April 20, 2020

The Distance Learning Phenomenon: What is it, and where will it take us?

Prannoy Nambiar
Student learning to draw with the help of technology

Distance learning is a term that you have likely heard in recent weeks and will continue to hear more of in the coming months. As many schools shutter their doors for the remainder of the school year, there is a feeling of lost momentum in learning for the students of this time. In response to this sentiment, distance learning has risen as a valid option and potential antidote.

What is Distance Learning?

Distance learning is sometimes interchanged with terms like remote learning, virtual learning, online learning, or e-learning. There is one caveat to keep in mind here. Students can access distance learning through a variety of means. Distance learning refers to any learning solution that allows for learning outside of the traditional, physical classroom settings. Out of all the aforementioned terms, distance learning is most accurately substituted with remote learning. Other solutions like virtual learning and e-learning are subcategories of the broader distance learning umbrella term, as they refer to specific technological products to allow for remote access to learning. As you may learn from this article, there are several long-used, low-tech solutions that also allow for students to access distance learning and do not have to include software of any kind.

Benefits of Distance Learning Programs

The advantages of a distance learning programs are mainly related to access to education. Opening up entirely new channels to disseminate information regardless of location provides access to different types of education for those who may otherwise be estranged from the traditional, brick-and-mortar system. This includes those populations in rural/remote areas, those with physical disabilities, or those with temporary locational restrictions.

Additionally, when students can access distance learning programs, it allows for a more equitable and diverse framework for peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher interaction. Through discussion boards, instant messaging, virtual hand-raises, and virtual breakout interactions, distance learning actually avoids many of the subjective guardrails that brick-and-mortar learning might create (i.e. picking on the student who constantly raises their hand or cold-calling on students who aren’t listening).

Finally, the cost benefits of distance learning systems also promise a broader minimization of resource constraints on educational access. The potential to receive a relatively comprehensive education with a capable technological device and internet connection could be a more cost-effective solution compared to having to pay all the surrounding costs around transportation, real estate, and additional resources around a physical educational setting. To be clear, there are other factors at play that would need to be addressed (psychological and physical health resources afforded by brick-and-mortar schools, to start), but the cost savings of particular distance learning aspects are clear.

How can it be implemented?

There are several distance learning implementations that have been in the education zeitgeist for decades. We’ll categorize these as legacy methods for distance learning.

Legacy of Distance Learning

Television Programs: From PBS weekend television programs (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street) to children’s television networks, television has long served as an educational content source for students of all ages. This is undoubtedly a form of distance learning, as it serves as a way to educate children from the comfort of their own homes. The quintessential feature lacking in this approach, which impacts measurable outcomes, is the connection to real-time curriculum and assessment.

Take home packets: This tried-and-true approach to catching absent students up on work they missed while away or helping students prepare for the next school year by giving them content in take-home summer packets is a form of distance learning, albeit low-tech. This type of distance learning program is especially beneficial to students. It’s a form of extended homework that allows students to check their own work, assess themselves, and go through the progression of curriculum without being physically present in a classroom. A gaping feature lacking here is direct instruction from an educator. The learning content must be consumed independently by the student, which may create barriers to learning growth.

Current state distance learning solutions are typically what many educators and technologists are familiar with already. We have seen these use cases across the K-12, higher education, and broader workforce training environments. Distance learning systems are tried and tested to benefit students.

Current State of Distance Learning

Online Learning: One can group current state online offerings into four different categories of distance learning. Each of these are different iterations of the same concept: learning delivered through mobile mediums via internet access. The various degrees to which they differ are based on factors like public vs. private access, volume of course, and timing of instruction (live or recorded).

  1. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): public online course that allows for unlimited participants, at any point in time through recorded curriculum and discussion boards. Examples here are Udemy, Coursera, Masterclass, and others.
  2. SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses): online course that offers a limited number of seats, therefore requiring some type of prior admission or enrollment. Universities and colleges have primarily used SPOCs as alternative courses for partial course credit for their enrolled students. Additionally, you can include personalized learning platforms and other self-paced learning platforms administered at the K12 level as a SPOC as well.
  3. SMOCs (Synchronous Massive Online Courses): public online course that allows for unlimited participants but requires students to be engaged in-real-time. A live webinar or roundtable could be categorized as a SMOC.
  4. SSOCs (Synchronous Private Online Courses): online course that offers a limited number of seats and requires students to be engaged in-real-time. A live webinar or roundtable that is only available for students of a particular school or those with a specific domain email could be considered a SSOC. In today’s time of social distancing and videoconferencing, SSOCs are likely the most-used instance of distance learning in the past few months.

In addition to these categories, there are several features that are also influential in distance learning of today: collaboration/discussion, project-based learning, social-emotional learning, personalized learning, participation, and gamification are each factors that can also be incorporated into the above distance learning frameworks.

Future of Distance Learning

Distance learning, while very established in theory, still has a lot of room to change and grow through additional technological innovations. There are several up-and-coming technologies that will unlock further reach for distance learning methods, but the main use case is with regards to virtual reality. It is one of the most promising areas of distance learning systems for growth.

Virtual Reality: Virtual reality would allow for students and teachers to be immersed in the same virtual experience and setting as each other, one that would mimic the behavioral and intangible intricacies that a brick-and-mortar classroom experience would bring. In addition to those intricacies, however, the technological platform of virtual reality would also incorporate the methods that online learning currently brings: social learning, gamification, and equitable participation amongst students.

In a virtual classroom, teachers would be able to share multiple points of data at once with their students, give and receive non-verbal feedback easily, and collect tangible data on their students behaviors and learning, all within the confines of their own personal desk space.

Distance learning as a concept has been around throughout education history. Yet it continues to evolve and reach a new scale as technology has advanced. There are many resources for educators to learn more about how to utilize today’s technology to engage their students remotely, but it is important to remember that technology is only one factor in distance learning programs. A lack of technological resources does not necessarily prohibit a remote learning environment, and there are ways for schools to engage their students with relatively low-tech, mobile solutions as well. There are a variety of ways educators can make sure students can access distance learning. It is important to treat distance learning solutions as a broad spectrum that incorporates a diversified portfolio of solutions.

Visit GoGuardian's Distance Learning hub for resources to support your schools during closures.