The State of Distance Learning Education

Many educational institutions are choosing to add distance learning to their curriculum. Distance learning is a cost-effective and flexible way to obtain skills without the restrictions of time or geographic location of the student. Delivery of the material is structured similarly to a traditional classroom setting, but the classes are more student-driven. The students receive the same types of tasks and use the same textbooks and instruction notes as they would at a brick-and-mortar school, and the teachers can use more visual and audio aids and customize the instruction for the students in the current class.

Students, not teachers, develop the content of online classes based on their needs and the interaction with their classmates. This is a vast change from the traditional classroom setting where the teacher drives the content and discussions. It is also a deviation from the traditional correspondence courses where students work independently and learn through self-instruction. Technological advances have made it possible to move away from such pre-set curriculum structures and meet the needs of the students.

David Alexander, is an expert on distance learning. He has been interviewed many times on the topic of online education, the benefits and challenges for both student and teacher, and how he sees the evolution of distance learning. Alexander believes that online instructors and administrators need to concentrate on the learning needs of the students rather than putting all the power into the technology used to facilitate distance learning.

Benefits for Students

Online students need to be aware of their abilities to learn in an online environment and to communicate with others regardless of their status as teacher or classmate. Self-reflection of what holds them back and what keeps them engaged is ideal before embarking on the journey of distance learning. This type of learning environment forces the student to express their needs and take ownership of their self-directed learning.

While students enrolled in online programs can often feel isolated, this feeling of isolation can be beneficial to students. It develops their metacognitive skills and encourages them to reflect on their knowledge and build autonomy. Self-motivation is a necessity for online students as is the ability of the student to determine what they want and do not want.

Autonomy is the most important aspect of an online classroom. The amount of support and student-professor interactions necessary depends on the degree of autonomy the student has. Some teachers are set with their one-size-fits-all mentality while others will adjust their teaching style to match each student’s needs. Honest and open dialogue between the teacher and student increases the student’s autonomy.

Essentially, communication between teacher and student is vital to the online student. Unlike traditional college classes where the student will make an appointment with the professor at the professor’s office, online communication can be through e-mail and video chats. These interactions allow the teacher to understand the student’s motives and needs, which allows the teacher to adjust how they teach the online class. Likewise, the student can gain an understanding of the teacher’s expectations, which lessens the student’s feeling of isolation and helps to prevent student withdrawals from distance learning courses.

Challenges for Teachers

David Alexander believes that teachers who are used to teaching in a classroom environment need to change their mindset and routine for the online environment. The same talents they employ in a traditional classroom setting will not transfer to the online classroom. Using traditional classroom techniques will increase the workloads for both teachers and students and prove ineffective overall. The online classroom is more student-driven than teacher- or student-centered, requiring the instructor to adapt their course structure.

Relationships with students need to be built to eliminate the feeling of isolation in the online classroom. Unlike the correspondence-teaching of old, today’s technology allows students from all over the world to participate in projects with classmates, to have interactions such as active discussions with the whole class, and to build a community mentality based on a common purpose. Since these students have a certain degree of autonomy, an open dialogue with the professor is key to determining how much interaction is necessary for each student and how much autonomy each student actually has.

Lack of administrative support can also hinder a distance-learning teacher from earning job promotions and achieving job security. Quite often, administrators draft a curriculum for an online program without understanding the nuances of teaching online. The position of online teacher usually is considered an adjunct position, offering low pay and no stability for their position. Given the quickly growing industry of distance learning, Dr. Alexander considers it mandatory to provide higher pay and longevity to online teachers commensurate with the amount of work involved with teaching online.

Online Institutions

In order to enhance the reputation of online institutions, Dr. Alexander suggests that the administrators should examine the psychology and pedagogy of distance learning and reduce the emphasis on the technology aspect of online learning. They need to stop adapting the face-to-face teaching curriculum, which is ineffective for students and teachers, and develop a more flexible teaching model to fit the needs of both the students and teachers. The reputation of online institutions as having poor-quality instruction and high dropout rates has already increased with the introduction of well-respected schools to distance learning. However, recognizing the differing strategy and skill set necessary to conduct an effective and efficient online learning environment still is required to build a successful distance learning industry.

Distance Learning Evolution

Dr. Alexander expects to see an increase in the intelligence of the learning management systems to the degree of adapting to the varying levels of student needs: their personalities, interests, background knowledge and learning preferences. These systems must be very interactive to accommodate each student’s abilities and needs and adjust accordingly. Ideally, such a system would be able to predict the student’s level of success and create an educational path tailored to the student that will help them succeed. Those in the field already are starting to realize the importance of differentiation to the progression of distance learning.

Legislative Impact

Dr. Alexander is hopeful that future federal and state regulations will evolve to diminish or eliminate the one-size-fits-all management system currently at the core of distance learning. Legislation needs to allow for the diversity of students and their learning abilities. The result is a high drop-out rate and increased costs. For this industry to continue growing, more research and a redesign of the adaptive system by professional developers is necessary. Highly qualified teachers being offered full-time positions will also create the stability that so many traditional classroom settings have. Legislation geared toward this outcome can only enhance this goal.
Distance learning offers an alternative for non-traditional students to continue their education in a global world and a global economy. Each person’s education is individualized. There are no absolute lists that determine whether a student will be successful in distance learning or how much interaction each student needs with the online learning community. What matters is how the student takes charge of their learning and how well they communicate their needs to their professor and peers. These two things will help online students succeed with their online learning and be ready to overcome real-life challenges.

Educational institutions offering distance learning are rewarded with a larger and more diverse student base. With changes in curriculum to meet the needs of students, the online learning environment has more potential for developing strong bonds within the online learning community than a traditional setting. Once traditional institutions accept the value of online distance learning, the industry will flourish.