Distance Learning Essentials:
What is Distance Learning?
Distance Learning is learning takes place when the instructor and the learner are not in the same physical location. It can also take place if the instructor and the learner are in the same location but not at the same time. Today distance learning is carried out via a number of media ranging from postal mail to teleconferencing or the Internet.
Distance Learning or Distance Education?
"Distance Learning" (learner focus) and "distance education" (instructor focus) are often used as interchangeable terms. In reality, however, Learning is the result of Education.
Is Distance Learning Effective?
There really are two questions to be answered. First, the question asked above, Is it effective?. Second, is it as effective as traditional face-to-face instruction?
The answer to both of these questions is yes. Distance Learning can be effective, and it can be as effective as traditional instruction. However, how effective it is depends largely on the methods and technology used and their appropriateness in relation to the instructional tasks/objectives. Effectiveness is also affected by student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions. Not only is this true because of the needed exposure to new ideas and feedback but because of the affective dimension of learning.
What technology can be used in Distance Learning?
As we begin this segment let's not forget that more technology does not always result in better instruction. Initially print and the postal service were the mediums of instruction and resulted in incredibly successful distance learning projects. Today however, electronic technology greatly facilitates exchanges and adds unprecedented efficiency and interactivity.
In spite of how good each technology is, the best distance learning systems are not single technology systems. The best systems are those that merge a variety of technology to support the instruction. CD ROMs for interactive simulations, web for forum exchanges and up to the minute information, voice or videoconferencing for live exchanges, print for readings, and so on.
When you evaluate the technology be mindful of the "over selling" by vendors and others with vested interests. Don't adopt technology for the sake of it. Technology must meet your needs and meet the instructional objectives.
- Audio conferencing
- Radio broadcasts
- Two-way (shortwave) radio
- Recordings (analog or digital)
- Video recordings (analog and digital)
- Real-time video (one-way)
- Teleconferences (two-way)
- Computer-assisted instruction (CAI)
- Computer-managed instruction (CMI)
- Computer-mediated education (CME)
- Electronic mail
- Real-time computer conferencing
- World-Wide Web
- Study guides
- Course syllabi
- Journals and other printed media
Visual / Video
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous distance learning?
In the Synchronous modality media is used to facilitate "live" communication between learners or with the instructor. In the Asynchronous modality media is used to bridge time. To be clear, that means that even if the instructor and learner are at same location at different time, they are engaged in distance learning.
Examples of synchronous media used are interactive television, audiographics, computer conferencing, and live Internet chat.
Examples of asynchronous media used are video and audio recordings, e-mail, bulletin boards and listservs.
The Web can be used for asynchronous purposes such as accessing web page content, or synchronous as browser based interaction can take place in real time. In today's online courses is common to use both synchronous and asynchronous modalities to accomplish different objectives. This flexibility and being ubiquitous may account for the explosive growth of the web.
What are the advantages of synchronous learning?
Synchronous communication has the obvious advantage of providing immediate access and feedback from the instructor. This face-to-face (real or virtual) access to the instructor has a cost to the learning measured in commitment to a schedule and sometimes even to a location depending on the technology used. Synchronous communication is advantageous when the benefit of the "live" interaction is greater than the drawbacks of commitment to schedule and/or location.
What are the advantages of asynchronous learning?
Asynchronous communication has the advantage providing the learner and instructor with a choice of location and time. While it is this flexibility which is often the focus of interest, there are a number of hidden advantages to asynchronous communication.
The physical distance that is often seen by many as a disadvantage can have positive effects by making learners and instructors more objective, less fearful of comment or criticism, less prone to cultural barriers (especially as a world-wide online culture develops, and more inclined to think through problems before responding. It is the time for learners to reflect, and even check their facts, before responding to comments that I have found most valuable as it highly increased the level of the discourse.
Who should consider taking distance learning classes?
The first step in deciding to enroll in any educational experience is to outline why it is desirable. Why should the learner make all the effort, put in all the hours, go through expenses? What is the end goal or goals that will justify those things? Those unclear about their goals should not engage in educational or training as they will lack the motivation to succeed.
The second step, assuming there is a real need and desire to acquire new knowledge and/or skills, is to analyze the options, benefits, and disadvantages of different modalities. Distance learning is often desirable to those who have set lives with schedules and responsibilities toward work and family. But there might be other reasons to engage in non-traditional forms of instruction such as gaining access to instructors or learners outside our geographical reach.
If the learner concludes that either distance learning has an unparalleled advantage over other modalities OR, if constraints are such that no other modality is available or as efficient, then the learner should make use of distance learning.
What is different about distant teaching?
Traditional classroom teaching makes use of innumerable cues that flow seamlessly between the instructor and the students. These cure, while unobtrusive, are picked up consciously or unconsciously and provide invaluable information to the instructor that can keep adjusting on the fly.
When teaching via technology many of those cues are no longer available. Some that are available are either slower, more difficult to perceive, or take a different form. A good teacher will try to make up for these differences through course alterations, by finding different ways to obtain the needed feedback, and by using a different medium to capturing the otherwise transparent cues. This is what makes technology-mediated teaching a challenge.
The technology used will determine the level of difficulty. If videoconferencing is used, for example, the challenges might be less as it mimics the traditional classroom. Often all that is needed is to train the staff running the cameras to obtain many of the cues. When teaching via audiographic systems one can devise cues via the use of different color or symbol on a corner of the screen, for example, or by using icons available in such systems to convey meaning.
Who should consider teaching via distance learning?
Undoubtedly, teaching beyond the confines of four wall of a classroom poses a significant challenge. The challenge usually involves finding new ways, based on a new medium, to do what was always done in the classroom. Instructors that feel frustrated at working hard to find new ways of doing things should not venture into distance learning. However, for many instructors this is not only challenging but exciting and rewarding. Those willing to tackle new technology (almost always used now) and to use it creatively to impart knowledge and skills to learners should consider teaching via distance learning.
Distance learning can benefit the instructor by allowing him/her to replace the monotony of a traditional classroom with the excitement of a new medium. These instructors will find that new forms of learning develop with the new media. They will find that many of their assumptions were in fact incorrect, and that those things that they perceived as disadvantages can become assets.
Why should instructors consider distance teaching?
Typically, instructors teach via non-traditional modalities because they want to reach learners that would not otherwise be able to take their course or training. Instructors like to extend their reach beyond the local boundaries because it is rewarding but in doing so they find that it also benefits them. Not only they come in contact with those with different background and culture, but in learning how to teach at a distance they become better instructors themselves.
- Meet the needs of non-traditional students (working adults and others unable to access traditional education or training)
- Link learners across cultures, social, and economic divides.
- Have a broader reach.
How do instructors select a distance learning modality?
Selecting the approach should not done lightly as it holds the key to success or failure. Often those with access to certain technology force it upon the instruction without thought. There is a danger in this not only to the instructor but, more importantly, to the learner that might walk away from a class frustrated and with a negative view of technology mediated learning that might affect him for years to come.
The key is to always perform an analysis of the needs of the learner, the instruction, and the proposed medium for delivery. The question to ask is whether these three are in alignment, and whether the technology appropriately supports the learning objectives.
Rather that be repetitive here, I suggest you visit the ADDIE section of this site where information is provided in course design and matching technology to instructional needs.
How do learners select a distance learning modality?
Learners should first assess the level of their need and desire for the learning. They should only engage in distance learning if their desire is strong. Learners should also assess the availability of the course or training in the different modalities. They should ask themselves:
- Which modality offers the greatest schedule and location flexibility?
- Which modality offers access to the most resources?
- Which modality offers the most comfortable environment for discussion and critical thinking?
- Which modality better matches his/her learning style?
These basic questions should help as a self assessment of the modality that best suits their needs.