Distance Learning – Great leveler but has its growing pains…

I was certainly excited back in 1998 when my company offered to provide full tuition reimbursement for a new and exciting “distance learning” program. Not only were they willing to pay for the tuition if I my grades were “B” or above, but they were willing to support my supervisor at work proctoring the tests that measured my success.

With young kids at home and a habit of working 50+ hours a week with a long commute on top of it, this was an opportunity I could not pass up. The course selection was great and quickly confirmed Kennedy Western’s claim that they had top professors, and selected text books based on what top Universities used for equivalent courses. I can confirm that, unlike many of my colleagues, I still use the text books that the courses were based on. Below are two examples for Artificial Intelligence and Formal Language and Automata classes respectively. At the time I was working in a Natural Language Understanding (NLU) group developing a product that integrated Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and voice playback including Text to Speech (TTS). I still consult these books today. But I want to focus on a third book on user interface design – About Face (Alan Cooper). Even before I completed the class, I ordered copies for my team to get everyone applying these simple and elegant principles to our product. So more than validating the claims that the textbooks were the same as used at “regular” schools, they were and continue to be directly applicable to my work. This is an investment which has had both short term and long term pay back for my company. One final perspective on this point – my thesis involved programmatically creating candidate answers from a question. This research contributed directly to features that were added to the application development toolkit I was constructing at work.

The down side? Well since then, there has been a lot of criticism and marginalization of distance learning, including many claims that they are “degree mills” – you are just buying the degree. I have no doubt this happens and for reasons I do not understand, Kennedy Western has been included in some of these criticisms. What is going on?

I can only tell my experience. Quite simply, I received the book and for the most part, instructions to learn virtually all of it. At a time of my choosing, not to exceed a fairly significant time (I think it was a year), I could request materials be sent to my Proctor (a supervisor at work) who administered the tests and mailed the results back with no one else touching the results (that is, I handed him my completed exam after four grueling hours and that is the last I saw of it until I got the scored results back from the school). If you didn’t pass the test on this try, you had one more try and that was it. For me, this was a much bigger challenge than “regular school” on three fronts – 1). it took some real discipline to work so completely independently, 2) given no preview of the test and the comprehensive coverage, it was most students’ worst nightmare – a comprehensive final, and 3) the all or nothing nature means there was no room to make up for poor test taking by doing a research paper, book report, or getting extra credit by helping correct undergraduate papers! I have undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Psychology, and attended several classes at “regular” graduate school before the need to feed my family exceeded my academic pursuits. I have to say this style of distance learning administered the purest, most unbiased testing I have ever experienced – either demonstrate mastery by performing on the test or no credit was given. Well Ok, I have to admit I was quite challenged by what has turned out to be one of my most valued classes – Formal Languages and Automata. In this case, I asked for support with some trepidation and was delighted to receive phone and email support from a professor at Rutgers University. More claims validated – top materials with quality support. What a bargain for me – tuition at a fraction of a “regular” college but with top notch materials and staff. Of course, I did 99% of the work at little cost to the school – no classes, no “quizzes” or hand holding except when I was really stumped.

So, I think it’s clear I would compare my experience earning a Masters Degree in Computer Engineering from Kennedy Western with any other program. The fact that I could integrate classes and my thesis directly into my activities at work not only enriched both but justified my company’s investment in me and the program. There are certainly many who are motivated to see the distance learning movement fail and curb or diminish the value of publicly available training, but I hope for exactly the opposite. Distance learning, collaboration, and testing; coupled with on-line resources like Khan Academy and vast “open source” style resources, offer anyone the opportunity to not just learn, but to contribute. Distance learning can be the great leveler of the have and have-not playing field, changing the basic value proposition of “an education.”

OK. I was an early adopter and early adopters always have their challenges and detractors, but I still am a deep believer that the education served up over the internet can result in consumers that are limited only by their own abilities and willingness to work hard. This educational model will enable everyone to participate in the 21st century version of the American dream.

Example Texts (note links are to newer editions)
Class: Formal Language Book: An Introduction to Formal Languages and Automata
Class: Artificial Intelligence Book: Artificial Intelligence, A Modern Approach

This blog originally published at blogspot on Monday, September 24, 2012

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