Urban schools can use computer technology to create successful distance learning programs that serve the needs of teachers, students, and collaborative partners, according to these two Columbia University Teachers College professors.

Creating successful programs starts by identifying the educational goals of the institution and the needs of its students. At urban schools, which often have limited resources, the importance of coordinating policy, procedure, and programming before starting the distance learning program cannot be overstated. This front-end effort will help to identify the program’s need (whether perceived or real), and this need will spur many of the stakeholders to participate. Having a leader, a driving force behind the program, usually is critical to surmounting the many initial hurdles towards inception.

Administrators or teachers who want to create a distance learning program should ask themselves some hard questions at the start, say experts. Among the questions are: What is the budget? How will students and educators be evaluated? Can partners (academic, business, or government) be involved? What type of telecommunications media will be used (internet is the slowest, but the least costly)? Who will solve the technical problems that inevitably occur? Can we create compelling, quality content or tailor existing programs to our students’ needs?

Once underway, the program cannot be undermined by pulling back on promised resources for equipment or staffing. Nor can students be told that they will receive different degrees or credits for completing the same coursework. Designating a person to work on marketing the program to the participating institution(s) and partners, as well as to the outside world, is important in maintaining momentum and enthusiasm.

When these programs are well-designed and well-implemented, research indicates that students participate more actively in their education and they learn better. But while improved education may be the most obvious target goal, the authors point out that a New York State Distance Learning Consortium study (http://www.nysdlc.org/whiteppr.shtml) found many other benefits, too:

• Reduced prejudice on the part of students from diverse backgrounds who are suddenly working together;

• At-risk, special education and English language learners can participate in class to a degree not usually achievable in a traditional classroom;

• The Hawthorne Effect—i.e., performance and conduct exceed expectations.

For information about distance learning projects that are considered successful, the authors recommend contacting the TEAMS Project in Los Angeles, designed for K-8 students (http://TEAMS.lacoe.edu), and the Learning Cafe, which provides at-risk youth in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a chance to take high school and college-level courses over the internet.