What is Distance Learning?
- 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
This online document presents an overview of distance learning as it applies to adult basic education. It is designed for administrators, teachers, and resource persons seeking general or specific information on the history, state of the art, and practical resources. The California Distance Learning Project (CDLP) welcomes your comments and suggestions. Please send them to Dennis Porter.
Introduction to Distance Learning
Distance learning traditionally has provided access to instructional programs for students who are separated by time and/or physical location from an instructor. Distance learning has been thought of as prepackaged text, audio, and/or video courses taken by an isolated learner with limited interaction with an instructor or other students. This perspective is changing. Today information technologies and the Internet can allow rich interactive distance learning experiences that may surpass the interactivity of a traditional classroom.
Distance learning can be provided in several contexts including stand alone distance learning, blended learning where the student participates in a regular class and distance learning class concurrently, and hybrid learning where distance learning supplements classroom instruction.
Learning is defined as "the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skill." Learning is the preferred term rather than education that is generally defined as the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by the learning process. However educators often use the terms interchangeably.
Distance learning is conventionally defined as... "any educational or learning process or system in which the teacher and instructor are separated geographically or in time from his or her students; or in which students are separated from other students or educational resources. Contemporary distance learning is effected through the implementation of computer and electronics technology to connect teacher and student in either real or delayed time or on an as-needed basis. Content delivery may be achieved through a variety of technologies, including satellites, computers, cable television, interactive video, electronic transmissions via telephone lines, and others. Distance learning does not preclude traditional learning processes; frequently it is used in conjunction with in-person classroom or professional training procedures and practices. It is also called distributed learning."
The California Distance Learning Project (CDLP) uses the following definition:
"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."
This definition was developed in 1997 by a workgroup of adult educators.
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. Having the appropriate, enthusiastic, and qualified staff is a make or break requirement.
Two 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 main 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 advantages of asynchronous delivery include student choice of location and time, and interaction opportunities among the students as well as the instructor. One disadvantage is that self paced instruction places a substantial burden on the student to maintain interest, focus, and pace. This motivation can be difficult to sustain.
Three elements are of paramount importance to any successful distance education program:
- instructional design
Support is often undervalued in design and implementation. Technology implementation studies show that teacher preparation and ongoing support are undervalued.
Why Distance Learning?
Distance education increases access to learning opportunities. Well organized distance learning accommodates multiple learning styles. Distance learning serves learners who are not likely to attend traditional classroom instruction (effectiveness). In some cases it can serve as many or more learners per dollar spent (efficiency). California research continues to show that it can attract and serve lower level learners (equity).
Adult life for many is complex and demanding. Many adults are unable to or unwilling to attend traditional adult education schools and classrooms for many reasons including:
- having work and family obligations that make attending a regular class time difficult,
learning more effectively from video, audio, and web–based media when moving at their own pace.
- experiencing the dearth of public transportation systems in many parts of the state,
needing more practice of skills to achieve mastery.
- living in locations without convenient access to traditional classes, and/or
- lacking the full confidence to participate in a large classroom setting in front of other students.
People who can't attend traditional classes because of these realities need alternatives. These adults are prime targets for distance learning. They are motivated to continue their education, but limited by circumstances as to how they participate in adult basic education. Flexible learning approaches that are not classroom centered appeal to these potential learners.
Questions are raised whether lower literacy learners benefit from the rich opportunities emerging with distributed Internet instruction? This is the well known digital divide. While the Internet broadband access is available in schools, libraries, and community centers, it still may not be available in some homes. The CDLP encourages adult education programs that are considering including Internet delivered instruction to survey its learners about their home access to computers and the Internet.
In the past most adult learners had videotape players (VCRs) or access to them. This is why video delivered instruction has been so popular in California. Now the same popularity and increased instructional functionality is being provided via digital video disks (DVDs). One challenge for adult educators is to transition to interactive Internet based instruction that offers a much richer palate of learning materials, communications, and testing possibilities.
Distance Learning: Basic Assumptions
The following set of common assumptions was developed for the California Distance Learning Project by a 21 person resource team. It was developed to help guide collective thinking and discussions about distance learning policies and priorities.
- Anytime, any place, any pace instruction is one goal for California adult education.
- Faced with an increasingly competitive global market, California, a state of immigrants, will look to adult education to play a key role in developing and maintaining a world class workforce.
- The potential demand for adult basic education services in California far outstrips the supply. New methods must be found to effectively and efficiently reach out and serve more adult learners.
- Distance learning provides access for learners not presently served in traditional settings and enhances learning opportunities for those not being served in traditional programs.
- Distance learning should be used as a strategic tool to support individual institutional missions. However, there are institutional structures and cultures that do not foster an environment where distance learning can be easily utilized.
- Distance learning offers unique opportunities for adult schools to provide access to persons not otherwise served; and thus has the potential to continue to expand adult education in new ways.
- Distance learning often requires resource sharing and collaboration among providers. It can be enhanced by many kinds of partnerships.
- Distance learning, incorporating emerging information technologies, provides both an opportunity and a challenge to adult schools in expanding their missions and services.
- Distance learning is most effective when staff, along with learners, acquire new knowledge and skills. Thus, on–going staff development must be an essential part of the distance learning development process.
These principles assume that the practice of distance learning contributes to the larger social mission of education and training in a democratic society. With that in mind, the principles reflect the following tenets and values:
- Learning is a lifelong process, important to successful participation in the social, cultural, civic, and economic life of a democratic society.
- Lifelong learning involves the development of a range of learning skills and behaviors that should be explicit outcomes of learning activities.
- The diversity of learners, learning needs, learning contexts, and modes of learning must be recognized if the learning activities are to achieve their goals.
- All members of society have the right to access learning opportunities that provide the means for effective participation in society.
- Participation in a learning society involves both rights and responsibilities for learners, providers, and those charged with the oversight of learning.
- Because learning is social and sensitive to context, learning experiences should support interaction and the development of learning communities, whether social, public, or professional.
- The development of a learning society may require significant changes in the roles, responsibilities, and activities of provider organizations and personnel as well as of the learners themselves.
[Quoted from the American Council on Education’s "Guiding Principles for Distance Learning in a Learning Society"]
Types of Distance Learning
Distance learning is a modality - a broad, mixed category of methods to deliver learning. The types can be organized along several descriptive dimensions. Low tech to high tech is useful in the adult basic education field. Remember, however, that these individual types can be mixed into hybrid forms. The following table outlines the most popular types of distance learning by their characteristics and notable features.
|Audiotape||Audio learning tool, very mobile and inexpensive when combined with print materials.||Useful in language learning and practice as well as literature. Linear format.|
|Videotape in VHS and DVD formats||Visual and audio tool; the checkout approach with print materials is very popular in California.||Multi-sensory tool with linear delivery format.|
|Laptop computer checkout||Versatile approach to providing a wide range of learning activities from skill and drill to simulations.||Hardware is expensive and being replaced by less expensive Internet delivery.|
|Mobile van / lab||Resources taken to the learners, useful for work site learning and reaching parents at elementary schools. Van learning.||Historically useful way to distribute videos, audiotapes, DVDs, and other learning tools, but it can be expensive to operate. It is less and less popular as distributed learning increases.|
|Radio course||Low cost way to reach ESL learners. Ideally it should be used by more learning providers.||The radio course must include ways for learners to interact with the instructor. Phone call in during or after air time could be integrated into the programming.|
|Telecourse||Delivery over television, usually a cable public access channel or school owned channel.||The telecourse must include ways for learners to interact with the instructor. Phone call in is popular. Print materials accompany on-air instruction.|
|Videoconference Two way interactive video||Electronic communications among people at separate locations. Can be audio, audio graphic, video or computer based.||Often uses proprietary software and consequently expensive. Internet models and broadband communications are making it more affordable and accessible.|
|Asynchronous text files and attachments.||Good tool to stimulate learning, writing, and communications skills.|
|Internet||Instructionally delivery over the Internet, either learning modules or entire courses.||
Instructional learning systems permit teachers to create, manage, communicate with, and test students online. The interactivity and ability to hyperlink to worldwide learning resources are extremely attractive. Improved broadband communications are enabling the effective use of video and synchronous communications.
Chat and asynchronous communications facilitate links between the teacher and learner and among the learners.
The medium for instructional delivery usually defines the type. It is generally assumed that print materials can and should be integrated with the other media.