Why You Should Consider Distance Education Programs as a Professional Development Option

09/03/2009  |  SHARON FRATTA-HILL
professional development

As teachers, you and I spend the majority of our careers educating others.  We’re passionate about education; it’s why we got into teaching in the first place -- whether we teach in public school, a community college, a vocational high school or a private institution.   

But, at the end of the day how much time do you, as a teacher, have to pursue continuing education for yourself?  Learning that, if you had the time, energy and money for it, could deepen your subject matter knowledge, enhance your classroom effectiveness, make you a more empathetic and insightful teacher, or advance your career in other ways.

I suspect you’d answer, “Not much!”    Which is why the continuing education needs of teachers often take a back seat to the needs of their students!

But that doesn’t have to be the case nowadays.            

In recent years, the growing convenience and accessibility of distance education options has opened up channels of professional development to teachers as never before.  Hundreds of colleges and universities as well as many corporate providers today offer distance learning options of various kinds.  And whether you’re interested in distance learning with the goal of getting another degree, or simply to complete continuing education units (CEUs), get specialized training, or renew a professional accreditation, the advantages of signing up for distance learning today are numerous.

I’m a big fan of distance education for the following reasons:

First, the Internet provides a powerful delivery system for distance education unlike anything we had in years past.  Gone are the days when distance learning depended on unreliable satellite links, scratchy phone connections and dreary graphics.  Today, thanks to the Internet and powerful web-based technologies, high-end distance education providers offer online courses that feature near broadcast-quality video links, lots of interaction between instructors and participants, use of video vignettes and simulations to enhance learning, and the opportunity for participants to take part in polls, group work and chat room discussions as part of completing their online work.   

Second, the technology of distance education is increasingly user-friendly.  Consider yourself technology-averse?  Has this stopped you from looking into distance education options in the past?  Today it’s quite easy to access distance education courses regardless of your interest or need.  At the Graduate School we use an online platform called GS Connect to host our online training classes and continuing education offerings.  To sign on to GS Connect (via a secure URL) requires only that a participant have a laptop or office computer with “Flash” .   For the uninitiated, “Flash” is the technology behind most video and interactive media on the Internet today.  It supports the use of video, audio and interactive online learning tools in ways that create an almost in-person experience for participants!   

So, if you’re shopping around for a distance education program, consider the user-friendliness of providers’ technology.  How easy is to access a provider’s online courses?  How easy is to navigate providers’ websites and review their curricula?  Finally, do courses offered include interactive learning tools and other features to accommodate participants’ different learning styles and preferences?

Third, you can choose a distance education format convenient for you!   Today, distance education programs are either synchronous or asynchronous in format.  Synchronous programs are “live” events or classes that a participant accesses from their computer.  Asynchronous programs are self-paced learning options people access from an online archive. 

At the Graduate School, we offer both live and self-paced online learning choices.  Some participants like to integrate real-time learning into their weekly work schedules.  So, they access live training classes from their desktops while at work.  Others, such as members of the military who have rigid work schedules, complete self-paced online training (in modules) on weekends or during holidays and vacations.  

As you investigate distance education options offered by different providers, determine if they offer both live and self-paced learning alternatives.  This will give you greater flexibility in choosing the technology and learning format that works best for your needs.

Fourth, distance education is economical in terms of cost and time required on your part.  Because you access distance learning options online, you don’t have to commute to attend classes in a physical classroom.  You also avoid travel and lodging expenses associated with traditional off-site classroom training.  All this means you can take courses from home, a hotel room while traveling, or even the beach, if you like.  And that means less stress and greater flexibility to fit continuing education into your schedule where, when and how you want it! 

Still other factors to consider when investigating distance learning providers include: professional reputation, a provider’s ability to award degrees or offer CEUs, and whether a provider’s course offerings represent a good fit with your training or continuing education needs. 

Sharon Fratta-Hill, PhD is Vice President of Academic Programs and Distance Education at the Graduate School in Washington, DC. For information about GS Connect visit:
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