Distance Learning…What is it?

13 01 2014

Distance Learning

When I first heard about distance learning, I had no clue how involved this learning concept was until I fully immersed myself in the process. I always thought of online learning or distance learning as this concept of just sitting in front of the computer reading screen after screen and taking an online assessment at the end of a bunch of screens to receive a score. This is what I experienced through the online courses I had to complete at work, so when I heard many of my former undergraduate classmates talk about pursuing graduate degrees through online learning methods I balked at the idea. I asked them after experiencing such an engaging and diverse learning environment at our liberal arts school why would they short change themselves with online learning. Many of my fellow alumni explained to me the format of the discussion boards, weekly assignments and course projects. They spoke about collaboration and interaction with classmates, as well as the challenge of instructor access and overall time management. Many commented about the ability to still think critically and dialogue openly with their classmates in the online environment. I learned through their feedback that distance learning was more than simply completing an e-learning course at work. E-learning is only just a small snippet of distance learning. After 5 ½ years of commuting back and forth to my liberal arts college and earning my undergraduate degree, I find myself fully embracing the distance learning concept to work on earning my master’s degree! I did not run quickly into the process, but rather after much research and word of mouth, I decided to give this process a try. I do not regret my decision because at the end of the day I am still a student of learning whether I am learning at my laptop in the comfort of my home or in a college classroom.

This week I began the 7th course, Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education in my Walden University Instructional Design and Technology graduate program. I learned that the definition of distance learning is always evolving as technology continues to develop and grow at a rapid pace. Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012 describes distance learning as having four components involved in the learning process: institutionally based, separation of teacher and student, interactive telecommunications, and sharing of data, voice, and video learning experiences (p. 33). Whether the learner is learning through previously recorded learning DVDs, e-learning modules, or web-based instruction, the authors offer up that true distance learning has the four components. The most interesting thing I learned is that there is nothing new under the sun. Even though the technology of our generation makes distance learning seems like a new thing, distance learning started back as early as 1833.

The roots of distance education are at least 160 years old. An advertisement in a Swedish newspaper in 1833 touted the opportunity to study ‘composition through the medium of the post.’ In 1840, England’s newly established penny post allowed Isaac Pitman to offer shorthand instruction via correspondence. Three years later, instruction was formalized with the founding of the Phonographic Correspondence Society, precursor of Sir Isaac Pitman’s Correspondence Colleges. (Simonson et.al., 2012).

Distance education of today is vastly different! The learner can learn anytime, anywhere, with an instructor logged on at the same time or not (asynchronous or synchronous). They can access online or web-based instruction on their smartphone, tablet, or computer. The learner can choose to be fully immersed online or attend a combination of traditional classroom lectures and web-based courses. The concept of learning is always changing as technology advances and the learner is presented with more than one way to learn.

Technology advances is not only the reason for the booming nature of distance learning. The changing face of the learner has helped distance learning gain momentum. Moller, Foshay, and Huett (2008) explains that:
Distance learning is rapidly becoming a popular choice for continuing professional education, mid-career degree programs, and lifelong learning of all kinds. As so-called “non-traditional” students become an increasingly large segment of the student body at the post-secondary level, campus-based programs, residential or otherwise, may be leveling off in enrollment. Colleges and universities, therefore, see distance education as a way of sustaining growth. (p. 66)

The economic downturn of the past decade has caused many workers to meet the challenge of having to seek retraining in their current field or even transitioning to a new field. Many workers do not have time to sit in a traditional classroom because they need to be able to have the flexibility to maintain various social roles in their daily lives. The independence, flexibility, and mobility of distance learning offer the “new” learner the option of soaking up knowledge while continuing to be on the go with their lives. Businesses are also faced with ways of having to deal with fewer workers, so they are seeking ways to train workers without having them leave their jobsite to attend classroom training. The e-learning described earlier is an example of distance learning being used by businesses to conduct training.

As one can see Distance learning offers many pros such as flexibility, accessibility, reduced travel and tuition cost, and self-centered learning. However, the cons may be time management, reduced social interaction, access to instructor, reduced academic support and difficulty with advance technology. The complexity of distance learning is not slowing down its growth. As technology continues to evolve and consumers are offered a wide range of gadgets to enrich their daily lives, the face of learning cannot stay the same. Consumers are also learners and they want the same flexibility in their learning as they have with their spending power. Organizations and institutions who have not taken the plunge into the distance learning arena will be challenged with how to compete to attract the new consumer/learner who is evolving at a rapid pace.

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

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson



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