Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reflecting on Distance Learning

This post is submitted for my Walden University class on distance learning. I was asked to respond to three questions: What do you think the perceptions of distance learning will be in the future (in 5–10 years; 10–20 years)? How can you as an instructional designer be a proponent for improving societal perceptions of distance learning? How will you be a positive force for continuous improvement in the field of distance education?

In the next 5-10 years, I think distance learning will continue to gain traction and respect in academic circles as well as corporate ones, since entire generations of distance-trained students will have moved into decision-making roles in education, business, and government. I don't see this as a hostile takeover or a diplomatic coup; I see it as continued adaptation to new demands and needs. I imagine distance education as an ivy vine that will slowly infiltrate even the bastions of the Ivy League, weaving itself into the fibers of our educational institutions across the board.

Twenty years from now, in 2031, I doubt that the term "distance learning" will continue to hold its present meaning--I expect "distance learning" to become subsumed into our definition of "learning". Traditional instructors will continue to adopt portions of the technology available to them, and "pure" face-to-face classes will become Web-facilitated, then blended... and will, gradually, join with whatever technology replaces the Web in twenty years. I think most educators are already on this road. Will traditional institutions still exist? Absolutely! They might even retain as many students as they have now. But I expect the overall market for education to grow as more and more people gain access to high-quality teaching at a distance, and I think education that incorporates distance will hold a much larger portion of the market than it does today.

Bates (in Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 147) advanced a set of "golden rules" to guide instructional designers in developing technology-based instruction, including such ideas as "Good teaching matters", "There is no 'super-technology'", and "New technologies are not necessarily better than old ones". Simonson's version of Bates's final point is worth quoting here: "Technology is not the issue. How and what we want the learners to learn is the issue and technology is a tool (p. 147)." So too with distance learning. I think our responsibility for helping to improve both the image and the substance of distance learning is the same as our duty in any instructional design context: to ask the right questions, to think carefully, and to develop training that is efficient, responsive, and effective at meeting the needs of our learners. Delivering great training is a far better advertisement than any Super Bowl ad or direct mailing scheme.

More directly, what can we do to improve societal perceptions today? My personal commitment is to speak out, frequently, about my experiences as a distant learner with an unimpeachable undergraduate pedigree. I went to one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the United States, and I find my distance Masters program valuable and challenging. I don't whitewash over the problems I see, but neither do I withhold praise where Walden earns it. So I think we can change a lot by offering appropriate personal testimonials. Speaking as an instructional designer, I think an important way to improve perceptions is to make sure that we only propose particular delivery methods with sound reasoning and design to accompany them. If face-to-face instruction is the right choice for a particular topic, we should not hesitate to use it--and we should not agree to "slip by" using distance learning. But similarly, if a topic can be served by distant methods, we should boldly embrace them--and be prepared to explain our reasoning.

As far as being a positive force for pushing distance learning in new directions, I think the best I can say is that I will try. I will try new ideas. I will try to find ways to reach my future learners through technological means, whether that means offering bagpipe lessons at a distance, helping to develop distance-based education for new hikers, pulling Reachout's training toward including more online resources and communication methods, teaching New York's suicide intervention trainers through distant media... or whatever new opportunities arise. I will try. I will try, and I will look unflinchingly at the results. George Piskurich (2006) talks about rapid instructional design not as a one-time process but as a continuous spiral of improvement and analysis--like the successive approximation I learned in physics--and I take that as my model. I will improve distance learning by trying new things, by looking at the results, and by trying again until we reach the goal. That's my plan.


Piskurich, G. M. (2006). Rapid instructional design: Learning ID fast and right (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

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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