07.01.2014

Challenges with Distance Learning

Technology has been changing the landscape of education for years.  In the most recent decade, advances in internet-based technology has rocketed educational innovation to unprecedented levels. One of greatest advancements in innovation has been in distance learning.

Distance learning, commonly referred to as distance education, actually dates back over 150 years to the 1840s, and very likely in less documented ways across the world centuries before that.  Isaac Pitman, often considered the pioneer of distance learning, used simple handwritten correspondence to teach a unique system of shorthand. There is also evidence suggesting that hand written correspondences were used as a supplementary tool for education in Asia and Europe many years prior.  These archaic forms of distance education were used to teach mathematics, poetry, history, and philosophy.  After Pitman’s kick-off of modern distance education, programs progressed with the advent of improvements in communication: the rise of radio led to radio broadcasted educational programs and TV popularization allowed for television broadcasting of educational programs, sometimes in conjunction with universities. Now, the proliferation of the internet has created various distance education solutions. These new e-learning systems have overcome many of the problems that wracked the prior forms of distance learning techniques.

Historically, there have been various challenges that have left distance learning inferior to its in-person counterpart: difficulty in catering to learning styles, changing the presentation to suit the audience, inability to control the pace and progress of the course, and a number of other hurdles . However, the biggest challenge has always been a substantial lag in communication. One of the core necessities of effective learning is the ability to have two-way communication between the instructors and the students.  Since the start of distance education, this continued to be a problem through the many attempts of creating effective learning programs, and created a canyon between teachers and students. How can a student expect to learn if they have no effective way to voice questions, comments, and frustrations?

A secondary problem in distance education is the lack of student-to-student communication.  Traditional classes are generally taught in group environments, where students can learn and share information with their peers.  Admittedly, teaching methodology in the earlier forms of instruction seen at the start of distance learning often did not rely on much peer-to-peer interaction. However, in various parts of the world, subjects such as philosophy, languages, and debate were taught with a reliance on peer-to-peer interactions.  Without this interaction, distance education programs would serve only as mediums of information transfer, and not quite a true class.

Do these challenges exist today? Certainly. Many of these issues are present, both in distance learning programs and even in in-person classes (think about a subject that relies on interactions, but is taught in a University lecture hall of 300 students). Admittedly, these issues are more pronounced and less easily remediated with distance learning programs. However, with the advent of rapid and near instant modes of communication, and with unprecedented acceleration of information communication technologies, distance learning programs are now often able to overcome a large portion, and debatably all, of these challenges. From Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), to college courses blended with real-time and recorded seminars, to small group real-time video classes (DLS e-Studio), there are various types of effective distance learning.  They employ forums, video chatting, online libraries, practice materials, and feedback systems to break through the barriers of communication, and provide rapid responses to students. Students similarly use these tools to ask questions, both to the instructional team as well as fellow students.  Are all the challenges gone? Perhaps not, but we know it is more effective than it has ever been, and it is debatably as effective as in-person training.

Interested in Distance Learning? Read about DLS' Distance learning capabilities HERE.