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
Adult Basic Instruction Delivered Through the Internet
Features of Internet Delivered Instruction
Distance learning takes place when a teacher and the students are separated by physical distance, and media and / or technology (i.e., voice, video, data, and/or print) are used to bridge the instructional gap. Online education refers to any form of learning/ teaching that takes place via a computer network. Physically, the computer network could be a local area network (LAN), an intranet within a particular organization, a wide area network (WAN), or it could be the global Internet and World Wide Web. Whatever the connection, the teacher and students share a common link through communication lines. This is often referred to as elearning.
Elearning has two adult basic education audiences – professional development and anytime student instruction. The professional development provides tutoring and continuing education services to the adult education field. Online learning should increase substantially over the next few years for "just in time" types of information related to grants and new initiatives and on going professional development. ABE, ESL, GED, high school subjects and career education modules and courses are being delivered over the Internet. The course length instructional resources are slowly becoming available. However, few California organizations and staff have initiated online learning.
The most common function used in online education is electronic mail (email) that allows students and teachers to send messages and file attachments to each other. In addition, web conferencing capabilities let participants conduct multi–person discussions either in real–time (often called "chats") or on a delayed basis (asynchronous). There are also groupware" programs designed to facilitate the work of groups. This technology may be used to communicate, cooperate, coordinate, solve problems, compete, or negotiate. Online education also involves access to databases in the form of text files or multimedia web pages, as well as the exchange of information (e.g., assignments, course materials) via file transfers.
Elearning is richest when students enroll in a course at about the same time. This managed enrollment enables the teacher to use the associated communications tools to permit student to student communication as well as two way teacher – student communications.
Delivery Models of Internet Instruction
The key to effective distance education is focusing on the needs of the learners, the requirements of the instructional content, and the constraints faced by the teacher, before selecting a delivery system. Typically, this systematic approach will result in a mix of media, each serving a specific purpose. For example:
- A strong print component can provide much of the basic instructional content in the form of a course text, as well as assigned readings, the syllabus, and day–to–day schedule.
- Interactive audio or video conferencing can provide real time face–to–face (or voice–to–voice) interaction. This is also an excellent and cost–effective way to incorporate guest speakers and content experts. The real time delivery also can be saved and streamed on demand for the asynchronous learner.
- Web conferencing, chat, and electronic mail can be used to send messages, assignment feedback, and other targeted communication to one or more class members. It can also be used to increase interaction among students.
- Pre–recorded video tapes can be used to present class lectures and visually oriented content.
- Simulations and interactive group learning games will be added to the mix as bandwidth increases.
Using a student centered approach, the educator's task is to carefully select among the technological options. The goal is to build a mix of instructional media, meeting the needs of the learner in a manner that is instructionally effective and economically prudent.
Pros and Cons of Internet Instruction
Learning and teaching online is much different than a traditional classroom experience even when used as part of a conventional class. Since most communication takes place via written messages (or files), writing skill and the ability to put thoughts into words are paramount. People who have poor writing skills may be at a disadvantage in an online environment. On the other hand, having to write everything gives people a chance to think about their responses, especially in an asynchronous setting, where the student does not need to respond immediately. One benefit of any class involving Internet instruction is plenty of practice writing, often resulting in improved communication skills. For many learners, this outcome is just as important as the subject matter being learned.
Asynchronous Internet instruction also changes the social dynamics of education — putting everyone (students and teachers) on equal footing. Under usual circumstances, everyone can post messages, so each online participant has the same opportunity to contribute ideas or comments. Consider the situation of the WWW; a web page or site created by a high school student has exactly the same accessibility as one created by a college professor. Similarly, anyone on the Internet can send a message to anyone else, regardless of who they are.
An important implication of this change in the status quo is that the teacher does not automatically command a presence in an online environment. There is no counterpart to standing at the front of the classroom pontificating to a captured audience until the bell rings. In online education, the instructor must adopt a role as facilitator or moderator — someone who encourages participation and keeps discussions focused on certain topics. As it turns out this is a much more difficult task than conventional classroom teaching which basically involves presentation of material.
There is another interesting aspect of the egalitarian nature of Internet instruction. It minimizes discrimination and prejudice that arises naturally in face–to–face settings. Unless someone deliberately reveals it, the viewer has no idea about the age, gender, ethnic background, physical characteristics or disabilities of participants in an online class. The discussions and comments that ensue in an online class are about as free of socio–cultural bias as possible. Of course, if people post photos or video clips of themselves, this bias–free element is diminished, but actual interaction is still relatively unencumbered. As desktop videoconferencing becomes more common many of the current characteristics of online interaction will change since this adds the "face–to–face" element back into the equation.
Finally, it is important to note that people react differently to Internet instruction — and participate differently — based upon their personalities and interests. Some people feel quite comfortable joining in and initiating email discussions, whereas others prefer to just read everyone else's messages, but not participate actively themselves. Teachers and students in online classes need to be tolerant of different levels and styles of participation.
Misconceptions of Elearning
People who have little or no experience with online learning or teaching may harbor some misconceptions which are quickly cleared up after actual participation in online classes. The most common misconception is that online classes will be fairly sterile and impersonal. But once a person starts to interact with other group members, they quickly discover that an online learning environment can be very rich and very personal. Participants often establish online friendships which outlast the particular class. Furthermore, people typically find that they are drawn into the subject matter of the class much more deeply than in a traditional course because of the discussions they get involved in.
A second misconception is that online education is only for people with a lot of experience with computers. It is true that the user should have some minimal computer skills to participate in Internet instruction, but it is not necessary to know very much about computers. On the other hand, the learner needs convenient access to a properly equipped computer system and broadband Internet access in order to participate regularly in an online class.
Another common misconception is that online classes will be easy — easier than conventional classes. But almost all participants report that they find online classes much more work — and much more rewarding — than traditional courses they have taken. Again, this has to do with the amount of thought about the subject matter that results from online discussions. Such classes also require the self–discipline to do the preparation required for online participation and activities — homework is homework, whether online or offline.
Finally it should be mentioned that almost any form of assessment or evaluation is possible with online classes. Teachers can do traditional quizzes or tests with multiple choice questions or problems to be solved if desired; they can even be done with time limits. However, it seems that assignments and projects that involve critical thinking, creativity, problem–solving and group discussion/interaction are more appropriate for online education. Portfolio methods that involve journals or work samples are also ideal for Internet instruction especially when the web is used since they can include multimedia components.
The question of cheating always comes up with any form of online education since online activity is normally done in an unsupervised setting. To the extent that assessment involves assignments or projects unique to a given individual (or done in a team or group context), this is not likely to be a problem. Tests can also be made unique for each person – or they can be conducted in a supervised (proctored) environment (like a library or learning center) if really necessary. Basically, if people are going to cheat, they will find a way, online or not.
Assessing group performance in an online setting is a little more difficult than evaluating individual efforts – particularly when people do team projects with a single outcome representing the collective work of the group. Note that this is just as true in traditional classroom settings. However, it is possible to have the contribution of each team member identified and perhaps background work shown in Appendices or attached files or web page links.
Course Development and Communications Tools
There are multiple technologies available for use in distance education. Most often they are used in combination with each other. There may be one or more primary delivery methods, supplemented by one or more additional technologies. For example, the primary delivery mode may be audio, with print–and computer–based support materials.
The increasing number of online options and features can make it difficult for instructors and course designers to determine which functions should be used for what aspects of a course. For example, what is the best use of synchronous (real–time chats or teleconferences) versus asynchronous conferencing (forums, listservs) for a given class?
When is an audio/video link needed, or a slide–sharing/whiteboard feature? Because there are so many programs available now for Internet instruction; it is difficult to evaluate them and decide which ones to use. Using the content developed, decide on an appropriate method to get the message across. Consider how the audience learns. Some examples include small and large group instruction, self–study, discussion, forums, seminars, problem solving, demonstration, tours, or a combination of any of these methods. Although many of these methods may seem traditional, these techniques can be used in new ways. For example: a video tour of a facility, an online discussion group, or local site discussion groups.
An important step is to select the delivery or access method. Selecting the primary delivery method must be done while keeping in mind the stated objectives and the instructional method selected. A benefit of this process is the opportunity to make decisions about delivery. For some groups, a distance delivery may be inappropriate. If dissemination of information is the primary goal, a news release or media campaign may do the best job.
Points to consider when determining the technology to use are:
- If a technology is selected as a primary delivery method, first be sure that learners have ready access to the technology.
- Carefully consider why it was chosen. For example, if there is a need to show a concept, a form of video or still pictures may be appropriate.
- Consider how the technology fits the way the audience prefers to get information. If the audience prefers self–instruction, a computer–based tutorial with supporting materials may be most appropriate.
- Often, other technologies may be used to support the primary delivery method. For example, an instructional packet with audiotapes and printed materials may supplement a satellite broadcast.
- Review the content in light of the planned delivery medium. Can the audience achieve the objectives using this technology? Are some of the examples and key messages inappropriate with this technology?
- Decide the level of interaction expected in this project. You may choose an electronic discussion group for large groups who can't get together at one time; an audio conference for small groups who prefer real–time interaction.
At the same time many adult basic education teachers are part time and do not have the luxury of sorting through a wide set of choices. They are likely to use delivery tools and instructional content that have been tested by early adoptors.
Tools for the Educator
Learning Management Systems
Most online programs use learning management systems (LMS) or course management systems (CMS) that incorporate course management, content, hyperlinks, email and chat communications, and grading systems. A learning management system (LMS) is a software application or Web–based technology used to plan, implement, and assess a specific learning process. Typically, a learning management system provides an instructor with a way to create and deliver content, monitor student participation, and assess student performance. A learning management system may also provide students with the ability to use interactive features such as threaded discussions, personal home pages, video conferencing, and discussion forums.
Key to these development efforts is the creation of international standards for elearning. The Advanced Distance Learning group, sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, has created a set of specifications called the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) to encourage the standardization of learning management systems.
Blackboard is the leading LMS commercial vendor. Recently open source LMS have become widely available, making the management of online courses more affordable to the technology savvy. See Moodle, Sakai and Nicenet for examples. Also the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative provides open source course management tools.
Designing Online Courses
nstructional design is addressed in a separate unit. There are several good resources to assist in course design. They include a University of Pittsburgh compendium of resources Instructional Design for Online Learning and Florida's Gulf Coast University's Instructional Design Guidelines. The success in most online learning is based in large part on the quality of the communications between the teacher and learner (one to one) and the learners (one to many and many to many).
The changes in the classroom social dynamic brought about by online education can be quite profound. Online classes emphasize social interaction among the participants and reduces the authoritarian role of the teacher or subject matter expert. Learners will need to get used to working in online teams/groups. Teachers must get used to fulfilling the role of facilitator/moderator in which they have to cultivate both personal and group participation. And assessment techniques need to move away from standardized testing only to include projects, assignments, and case studies.
As elearning continues to evolve, some of the current topics and questions in the field are:
- Supportive infrastructure – How can educators create an environment for distance learners that provide the support that they require to succeed?
- Quality teacher development/support – Teaching at a distance is different from traditional teaching. How can faculty be best prepared? Likewise online learning is different from other distance learning. What is the best way to broaden instructional capacities?
- Student development – Students need new and different skills to succeed in distance education.
- Textbooks – Print resources have always been a fixture in distance education, but how can they be improved and targeted for the learner?
- Education through multiple options – How can a blend of technologies and programs best benefit student centered learning strategies?
- Competitive education market – Because of the proliferation of telecommunications and web–based programs, distance education is available from a variety of providers that can create competition in a field formerly defined by geographic regions. This poses policy and instructional delivery challenges.
- Learning objects – What are the best ways to create and share reuseable learning modules? Will they substantially impact how elearning is designed and delivered?
- Curriculum–driven technology decisions – The focus is shifting away from available technology and towards content as the linchpin for distance education delivery mechanism decisions.
- Focus on faculty, staff and learner development – There is a growing recognition that distance education programs must prepare everyone involved in the learning enterprise for maximum efficacy.
- How will more robust Internet access stimulate and change elearning? Internet 2 or UCAID (University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development) is a non–profit consortium which develops and deploys advanced network applications and technologies, mostly for high–speed data transfer. One initiative – The National Internet2 K-20 Initiative brings together Internet2 member institutions and innovators from primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, libraries, and museums to extend new technologies, applications, source, and content to all educational sectors, as quickly and connectedly as possible.
- A new term – mobile learning or mlearning – has appeared that applies to learning on cell phone, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other handheld computing devices. Internet software can readily translate content to these portable devices. Will mlearning have a role in distance learning in the near future?
- Web logs or blogs are quite popular. A weblog is a newsletter or personal journal that is frequently updated and intended for general public consumption. Blog writers can be influential as a new form of personal journalism. Their impacts have not been seen in adult basic education or adult basic distance and distributed learning.
- Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is an Internet format designed for sharing headlines and other Web content. This evolving tool and RSS readers can read and update the changing information. It is popular with commercial blogs. "The technology of RSS allows Internet users to subscribe to web sites that have provided RSS feeds; these are typically sites that change or add content regularly. To use this technology, site owners create or obtain specialized software (such as a content management system) which, in the machine–readable XML format, presents new articles in a list, giving a line or two of each article and a link to the full article or post. Unlike subscriptions to many printed newspapers and magazines, most RSS subscriptions are free." (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Everyone who experiences online education realizes that this is the beginning of a new paradigm for learning and teaching. It is a disruptive technology.