There's a good article in Times Higher Education on the future of distance learning, Coming to a screen near you. It discusses the growth in distance learning in the UK and the increasing use of Web 2.0 tools in higher education. The net is a prerequisite to most university education today with both campus and distance courses making increasing use of podcasted lectures, video feedback, social networks, mobile learning and meetings in Second Life.
Whilst students clearly value face-to-face contact they also expect to be able to access course material and to participate in on-line discussion.
"Students have increasing expectations about the use of technology on campus, but importantly they continue to value face-to-face contact. It's not a question of removing face-to-face contact, it's about developing a broader and richer mix. I don't see any evidence at all of lessening demand for campus-based institutions."
The big problem just now is the lack of solid research into evaluating the success of new technologies in education. There is, of course, research in progress but it needs to reach a critical level in order to gain full credibility. At the same time I wonder how much research is available into the effectiveness of, say, paper, pencils, whiteboards or lectures in the learning process.
We should see modern net-based tools as complements or improvement on traditional tools. You don't learn more just because you use a particular tool (analogue or digital), learning is the process going on in your head. The tools can aid that process and provide alternative paths to more effective learning. All the technology in the world, however, will not help you learn unless you have the necessary motivation, enthusiasm and curiosity. Those qualities cannot be downloaded.