Online education, the Next Big Thing

Although change has been rapid on the World Wide Web during the past three years, it has been slow compared with what is ahead.

This month's FedWeb 2000 conference at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., served notice to attendees about the convergence of voice, video, data and Web sites. Wearable computers, personal-area networks, computer-screen eyeglasses, personal TV and much more are about to accelerate the pace of change in our work environment and lifestyle.

Although each of us may not adopt every new development, the changes likely will have an influence on those with whom we associate and thereby affect us indirectly.

Two FedWeb presenters — James Kasprzak, professor of systems management at the Information Resources Management College at the National Defense University, and Rich Kellett, director of emerging IT policies at the General Services Administration — painted an enlightening portrait of future access to information. Some of the developments already exist in beta form.

Organizing and assimilating the cascade of information will be a challenge. As a result, training must be a normal part of a government employee's routine, just to remain current in one's specialty.

That's why online education is arriving none too soon. Government employees already have an array of courses to choose from. The Defense Department and several civilian agencies offer a wide variety of instruction. The Agriculture Department has begun a virtual university on food safety training. Colleges and universities are placing new emphasis on courses offered via the Internet. Even management guru Peter Drucker has created a series of online courses based on the college material he teaches at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. Accrediting agencies have begun to offer credit to certain courses and for earning a degree via the Web.

There are advantages to online training. It can be accessed at the convenience of the student. Teaching is more flexible than in a standard classroom. If the student doesn't understand a point, the item can be replayed, providing a one-to-one teacher-student ratio.

Links can provide instant access to additional information. Blending graphics with the instructor's voice is another advantage over the typical classroom presentation. Increased bandwidth and improvements offered by expansion of fiber-optic cable access will accommodate learning away from the workplace. Currently, courses that require a heavy dose of visual aids and video can be sent to learning centers and are often available on CD.

Estimates indicate that nearly half of all current employees are candidates for adult education, and that need will likely increase along with changes in technology and the workplace. But the traditional method of instruction within a bricks-and-mortar institution cannot meet this growing requirement for knowledge. Courses at colleges and universities are expensive, as is travel and lodging. Physical classroom space would be insufficient, and not all employees can be away from work or home for an extended period.

The requirement for continuing education likely will become a standard feature of life. It's a very large market that must be served well. Online education is the Next Big Thing.

—Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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