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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 class:

(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, or,

(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 success:

  • 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
Assistant Professor

Jack Ethridge, Ph.D., CPA
Department of Accounting

Stephen F. Austin State University
Nacogdoches, Texas

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