Perspectives on Lifelong Learning: The View From a Distance
First Monday

Perspectives on Lifelong Learning: The View From a Distance

This study explores the factors related to using distance learning to meet the continuing education needs of professionals in knowledge related fields. College programs and accreditation are discussed, as well as the needs for individual credentials, increasing knowledge, and personal development.


What is Distance Education?
How Can Engineers Use Distance Learning?



As colleges and courses become "impacted," unable to accept all of the students that want to take a course or program; as schools acknowledge the burden of expenses like ivy-covered walls and football teams that are increasingly unrelated to learning; as students combine education with the rest of life, making a little room among family, career, travel and other commitments, the topic of distance education is often raised as the answer [1]. Is it the right answer? That is an individual decision by both the college and the student.

Surveys show that about one-third of the U.S. 2-year and 4-year colleges offer some distance education, the majority at public institutions, and most frequently limited to English, humanities and the social and behavioral sciences (70%) and business and management (55%) [6]. Little data is available related to distance graduate education.

This presentation will address the basic factors of distance learning at the college level that should be addressed by anyone considering its place in lifelong educational plans.


What is Distance Education?

The terms "distance education" and "distance learning" are used to cover a multitude of ways that education is delivered. Basically, the terms cover any situation when the student and the teacher are not in the same place. Traditional models of correspondence courses and independent study are covered by this description. But the advent of modern communications has put more focus on methods that include electronic exchange [7]. Internet education and Web-based learning are often incorrectly used as synonyms for distance education. Several factors are important in fully defining any distance learning activity.


Synchronous methods are those that take place in "real time" and may include satellite transmission of lectures with phone links for questions, interactive television, or chat room discussions. Asynchronous methods further separate the student from the teacher since there is no provision for direct interaction. These may include programmed materials that are available on the school's computer but accessible at any time, or those that are available through a Web site or download. Course work may be limited to independent study with submission of assignments by e-mail and subsequent comments from the professor returned by e-mail, phone or fax. Sometimes simulations, audio or video tapes of a classroom lecture, or other electronic based learning tools are available to augment traditional textbooks or customized workbooks.


What is the subject matter and how can it be presented in a way that students understand and retain. Each subject must be reviewed to determine whether it is appropriate to be learned at a distance. For example, an introductory chemistry lab is probably not a good candidate for a distance learning course. A mathematics course may be covered by distance, but homework submitted by e-mail might be difficult. Imagine "showing your work" by typing the equations in a problem that involves exponents. Creative writing by distance is both feasible and logical; conversational Spanish is neither. Between these extremes are a myriad of topics that might work if properly presented. But sitting through a tape of last week's classroom lecture is rarely a good methodology.

Many computer support people are assisting professors in creating simulations that allow a student to "walk" into a situation, make decisions and see the results [4]. They often take on the appearance and sound effects of a cartoon. The theory is that, by entertaining the students, the presentations keep their attention and provide learning. Many good classroom instructors use the same kind of techniques. Remember the high school demonstration of the Van de Graff generator? But would the adult student be impressed with the dramatics now, or just impatient to get to the point? The learner's experience is an important factor in what works.

Level of Study

Whether simulations or other tools are appropriate may go to the core of education - what is to be learned? At the bachelor's level, students acquire information and master skills for coordinating and communicating that information. At the master's level, students explore the relationships among the various kinds of information and learn how to apply their knowledge. At the doctorate level, students address the principles that govern the relationships, research the basis of their knowledge, and extend the knowledge available in their disciplines. For example, a simulation showing a ball bouncing in a box demonstrates aspects of both physics and mathematics (action/reaction, corresponding angles, etc.). If that simulation allows the user to vary the materials and surfaces, it could be used to explore the elasticity of materials, friction, or other engineering factors. But would it be helpful in addressing the why these factors result in the changes that are demonstrated?

Interaction and Assessment

How do the student and teacher communicate? Does the process allow interaction with other students? Is that important? How does the teacher determine how much the student has learned and assign a grade? In "Learning is about Making Connections" [2], Patricia Cross explores neurological, cognitive, social and experiential methods of getting to "ah ha." The rehearsal, elaboration and organizational strategies for learning may be employed by any teacher, or by adult learners who assume the responsibility for their own education.

How does the school under consideration encourage the use of various learning methods? How are the grades and degrees recognized by other schools or employers? The answers to these questions will vary for each distance education program, but they are core to the selection of a program that meets the student's needs. Some of these questions relate more to the school and its procedures than to the education itself. So many variations exist that the only way to address them is with two sets of questions, the first addressing how the college's procedures work, the second addressing the schools status among other colleges and universities.

Course and Program Procedures

  • Are courses organized and sufficient to support the degree programs offered?
  • Are both core and elective courses offered?
  • Does the student have a specific professor for each course?
  • Are the professors experienced and qualified to teach the courses they are assigned?
  • How does the student communicate with the professor?
  • Are there opportunities for teamwork or communications with other students?
  • What methods (assignments, papers, tests, etc.) are used to assign grades?
  • What amount of time is allow for the completion of the course work?
  • What provisions are there for "leaves of absence" or other breaks in course work?
  • Are the distance courses planned for delivery at a distance, or simply adaptations of on-campus courses?
  • Are there web sites, orientation, technical support and other means to assure that students are able to complete the electronic connections?
  • Despite the title "distance education", are there any location specific requirements?

College Credentials

  • Is the college licensed by the state in which it is located? Each state has requirements for degree-granting authority that it requires colleges to meet. This is a requirement for any degree program, but it may not be necessary if you are just looking for a specific skill, for example a new programming language.
  • Is the college or university accredited by a regional accrediting body? Six regional accrediting bodies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate colleges and assure that they are financially stable, have adequate personnel and other resources, offer programs that are similar to those at other accredited schools, and demonstrate integrity in their operations [3]. Colleges that are accredited agree to recognize transfer units and degrees from other similarly accredited schools. Students at colleges that are accredited (or are candidates for accreditation) are eligible for federally insured student loans.Some well-known schools are not accredited. Some schools that are accredited may not have programs that meet specific needs.
  • Is the department or college accredited by a professional organization related to the profession it teaches? AMA certifies medical schools; APA evaluates schools of psychology; ABET endorses schools of engineering. This is nice to have, but rarely mandatory.
  • Is the school or program well documented? Check the school's Web site. How does it compare to its peers? A good place to do comparisons is That independent agency assembles, screens and publishes standardized information for each of the colleges it lists.

How Can Engineers Use Distance Learning?

The previous discussion of programs is split into two areas, one related to the procedures and status of the college, the other focusing on the coursework and learning. Similarly, the consideration of how knowledge workers use education is divided into the separate, but not mutually exclusive, requirements for credentials and for new knowledge, with additional factors related to their individual lives. These factors are especially important for women engineers.

This discussion is limited to consideration of graduate education for three reasons. First, the audience for this presentation is a group of engineers, most with bachelor's degrees completed. Second, even if that were not so, the curriculum of an undergraduate program in engineering (or any of the physical sciences) does not lend itself to distance education. General education requirements and electives might be satisfied at a distance, but the intensive laboratory experience of the fundamentals of engineering requires equipment and supervision that is not currently feasible without on-site courses. Third, a traditional undergraduate program addresses more than coursework. The maturation and socialization of 18-21 year olds is a significant part of the "college experience." That factor will not be addressed in this paper.

Career Development and Lifelong Learning

An engineer begins a career with a degree and a set of fundamental knowledge. That knowledge is expanded and shaped with each new assignment as product, company and industry data are added. New advances in technology make the initial information obsolete unless it is continuously updated with seminars, journals, and new courses. Choosing a technical career means a commitment to lifelong learning.

An engineering degree is possibly the best available preparation for distance learning. Graduate education is best viewed as adult self-directed learning. The experience of the bachelor's degree has provided the individual the skills of learning - reading, researching, self-testing, communication of answers. The engineer has also demonstrated and practiced the qualitative and quantitative skills of problem solving. These are, of course, the same skills to be used in graduate education, whether on-site of at a distance. Library usage is also important, whether the library sources are in a local facility or online.

Having successfully completed an engineering degree, other coursework is likely to seem easier and even fun. This is a great incentive to indulge in learning that may not be directly related to a career. A course in astronomy to go with the telescope that Santa brought, a course in child psychology when the children at home seem like a different species, a course in zoology to augment an interest in gardening, or any other directions that an individual may want to pursue are all more fun when learning skills are as natural as reading and writing.

Adult learners take control of their education, and want the opportunity to learn at their own pace, at times and places compatible with the commitments of family, work and leisure. They demand relevant and applicable coursework and a learning environment that is supportive and collaborative. A quality distance education program accommodates these requirements.

The professional makes the decision what to study, when and in what kind of program - formal or informal, but for an engineer, "if" is not a valid option. A positive side effect is getting approval for the company's education reimbursement program, an excellent way to increase visibility in a large company.

Leadership and Management Development

Many technical careers take a detour into management. It is important to understand that this is not a negation of the technical basis of engineering, but an additional set of data and responsibilities that builds on that foundation. Technical marketing, project engineering, department supervision, and many other career paths each require that the engineer increase the scope of expertise. And that usually means more schooling just at the time that there is least time to get it.

Distance education can fill that need, especially if the college allows the program to be tailored to the student's needs. "While the quality of instruction is the same, there is not as much teamwork because of the structure. But technology is improving that. Some professors have chat groups online" [8].

Because distance learning is free from the constraints of the classroom, learners can usually choose what courses to take first, start their coursework at any time, and set a pace that matches the time available and urgency of getting the information. An engineer who is suddenly promoted to department manager may need a course in human resources "yesterday." An assignment to a project that is over spent may need immediate knowledge of accounting to understand and act on the financial reports.

Look for a college that has professors with both technical and academic backgrounds. Contact the professor when the course begins to see if it can be tailored to personal career needs. Can the term paper or project assignment be done on the student's own company? Can the case studies be selected from the learner's industry? Use the professor as a consultant and the course feedback as guidance for current on-the-job situations?

Is there a provision for teamwork as a part of the management training? This important aspect is one of the hardest for distance education to assure. Chat rooms or other methods may be available, but if the college has enrollees in many time zones, and each at a different point in the program, the connections may not be adequate. On the other hand, those are the same circumstances that an employee of a global company encounters every day. If the student takes the responsibility to include teamwork as a part of the leadership training, the work will be enriched.

The competition can be fierce. To be a career leader takes a two pronged approach: knowledge and credentials. As engineers, the focus is first on the information side, but "getting your ticket punched" is an equally important facet of being recognized and ready for the next step up.

Management isn't the only way to exercise leadership. Being up to date is a important factor in leading. So is being able to communicate. Taking a course in business communications to be able to clearly present technical ideas may be the key to being recognized as a leader, either in a technical position or in management.

Mid-Career Changes

What if the next promotion isn't the right one? Has boredom with the tasks at hand set in? Is there an ethical concern with the industry or its products? These are signals that a career change is in order. But it's not easy to quit one job and start another that is different. What are the credentials needed to get another job without trading on experience in the current one? A graduate degree is a great response to that dilemma. Choose a new specialization and get a degree that supports it.

Consider how much (or how little) time, effort and money it takes to get a graduate degree. Most master's degrees take about 10 courses. Going to a traditional school two nights a week for five semesters will take about two and a half years. Can the career change wait that long? Does it have to? Perhaps one or two courses will provide enough new data to update the resume and at least enter the new field, at a slightly lower level. Is a self-directed breadth assignment feasible? Can a distance program provide the needed boost in a more time effective way?

Experience indicates that women probably get the degree first. Don't expect to be accepted unless entry credentials are sterling.

Career breaks are another reason for a career change. Women may need to consider time off for children. A new degree, acquired during nap time, may be the right tool to re-enter the job market without missing a beat. Everyone needs to be prepared for the disruption that comes with a lay-off or other unexpected career change. The chief engineer of Pickett (the slide rule company) was undoubtedly faced with retraining for a position in a different industry. The norm currently is to start a consulting practice during time that otherwise would be seen as unemployment, but using that time for continuing education serves a double purpose. Distance education can start on any day, and can travel with the individual if the next job is in a different location.

Another career possibility is a slight bend toward academia. As professionals reach the end of their corporate careers, they begin to think of retirement, but are concerned that missing the intellectually challenging activities of the workplace may not be an attractive outcome, however much a less hectic schedule may be desired. Professionals have the option of augmenting their retirement plans with some part-time teaching. This gives them the opportunities both to keep their own minds active and to give something back to their disciplines. The wealth of their experience is valuable to colleges and students. To prepare for this possibility, a professional needs to have a graduate degree, and probably a doctorate.

Other Reasons for Using Distance Learning

The career-related reasons for graduate degrees apply no matter where the professional pursues her studies. But why do mid-career professionals choose distance learning? The reasons are as varied as the people themselves. Where do distance learners live? All over, but especially in places that don't have a college nearby. That may mean a rural town in mid-America or a field assignment out of the U.S. Or it may simply mean anywhere, but not for long. Project engineers and military personnel are good examples of those who can't stay in one place long enough to complete a degree. But even those in a major education center with a stable residence address may spend significant time on business travel. Distance education can be pursued on the plane or in hotel rooms wherever the company has business.

Time can also be a dictating factor. Shift work and the deadlines of contracts can make on-campus courses impossible, even if the college is right next door. Families and the other commitments of life can be influential. One distance learner recognizes the violence and insecurity in her children's lives and uses distance education to decrease her time away as well as to promote a home learning environment [5]. Care of aging parents, illness or accident, and many other personal situations cause responsible adults to seek distance education programs.

These "reasons" imply that they might enroll in a traditional program if the difficult situation did not exist. That, however, is not the case. A quality distance program can provide superior education with one-on-one mentorship of professors who are both experts in their field and academically qualified. Distance programs can be tailored to the learner's specific needs, offering courses even for a single enrollee. Distance education is not an substitute. It is a valid alternative choice.

Knowledge, Credentials, Curiosity and Commitment

Distance education is an expanding field that many professionals are likely to use to augment their careers and personal interests. Like most graduate school programs, distance learning can provide information, satisfy curiosity, and provide credentials recognized by others as the assurance that knowledge needed for career positions has been obtained.

Distance learning has the additional benefits of allowing the adult learner to control the time and place for studies, and in many cases, tailor the curriculum to focus on individual interests. Care must be exercised in selecting a distance college, just as it is required in choosing a traditional school.

Distance education facilitates lifelong learning, a major factor for all professionals in knowledge intensive fields.End of article

About the Author

Dr. Forbes is Vice President for Academic Affairs of North Central University. She earned her MSE, MBA and Ph.D. part-time while working full-time and raising a family. She now works to assure that others have access to the education they need without the constraints of specified times and locations.


1. Elizabeth Clark, 1999. "Distance Learning: Making the Grade?" Network Magazine (September).

2. K. Patricia Cross, 1999. "Learning Is About Making Connections," League for Innovation in the Community College (June).

3. Steven Crow, 1999. "Virtual Universities Can Meet High Standards," Chronicle of Higher Education (29 October).

4. Timothy Foster and Richard Lei, 1999. "Student Perceptions of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Web-based Instruction," RUFIS Conference, Northern Arizona University (November).

5. Beverly Kupiec, 1999. "Public Comment on North Central University," (November).

6. Laurie Lewis, Kyle Snow, Elizabeth Farris and Douglas Levin, 1999. Distance Education at Post Secondary Education Institutions: 1997-98. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, and at

7. John M. Morris, 1998. "Teaching Engineering Management via the Web," Engineering Management Journal (June).

8. "MBAs and More: A Thumbnail Guide to Mid-Career Education," Harvard Management Update (June).

Editorial history

Paper received 18 July 2000; accepted 1 November 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Perspectives on Lifelong Learning: The View From a Distance by Judith L. Forbes
First Monday, volume 5, number 11 (November 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.