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 needs.

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 increased.

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