Sunday, January 9, 2011

Defining Distance Learning

(this post is submitted for an assignment in my Walden University course on distance learning. since it is a blog post, I have adopted a less formal tone than I would normally take in academic prose.)

From my early childhood as a computer-savvy youngster (exploring the internet through now-forgotten tools like gopher, Usenet, and Unix talk) to my online Master's program, I have labored long in the vineyards of distance learning. I remember blended distance learning during my time at Swarthmore, when some of my computer science classes with Lisa Meeden used Doug Blank's open source LMS (edventure) and other classes began using Blackboard for readings and discussions. A few years ago, I became a certified Wilderness First Responder through a blended distance program with the Wilderness Medicine Training Center. My sense of distance learning springs from these experiences, which were varied in scope, format, and style. I suppose I reflexively thought of distance learning as, well, what we do here at Walden: I sign into a website, read some texts, write some words, and press 'Send'. But if I had stopped to think--as I now have--I would have remembered all these different experiences of distance learning. In the course of reading my texts for the week, I was surprised by how much space in the literature (e.g., Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009) seems devoted to arguing about what, specifically, constitutes distance learning. Why is this an important question? For me, distance learning is a moving target: it's a way to use available technology to meet the specific needs of people who aren't always in the same room as their teachers.

I learned from Huett et al (2008) that distance learning is making inroads into K-12 environs, where I would have expected socialization to be of such paramount importance that distance education wouldn't be accepted. Of course, I hated a lot of the social aspects of K-12, so it might not be a bad idea! Although the idea that distance learning is asocial still seems to hold a lot of traction, I think the lack of social interaction in distance education is largely a problem of technology rather than orientation, as I'll explain later.

I'm not sure I believe in the assertion Huett et al (2008) make that we're at a crux point for distance learning, where it will either be accepted or relegated to the dustbin of history. Since our assignment asks what will happen as distance learning continues to evolve, I'll use the language of evolutionary science and say that natural selection will weed out poorer distance learning options, but there isn't reason to believe that the world will select against effective distance learning programs on an evolutionary basis. If we build great distance learning programs now, that's wonderful... but if our first efforts fail, the set of needs that prompted distance learning in the first place--busy people with jobs, families, and wide geographic spread--will still exist. As long as those needs exist, people will continue inventing new methods for serving them, and distance learning will continue.

New forms of distance learning needn't be mutually exclusive. If enough learners want asynchronous online classes, someone will create courses and sell them to meet the need. If enough learners want synchronous online classes conducted by video, someone will build those classes. The pool is big enough for many kinds of swimmers, and I can only see one reason why particular forms of distance learning will disappear: people will lose interest in paying for them. This might happen because those models cost too much to deliver, or because newer technologies supplant them, or because political and social pressure makes them unattractive... but in the end, it all comes back to market value. The global nature of the internet makes it pretty likely that someone, somewhere in the world, will supply whatever form of education people want to buy.

I wonder whether we'll see a return to traditional classroom style teaching, mediated by technology. It's clear that technology has facilitated the rise of distance learning over the past 160 years, but we could also say that available technology has capped distance learning throughout its history. In the days of correspondence courses, the postman represented the apex of communications technology, enabling learners to touch distant points on the globe. But the limitations of the postal system (considered here as a technology) also hindered the development of new forms of distance learning: there was no capacity for real-time distance learning. Fast forward to 2011, and you'll find that technology still plays this dual facilitation/interference role. Thanks to cheap international data transmission and a rise of new profit-making business models, it's possible to video chat with people anywhere on the globe, and we're seeing distance learning models that use this capacity. But the computer systems and data networks aren't yet strong enough to support video chats with 30 other people--so we haven't seen that yet. When the technology advances to that point, perhaps we'll start to see digital classrooms that meet at specified times with 30 students all listening to their instructors via video chat, with concurrent opportunities for live debate and discussion where everyone sees and hears everyone else. Available technology will define the playing field, and it will be up to us to use it.

I hope I've lent the impression that I think of distance learning as a process or a category rather than a specific set of ideas, constructs, or methods. Just as we now enjoy a multitude of options for learning at a distance, the future will offer a plethora of choices--perhaps including some of the formats we use today. I believe that the advent of new technologies will continue to enable ever-changing forms of distance learning, and that the learners themselves will tell us which choices hold value.

Concept map - Click to view full-size


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.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

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