Distance Education: An Overview
What is Distance Education?
Within a context of rapid technological change and shifting market conditions, the American education system is challenged with providing increased educational opportunities without increased budgets. Many educational institutions are answering this challenge by developing distance education programs. At its most basic level, distance education takes place when a teacher and student(s) are separated by physical distance, and technology (i.e., voice, video, data, and print), often in concert with face-to-face communication, is used to bridge the instructional gap. These types of programs can provide adults with a second chance at a college education, reach those disadvantaged by limited time, distance or physical disability, and update the knowledge base of workers at their places of employment.
Is Distance Education Effective?
Many educators ask if distant students learn as much as students receiving traditional face-to-face instruction. Research comparing distance education to traditional face-to-face instruction indicates that teaching and studying at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction, when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks, there is student-to-student interaction, and when there is timely teacher-to- student feedback (see Moore & Thompson, 1990; Verduin & Clark, 1991).
How is Distance Education Delivered?
A wide range of technological options are available to the distance educator. They fall into four major categories:
Various print formats are available including: textbooks, study guides, workbooks, course syllabi, and case studies.
Which Technology is Best?
Although technology plays a key role in the delivery of distance education, educators must remain focused on instructional outcomes, not the technology of delivery. The key to effective distance education is focusing on the needs of the learners, the requirements of the content, and the constraints faced by the teacher, before selecting a delivery system. Typically, this systematic approach will result in a mix of media, each serving a specific purpose. For example:
Using this integrated approach, the educator’s task is to carefully select among the technological options. The goal is to build a mix of instructional media, meeting the needs of the learner in a manner that is instructionally effective and economically prudent.
Effective Distance Education:
Without exception, effective distance education programs begin with careful planning and a focused understanding of course requirements and student needs. Appropriate technology can only be selected once these elements are understood in detail. There is no mystery to the way effective distance education programs develop. They don’t happen spontaneously; they evolve through the hard work and dedicated efforts of many individuals and organizations. In fact, successful distance education programs rely on the consistent and integrated efforts of students, faculty, facilitators, support staff, and administrators.
Key Players in Distance Education
The following briefly describes the roles of these key players in the distance education enterprise and the challenges they face.
Students – Meeting the instructional needs of students is the cornerstone of every effective distance education program, and the test by which all efforts in the field are judged. Regardless of the educational context, the primary role of the student is to learn. This is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, requiring motivation, planning, and an ability to analyze and apply the instructional content being taught. When instruction is delivered at a distance, additional challenges result because students are often separated from others sharing their backgrounds and interests, have few if any opportunities to interact with teachers outside of class, and must rely on technical linkages to bridge the gap separating class participants.
Faculty – The success of any distance education effort rests squarely on the shoulders of the faculty. In a traditional classroom setting, the instructor’s responsibility includes assembling course content and developing an understanding of student needs. Special challenges confront those teaching at a distance. For example, the instructor must:
Facilitators – The instructor often finds it beneficial to rely on a site facilitator to act as a bridge between the students and the instructor. To be effective, a facilitator must understand the students being served and the instructor’s expectations. Most importantly, the facilitator must be willing to follow the directive established by the teacher. Where budget and logistics permit, the role of on-site facilitators has increased even in classes in which they have little, if any, content expertise. At a minimum, they set up equipment, collect assignments, proctor tests, and act as the instructor’s on-site eyes and ears.
Support Staff – These individuals are the silent heroes of the distance education enterprise and ensure that the myriad details required for program success are dealt with effectively. Most successful distance education programs consolidate support service functions to include student registration, materials duplication and distribution, textbook ordering, securing of copyright clearances, facilities scheduling, processing grade reports, managing technical resources, etc.. Support personnel are truly the glue that keeps the distance education effort together and on track.
Administrators – Although administrators are typically influential in planning an institution’s distance education program, they often lose contact or relinquish control to technical managers once the program is operational. Effective distance education administrators are more than idea people. They are consensus builders, decision makers, and referees. They work closely with technical and support service personnel, ensuring that technological resources are effectively deployed to further the institution’s academic mission. Most importantly, they maintain an academic focus, realizing that meeting the instructional needs of distant students is their ultimate responsibility.
GUIDE 2: Strategies for Teaching at a Distance
What’s Different About Distant Teaching?
Classroom teachers rely on a number of visual and unobtrusive cues from their students to enhance their delivery of instructional content. A quick glance, for example, reveals who is attentively taking notes, pondering a difficult concept, or preparing to make a comment. The student who is frustrated, confused, tired, or bored is equally evident. The attentive teacher consciously and subconsciously receives and analyzes these visual cues and adjusts the course delivery to meet the needs of the class during a particular lesson.
In contrast, the distant teacher has few, if any, visual cues. Those cues that do exist are filtered through technological devices such as video monitors. It is difficult to carry on a stimulating teacher-class discussion when spontaneity is altered by technical requirements and distance.
Without the use of a real-time visual medium such as television, the teacher receives no visual information from the distant sites. The teacher might never really know, for example, if students are asleep, talking among themselves or even in the room. Separation by distance also affects the general rapport of the class. Living in different communities, geographic regions, or even states deprives the teacher and students of a common community link.
Why Teach at a Distance?
Many teachers feel the opportunities offered by distance education outweigh the obstacles. In fact, instructors often comment that the focused preparation required by distance teaching improves their overall teaching and empathy for their students. The challenges posed by distance education are countered by opportunities to:
In developing or adapting distance instruction, the core content remains basically unchanged, although its presentation requires new strategies and additional preparation time. Suggestions for planning and organizing a distance delivered course include:
Hands-on training with the technology of delivery is critical for both teacher and students. Consider a pre-class session in which the class meets informally using the delivery technology and learns about the roles and responsibilities of technical support staff.
At the start of class initiate a frank discussion to set rules, guidelines, and standards. Once procedures have been established, consistently uphold them.
Make sure each site is properly equipped with functional and accessible equipment. Provide a toll-free “hotline” for reporting and rectifying problems.
If course materials are sent by mail, make sure they are received well before class begins. To help students keep materials organized, consider binding the syllabus, handouts, and other readings prior to distribution.
Start off slowly with a manageable number of sites and students. The logistical difficulties of distant teaching increase with each additional site.
Meeting Student Needs
To function effectively, students must quickly become comfortable with the nature of teaching and learning at a distance. Efforts should be made to adapt the delivery system to best motivate and meet the needs of the students, in terms of both content and preferred learning styles. Consider the following strategies for meeting students’ needs:
Profile of the Distant Student
The primary role of the student is to learn. Under the best of circumstances, this challenging task requires motivation, planning, and the ability to analyze and apply the information being taught. In a distance education setting, the process of student learning is more complex for several reasons (Schuemer, 1993):
In distance education, the learner is usually isolated. The motivational factors arising from the contact or competition with other students is absent. The student also lacks the immediate support of a teacher who is present and able to motivate and, if necessary, give attention to actual needs and difficulties that crop up during study.
Distant students and their teachers often have little in common in terms of background and day-to-day experiences and therefore, it takes longer for student-teacher rapport to develop. Without face-to-face contact distant students may feel ill at ease with their teacher as an “individual” and uncomfortable with their learning situation.
In distance education settings, technology is typically the conduit through which information and communication flow. Until the teacher and students become comfortable with the technical delivery system, communication will be inhibited.
Distant Students’ Development as Learners
Beginning students may have some difficulty determining what the demands of a course of academic study actually are because they do not have the support of an immediate peer group, ready access to the instructor, or familiarity with the technology being used for delivery of the distance-education course. They may be unsure of themselves and their learning. Morgan (1991) suggests that distant students who are not confident about their learning tend to concentrate on memorizing facts and details in order to complete assignments and write exams. As a result, they end up with a poor understanding of course material. He views memorization of facts and details as a “surface approach” to learning and summarizes it as follows:
External emphasis focusing on the demands of assignments and exams leading to a knowledge that is cut-off from everyday reality.
Distant students need to become more selective and focused in their learning in order to master new information. The focus of their learning needs to shift them from a “surface approach” to a “deep approach”. Morgan (1991) summarizes this approach as follows:
Improving Distant Learning
The shift from “surface” to “deep” learning is not automatic. Brundage, Keane, and Mackneson (1993) suggest that adult students and their instructors must face and overcome a number of challenges before learning takes place including: becoming and staying responsible for themselves; “owning” their strengths, desires, skills, and needs; maintaining and increasing self-esteem; relating to others; clarifying what is learned; redefining what legitimate knowledge is; and dealing with content. These challenges are considered in relation to distance education:
“Becoming and staying responsible for themselves”. High motivation is required to complete distant courses because the day-to-day contact with teachers and other students is typically lacking. Instructors can help motivate distant students by providing consistent and timely feedback, encouraging discussion among students, being well prepared for class, and by encouraging and reinforcing effective student study habits.
“Owning one’s strengths, desires, skills, needs”. Students need to recognize their strengths and limitations. They also need to understand their learning goals and objectives. The instructor can help distant students to explore their strengths/limitations and their learning goals/objectives by assuming a facilitative role in the learning process. Providing opportunities for students to share their personal learning goals and objectives for a course helps to make learning more meaningful and increases motivation.
“Maintaining and increasing self-esteem”. Distant students may be afraid of their ability to do well in a course. They are balancing many responsibilities including employment and raising children. Often their involvement in distance education is unknown to those they work with and ignored by family members. Student performance is enhanced if learners set aside time for their instructional activities and if they receive family support in their academic endeavors. The instructor can maintain student self-esteem by providing timely feedback. It is critical for teachers to respond to students’ questions, assignments, and concerns in a personalized and pleasant manner, using appropriate technology such as fax, phone, or computer. Informative comments that elaborate on the individual student’s performance and suggest areas for improvement are especially helpful.
“Relating to others”. Students often learn most effectively when they have the opportunity to interact with other students. Interaction among students typically leads to group problem solving. When students are unable to meet together, appropriate interactive technology such as E-mail should be provided to encourage small group and individual communication. Assignments in which students work together and then report back or present to the class as a whole, encourage student-to-student interaction. Ensure clear directions and realistic goals for group assignments (Burge, 1993).
“Clarifying what is learned”. Distant students need to reflect on what they are learning. They need to examine the existing knowledge frameworks in their heads and how these are being added to or changed by incoming information. Examinations, papers, and class presentations provide opportunities for student and teacher to evaluate learning. However, less formal methods of evaluation will also help the students and teacher to understand learning. For example, periodically during the course the instructor can ask students to write a brief reflection on what they have learned and then provide an opportunity for them to share their insights with other class members.
“Redefining what legitimate knowledge is”. Brundage, Keane, and Mackneson (1993) suggest that adult learners may find it difficult to accept that their own experience and reflections are legitimate knowledge. If the instructor takes a facilitative rather than authoritative role, students will see—their own experience as valuable and important to their further learning. Burge (1993) suggests having learners use first-person language to help them claim ownership of personal values, experiences, and insights.
“Dealing with content”. Student learning is enhanced when content is related to examples. Instructors tend to teach using examples that were used when they received their training. For distance learning to be effective, however, instructors must discover examples that are relevant to their distant students. Encourage students to find or develop examples that are relevant to them or their community.
Teaching and learning at a distance is demanding. However, learning will be more meaningful and “deeper” for distant students, if the students and their instructor share responsibility for developing learning goals and objectives; actively interacting with class members; promoting reflection on experience; relating new information to examples that make sense to learners; maintaining self-esteem; and evaluating what is being learned. This is the challenge and the opportunity provided by distance education.
Common Research Questions
Because distance education is perceived as an increasingly effective method of instruction, educational researchers have examined the purposes and situations for which distance education is best suited. Frequently asked questions cluster in five areas:
Distance vs. Traditional Education
Research indicates that the instructional format itself (e.g., interactive video vs. videotape vs. “live” instructor) has little effect on student achievement as long as the delivery technology is appropriate to the content being offered and all participants have access to the same technology. Other conclusions drawn from this line of research suggest:
Why are Students Successful?
Research suggests distant students bring basic characteristics to their learning experience which influence their success in coursework. Distance education students:
Studies also conclude that similar factors determine successful learning whether the students are distant or traditional. These factors include:
Why is Instruction Successful?
Good distance teaching practices are fundamentally identical to good traditional teaching practices and “those factors which influence good instruction may be generally universal across different environments and populations.” (Wilkes & Burnham, 1991). Because distance education and its technologies require extensive planning and preparation, distance educators must consider the following in order to improve their effectiveness (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994):
How Important is Interaction?
Many distant learners require support and guidance to make the most of their distance learning experiences (Threlkeld & Brzoska, 1994). This support typically takes the form of some combination of student-instructor and student-student interaction.
Research findings on the need for interaction have produced some important guidelines for instructors organizing courses for distant students:
Cost vs. Benefits
When establishing a distance education program, one of the first things considered is the cost of the system. Several cost components factor into the design of a distance education system (Threlkeld & Brzoska, 1994):
Although the costs of offering distance education courses may be high, there are high costs associated with offering conventional courses. Benefits of distance education courses to the learner include (Ludlow, 1994):
Perhaps the question institutions must answer is whether it is part of their mission as educators to offer programs to those who might not be reached without distance education. The primary benefit to educational institutions through distance education may be the increased number of non-traditional students they are able to attract and serve. Research also suggests that as programs become more efficient, program costs should decrease (Ludlow, 1994).