Confession: This Post is for a Graduate Class Assignment

Just wanted to provide full disclosure on why I’m all of a sudden writing about distance learning. This is my first week in the course titled “Foundations of Distance Learning,” and for our Sunday project assignment, I was asked to discuss my definition of distance learning and how that definition has evolved through interacting with our course resources.

This course is interesting in that we seem to be doing a bit of form follows function. As we learn through a distance learning course, we examine the practice of distance learning as well as the research, theory, and future of it as an educational model. I entered this course with mixed feelings about distance learning. Walden’s graduate program was my first experience with any kind of online class, and I have found that although I love the convenience of doing my work when it fits into my schedule (I wish it was actually as easy as that sounds–I find myself saying “no” to a lot more these days to sit in front of my computer and pound out discussion posts and projects), I also terribly miss the animated and instant discussions that can happen in a face to face class. I miss knowing professors and classmates beyond their sentence structure, syntax and grammatical errors (hey–we all have them!), and most of all, I miss having more to class than reading and writing…even though I feel fortunate to be an English teacher in this type of grading scale!

My Definition

Anyway, here is my definition of distance learning upon entering the course on Monday:

Distance learning is a mode of education which uses technology to deliver instruction to learners who are not confined to one geographical region, but rather are grouped according to their educational interest. Traditional structures like discussion and feedback take place in non-traditional and asynchronous ways, but still have the structure of a percentage-based system of assessment as well as defined deadlines. Distance learning may use video or audio podcasts to deliver instruction, and often uses Web 2.0 tools as instructional strategies. Learners have the flexibility to complete assignments when the learning best fits into their schedule; therefore, distance education is often a popular option among working professionals, parents, and/or other non-traditional students.

Distance learning is also expanding from post-secondary education to high schools and even elementary schools. In these environments, distance learning is often used to reach students who for one reason or another don’t feel successful or comfortable in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. With the dramatic growth of private charter schools, distance learning has been more recently used to compete with public school districts in raising graduation and test scores–this movement has had an extreme mix of results in these two goals. High school and elementary students involved in distance learning are often students who are heavily committed in another area that prevents them from fitting into the inflexible schedule of traditional K-12 schooling. Some choose distance learning because of a physical, mental or social disability, often times causing the individual to become a target of bullying. Other students are in distance learning because their parents have strong religious beliefs, and hope that by keeping their children at home, they can monitor the content and instruction more closely. *

What I’ve learned this week

Now, here’s some things I have learned this week that change or expand my previous understanding of distance learning. I will summarize the points I found most interesting or relevant to my personal understanding and experience:

  • Distance learning is not a new phenomenon. In fact, distance learning has been around since the early 1800’s in the form of mail correspondence. As technology evolved, distance learning made use of new tools to further non-traditional educational and training modules. For instance, Penn State College used a radio to broadcast courses for the first time in 1922! (Distance Learning Timeline Continuum). I actually feel a bit silly for saying that I did not know this when in fact my entire education in 6th grade was watching a classroom in Florida via VHS tapes. Yes, I was home-schooled for three years and survived to tell about it 🙂
  • Distance learning is not the magic bullet or quick fix for all our educational woes. Ok, this is definitely not something that surprised me, but I was comforted to read that in black-and-white and backed by research. The authors of an interesting three-part study titled “The Evolution of Distance Education” claim that “rushing to adopt distance education, or any new technology, to avoid being seen as out of touch or outdated certainly is as ephemeral as most fads” and “We need to choose to view e-learning as the question rather than the answer” (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008, p.66). Basically, I find myself noting that the research does NOT support the idea that just because distance learning uses new and exciting forms of technology that it has in any conclusive way been proven to solve some of our most intractable educational problems. Instead, it merely provides another set of tools, albeit powerful ones, to our practice to reach more learners in more diverse ways.
  • Distance learning has gotten a bad reputation in the world of work-place training and secondary education. Again, no surprise here. I remember the days of getting a job at a restaurant and mindlessly clicking through screens just to get to the ridiculously easy assessment and earn whatever certificate or badge that was required–even though neither my manager or I gave much credit to this whole ordeal actually improving my job performance. But with this week’s reading, I add to my definition that distance learning has a mixed review within the instructional design and training communities. Moller, Foshay and Huett, cite three reasons for the tenuous reputation between e-learning and relevant, quality learning:
      1. Managers and/or customers care more about the appearance of training rather than effect on job performance or any other objective indicators.
      2. Evaluation, need-analysis and other sound principles of effective instructional design are not valued and/or rushed because of a lack of time, money or professionalism.
      3. The demand for e-learning modules out-paces the supply of quality, trained instructional designers, so distance or web-based learning is being developed by people who may not be aware of the process for designing quality instruction and tracking its results in any meaningful way. (Moller, Foshay & Huett, 2008)
To cite some criticisms in another sector of distance learning education, high schools often use distance learning as a credit-recovery process which most view as an “easier” credit than those earned through traditional methods. This can also be true of post-secondary degrees earned via distance learning programs. My own principal scoffed when he heard about my program at Walden, saying something to the effect of that’s not a real school. Man, that burned me up as I was working my butt off to plow through the coursework. So in building my definition of distance learning, I acknowledge the challenges it faces in gaining credibility and reliability.

What’s the future of distance learning?

Distance learning is not going away. In fact, it’s growing exponentially as the demands for a more educated and more mobile workforce demand that education become more flexible and accessible. Just as McLeod and Fisch demonstrate so powerfully in their YouTube video Shift Happens 3.0, our current educational system is preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist and a world in which future graduates will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38. Educators, students, and society need to begin viewing distance learning as an inevitable future component of nearly every educational experience, whether through on-site learning in a physical space with others or in a blended learning environment or in a strictly online, virtual space. Instructional Design professionals need to apply good theory and practice to improve the quality and reputation of distance learning, and post-secondary educational institutions need to build their programs to support the need for professionals who can meet these demands.

* I have learned much of this from a friend who teaches at a distance-learning charter school and not from my own experience.

Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Coleman, C. (2008). “The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web” (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63–67.

McCloud, S., Fisch, K., & Brenman, J. (2010). Did You Know? 3.0 accessible through YouTube.

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). “The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web” (Part 1: Training and development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75.

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