In the recent past, the suggestion of getting a college degree without ever cracking a book meant paying a degree mill. It meant the degree was name only, reflecting neither learning nor effort. Then distance learning meant correspondence courses, perhaps combined with some coordinated telecasts. Technology has already changed all that, and the future will change it even further.

eTexts

Now, online college students can obtain legitimate college degrees without cracking a book– but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to read. Even with hard copy texts available, most students download their textbooks in password protected Portable Document Format (PDF). Not only is this a “green” alternative, but you avoid the weight of having to carry around textbooks.

Students can copy the PDF to mobile devices, and carry all of their texts on one iPad or Galaxy Tab. They choose to print whole books, only parts, or just use the digital document. A drawback to depending on protected PDFs is that they only open with active internet connections — but once opened students can use them until closed.

Virtual Libraries

Most online school programs — even those which still use correspondence course designs have robust virtual libraries – something that never existed 15 years ago. Many colleges and universities contract with EBSCO Publishing to maximize available peer reviewed journals. Even traditional students use EBSCO Host in college libraries. Distance learners access the same journals as campus students — from anywhere in the world. Students quickly build up their own virtual libraries of thousands of journal articles, just as mobile as any e-text. Renaming these files as closely as possible to the required bibliographic format, and cataloguing them, keeps them organized, accessible, and easy to cite in papers.

Online School Portals

Until now, resources for modern distance learning seem only different in form from correspondence courses. That changes with online school portals. These virtual campuses come complete with individual rooms for each class. They are so significant an innovation that they could change the future of on campus studies. Anticipating how ubiquitous technology should become, some schools already require on campus students to take at least one class online. This innovation means students need not all be present at once. More, many schools are now integrating social media into their portals – so students can correspond about classes and socially connect for pleasure.

Each school has minimum requirements for quality, quantity and timeliness of posts and responses. The most successful online college students check-in early and often.

Webcams & Teleconferencing

With the advance of higher bandwidth, real time webcasts have become a reality for online courses. Some schools still set most of their distance learning around attending formal classes, and allow this method as a supplement. Other colleges choose to use up such heavy bandwidth only for specific lessons, allowing students and teachers to get to know each other better. Lectures that do not change need not have all the students watch at once, so schools now make them available to download as needed. Downloading is quickly replacing mailed audio and video recordings as a preferred media delivery method. Webcams and teleconferencing have added a new element of interactivity to the virtual classroom that cannot be matched.

Mobile Apps & Augmented Reality

Mobile apps may present the biggest challenges for colleges with growing online programs. Augmented Reality (AR) apps interest schools. This cutting-edge technology is so young that its full potential still requires exploration. AR allows students to point mobile device cams at objects around them. The screen image offers information about what they see. Schools might use them for mobile testing, for example asking questions about objects on museum visits or historic tours. They could allow astronomy students to point a device at the night sky for the screen to identify stars or outline constellations. Common availability of such apps may still be out of reach. Their promise shows that with technology in distance learning, the sky really is the limit.

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