by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)
Distance learning is in the news these days, and a frequent topic of discussion among educators. Colleges look to distance learning to find new sources of students,
businesses are replacing on-site training courses with on-line learning programs,
and thousands of students and teachers use the Virtual High School every day
to do their lessons. And like me, you may receive spam in your email each week
offering the opportunity to earn an advanced degree by distance learning, with no admissions
hurdles, no tests, and guaranteed diplomas. The Internet seems to have given
birth to a rapidly-growing educational pathway.
But distance learning is not new...
Many years before the Internet was even thought of, I took a distance learning
course in first aid. In order to be the manager of my high-school football team,
I had to be qualified in first aid. But there were no courses offered in my
town that would prepare me for the upcoming fall season, so I signed up for
a correspondence course. They sent me materials to read, tests, essays to write,
situations to analyze, and pictures and diagrams to study. Once a week, I mailed
my work to an unseen teacher, who corrected and commented by return mail. I
did well on the written part of the course, but this was not enough. I also needed
to display my competence at tourniquets and bandages to a live expert at the
local Red Cross. Just in time for the first football practice, I received my
He was a strange teacher. He'd come into class (often late), pose a question,
then wander around the room waiting for us to answer it. This was not what we
were led to expect from our college experience. On many days his wanderings
would lead him to the window, where he would gaze and daydream, and on several
occasions he found himself behind the curtains, invisible to his students. He
was quite distant from us, in many ways. He assigned excellent, thought provoking readings
that I recall to this day, and his questions sent us off on provocative
discussions among ourselves. He made us write more papers than most, and was
insightful and careful with his commentaries - just the opposite of his behavior
in the classroom. We learned, not from his presentations in the classroom, but
from the readings, papers, comments, and discussions that he had set up for
us but that we essentially carried out independently.
Both of these successful examples of distance learning took place more than
30 years ago. And if you look back, you may recall many topics and concepts
that you learned by a combination of independent reading, discussions with peers,
and commentary from an expert. In fact, most learning, even in the best universities
and schools, is in actuality a blend of reading, listening to the teacher,
discussion, homework, and independent reflection. In very few courses or programs
does most of the learning occur in the classroom with the teacher. The blend
varies from course to course, depending on the subject matter, and the way the
teacher has structured the learning, but all of them contain a significant measure
of distance learning, learning that occurs not in the presence of the teacher
in the classroom. Learning is most often a blend of...
- face-to-face interaction with the teacher: lecture, class discussion, office
hours or before/after school tutorials.
- distant interaction with the teacher: readings, papers written and corrected.
- independent study: readings, homework, problems to solve, reflection, writing.
- interaction with peers: discussion, argument, group projects.
- hands-on application: experiments, lab work, projects.
And of all these, only the first one takes place in the classroom with the
teacher -- the majority take place at a distance. We deceive ourselves as teachers
when we think that our students are only learning when they are with us in the
classroom. Good teachers realize that their job is to define a set of assignments
and provide a learning environment of which the class meeting is only a small
part. Good students know that to rely simply on what happens in class is not
a path to success in most courses.
Designing a Distance Learning Course
To design a good distance learning course is very similar to designing any
course. In designing a course, the teacher must:
- clearly define the objectives of the course, in terms of what the student
is expected to learn.
- set forth a list of assignments for the students to do, which include readings,
problems, experiments, and other activities appropriate to the content.
- provide opportunities for discussion with other students and with the teacher.
- require students to turn in evidence that they have learned, through tests,
projects, writings or other work.
- evaluate and comment on the work turned in by students.
If you look carefully at this list, you will see very little that requires
all the students to be present in the classroom with the teacher at the same
time. Of course, the blend works best when the face-to-face experience is part
of the mix, but when classroom presence is impossible, a good course can be
Suppose a group of students somewhere in Asia wanted to learn from you, and
a personal visit was out of the question. How would you structure the course
for them? How would you ensure that the five elements listed above were covered?
How would you use the new features of the Internet, such as instant messaging,
audio chat, video, and multiple document types, to construct a rich learning
experience for these students?
My teachers in first aid and sociology succeeded 30 years ago to construct
an effective distance learning experience. Think of how much better we should
be able to do it today.
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