Thursday, January 10, 2013

Defining Distance Learning

Prior to this past week, it had never occurred to me to define distance learning. It was like flirting; although I never tried to define it, I had a functional notion of what it was and believed I knew when I was doing it. Then I started this class, and I realized that although distance learning (and flirting) is ultimately individually defined, there are in fact distinct inclusion criteria that must be met in order to qualify as genuine distance learning. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

First, I want to offer my best definition of distance learning as I understood it prior to beginning this course.
Distance learning is learning in which:
  • The learner may self-select areas of inquiry.
  • The learner accesses instructional materials and completes assignments independently.
  • The learner may receive feedback from an instructor, facilitator, or electronic medium.
 The information I have digested this week has both narrowed and expanded my understanding of distance learning, and I now realize that some of what I used to consider distance learning was in fact “self-study at a distance,” (Distance Education: The Next Generation, 2012), and there is more to distance learning than I previously thought.

I would now define distance learning as learning in which:
  • The learner is separated from the instructor and classmates by physical distance and/or time.
  • The learner accesses instructional materials and completes assignments independently or in collaboration with classmates, using applicable media and other technology.
  • The learner, instructor, and classmates frequently interact via multimedia, in person, or both.
  • The instructor provides feedback to the learner and challenges the learner to link previous knowledge with new learning.
  • The instructor encourages the learner to take an active role in the learning process.
  • The instructor challenges the learner to demonstrate understanding through analysis, presentation, and application of new learning.
  • The instructor provides opportunities for the learner to engage in self-reflection and meta-cognition.
  • The learning experience is as equivalent as possible or reasonable to a traditional learning experience.

When I reflect on the evolution of distance education to date, I can’t help but believe that the future of distance learning is robust, multi-dimensional, and somewhat inconceivable. Robust in that emerging technologies become more deeply embedded in our lives almost every day, and as those technologies broaden the human experience, we come to expect greater breadth and depth, it becomes our new normal. “In addition to economics and politics, the growth and impact of distance education is directly linked to the availability of new technologies,” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012. pp. 17-18.). Multi-dimensional because as technology continues to bring diverse information to us faster and easier than ever before, we come to expect more of the same, only better. We expect to be able to tap into information all the time, and we expect it to come faster, easier, more customized, and more mobile. And flexible. And interactive. And engaging. Oh, and “smart.” Inconceivable because “life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards,” (Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1836).

I don’t seriously consider the possibility that distance learning will extinguish in the foreseeable future. Technology has diminished our perception of the distance between hemispheres and made real the notion of being able to study virtually any area of inquiry virtually. According to the Sloan Consortium Survey (Allen & Seaman, 2010):
  • The majority of chief academic officers believe that the learning outcomes in online courses will equal or exceed that of face-to-face courses within 3 years.
  • The overall growth rate for enrollment in online courses is expected to be 20%.
  • Given an option, students will enroll in online courses.

How far will distance learning evolve, and what will the experience be? That, of course, remains to be seen. I believe that all parties involved (instructors, learners, instructional designers, and other resources) contribute to the continual evolution of distance learning, specifically the form, function, delivery, and evaluation of distance learning. “One challenge to ID is to determine how learners interact with the various e-learning instructional models and the contexts in which they do so,” (Moller, Foshay, and Huett, 2008. p. 74), which will play a role in shaping the future of distance learning. 

The Mind Map below is a graphic depiction of my understanding of distance learning. It is designed to show some of the important ways I, as a distance learner, connect with instructors, technology, and classmates, and how we harness variables such as technology and experience to enrich our connections and the learning experience. 

Allen, I., & Seaman, J. (2010). Learning on Demand: Online education in the United States, 2009. Wellesley, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009). Distance Education: The Next Generation [DVD]. Baltimore, MD: Author

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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sally,

    It looks like EDUC 6135 is going to be an interesting class...I'm following your blog.