Technololgy and Distance Learning

In addition to the Internet, the use of digital technologies to educate learners extends the opportunity to reach larger numbers of students.  Digital technologies such as video and audio have enabled educators to develop new teaching and learning strategies that help students develop the skills needed to thrive in a continuously changing world.  Delivering instruction via the Internet and utilizing digital technology creates a framework for instructors and students to access knowledge and collaborate in the construction of new knowledge and understanding.  In the end, the ultimate goal is not to utilize distance learning for the sake of keeping up with what others are doing, but to enrich the educational experiences and opportunities for all students.

As technology continues to advance, there are innumerable ways to design and deliver education at a distance.  For instance, Web 1.0 technology was about reading content accessed from a Web site.  Distance learning provided via Web 1.0 tools was static with little opportunity for student interaction.

The new Web 2.0 technologies allow learners to engage in peer to peer collaborative learning through blogging, videos, wikis, and webinars.  A free Internet-based communications software program, Skype, allows individuals to talk to each other all over the world for free through the Internet.  A webcam can be used to send video, and Skype can handle conference calls for up to nine users.  Even more exciting is the ability to schedule Skypecasts, a jumbo conference call with up to 100 people participating.  After downloading the free software and logging into the Skypecast, participants can listen to the conversations, indicate a desire to talk and then wait for their turn to talk, and contribute to the conversation.  Imagine the possibilities for education!  Students and faculty around the globe can share ideas, concerns, and discoveries.  Students can create Skypecasts for an international audience as easily as they prepare an in-class presentation for their local classmates.  Additionally, with Skype’s video capability, instructors can demonstrate techniques and procedures.

Web 2.0 technology, enabled social networking of the chat room to evolve into the social media collaboration and connections happening in Facebook (www.facebook.com), and MySpace (www.myspace.com).  Higher education is seeing potential and grasping opportunities to put these networks to work. From increasing student access to textbooks, to helping students find a roommate, to connecting students to a variety of student services, college and university departments are relating with students through the social media they are already familiar with.  Hoffman (2009) shares:

Many advocates promote the use of social networking for community building and increasing student engagement in higher education classrooms…Mazer, Murphy and Simonds (2007) indicate that teacher self-disclosure via social networking can increase motivation and improve classroom climate thus impacting student outcomes.  In many of these debates, the focus is often limited to the massive and most well known of the social networks, MySpace and Facebook, particularly because media coverage has ensured that even those who have limited familiarity with social networking have heard about these Internet environments. However, social networking tools are more diverse and in fact, some may better fit specific class needs (Hoffman, 2009, p. 92).

Colleges and universities are exploring ways to utilize other Web 2.0 tools, through the use of mobile technologies, in innovative and effective ways.  As mentioned previously, the new generation of college students is plugged into their mobile devices, preferring the immediacy of information available through cell phone technology, such as emailing or texting classmates and professors.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched the MIT Mobile Web project in summer 2008 with 7000 screens.  The mobile portal offered information on class schedules, grade reports, directions to classes, the best ways to get from one campus location to another, and bus schedules.  In three months, the number of screens increased from 7000 to 55,000, with plans for the 2.0 version to offer access to the MIT learning management system and the ability to pay and manage debit card accounts (Raths, 2009).

Finally, virtual worlds are opening up a whole new realm of learner-centered engagement with Web 3.0 technology, based on intelligent Web applications where users will create new tools and applications through open-source software and systems.  A few years ago, placing a narrated PowerPoint online was advanced strategy; then video-conferencing enabled students to experience live lecture from a distance, albeit usually with limited or no interactivity.  Now, with the availability of collaborative video systems such as Elluminate, instructors and students communicate with each other online either through a chat room or through video webcams, increasing the ability to interact synchronously and reinforce concepts in real-time.

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Distance Education Concerns and the Six Tenets of Distance Learning

Issues to Consider

There are many issues to consider when contemplating offering distance learning courses or programs.  Several of the key issues are discussed in the following sections.  It is important to remember that facilitating a distance course and teaching a traditional course require different sets of skills for the instructors as well as different formats and structures for the development and delivery of course content.

Lack of Universal Standards.  Despite the many positive aspects of distance learning, initially there were concerns, many of which continue to linger, about its appropriateness and effectiveness.  The Institute of Higher Education Policy (1999) identified several areas of concern including (a) inadequate control of extraneous variables, (b) non-random sampling of subjects, (c) questionable validity and reliability controls and measures, and (d) lack of control of reactive effects of students.  Instructors and administrators expressed concern about course quality and the value of learning activities.

Historically, the research claimed no discernable difference between distance learning and traditional classes.  Early research focused on (a) student outcomes, (b) student attitudes, and (c) student satisfaction.  However, recent research, examining the distance learning phenomena closer, has begun to reveal measureable results.  A new meta-analysis released by the United States Department of Education (USDOE, 2009) indicates that

…students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction.  Further, those who took “blended” courses – those that combine elements of online learning and face-to-face instruction – appeared to do best of all (USDOE, 2009, p. xiv).  

Although there are many strands of ongoing research, compared to other fields under study, there is a scarcity of established research devoted to the effectiveness of distance learning.  To compound this problem is the lack of nationally accepted universal standards of quality for distance learning.  The authors maintain that not all studies are equally rigorous and many studies contain bias.  Some considerations of best practice recommendations are: 

  1. Quality course design should be a greater priority than attention to the media characteristics;
  2. For asynchronous courses, active learning and collaboration among students seems to result in higher achievement and attitude outcomes;
  3. Opportunities for communication, whether face-to-face or through course tools, appear to be beneficial for both synchronous and asynchronous learning;
  4. Supplemental one-way videos were found to promote better achievement and attitude for both synchronous and asynchronous learning;
  5. Interactivity between students appears to enhance better attitudes in asynchronous courses;
  6. Provision of advance course information is beneficial for students. 

Attempts to develop national quality standards include the March 2000 Quality on the Line report issued by the National Education Association (NEA) in collaboration with Blackboard, Inc.  This report outlined twenty-four benchmarks (measures of quality) for distance learning courses and programs. A link to the full report can be found at www2.nea.org/he/abouthe/distance.html.  More recently, in 2006 the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) issued National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, a guide designed to provide quality standards for course development and delivery.   

In as much as the NEA/Blackboard benchmarks and the NACOL guide provide direction for the creation and delivery of Internet-based distance learning courses, the missing piece is “how to.”  This text focuses predominantly on the “how to” of three categories:  1) Course Development, 2) Teaching and Learning Strategies, and 3) Course Structure.  Accordingly, Fenton and Watkins, authors of Fluency in Distance Learning (2010) have developed six tenets of distance learning course development that set minimum standards for creating online courses and facilitating online instruction.  The ability to meet these tenets results in an instructor that is fluentin the delivery of distance instruction.  The six tenets are as follows:

  1. Educators fluent in the delivery of distance instruction possess the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that encompass all aspects of teaching online including administrative, design, facilitation, evaluation, and technology – from pre-course planning to post-course wrap up.
  2. Educators fluent in the delivery of distance instruction facilitate effective online communication that establishes a sense of community among all course participants, fosters information sharing and open dialogue, and supports active student participation.
  3. Educators fluent in the delivery of distance instruction accommodate differing learning styles and intelligence types by incorporating multimedia to help students connect to and find meaning in the course content and relate their learning to the world beyond the online classroom.
  4. Educators fluent in the delivery of distance instruction utilize a variety of teaching strategies to actively engage and motivate a diverse student population to participate in the learning process, resulting in deeper understanding. 
  5. Educators fluent in the delivery of distance instruction understand the need to assess student performance using a variety of assessment strategies to ascertain that the essential skills and knowledge being taught is actually being learned.
  6. Educators fluent in the delivery of distance instruction employ sound instructional design focused on delivering a quality learning experience that includes consideration of design principles such as content organization, layout, and use of color and graphical elements.

One final point should be made.  Although distance learning provides flexibility and abundant opportunity for individuals to access higher education, there are contexts and content better-suited for traditional classroom or face-to-face instruction.  Preferably, consultation occurs between instructors and program administrators to best determine the most effective delivery options.

Fenton, C. & Watkins, B. W. (2010).  Fluency in Distance Learning.  2nd  edition. Information Age Publishing:  Charlotte, NC.

Celeste Fenton, Ph.D.

Holding a Ph.D. in Education from the University of South Florida, I have over 20 years experience as an educator in K-12 and higher-education.  In addition to directing the Faculty Professional Development Department – Center of Innovative Teaching and Technology at Hillsborough Community College, I teach distance learning courses in Education.  I have been a speaker and presenter at numerous conferences throughout the United States.  Other credentials include:

 

  • Co-authored Fenton and Watkins Professional Development Series      (textbook and companion online courses) published Spring, 2013 for      McGraw-Hill
  • Webinars for eCampus News and McGraw Hill, delivered October,      November 2012
  • Hold a U.S. Patent for an adult learner learning preferences and      teaching philosophy match/report system (09/2011)
  • Selected as one of 25 panelists for the United States Department      of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Education Grant Selection Committee      (2011 and 2012)
  • Keynote Speaker for the 2011 League for Innovation Learning      College Summit Conference, Phoenix, AZ (June, 2011)
  • Statewide training in Florida:       Designed, developed, and delivered hybrid and fully online training      for new teachers (having taught three years or less) in Florida via      Florida DOE Perkins grant (2008-09, 2009-2010; 2010-2011, 2011-2012)  Course preview available at  http://www.fldoe.org/workforce/profdev.asp .  Also      designed and deployed a fully online training program for new      post-secondary administrators.
  • Member of statewide steering committee:  Career and Technical Education      Professional Development
  • Blackboard Learn 9.1 Training:       Designed, developed, and implemented the College-wide faculty      training program delivered fully online; consisted of three tiers (basic,      intermediate, and advanced) and included mechanics of Blackboard as well      as online teaching strategies
  • Co-authored the textbook for the Perkins Grant focused on CTE teaching      strategies, 21st Century      Teaching Strategies
  • Co-authored Fluency in      Distance Learning, currently used in several states and by      institutions as a foundation course to certify faculty for online teaching
  • Received the 2010 Woman of the Year award from the National      Association of Professional Women
  • Received the 2008 Innovation of the Year from the League for      Innovation for development of a multimedia tutorial and diagnostic tool in      reading/writing for students taking the       community college placement tests       (College Board Accuplacer)
  • 2008 recipient of the Cross Papers Fellowship and co-author of the      11th volume of the Cross Papers
  • Awarded the 2007 Platinum Award for outstanding online teaching      from the United States Distance Learning Association
  • 2004-2008 Principal Investigator for College Placement Test      multimedia tutorial development
  • 2002-2004 Principal Investigator for U.S. Department of Education      Fund for the Improvement of Education grant focused on research and      development of teacher training program for teaching strategies and      technology integration