Learning, in general, is moving away from teacher-oriented to student-oriented in order to prepare our students to function in a society that requires critical thinkers and problem-solvers. This is where distance learning comes to the fore as the learner is encouraged, even forced, to use technology (a dynamic and exciting learning platform) as the tool that will provide him with an individualized and personal learning experience. It is through doing that he will build on his knowledge rather than sitting passively and listening to what a lecturer has to say. Hopefully distance learning will encourage our students to become lifelong learners as opposed to passive onlookers.
At the present time the general perception of distance learning, according to Talent-Runnels et al, is that it is “less effective, less credible, and less important than traditional education” (Simonson et al, 2015, p.66). Dede (1996) and Harrison (2001) also found that a common perception amongst the public is that distance learning is not as effective as traditional face-to-face learning. However, as more and more individuals see the versatility, effectiveness, efficiency and usefulness of technology, so this perception will undergo a change.
Research tracked by annual surveys has indicated that distance learning is gaining momentum and growing in leaps and bounds. The reason behind this has been attributed to the economic downturn, an increasing adult student population and a growing belief among academic leaders that distance education is equal, or even surpasses, face-to-face learning. Research carried out by Van der Werf and Sabatier (2009) indicates that more and more students will not be able to afford to be full-time students and distance education will be able to provide a cheaper option. Distance learning has also opened a door to working professionals who want to study further to increase their skill set and be more marketable. This adult population is looking for a flexible learning environment to suit their needs and distance learning fits this bill. With advances in technology, people need to keep up with all the new practices and trends if they want to stay competitive, and distance learning provides them the platform to do just this. These working professionals no longer have to fear keeping abreast with the younger generation joining the work force and ousting them due to lack of knowledge and up-to-date skills.
Perceptions of distance learing do play a role in the growth thereof. Many who don’t understand the versatility of new technology will continue to deny its effectiveness and quality in comparison to traditional face-to-face learning. As we learned in our Foundations of Research course, people who have a certain perception will look for research to support their opinion rather than having an open mind and looking at what other research has to say. However, there is a new culture of learners, millennial learners, who have grown up with the internet and this distance learning environment is familiar and comfortable and suits their learning styles. Distance learning is a natural progression for them as they are used to communicating, collaborating and interacting with their peers and instructional content online. Simulations, gaming, YouTube,blogs, wikis and many other tools are currently being used in the classroom to enhance learning. With the advent of new web 3.0 technologies, students will become even more immersed in this online environment. They will not need to be in the physical location to interact and collaborate; this can be done online. They are comfortable using new technology and are not scared to experiment and make mistakes so new technology will not be a barrier that lends itself to a negative perception on their part. They are used to, and expect, to find challenges in the learning process. “The ever-evolving nature of technology will continue to push distance educators to use new tools to create learning environments that will indeed prepare students to be life-long learners, who can problem solve through collaboration with global partners” (Beldarrain, Y., 2006).
The instructional designer (ID) can be an advocate for improving societal perceptions of distance learning. It is important to ensure that the student be placed at the center of the learning experience and to focus on “what attributes of the medium can contribute to a positive, equivalent learning experience” (Simonson et al, 2015, p.61). The ID must ensure that distance courses are of a comparable quality or even surpass the quality of traditional fact-to-face learning. He has the tools at his disposal to create a learning environment that promotes “active learning, collaboration, mastery of course material, and student control over the learning process” (Simonson et al, 2015, p.105). The ID must not use technology for the sake of using it, but must rather match the content to the technology to ensure a meaningful learning experience. The activities chosen must lead to the successful attainment of all learning objectives specified and should incorporate communication, collaboration and interaction. By focusing on the student and ensuring that her learning experience is positive and meaningful will help to improve societal perceptions of distance learning. As more students report positive distance learning experiences, so the perceptions of society will start to turn around and a greater respect will be awarded to online learning. “The quality of the instructor, system quality, and content quality were found to be related to student satisfaction” (Simonson et al, 2015, p. 66).
Being a force for continuous improvement in the field of distance education means taking care to put the student first, look at his/her needs, ensure the technology matches the content, and provide opportunities for communication, collaboration and interactivity. This requires careful planning and organization. Requesting feedback about the quality of the learning experience from students will help me grow as an ID and, in so doing, equip me with vital information that can be incorporated to enhance said course and future courses. The instructor also needs to be taken into account when designing a distance course as Selim (2007) stated that “instructor attitudes toward the technology, instructor teaching style, student computer competency, use of interactive collaboration, course content, and effectiveness of the technology system were critical success factors for distance education courses” (Simonson et al, 2015, p.66). This all needs to be taken into account during the planning and organization phases.
It is an exciting time for distance learning right now. People are becoming more technonogically savvy and are looking for accessible, flexible and cheaper options of furthering their knowledge and/or skills. It is making learning within and across countries accessbile for all, thereby making distance learning a “global phenomenon” that will continue to gain momentum and, hopefully, receive the recognition and respect that it deserves in the future (Beldarrain, 2006).
Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance Education Trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education, (27)2, August 2006, pp. 139–153
Dede, C. (2005). Planning for neomillennial learning styles. Educause Quarterly, November
Van Der Werf, M., & Sabatier, G., (2009). The College of 2020: Students. Chronicle Research Services. (Review based on the Executive Summary accessed online at http://www.deanstalk.net/files/thecollegeof2020executivesummary-1.pdf.)
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (6th Edition), IAP, Inc. Charlotte, North Carolina