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Setting the Course | Distance Learning

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Sarah Jones


Distance learning has come a long way. Once the domain of dubious “as seen on TV” correspondence courses promising diplomas in such arcane disciplines as air conditioning installation and VCR and gun repair, distance education has entered the mainstream. Today, institutions ranging from the Ivy Leagues to local K-12 programs offer virtual coursework on their Websites, iTunes, YouTube and Second Life. Originally designed for working adults, online courses are now a real component of every phase of “traditional” education, and for a generation brought up on the Internet, the transition is seamless. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 66 percent of post-secondary learning institutions offer distance learning programs, with 12.2 million enrollments in college-level credit-granting distance education courses in 2006-07.

The immediate benefits are obvious: Online courses offer flexibility and convenience; and students can usually log in anytime, anywhere. Classes are generally available on an affordable a la carte basis — and with the average yearly tuition at a four-year college creeping over $25,000, cost is certainly a consideration.

Distance learning works well for many, but not all, aspects of audio education, which has never followed a “one-size-fits-all” approach and — unlike age-old disciplines such as math, pure science and humanities — evolves quickly with technology. Critical listening is still the province of being in a good room, with a good set of ears, but students can learn advanced mixing techniques, composition and songwriting, and even complete gear certification through media-rich learning modules and live lectures, videoconferencing and active forum discussions.

Web-based audio curriculums are exploding: Berkleemusic.com, which is largely recognized as the pioneer of online audio education, leads the market with the world's largest catalog, offering more than 100 accredited courses and 30 certificate programs to more than 25,000 students in 90 countries. SAE recently launched an online school offering classes that range from hobbyist to the master's level. And Full Sail Online, which offers 12 complete-degree bachelor's and master's degree curricula, has expanded from 30 employees and 12 students in 2007 to 220 employees and 2,200 students in July 2009, with growth expected to double in the next year.

Beyond Classroom Walls

Distance learning is based largely on the idea that communication doesn't need to happen in real time, face to face to be meaningful. “I think that this notion that we all have to be in the same room together to learn is really a myopic view of what the learning experience can be,” says Luis Garcia, VP of Full Sail Online, which is slated to add 200 teachers to its program by next summer. “You don't have to be in the same room with an instructor telling you what's already in the book to be learning.”

Garcia notes that Full Sail was late to online education — for a reason. “Online education has been around for about 20 years, but it had really started as an extension course, correspondence education,” he explains. “We didn't think that the technology was there for us to deliver the type of quality education that we deliver on campus.” In 2005, the school decided that computers and bandwidth were fast enough. They launched a pilot program of a few courses for their on-campus students, and after two years offered their first online program. “Every two or three months, we launched two or three additional programs,” says Garcia. “Two years later, we offer 12 online programs.”

Full Sail's online degree offerings include Music Business, Entertainment Media Technology and Internet Marketing. Curricula are complete-degree programs. (Classes are not available individually.) As part of the tuition fee, which ranges from $28,000 to $54,000 for a complete-degree program, students are given a “Launchbox,” an Apple laptop outfitted with software suites tailored to their degree programs that will be the centerpiece of their learning experience. “The MacBook Pro is not only a powerful tool for media creation, content creation, but it is a powerful communication platform,” Garcia says.

At Berklee College of Music, distance learning tools are a far cry from the mail-in music theory correspondence courses the school offered back in the '50s, but the goals are the same: to connect Berklee's instructors and curricula with a global network of musicians. According to Debbie Cavalier, Berklee's Dean of Continuing Education, the scope and learning outcomes for Berkleemusic.com courses are similar to Berklee's face-to-face environment, but the path to get there is different. “We've structured our online courses to address many different learning modalities,” she says. “Text, audio, video, live chat, discussion board activities, Flash interactions and hands-on projects are all provided throughout the lessons to help students gain knowledge through their preferred learning style.”

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