High technology and electronics are revolutionizing life and the workplace in many countries. In the United States, an increasingly high tech environment means jobs are in a constant state of change and job skills must be continuously updated. Long distance learning by computer and the Internet has become a valuable tool.
Flexibility has long been the Internet's biggest strength as an educational tool the ability it offers students to study at any time from any place.
Al Vitere, a Penn State University professor at the Smeal College of Business in Pennsylvania, who has watched electronic learning evolve over the last decade, says educators quickly discovered that flexibility was not enough.
"Most of the content that was developed early on was pretty much translating textbooks and work books and traditional classroom activity into something that was online," he says. "Very static, and a lot of reading and a lot of 'fill in the blanks.' "
As students lost interest, Al Vitere says, educators started thinking more creatively about what it was that made people learn.
"Part of our ability to learn is based on our motivation, being excited and engaged. We also learned that we have to have interaction around the ideas. We need to express an opinion and have people react to it, and so we've got to build that into the learning experience," he says.
Increasingly, online learning centers today are using computer software that enables students to interact.
Take the University of Phoenix in Arizona, for example. The largest U.S. online center, it offers working adults accredited degrees in technology, business, nursing or education.
Spokesman Brian Mueller says the latest online courses are about 5 weeks long, limited to around 10 students, and are highly interactive.
"The students get to know their fellow students and instructor better than they would in a traditional course," explains Mr. Mueller. "A group discussion takes place every day of the week. They have to participate five out of seven days. And at any point in the week, if they have difficulty with any concept, they have contact with their instructor."
Mr. Mueller says the University of Phoenix course work is specifically designed for workers who want to upgrade skills.
"We want a theoretical foundation for the coursework, but we want to move students into making application of that theory to a real world work setting in every course that a student takes. That's what keeps working adults interested, motivated," he says.
As online learning has advanced, its popularity has increased dramatically. The University of Phoenix has seen its online enrollment increase 150 percent in the last year alone, to more 30,000 online students from 40 different countries around the world.