Distance education or distance learning is not a new concept, contrary to popular belief. In the early 1700’s Caleb Phillips advertised correspondence courses in the Boston Gazette. The University of London was the first to offer degrees worldwide beginning in the late 1850’s and many universities followed suit including the University of Chicago, the University of Queensland, the University of South Africa, and the University of Houston. It was the growth of the Internet that allowed distance education to take a different direction with platforms such as eCollege and Blackboard. Statistics from 2009 reveal that over 4 million students are participating in distance education (Lepi, 2013).
However, the key question remains, how effective is distance education? Michael Simonson (2000) explained the Equivalence Theory, which states that distance education and face to face education should have the same learning outcomes and provide equivalent learning experiences to meet those outcomes (Simonson, 2000). In order to meet these goals, I feel that there must be: (a) effective instructional designers, (b) knowledgeable instructors, and (c) motivated and engaged students. Huett, Moller, Foshay, and Coleman (2008) discussed the belief that to create interesting distance learning spaces for students, instructional designers must work with teachers in a cooperative manner (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008). Teachers must not only be knowledgeable in the content they are teaching, but they must also be familiar with the needs of their learners. Students taking part in distance education are from a variety of backgrounds and from various geographical locations. It is important that teachers be cognizant of these issues in order that all students can meet with success. Students also have a responsibility to be motivated in order to adapt to an online learning environment. Technology is advancing rapidly and it is incumbent upon distance learners to learn new technologies as they arise in order to learn independently as schools, colleges, and universities will continue to adopt new e-learning platforms and technologies.
In this regard, it is important for distance education to evolve. Simonson (2000) pointed out that distance education is at critical mass. In other words, distance education has been widely adopted around the world and has become an essential component of learning environments (Simonson, 2008). As a teacher in a K-12 setting, I believe, distance education can play a vital role. I am currently using the Desire to Learn (D2L) platform with my grade 8s and am finding considerable success with its use. I have increased access and communication with my students, especially those students who lack the confidence to participate in our face to face classroom. Furthermore, my students are learning at their own pace as they can move on to additional learning experiences without having to wait for the rest of the class. The D2L platform has a variety of tools such as the blog feature, group lockers, class notes, and videos. This evolution allows for a more learner-centered approach as opposed to the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. In addition, distance education platforms needs to evolve by incorporating new technology and media as they arise in order to compete with other providers. In the K-12 environment, it is essential that distance learning evolve to include more synchronous activities so students do not feel isolated. Huett et al. (2008) discussed the fact that due to development and social concerns, it is important to include increased synchronous times so students feel a sense of community in their online classroom (Huett et al., 2008). I feel that this is an important aspect that many instructional designers and teachers do not consider. Students in this stage might not have the maturity to be focused enough to be independent learners. They need to be taught skills such as organization, self-regulation, collaboration, and independence by their teachers. Young children and young adults require considerable support and supervision in order to be successful in their online classroom; therefore it is vital that distance education in the K-12 environment evolve to consider increased support, increased synchronous times, and to consider the physical and developmental stages of students. If distance education changes and evolves by considering these factors, perhaps we will see positive changes in teaching and learning in the K-12 environment.
Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W. & Coleman, C., (2008, September/October). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63-67.
Simonson, M. (2000). Making decisions: The use of electronic technology in online classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 84, 29-34.