Strategies for Bridging Distances

The distributed learning environment, as contrasted to the teacher-centered classroom, is growing at all levels of education. This was clearly the central theme of many of the presentations at the Society for Applied Learning Technology Conference (SALT) and the Florida Educational Conference (FETC), both held in Orlando, Florida in March.

The concept of Distance Learning is growing, especially the use of the World Wide Web, both for training and instruction in a variety of subject areas. Students use networked computers at schools, their workplaces and at home. They work alone and in groups. The Web is the vehicle for instruction, for information retrieval, and for interaction with fellow students and instructors. And it is said to be the fastest growing communication system in history.

Observations From Recent Conferences

A number of interesting observations were stated at both conferences, which I would like to share with our readers. For example:

  • ï There is not a ìtypical distance learning student,î as virtually all students can learn from distance education programs and can effectively use the Web.

    ï Most administrators and faculty members express the opinion that using the Web for course presentation d'es not affect enrollment in on- campus offerings of the same course.

    ï Students do complain about lack of interaction with the instructor and are frustrated at not being able to get what they consider rapid feedback.

    ï Student attention d'es wander.

    ï A single workstation screen may contain too much information.

    ï Access to the Web remains limited, which leads to discontent by users.

    ï Concern exists about authenticity and reliability of information on the Web.

    ï Issues such as bandwidth, speed of communication lines, worthwhile software applications, and costs are still with us.
  • Early Conclusions

    However, the existing lecture model -- with its often insufficient interaction and primary instructor dominance -- is changing. We try to emphasize skills needed in todayís workplace, such as collaboration, sharing and group activity. Instruction is no longer restricted to the classroom. A class consists of a virtual community of learning. Entire courses are taught ìonlineî with students never coming to a site. Electronic office hours and discussion groups provide students with 24-hour access to an array of learning opportunities.

    Despite all the interest and growing activity, little research evidence exists to support claims for the effectiveness of Web-based instruction. However, certain conclusions have been reached. For example:

  • ï The World Wide Web deals easily with colorful graphics and pictorial material, handles full-motion video and animations, and supports high-quality video, all of which is accessible with commonly available hardware and software.

    ï Bandwidth is still too low as requirements for audio and video; until ISDN lines or other access means are commonplace, limitations exist.

    ï Success of use depends more on people-related components -- such as training -- than on the technology itself.

    ï The source of content is dynamic, as compared to static texts published on a certain date.

    ï ìSelf-directed learningî and ìlife-long learningî have become achievable goals.

    ï The effort involved in providing quality educational material is expensive. The compensation mechanism is not yet in place, but is under serious consideration.
  • Proper Focus is Key

    Though we now have very sophisticated tools available, focus must always be on teaching and learning rather than on the technology itself. Simply placing lecture content on Web pages may provide better access but it d'es not necessarily make any contribution to active learning. It is the educational content, courseware presentation, multimedia material, assessment tools, etc., which are paramount.

    The technology is becoming transparent. The technical aspects of computers and the Internet do not need to be mastered to effectively use computers and the World Wide Web in education. The key is the proper use of good teaching skills as we make the delivery of traditional pedagogy more meaningful and appealing. Whatever resources are, or become, available, they must contribute to the educational goals of the program.

    This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.