UC Geographer Questions If Distance Really Matters in Distance Education

Distance education’s biggest appeal may be convenience, rather than closing distance, suggests a study by University of Cincinnati geographer Tony H. Grubesic and a colleague.

Grubesic, assistant professor of geography in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, and Daniel G. Oliver of the Ohio State University, analyzed distance education enrollments in the 38-campus Virginia Community College System (VCCS), using data from the 1999-2000 school year. They randomly sampled about 15,000 out of the 28,510 VCCS distance education students enrolled in at least one course.

Although distance education has been regarded as a way to give higher education access to students who reside far from a college or university, the students in the VCCS, on the whole, stuck close to home. Grubesic and Oliver used a sophisticated spatial analysis and computerized mapping technology called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map students’ locations and their schools of choice.

Although students may enroll in distance education courses at any of the VCCS campuses, the majority of distance education students are gravitating toward their nearest campus, regardless of its location (urban or rural).

In part, the researchers warned, this choice can be attributed to the requirement for several on-campus visits for most distance education students. But their analysis suggests that the convenience of distance education is important.

“I was a little surprised in the fact there were so many students who lived so close to campus that were taking distance education classes,” says Grubesic. “It’s a temporal convenience issue. Distance education frees students from the time constraints typically associated with classroom visits.  In other words, they don’t want to have to leave their homes to go to class at a specific time. Many of the students pursuing an associate’s degree at a community college are working full-time jobs and are trying to balance school with work and family.”

The disconnection between distance education and distance becomes more apparent from another of the researchers’ findings. Their analysis suggests an average reduction in distance education student participation as distance increases between students and campus locations - up to 25 miles. “This seems in direct contradiction to the underlying premise of distance education,” the researchers say. After 25 miles, however, participation increases again.

Virginia was selected for the study because of its geographic, demographic and socioeconomic diversity, Grubesic says. They are researching distance education because it has become such an important issue in higher education.

The most recent statistics available from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that nearly 34 percent of postsecondary institutions in the United States offered distance education programs, and the number keeps growing. In short, it is becoming “big business.”

The study appears in the May issue of Southeastern Geographer. The researchers would like to continue their research by examining the digital divide and its impact on distance education, as well as private institutions offering distance education.

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