Distance Learning

The "Digital Revolution" is causing a stir! Not just in the workplace, but also in our schools. Educators are challenged to provide unique educational opportunities that offer distance learning within a limited, and sometimes straining budget. As a result, many schools are beginning to establish distance education programs.

Distance learning takes place when a teacher and student are separated by physical location and technology is used to bridge the gap.

Distance learning, while still in its infancy, has been receiving a lot of press at both the university and adult education level. In some instances, distance education programs can reduce the overall cost of traditional education over a five-year period by as much as 40 percent.

Yes, distance education cuts costs; but is it effective? Does it provide students with quality educational opportunities? In the future, will most teachers teach from a distance?

Why Teach From a Distance?
The same two key factors that make the Internet invaluable for corporations do the same for education. These variables are time and geography. Storefronts can now be open 24 hours a day and sell anything at any time. The same is true of distance learning. We can now teach anyone, at anytime, anywhere. Also, with the increasing trend towards home schooling, distance learning may create solutions for home-schooled students.

Distance learning can help with staffing shortages. A great number of schools are in the process of forming distance learning partnerships with other schools and outside agencies. These types of arrangements call for one teacher to be hired for a position that is difficult to find qualified teachers for. These teachers work at a central location and have class loads sometimes twice that of a traditional position. These teachers work with students from dozens of school at once.

Imagine the possibilities of such a scenario. There would be fewer problems finding the candidates to staff courses that are difficult to find qualified faculty to teach. Most upper level secondary administrators would agree that it is tough to run AP classes when you have less than five students that qualify for such advanced course. Distance learning centers can now service these students. It is also cost effective in the long run.

Is It Effective?
More people fear the existence of virtual K-12 schools now more than ever. It's not really a matter of whether an effective, scaleable model will ever come about. It's just a matter of when. So will this be the downfall of traditional K-12 education programs? The real question is: "Are virtual schools better than what we have now?" Our answer is: "No!"

The traditional classroom, while not perfect by any means, provides preparation for what was recently stated by CEOs of the top fortune 500 companies. According to an article in Money Magazine, CEOs were asked, "What is the single most important quality of an employee that you can not teach them?" By a landslide, the two most prevalent answers were loyalty and interpersonal communication skills. In addition, a great deal of the literature in the field of psychology has condemned the anonymity of the Internet and the effect that it has on children’s social skills. This raises critical questions regarding the effectiveness of teaching and learning via the Internet and the long-term effects on interpersonal communication skills.

However, the Internet is here to stay, and as with any method for delivering instruction, we encourage the use of distance learning in moderation. Distance education can provide students with certain opportunities that the traditional classroom could only dream; we do believe that it should be used as a supplement at the K-12 level. Traditional classroom settings offer a social aspect to learning that is benign in most distance learning situations.

As for the cognitive aspect, research comparing distance learning to traditional instruction clearly indicates that teaching at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction, when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks, peer interactions, and mechanism for assessment.

Managing the Technologies

It seems that when the topic of distance education comes up, people start looking for desktops and/or laptops, and drops for Internet connections. Traditional computer technology is not the only way to teach from a distance. The use of satellite television, audio conferencing, wireless personal desktop assistants (made famous by Palm) and even print media can produce quality educational outcomes. We should not attach any content delivery medium to our paradigm of distance education, as this model will continually go through shifts as technology thrives.

Although technology plays a key role in the delivery of distance education, schools need to remain focused on the instructional outcomes that a medium can provide. Educators should focus on content and the needs of the student. Only then can a satisfactory conscious decision be made as far as which technology best suits those variables. Many K-12 schools have what we would term an "overstuffed" culture.

When it comes to distance education, K-12 schools have a history of taking on the task of trying to hire experts-in-residence and purchase lots of equipment only to find out that the program falls short. This is due to the fact that a highly qualified technology expert is difficult to come by for $25,000-$35,000 a year. Most schools find that they must replace 40 percent of their computer inventory annually, due in part to faulty products, outdated technology and damage caused by students.

We recommend that K-12 schools look to outsource their distance learning initiatives. Schools can save themselves a great deal of time, money and liability by purchasing a lease for equipment from companies that possess the latest gear and a trained knowledgeable staff who knows how to use it.

In our experience, we have found that schools are hesitant to outsource technology solutions for two main reasons — the culture of education and the fear that staff will not be supported by such an endeavor. The latter is a valid and warranted argument. This is why we recommend the addition of an in-house central person (position) that can manage and supervise these outside companies. A great number of companies provide staff training packages included with equipment and repair packages.

It will take some time for administrators to change their mindset and accept that, in the age of this technological explosion, it is extremely difficult to adequately manage a distance education program in-house. It will also take some administrators to trust their own faculty and empower them to make use of the technologies in such a way that unique quality educational outcomes can arise.

Common sense may tell you that an outsourced solution would be much more costly than the equivalent in-house package, but the amazing fact is that the difference in cost is negligible at most K-12 schools. The factors that influence this are the extreme competition between technology companies coupled with the recent discounted communication rate legislation. We encourage you to weigh all of your options.

The Bottom Line
Distance education programs have the potential to be extremely effective. Effective programs begin with careful planning and a focused understanding of student needs. Appropriate technology can only be selected once these elements are understood in detail. Quality programs take time to blossom; they rely on consistent and integrated efforts of administrators, faculty, students and support staff.

This article is reprinted with permission from Teachnology, Inc. It, and other education-related articles are available at www.teAchnology.com.

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