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Friday, October 8, 2010

Distance Learning Tech: Yay or Nay?

            Information Technology has grown rapidly in the educational system of many countries across the globe.  As a result, through the usage of the World Wide Web, Audio, and Video-based technology, classrooms have incorporated distance learning in various ways.  This new system will be examined for its problem-solution origin, its benefits and drawbacks, and its future in the educational spectrum.  The general purpose of this paper is to give a broad understanding of what distance learning entails, the typical types of technology used in the system, as well as the benefits and drawbacks to the system as a whole from philosophical to more practical views.  The general problem-solution of distance learning is the problem of motivated students without proper resources at distant locations attaining information and courses through the use of technology. 

            Distance learning began as early as the 16th and 17th century.  Of course, at that time, the use of technology was non-existent.  However, the idea that education can travel pre-exists our use of it today in classrooms.  Philosophers, artists, and scientists would write letters to each other or send diagrams to explain the ideas, scenes, or phenomena they were experiencing and wishing to relay to the recipient.  It comes as no surprise then, that an idea so well seeded in our educational culture does nothing but grow into broader spectrums with more applications.
            Even back in the 16th century, through the use of letters and diagrams, the setbacks and benefits of distance learning survive in our high technical world today.  For instance, a setback in a letter is the absence of face-to-face interaction.  The importance of human interaction in education is something we will go into more detail later but it is important to note that this issue was not born with distance learning technology but with distance learning in of itself.  The obvious benefit is the information the recipient attains.  Where previously there was no communication between two parties there is now a correspondence that, if efficient and satisfying to the objective, could result in the further development of new ideas, understanding, or simple debate. 
            We know that students today are not philosophers of the 17th century, nor is the motivation and eagerness to learn as true and pure as the pioneers of early distance learning.  However, the technology is out there to help more students attain their goals of earning a degree.  The United States Department of Education states the following about distance learning technology,
The thoughtful integration of digital technologies into the traditional scheme of education and their use in developing new ways of learning is necessary to ensure students have the tools to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing technological society (U.S. Department of Education).

The general moral of distance education is to spread knowledge to all those wishing to learn.  As positive and philanthropic as that sounds, the use and abuse of the system has resulted in an existing disagreement over the benefits associated with distance learning technology.
It is this argument that probes many in favor of traditional face-to-face interaction with students and teachers.  In a study of students who spent half the semester of an IT course via online distance learning and the other half in lecture with a professor and teacher assistant, the general outcome was as follows,
            Most students are not prepared for the need to take responsibility for directing their own learning, for pacing and motivating themselves, for managing and using the information available, and for constructing the knowledge, which previously the lecturer carried out for them (Tschang & Senta 269).

Thus the student motivation factor plays a critical role in the success of distance teaching as we will see in further studies and opinions.  However, the authors of the same study did defend distance learning to the following extent,
            We didn’t test whether internet courses are good or bad, per se,” says Figlio. “But we did find modest evidence that live only instruction results in higher learning outcomes than inter- net instruction (Tschang & Senta 269)

Thus, where the option exists for students to interact with others in a classroom, the

choice between online learning and face to face interaction is the choice of the student.

Potential Benefits

            Granted that students must be motivated in order to successfully use distance learning technology, those that are eager to learn benefit greatly in various ways though this system.  Consider the typical student who, for financial or personal reasons, has to attend a school close to home.  The school may not offer all the classes the student wishes to take to complete their degree.  For a student, or a group of students sharing a similar major, distance learning from a larger more intricate university would fulfill his or her desire to learn a subject otherwise unattainable at their institute.  In this scenario we have a motivated student with career goals who would not fumble the opportunity to learn a topic autonomously.  Another case is a student who is attending a school with all the classes he or she needs to complete a degree within the school.  However, it is becoming increasingly common that class schedules conflict with other classes, work, or personal duties of the student.  For a student who is willing to commit to a distance learning system, the success rate of course completion is usually high.  The student can work his or her class schedule around a pre-existing personal schedule.  Another potential case, although far less favorable and uncommon, is a student who may need more than one semester to complete the course.  Most university level classes take 15 weeks or one academic semester to complete at a regular pace.  If a student know that he or she will not have adequate time to study and complete all the objectives of the course in that time frame, some schools will allow the student to complete independent study through distance learning.  The distance aspect itself does not really factor into this scenario, however, the technology used for distance learning is incorporated into this student’s course work.  The student will now be able to study independently at his or her own pace with only a deadline to keep in mind.  These three cases are most certainly not the only scenarios where distance learning is used, however, for students at the undergraduate and graduate level, they are the most common according to Nation &Evans. 
            As these benefits are listed, one can immediately think of where distance learning can be abused in ways that poorly affect both the student and reputation of the system.  Noticeably the examples given for students who benefit from distance learning are those whose only option is the use of the system.  Some students have the option of being in lecture with an actual professor but will chose to use distance-learning technology instead.  Although there is less time spent with a professor during distance learning, there is still a teacher associated with the course.  The U.S. Department of Education underscores this point as vital in the success of a course being taught mostly online or otherwise technically,
            Teacher behaviors that influence student scores include providing additional instructions, rewording instructions for clarity, and answering questions that arise during the test period (violating the standardized task).  These variations are generally dismissed as measurement error, but support the preference for using individually administered achievement tests by trained psychometricians when feasible (Aiken 1996).

Still supporting the system of distance learning, the USDE is suggesting that as important as teacher roles are in the classroom, a more objective approach to some material, and in particular standard testing, leave less room for error.  When used under the proper supervision of a course instructor who regulates progress of students, as well as motivated students enrolled in the course, distance-learning technology is nothing but an opportunity to learn an otherwise unavailable subject.
Further Required Research
            The growing factor in distance-learning is the use of the World Wide Web my across the globe.  As developing countries still building schools and educational infrastructure have no place to send their growing population, make-shift schools can incorporate classes taught by big Universities.  The following data suggests that the use of online distance learning will be the next big trend in edicational systems of developing nations:
Estimated number of users in millions
Percent Regional Populaton
Percent world population
Asia/ Pacific
Middle East
Canada and USA
Latin America

To further this point, advocates of online distance learning ave the following to say with regards to an ever expanding use of the world wide web,
…its strengths lies in its emergence as a universal platform which is continually expanding to interconnect more sites and more people across…the world ( Tschang & Senta 131).

Online distance learning may not be the permanent form of education in developing countries but it is one of the growing frontiers in the industry. 
            The general student profile typically associated with distance learning is a well motivated, financially or personally obligated student whose only option is that of usng a distance learning system.  These types of students, although not limited to just these students, are ones who benefit greatly from the tools developed over the last half century in distance learning.  Through webcams, online testing, and other transferable technologies, students can engage in a cybernated classroom. 
            The drawbacks of distance learning technology really only exists for those students who have an option of a traditional classroom.  In these cases, it is the student by student profile which determines how successful each student will be through online instruction.  The general concept of distance learning technology is definitely positive as it proposes to spread education.  However, its application and the success of that application is what determined how beneficial it turn out to be.

Reference Page

Online Journals
Anonymous, . Online Learning. (2010). The Science Teacher, 77(6), 26-28.  Retrieved October 4, 2010, from Research Library Core. (Document ID: 2120320901).

Krakovsky, M. (2010). Degrees, Distance, and Dollars. Communications of the ACM, 53(9), 18-19. doi:10.1145/1810891.1810899.

Online Sources
U.S. Department of Education: Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (2010). Technology and Distance Learning. Washington D.C.Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/tdlearn.htm

Books (Print)
Tschang, F.T. & Senta, T.D. (2001). Access to Knowledge: New Information Technologies and the Emergence of the Virtual University. Oxford: International Association of Universities and Elsevier Science Ltd.

Verdejo, M.F. & Cerri, S.A. (1994).  Collaborative Dialogue Technologies in Distance Learning. Milano, Italy:Springer-Verlag.

Nation, D & Evans, T. (2000).  Changing University Teaching. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

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