What is Distance Learning?
This self tutorial provides an overview of distance learning for adult basic educators. It is organized in seven modules —
- Introduction to Distance Learning
- The History of Distance Learning
- California Considerations (with particular interest to California adult schools)
- Distance Learning Design
- Planning and Administration
- Distance Learning Evaluation
- Distance Learning Online
The tutorial draws much of its information from the California adult basic education distance learning experience since 1995. While the statewide experience has its limitations, it is the largest state program by far, serving over 50,000 documented students in 2003 – 2004. California also has access to distance learning learner and provider data from a standardized statewide set of data for English as a second language (ESL), adult basic education, and GED / adult secondary education students. It enables researchers and policy makers to examine the effectiveness and equity of the state supported distance learning intervention.
Distance Learning Defined
The California Distance Learning Project (CDLP) defines distance learning as follows. "Distance Learning (DL) is an instructional delivery system that connects learners with educational resources. DL provides educational access to learners not enrolled in educational institutions and can augment the learning opportunities of current students. The implementation of DL is a process that uses available resources and will evolve to incorporate emerging technologies."
Several key features define distance learning. The importance of the teacher — learner communications cannot be overstated.
- the separation of teacher and learner during at least a majority of each instructional process
- separation of teacher and learner in space and/or time
- the use of educational media to unite teacher and learner and carry course content
- the provision of two-way communication between teacher, tutor, or educational agency and learner, and
- control of the learning pace by the student rather than the distance instructor.
These definitions apply equally to high tech and low tech approaches to distance learning. The multiple distance learning definitions and other terminology is addressed in the tutorial.
Distance Learning Effectiveness
California research shows that the adult schools' Innovation Programs meet the three crucial benefit–cost criteria necessary to be accepted by adult education providers and the California Department of Education. These programs are effective, efficient, and equitable. The annual research can be found on the California Distance Learning Project's Web site. Click on "For Adult Educators" and then "Research."
In California adult schools are reimbursed for student participation based on seat time or average daily attendance (a.d.a.). In the distance learning programs the equivalent hours per unit of instruction or module for a comparable classroom course are determined. In order to gain credit and a.d.a. the distance learning student must complete a unit of instruction and then pass a comprehension test or exercise before the a.d.a. is claimed, and the student advances to the next assignment. This outcomes based model rewards student performance, not the amount of time a student spends in a seat.
Types of Distance Learning
There are two distance education delivery system categories - synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction requires the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. The advantage of synchronous instruction is that interaction is done in "real time" and has an immediacy. Examples include interactive telecourses, teleconferencing and web conferencing, and Internet chats.
Asynchronous instruction does not require the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. Students do not need to be gathered together in the same location at the same time. Rather, students may choose their own instructional time frame and interact with the learning materials and instructor according to their schedules. Asynchronous instruction is more flexible than synchronous instruction, but experience shows that time limits are necessary to maintain focus and participation. The self-paced format accommodates multiple learning levels and schedules. Examples of asynchronous delivery include e-mail, listservs, audiocassette courses, videotaped courses, correspondence courses, and WWW-based courses.
The following figure summarizes the most popular California distance learning approaches approved for 2005 - 2006. Video checkout is by far the most popular. Text materials, workbooks, and study packets are used alone and with other instructional media.
From Low Tech to the Internet
The next hurdle for adult basic education distance learning will be to transition from a low tech video based instructional system to the interactive Internet. In our judgment the interactivity, depth and breadth of the instructional content, and the student – teacher communications provide a richer learning experience than the more passive video and print materials experience that is the current norm. This is precluded by several significant challenges, and the absence of current research supporting the viability of the Internet's effectiveness with adult basic education learners.
The availability of course length ESL video based instructional materials spurred the initial growth of adult basic distance learning in California. It is impractical to expect a profession of mostly part time teachers to be able to develop their own course length learning content. The California Distance Learning Project staff expects that the growing availability of online course length materials will likewise stimulate the transition to the Internet. One example of the popularity of an online course curriculum is English for All (EFA). This high beginning ESL Web site had over 213,700 visitors in 2005, of whom 65,319 were unique and 19,528 were persons visiting more than once.
Adult basic education classroom instructors are likely to increase their use of the Internet to supplement instruction. The cornucopia of online materials makes this easy to do. However, growing the availability of the Internet centered course length curricula for adult basic learners that include learning management systems (LMS) and communications tools will require commercial, state, university, and non–profit resources. Unfortunately, this is not a profitable development niche, and the development will require underwriting and public support. It will slowly emerge over the next 10 years.