The "Virtual Classroom": A New Frontier
Todayís accounting students face an environment
subject to change, and technological advances are greatly affecting the
ways in which they "get the job done" both before and after
graduation. Technology now offers students the opportunity to pick up
an extra course or two or even complete an entire degree without ever
setting foot on a university campus through the widely available "virtual
classroom". As a take-off on the concept of distance learning, the
"virtual classroom" is one in which an entire course is taken
via the Internet. Using this technology, students have virtually limitless
options regarding how, when, and where to take college courses. In addition
to the convenience of obtaining college credits in this manner, students
will also have the opportunity to vastly improve their computer skills
While this method of distance learning is expanding daily,
many students may be unaware of the opportunities. Those familiar with
the concept may have negative impressions of distance learning classes
and/or may not be aware of the advantages this type of learning might
offer. In this paper, we provide a definition of distance learning and
describe why this may be a viable option for obtaining college credits.
Next we discuss the qualities needed to be successful in a distance learning
environment, and, finally, we point to a variety of means in which an
interested student may locate an Internet course to suit his or her needs.
What is Distance Learning?
Distance learning, as defined by the United States Distance
Learning Association, is "the acquisition of knowledge and skills
through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies
and other forms of learning at a distance." Distance learning opportunities
are available for high school credit, continuing education credit for
most professions, and for college courses. The distance learning courses
may be classes taught in a number of different ways. For example, all
of the following situations would meet the definition of a distance learning
(1) a telecourse offered through a local public television
station at specified times (and more recent variations on telecourses,
offering students the option of either buying or renting copies of classroom
lecture tapes and watching them at their convenience),
(2) a classroom where students meet at a remote location
and receive a video transmission from a professor in a live classroom,
(3) a "virtual classroom" where lecture materials
are made available over the Internet and the primary means of communication
between the student and professor is via tools such as e-mail, web site
postings, web boards, and fax transmissions.
An Internet course may be strictly limited to materials
available on and communications made through the World Wide Web. However,
the courses more frequently include a combination of web communication,
supplemental textbooks and/or lecture tapes and videos. The student may
be required to attend an orientation session in which he or she actually
meets with the professor. Testing in such courses may be done in a variety
of ways also. While tests could be administered via e-mail, they will
more frequently be given at a proctor site at the university or with a
pre-approved proctor closer to the studentís vicinity. Whether or
not a particular student would benefit from taking one, several, or all
of their college courses in a "virtual classroom" is dependent
upon a variety of factors, and advantages and disadvantages associated
with this method are considered below.
Why Take An Internet Course?
Individual students will have specific reasons for considering
this venue; the most significant of which undoubtedly concerns proximity.
Proximity translates primarily to convenience. A student might prefer
to perform the work required for a course between 3 and 6 a.m. on a Sunday
as opposed to commuting to a university for an 8 a.m. class that meets
every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during a semester. The flexibility
is particularly important to students with a long commute, or those with
employment and family obligations. This type of flexibility might also
enable a student who is away from campus on an internship for an entire
semester to pick up additional course credits.
Another advantage to Internet courses is timeliness.
Many Internet courses are offered during regular semester terms, and in
these situations the student would be required to register for the course
by a specific deadline and prescribe to the normal drop date deadlines
and final examination schedules according to particular a universityís
calendar. Courses are also offered via the Internet during mini-messier
(between-semester) terms and some Internet courses offer continuous enrollment
and allow the student to progress according to his or her timetable.
Other issues involving whether or not to enroll in an Internet
course relate primarily to course content and quality. While many Internet
courses may be seen as offering an opportunity for an "easy"
grade, the courses are just as likely to be more difficult than a traditional
course. Courses offered through accredited institutions are likely to
have a high quality content and be monitored to ensure quality.
Success in Internet Courses
Reports vary on student reactions to Internet courses. While
some report dissatisfaction with the lack of opportunity to interact with
professors and other students, many report that they actually feel they
had more personal instruction from their professors through personal interaction
in e-mail letters, contact through web boards, and even frequent telephone
conversations. Because there is less, and sometimes virtually no, instructor-led
activity, the student must be more involved in directing his own learning.
The "virtual classroom" is basically a different
way of learning, consisting primarily of the studentís reading, problem
solving and self-directed research, which can be difficult for some students.
The following points have been found to add to the likelihood of studentís
- Be motivated to work and complete the course.
- Follow directions explicitly, as there is likely to be
only one opportunity to submit assignments.
- Keeping track of assignments, due dates and files by
developing strong organizational skills.
- Develop and maintain a strict time-line in order to
keep work progressing on target.
For the student who is willing to work toward these goals,
enrolling in an Internet course may be a solution to any number of problems
in completing a degree.
How to Find Internet Courses
Opportunities for taking courses in the "virtual
classroom" are increasing daily. To develop a grasp of the prevalence
of Internet course offerings, we examined web sites for a random sample
of 100 colleges and universities listed in Petersonís Four-Year Colleges
guide. We found just over 20% of the colleges offered some form of distance
learning classes over the Internet. Eight of these sampled colleges had
distance learning classes in business and three offered accounting courses.
While the majority of offerings were for basic introductory courses, we
found some schools with entire degree programs offered over the Internet.
While Internet courses are not readily available at all
colleges, locating a desired course offering should still just be a few
mouse clicks away. The search for a course to meet specific need can be
successful using a variety of avenues. One means would entail use of a
web search engine such as Yahoo or AltaVista using key words such as "distance
learning" or "virtual classroom." We attempted several
searches in this manner and found the list to be a fruitful way to begin
but yet rather exhaustive.
A more direct approach is likely to work better, and we
suggest students start by linking to different schools in which they may
have an interest. Interest should be dictated by factors such as reputation,
location, and cost. An accredited school is preferable and transferable
credits are requisite. Location will be important if exams are to be administered
at the campus or if the student is required to meet with the professor.
Cost is likely to be lower if the course is offered by a state-supported
university, and lower still for residents of the state. While locating
a particular course to fit oneís needs may take some time and effort;
the results should prove worthwhile.
Benefits of the "Virtual Classroom"
Working from a traditional office building from 9 to 5 is
increasingly being replaced by what is referred to todayís business
environment as the "virtual office." Almost all accountants
today use some form of the "virtual office", the arrangement
of which may vary. These situations may involve anything from e-mail messages
being sent from remote locations back to a primary office, to the concept
of "hoteling," where the accountant, working primarily from
home or client locations, rarely visits his "company office",
and must make reservations in advance to reserve office space as needed.
By taking a step backwards from the "virtual office" and preparing
students for how a large majority may ultimately be spending their careers,
the "virtual classroom" offers worthwhile opportunities not
only for completing required courses but to gain experience in use of
the computer and the Internet.
Donna Phillips Jackson, Ph.D., CPA
Jack Ethridge, Ph.D., CPA
Department of Accounting
Stephen F. Austin State University