What Is Distance Education?
Distance education delivers classes (live
or pre-taped) to students in their home, office, or classroom.
It is used by K-12, higher education, continuing education and
business. As the cost of delivering quality education increases,
institutions find that limited resources prevent them from building
facilities, hiring faculty, or expanding curricula. They are
using distance education to maximize resources and are combining
their assets with others to produce programming. Distance education
is offered internationally, nationally,
regionally, and locally over all forms of conferencing technology.
Distance learning is expanding and examples
of it are increasing dramatically. Fewer than 10 states were
using distance learning in 1987; today, virtually all states
have an interest or effort in distance education. Distance learning
systems connect the teacher with the students when physical face-to-face
interaction is not possible. Telecommunications systems carry
instruction, moving information instead of people. The technology
at distant locations are important and affect how interaction
takes place, what information resources are used, and how effective
the system is likely to be.
Technology transports information, not
people. Distances between teachers and students are bridged with
an array of familiar technology as well as new information age
equipment. What sets today's distance education efforts apart
from previous efforts is the possibility of an interactive capacity
that provides learner and teacher with needed feedback, including
the opportunity to dialogue, clarify, or assess. Advances in
digital compression technology may greatly expand the number
of channels that can be sent over any transmission medium, doubling
or even tripling channel capacity. Technologies for learning
at a distance are also enlarging our definition of how students
learn, where they learn, and who teaches them. No one technology
is best for all situations and applications. Different technologies
have different capabilities and limitations, and effective implementation
will depend on matching technological capabilities to education
Distance education places students and
their instructors in separate locations using some form of technology
to communicate and interact. The student may be located in the
classroom, home, office or learning center. The instructor may
be located in a media classroom, studio, office or home.
The student may receive information via
satellite, microwave, or fiber optic cable, television (broadcast,
cable or Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS), video
cassette or disk, telephone - audio conferencing bridge or direct
phone line, audio cassette, printed materials - text, study guide,
or handout, computer - modem or floppy disk, and compressed video.
Recent rapid development of technology has resulted in systems
that are powerful, flexible, and increasingly affordable. The
base of available information technology resources is increasing
with dramatic speed. Much has been learned about connecting various
forms of technology into systems, so that the ability to link
systems is growing. Most distance learning systems are hybrids,
combining several technologies, such as satellite, ITFS, microwave,
cable, fiber optic, and computer connections.
Interactivity is accomplished via telephone
(one-way video and two-way audio), two-way video or graphics
interactivity, two-way computer hookups, two-way audio. Interactivity
may be delayed but interaction provided by teacher telephone
office hours when students can call or through time with on-site
facilitators. Classes with large numbers of students have a limited
amount of interactivity. Much of the activity on computer networks
is on a delayed basis as well. Possibilities for audio and visual
interaction are increasingly wide.
In the earlier days of distance learning,
it was most common to see distance learning used for rural students
who were at a distance from an educational institution. The student
might watch a telecourse on a television stations, read texts,
mail in assignments and then travel to the local college to take
an exam. This model is still in use, but as the technology has
become more sophisticated and the cost of distance learning dropped
as equipment prices dropped, the use of distance education has
High front-end costs prevented an early
widespread adoption of electronically mediated learning. Distance
learning has been aggressively adopted in many areas because
it can meet specific educational needs. As the concept of accountability
became accepted and laws required certain courses in high school
in order for students to be admitted to state colleges, telecommunications
was examined as a way to provide student access to the required
courses. Many rural school districts could not afford the special
teachers to conduct required courses. Distance education met
this need by providing courses in schools where teachers were
not available or were too costly to provide for a few students.
It also fulfilled a need for teacher training and staff development
in locations where experts and resources were difficult to obtain.
These systems link learner communities with each other and bring
a wide array of experts and information to the classroom.
Challenges which faced the early users
of distance education are still with us today. If distance education
is to play a greater role in improving the quality of education,
it will require expanded technology; more linkages between schools,
higher education, and the private sector; and more teachers who
use technology well. Teachers must be involved in planning the
systems, trained to use the tools they provide, and given the
flexibility to revise their teaching. Federal and state regulations
will need revision to ensure a more flexible and effective use
of technology. Connections have been established across geographic,
instructional, and institutional boundaries which provide opportunities
for collaboration and resource sharing among many groups In the
pooling of students and teachers, distance learning reconfigures
the classroom which no longer is bounded by the physical space
of the school, district, state or nation.
The key to success in distance learning
is the teacher. If the teacher is good, the technology can become
almost transparent. No technology can overcome poor teaching
which is actually exacerbated in distance education applications.
When skilled teachers are involved, enthusiasm, expertise, and
creative use of the media can enrich students beyond the four
walls of their classroom.
Teachers need training in the system's
technical aspects and in the educational applications of the
technology. Areas for assistance include the amount of time needed
to prepare and teach courses, how to establish and maintain effective
communication with students, strategies for adding visual components
to audio courses, ways to increase interaction between students
and faculty, planning and management of organizational details,
and strategies for group cohesion and student motivation.
The interchange of ideas requires different
communication methods than in conventional classrooms: information
technologies are predominantly visual media, rather than the
textual and auditory environment of the conventional classroom,
the affective content of mediated messages is muted compared
to face-to-face interaction, and complex cognitive content can
be conveyed more readily in electronic form because multiple
representations of material (e.g., animations, text, verbal descriptions,
and visual images) can be presented to give learners many ways
of understanding the fundamental concept.
from "The Distance
Learning Technology Resource Guide," by Carla Lane