What is the definition of distance learning? If you would have asked me this question before Monday, I would have probably said it was as simple as taking a class online. The only requirements for my definition are a learner, a computer, and an internet connection. This definition of distance learning is based on my experience with taking a couple of professional development courses through the University of Georgia’s Center for Continuing Education, where I wanted to learn about project management and Adobe Acrobat, and where I found someplace where I could take classes online. Both classes had weekly lessons, where I had to post my responses to the discussion topic of the week, assignments that I needed to submit, and I received feedback from the instructor.
On Monday, I started my next class in my master’s program, and after just one week, I can see that once again, I am going to have to admit that I did not know what I did not know. My new class is called Distance Learning, and the focus of this week’s resources was on defining and giving a history of distance learning. As you can tell by my admission, there is a lot more to it then how I had previously defined it. The authors of our course text state that there are four components to the definition of distance learning, and “if one or more are missing, then the event is something different, if only slightly, than distance education” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, p. 34). The four components are: institutionally based, separation of teacher and student, interactive telecommunications, and sharing of data, voice, and video (Simonson, et. al., 2012, Figure 2-1, p. 33). As you can see from my pre-class definition, I did not give any thought to the institutionally based component, even though it was part of my experience (the courses were through UGA), and you could say I was pretty close in defining distance education, but again, I only scratched the surface.
In reading the details of each component, I found that distance learning has been around since the 1830’s, when a correspondence course on composition was offered in Sweden (Simonson, et. al., p. 37), and that the term telecommunications is “not limited to only electronic media” (Simonson, et. al., p. 34), but it can include “the postal system, as in correspondence study, and other nonelectronic methods for communication” (Simonson, et. al., p. 34). Here I thought that in completing my master’s program online, I was part of something innovative. However, the only really innovative part may be that we are using Web 2.0 resources and the latest telecommunication technology.
After a week of class, did my definition of distance learning change? Absolutely. I especially like how Dr. Simonson, in the video Distance Education: The next generation, defined distance learning. He stated that “distance education can be defined as formal education in which the learning group (teacher, students, resources) are separated by geography and, sometimes, time” (Laureate Education, n.d.), and “where technologies, instructional media, communication technologies are used to link the resources, the teacher, and the learner” (Laureate Education, n.d.).
As I was writing this blog post on Friday morning, I had the opportunity to apply Dr. Simonson’s definition of distance learning. Due to weather conditions, we had to cancel orientation sessions for our new employees a couple of weeks ago, but rescheduled them for Friday. One of my colleagues was scheduled to present on the topic of patient and family education in our healthcare system, but called in sick. I am usually her backup, but it was my day off. The facilitator for the orientation session is still fairly new to our department, so I offered to present, but because of a scheduling conflict, I would need to present from home. I was able to utilize our WebEx account to deliver the content to the students, who were in a classroom about 35 miles away from me. We did have a couple of minor technical issues, but overall, the feedback from the participants was positive.
I am looking forward to fully understanding distance learning during the next 8 weeks. So far, I have come to understand that it’s not about the technology, as I first had thought. Technology is just one of the telecommunication methods. Yes, technology does provide new ways for the teachers and students to share resources, as Dr. Simonson explained (Laureate Education, n.d.), and I think that we will continue to pursue advances in technology as the main telecommunications method, as well as to find ways to utilize platforms already available. For example, adding an instant messaging application such as Lync or Jabber to Blackboard would allow students to see which one of their colleagues are currently online, and provide the ability to ask a question, get clarification, or simply just chat. I also see the possibility of having a blended program, where the student can choose to attend class in person in a classroom (synchronous), be part of the classroom group, but also attend via WebEx (synchronous), or complete the course using an asynchronous method.
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Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Distance education: The next generation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.