art, may be having lessons sent weekly to them.” But, it wasn’t until 1840, when Sir Isaac Pittman taught his shorthand course via a system of postcards. He would mail his lessons to his students and they would return their assignments for corrections. This was really the first interactive distance learning system. Pennsylvania State College used distance learning via radio in 1922. The University of Minnesota, the University of Salt Lake City and the University of Wisconsin also had been granted education licenses to broadcast courses over the radio and the number grew to more than 200 by 1925. However, lack of faculty interest, poor presentation and competition from commercial broadcasters doomed the enterprise. Although radio-delivered education waned, the Australian “School of the Air” began operation using shortwave radio in 1951 to reach students across the great distances Downunder.

In 1953, the University of Houston offered televised distance learning via public television station KUHT. More than 100,000 semester hours have been taught on KUHT. The telephone was later used as a learning device by the University of Wisconsin in 1965. Three years later, Stanford University began the Stanford Instructional Television Network to teach engineering students.

You’ve Got Mail

1969 would prove to be the most pivotal year for distance learning—and the world. It was in that historical year that the US Department of Defense created ARPANET—a system of linked computers that allowed researchers to share information across distances. It evolved over the years, but it would be almost 30 years later that we all became, in some way, part of the Internet.

I’m a Phoenix!

The University of Phoenix was founded in 1976 and now offers distance and on-site learning for adults in more than 200 locations. Many more such institutions would spring up over the years with varying degrees of “respectability.” In 1985, Nova Southeastern University awards its first PhD earned through online education, in Computer and Information Sciences. America Online got in on the action in 1992, by establishing the Electronic Education Network, and offered a PhD in Integral Sciences. CALCampus, based in New Hampshire, first began total Internet-based learning in 1995 as calcampus.com, although it began offering distance learning courses as early as 1986 on systems such as CompuServe and GEnie.

That same year, Utah Governor Mark Leavitt met with Northern Arizona University President Clara Lovett and sparked the initial idea of a regional university. 19 state governors got together and in 1996 announced the creation of the Western Governors University to offer distance learning to a growing Western United States population that was spread across the much larger Mountain and Western states and out to the territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas in the Pacific. WGU is based n Salt Lake City, Utah, and as of 2012, has graduated 16,000 students.

In 1999, online learning “tools,” such as Blackboard, came online. These tools would grow and expand and would help facilitate learning and instruction between teachers, students, and administration. In 2003, 81% of universities offered some sort of online coursework, and by 2012, that number jumped to 97%.

I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation.
You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation…

Although online education sometimes gets a bad reputation, 83% of CEOs reported in 2010, that online education is just as credible as on-site education. Those students would be in good company. Many well-known personalities have earned degrees, or finished degrees, through online education. Amongst them: Steven Spielberg (CalState-Long Beach, film production, 2002), Dr. Shaquille O’Neal is “a Phoenix,” earning his MBA in 2005 and then earning a PhD in Education from Barry University, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an early proponent, taking online courses at the University of Wisconsin way back in 1979.

In 2009, David Nagel, writing for Campus Technology, reported that 5.5 million post-secondary students have taken some online courses and that by 2014 the number would jump to 22 million.

Just a Coupla MOOCs

Online education has now become available to the masses. Through a blend of licensed and non-licensed content, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been available for the past few years. MOOCs (the term was first used by David Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in 2008) offer coursework and tests, but also create a shared community amongst its users. Several MOOCs are available on a paid and free basis and offer a variety of courses. Udacity and Coursera are just two. MOOCs aren’t limited only to post-secondary education, though. In November 2012, the University of Miami launched a high school MOOC as part of the Global Academy. Students can use it for SAT prep.

As a lifelong learner myself, I have had a varied experience with different forms of distance learning and I have developed a wide range of opinions about them.

When I was younger I was a licensed Ham Radio Operator. I thought, recently, that I would like to get my license again—just to see if I could do it. Unlike in the past, I did not have to crawl all over the library or order books via the mail. There are several online study courses and I settled on HamTestOnline.com. For $20, I received a two-year subscription to study questions, practice quizzes, diagrams and everything I needed. The lessons are well-prepared and the quizzes offered questions in a random enough basis so I wasn’t able to “game the system.” My subscription ends in September, so I need to get crackin’ on getting this done.

Florida Nights—Scarlet Knights

My next foray into distance learning was with Rutgers University (cmd.rutgers.edu). In an effort to expand my knowledge of marketing, I signed up for what they call a “miniMBA,” or a Graduate Certificate in Social Media Marketing. For $3,000 I took a three-month course online and earned 3.0 credits and a Rutgers diploma (suitable for framing!). My feelings on that course are mixed. The lessons were interesting and they did add to my body of knowledge. I was able to use what I had learned in practical form as well. The final “exam” was to prepare a social media marketing plan for a real or imagined company. I was able to use what I learned and prepared a plan for a fencing studio in South Florida.

The instructor would post videos and lessons online and hold “office hours” every week when the students would log on to a chat room and ask questions or get updates. It was very helpful to have that interactivity once a week. I was surprised that the course did not make use of the very tools we were learning about. One drawback to being an online student is that you are all alone in your house, far away from your peers. With all that is available in social media tools, it would have been very easy to bridge that human connectivity gap. I do feel connected a little bit—for Christmas, my son found a Rutgers T-shirt for me, and I will root for the Rutgers Basketball team whenever I catch a televised game.

My next online learning adventure took me to MediaBistro.com. MediaBistro is an online portal for journalists, media types and publishers. They offer a lot of relevant information, job boards and online learning options. I signed up for a “Job-Hunters BootCamp.” For $79, I took a class similar to my Rutgers course. We learned much of the same thing, but this one was tailored more to marketing oneself via social media, not necessarily a brand or product. This course was a bit more interactive, and there was more consistent discussion between students and with the instructors. The online interface was also much nicer and easier to navigate. The Rutgers lessons were not of the best quality and the audio and video sometimes lagged. MediaBistro’s quality was just much better. Although this wasn’t for a diploma or a certificate, I did feel that I received a lot of value for my 79 bucks.

U and U

In January 2014, I was accepted into Utica College’s Cybersecurity and Computer Forensics program (programs.online.utica.edu), which consists of about two years of classes and two on-site residencies in Utica, New York and Udacity (Udacity.com), one of the MOOCs mentioned earlier. The program I graduated from at Utica College is a Masters of Science Program and carries a price tag to go with it, so this was a decision I did not take lightly. I did a lot of research and compared programs and schools and methods and decided that Utica was the best choice. I am happy with my choice and I think it is a great program and would encourage anyone interested in pursuing a Masters to check it out, along with several others for comparison. Here again, I think the school falls short in using readily available tools to bridge to connectivity gap with the distance students. We started the program with an on-site residency in Utica in January (26 below and snowing) and met with the professors and fellow students for four days. It was a fantastic event. I met some great people and collaborated with others doing what I was doing and felt it had really connected us together and got us onto a great start. We were separated into groups of four and even though I was in Florida, another in New York, one in Ohio and one in California, we were all able to work together on our assignments.

We had to figure out the connectivity problem on our own. So, we experimented with a few ideas. We used the telephone and email, which did not work so well. Then, I tried Skype. It turned out that Skype required a fee for the amount of people we were included. I then discovered Google Hangouts (who names this stuff?) and that worked great. We were able to log on through our school-provided Gmail accounts and were able to conduct videochats for free and (almost) glitch-free. This was a great experience, but I was surprised that the school didn’t offer that as a matter of course. It turned out that the group idea was for just one class. So, I was back to be an isolated online student again. I feel that the schools may fail to realize that distance students don’t want to be distance students they have to be, and that they should take any measures possible to bring the community together.

Several weeks ago, I stumbled upon Udacity. Udacity is a MOOC that grew out of Stanford University in 2012. With 1.6 million users, it is fast becoming the “Kleenex” or the “Coke” of the MOOCs. Udacity offers paid and free courseware. I didn’t want to get too involved with Udacity while I was still working on my Utica College courses, so I started with one free course, “Intro to Psychology.” I believe I will get a “certificate of completion” (suitable for framing, too!) when I’m done, but I’m just doing it for the experience. I am through about four of the lessons and, so far, I like to program. The lessons are presented in well-scripted, high-quality videos and they offer a quiz at the end of each lesson. There is also a bit of text-based interactivity off to the side for students to comment or ask questions. I don’t know how it will turn out, but you can’t beat the price. If I find the free course of any value I may try some of the others, which really aren’t too expensive. Udacity and Georgia Tech have teamed up to offer a full Master’s in Computer Science.

Finding online courses is easy. You can simply search for them—well, online. Although you can be in Fort Pierce, Florida and take classes in Utica or Georgia or Pennsylvania, the local colleges and universities offer online courses worth checking out. The College of Central Florida offers Ed2Go (institute.cf.edu/online_training.htm), Saint Leo offers continuing education programs (www.saintleo.edu/resources/distance-learning-program.aspx), Rasmussen has many choices (www.rasmussen.edu/locations/online-campus/degrees/), and if going to Utica, New York in January is just a bit too cold for you, you can get a Cybersecurity Master’s at the University of Central Florida (programs.online.ucf.edu) or the University of South Florida (cyber.usf.edu). These are only a few options, the entire world is your classroom and there are too many courses, programs, or providers to list here.

Like any kind of training, you will only get out of it what you put into it. If you were a slacker in high school and you just skated by don’t think that taking online classes in your bathrobe chugging beer will be any easier. It requires just as much, if not more, dedication to make sure you keep up with the lessons and manage your time better. As an online student, you are in control of the classroom. You can go to the bathroom without a pass, you can sharpen your pencils without asking permission, and you can listen to Led Zeppelin on 10 without headphones if you want to. But, you still have to take tests and you still have to pay for it.

So, if you are making the commitment be prepared to be committed. Assignments are due, books need to be read, videos need to be watched and you have to do all the admin work, like registration, add/drop classes, grade verification, by yourself, over the phone or online with people who are probably hundreds of miles away. My advice would be to try a free Udacity course, or check out MediaBistro before diving into a full-blown program, like a Master’s Degree. It takes getting used to but once you do, it almost becomes addictive. There is just so much to learn out there, you just want more and more. Good luck to you if you decide to pursue your continuing education online.

Yes. This will be on the final.

—Jeff Macharyas is a creative services specialist and writer. A lifelong learner, he has a BS from Florida State University, an AA from Indian River Community College, a miniMBA from Rutgers University, a Dale Carnegie graduate, and earned his MS from Utica College in 2015.

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