Every association I know of wants to do this," said Bonnie S. Wold, branch manager for Excel On-Line, a virtualand meeting Web site design firm based in Springfield, Ill. "Travel money is going away and staff reductions make it harder for professionals to leave their offices. "Distance learning on the Internet is a perfect application."
Bonnie Wold and Curtis Love There are, of course, a whole string of caveats that go along with Wold's "perfect application," which she enumerated during her presentation on distance learning at the METCON '98 conference at the Sheraton Gateway in Atlanta in April. Wold and co-presenter Curtis Love, vice president of education for the Professional Convention Management Association, discussed the practical aspects of online distance learning in the context of a case history--the launching of PCMA's distance learning program through its Web site, www.pcma.org.
In a separate presentation at METCON, J. Richard Gividen, president of Distance Learning Integrators, Inc. of Dale City, Va., spoke about the strategic implications of distance learning and the dangers of romancing the technology rather than the learner. Issues facing would-be offerers of distance learning, according to Gividen: * Distance learning on the Internet entails high initial fixed costs for development, but variable costs can be reduced to very little.
* Given current technology, the more interactive bells and whistles, the slower the response time.
* Fraudulent test-taking can be dealt with--at a price.
* At least one organization offering continuing medical education via the Internet says that while it has no evidence that distance-learning programs have helped increase attendance at meetings, it is clear that such courses have not hurt attendance.
The Adult-Learning Perspective From an adult-learning perspective, distance learning on the Internet has potential. Adult learners have three basic characteristics. First, they typically have other demands on their time--and education that can be accessed 24 hours a day is certainly convenient. Second, they want to participate in their own learning, and the Internet has the potential to meet that need through such devices as online chats among learners and teachers, electronic bulletin boards where messages can be posted and answered asynchronously (participants don't have to be at a site at the same time to hold a conversation), and e-mail messages. And third, of course, adult learners are looking for education that will help them solve real-life problems. Wold and Gividen noted that online distance learning guarantees only the first of these characteristics. The other two depend on the education provider.
"Technology does not equal success," said Gividen. "The correct application of technology leads to success."
Gividen also pointed out the critical importance of applying adult learning techniques in distance learning. "There's a saying from Anonymous that we're moving from a sage on the stage to a guide by the side," he said. "Teachers involved in distance learning must constantly seek feedback from learners, because the visual cues they depend on in traditional settings are not available."
Start with Needs Assessment The place to begin a distance-learning program for your organization is with a needs assessment. Any educator worth his or her salt knows that course planning begins that way, but so must technology planning, according to Gividen.
Gividen suggested that before beginning an all-out effort to produce education on the Internet, organizations consider existing options, including print ("It's the oldest form of distance learning. Don't count it out."), audiotape, videotape, and CD-ROM. Audiotape and videotape have the virtues of being relatively inexpensive to produce and familiar to most audiences. CD-ROM can be costly to develop, but has very low life-cycle and distribution costs.
Costs and the Browser Nightmare "The total cost per course on the World Wide Web is $33, compared to $212 for our course on paper," said Love during his presentation on PCMA's distance-learning program. The PCMA program is a refresher course for planners taking the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) examination. The organization decided to send course materials by mail, so the figure includes printing and mailing costs. The greatest savings, Love said, comes from automating the grading process.
The high initial investment in creating an online distance-learning program is the purchase of hardware, phone lines, and Internet access, according to Wold, and, she said, a result of the labor-intensive nature of software development.
"Designing pages that work in two browsers [Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer] is a nightmare," she said. "Bandwidth [the capacity of a wire or cable to handle information transmission] is still a big problem. The more interactive the software, the greater the bandwidth and memory needs. I designed PCMA's pages with few colors, no color screens, and no graphics."
Will It Hurt Attendance? The bottom line for conference organizers is whether distance learning is going to hurt meeting attendance. While there is no proof that it encourages attendance, there is some proof that it does not hurt. According to Charles E. Dyer II, of the Dannemiller Memorial Educational Foundation, based in San Antonio, Texas, "We've been offering distance learning on our Web site since April 1997," he says. "While we can't say that the programs have increased attendance at any of our regular meetings, we can definitely say there has been no negative effect on attendance." *