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Distance Learning, Revisited
by James G. Lengel, Hunter College, CUNY, 11/20/08

In this space five years ago, we examined the then-emerging field of distance learning -- using the Internet and other telecommunication channels to help students learn. Since that time, distance learning has blossomed, with just about every college, and many high schools, offering some form of this online educational possibility.

Distance learning is a loose phrase that is used to describe anything from a teacher posting online a single assignment in a regular classroom course, to a completely self-paced and self-correcting online correspondence degree program. And it's growing quickly in education, at all points along this continuum. Other terms used to describe this trend include online learning, Internet courses, computer-based training, and web learning. As a teacher, I have designed and taught many distance-learning courses, of all sorts, and as a consultant I have helped a variety of schools and teachers to design and build their online education systems and courses.

I have learned through this experience that defining distance learning is like the five blind men describing an elephant as they reached out and touched its various parts. The one holding the tail described the elephant as "like a rope, long, supple, and twisted," while the fellow grasping the leg said it was "like a tree, solid, cylindrical, and rough-textured," and so forth. It all depends on what part of the beast you concentrate your attention.

A good way to think about the myriad of educational activity that the phrase comprehends is to consider distance learning programs across five continua:

From Supplemental to Self-contained

At many schools, almost every course these days includes an online component. It might be a single assignment, a collection of original sources, a collaborative task, or a video recording of a lecture that students use to meet the objectives of the course. The course continues to meet three hours a week in the classroom, face-to-face with the teacher; the online elements complement or supplement this activity. That's one end of the continuum. In the middle are hybrid courses that meet every other week in the classroom, and meet online during alternate weeks, perhaps through an asynchronous discussion group or a live video chat. This approach is especially useful for part-time master's programs whose participants work a full-time job and reside far from campus.

At the far end of this continuum is the completely self-contained online course, in which the students never meet face-to-face with the professor, and are often separated by oceans and continents. All materials and activities of the course are posted online; all work is done by students in their own homes or workplaces, and evaluated by professors at home or in their offices. All three approaches use Internet technologies to enhance an existing course, or to extend the reach of the college to new cohorts of students far from campus, and all three are growing, all over the world.

From Teacher-led to Self-paced

Some distance learning programs work just like the traditional college course, with the teacher setting the syllabus, leading the sessions, meeting regularly with students, and evaluating their work. These sometimes substitute a live video connection for the weekly meeting in the classroom. The teacher sets the pace and remains at the center of the activity, even with students far away.

At the other end of the continuum are courses in which the student works his way through the course materials on his own, at his own pace, often with many self-correcting exercises, and no regular interaction with a teacher or a class of students. The former offers few economies of scale and little change in the teacher's workload or schedule; the latter holds the promise of infinite scalability and flexibility and in some cases, profit.

From Social to Independent

Many distance-learning programs aim to capture the social aspects of learning: discussions, group projects, large lectures, common readings. They use two-way video, synchronous chats, collaborative software, and other technologies to preserve rich interaction with the professor and with other students. At the other end of this continuum are programs that cater to individuals working alone, with no interest in working with others, and no opportunity to banter the concepts of the course with a group of fellow students..

From Synchronous to Asynchronous

Courses that preserve the traditional weekly schedule of lecture, discussion, and assignment, where all students work through the material at the same pace form one end of this continuum. Most teacher-led and socially-oriented courses are synchronous. At the other end of the continuum, the self-paced, independent approaches tend to be asynchronous: everything is online, available from day one, and you may do it whenever you wish, earning your three credits in a week's time or over an entire year.

From Media-Rich to Media-Lite

Students in some online courses confront animations, simulations, video clips, image collections, musical files, and other media that make the concepts of the course richer and more understandable. These are all provided online, right in the curriculum, and playable on the students computer (or on his iPod). That's one end of the media continuum.

At the other end are courses that restrict themselves to text: online readings, email exchange with the teacher, and perhaps a text discussion group or blog. The former require far more preparation and work in their production than the latter, and are better rated by students.

Diploma Mill - Legitimate College

While most of the growth in distance learning stems from the efforts of public institutions aiming to make it easier for part-time and nontraditional students to earn a degree, the most widely advertised programs emanate from for-profit companies marketing college degrees to working adults. They make it easy to earn a degree, often waiving the time and credit requirements of legitimate colleges, and many have learned how to earn a quick profit. These schools pay their instructors about $1500 to teach a 3-credit online course, consisting of answering student questions on textbook readings and grading their papers over email. Neither student nor professor needs to do much work to earn the degree.

(Here's your assignment: If each of the 20 students in the class pays the college $1000 per credit, compute the gross margin on this course. Email your computations to me at jim@lengel.net .)

Depending on how you look at it, distance learning can be a boon -- to a working adult with no time to travel to class, or to students in isolated rural areas, or to a school looking to reach out to non-traditional students. It can also be a boondoggle. Either way, it's growing quickly, and like the elephant, subject to varied interpretations.

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