The gradual blending of the digital realm with the physical, along with the advancements in artificial intelligence, hints at the increasing probability of the futuristic world of Singularity (The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology).
Namely, distance education offers itself as the sole pragmatic answer to these challenges and phenomena bound to be faced by young people, which means that the traditional education paradigm will have to be modified and adjusted. However, the educators will retain an important role in remote learning, while digital technologies and the Internet will fill the physical gap.
However, although distance learning has become a fully integrated aspect of a number of accredited programs at well-known institutions worldwide, there are still skeptics who claim that knowledge transfer via digital technology can never replace face to face communication in teaching. This claim is based primarily on the assumption that our biology (our biological nature) is predisposed for learning in real time and space, and that any form of departure from this leads to a decrease in quality, productivity and motivation in learning.
What is distance education?
Distance education from today’s perspective, refers to education that utilizes the Internet and digital technologies as the medium for connecting the teachers with and transferring the teaching materials to the students who are unable to be physically present at the educational institution. There are a number of terms that are used synonymously with distance education, such as: distance learning, remote learning, online education, online learning, e-learning, virtual classroom, etc.
Distance education programs can be generally divided into two groups: those fully based on distance learning, and programs that constitute a combination of distance learning and traditional teaching, which are often referred to as blended learning.
The evolution of distance learning
The belief that distance learning has been around for a little more than two decades is a good indicator of people’s tendency to forget history quickly. Actually, the attempts at initiating distance learning can be traced back to almost 300 years in the past to an advertisement placed in the Boston Gazette (1728) where stenographer Caleb Phillips offered weekly stenography lessons through written exchange by mail.
About a century later, in 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman conducted the first distance learning course, in which he sent stenographic texts to his students, who would send back their corrections. The most important aspect of this mode was the feedback from the students, which would have been impossible without the introduction of a unified postal system in England. This mode of learning created a good starting point for the development of correspondence courses, which went on to develop into entire schools.
The first correspondence school in the United States was The Society to Encourage Studies at Home dedicated exclusively to educating women. In the quarter-century of its existence, this school provided education to over 7000 students thanks to over 200 corresponding teachers.
The Difference between Correspondence courses and Distance education courses
For a number of years, universities have had an additional source of income through providing online correspondence courses containing course materials forwarded by mail or email, including testing materials. The factors that set these courses apart from fully-fledged distance learning include significant limitations regarding teacher–student interaction, as well as the reliance on the pace of the person attending the course, due to the lack of strict deadlines.
Distance education includes several specific characteristics:
- the use of digital technologies as the primary tool used for reading the materials;
- the Internet is the main means of communication between the instructors and the students, utilizing a wide range of media/platforms;
- much more comprehensive teaching materials;
- regular, meaningful interaction between student and teacher, synchronous or asynchronous, depending on the educational institution’s regulations and obligations;
- fulfilling tasks and taking exams from the academic calendar within limited time;
- obtaining an accredited diploma, whose value is equal to that of a diploma acquired at a traditional school.
Common types of distance learning
Within the wide range of approaches to the implementation of distance learning, only a few are fully acknowledged by the leading experts in pedagogy and the existing renowned educational institutions. The first two of the following types constitute the general categories, with all other types classifiable as their subtypes.
- Synchronous learning – As the word synchronous itself denotes that the activities take place at the same time, within this discourse, it refers to online learning, i.e., live attendance of the lecture/class by all students, while the instructor is located elsewhere. This approach to distance learning is predominant within accredited higher education institutions.
- Asynchronous learning – Unlike the synchronous approach, where the students are obliged to attend teaching live on camera, the asynchronous approach involves a somewhat looser format of learning, where the student can view a lecture at a later time. However, task and test deadlines are limited, just like in synchronous learning. Within this approach, the students have more freedom of initiative when it comes to the completion of their assignments.
- Video conferencing implies a meeting of two or more persons via video call on the Internet using conferencing software. The wide range of video conferencing software solutions includes Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex Meetings, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, Jabber, and others. This form of learning can be classified as a synchronous form of communication.
- Open schedule – According to this approach, the students have limited deadlines that they are expected to meet, but they are completely free to adjust their pace, which is convenient for self-disciplined, independent individuals. On the other hand, for persons whose time management skills are not at a high level, choosing this approach might turn out to be a mistake. Open schedule belongs to the category of synchronous learning.
- Fixed-time is the most common synchronous approach to distance learning. This format is designed to motivate the students to follow a certain pace of activities and stimulate them to interact among themselves and with the teachers. This approach is the exact opposite to open schedule.
- Hybrid distance learning – Many people think that this approach is the best, as it combines synchronous and asynchronous learning methods. The students have sufficient freedom to organize their obligations, while, on the other hand, they also have deadlines within which they have to fulfill their obligations, including tests. They deliver all their completed assignments through an online platform, which they also use for keeping in touch with the teachers. This approach is suitable for students who do not like to be constantly monitored; instead, they need to observe structured modules which they “open” as they advance within the course.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of distance learning?
Surely, not one single approach to learning offered by education systems can meet everyone’s needs. Namely, human beings are too complex (considering their genetic makeup, their environment and the culture they grew up in) to fit into a narrow form of learning. However, distance learning provides quite comprehensive options compared to the earlier forms of education. In the next section, we will state the crucial advantages and disadvantages of distance learning.
Advantages of distance learning
- Effective learning – Online learning has made both teachers and students more focused during the lessons, due to the limited factors of time and space. This form of learning has introduced a number of formats that can serve as an integral part of the lessons. In addition to video, quick sharing of PDF documents, podcasts and audio recordings has empowered the teachers to transcend the limits of a mere textbook.
- Saving time – Digital teaching has made life easier for many students, especially those who used to lose considerable time traveling to school. In the time they would otherwise use to get to the school premises, the students can engage in activities for which they used to lack time.
- Independent from location – This concerns the students who have to leave their homes in search of better education. Instead of spending more time with friends and family, many students had to attend boarding schools and live on campus, starting from scratch. Thanks to the option of distance learning, many students are now free to spend their youth as they would prefer.
- Financially attractive – For the first time, education at any institution has become affordable to everyone. Instead of buying books and paying for boarding, now you get everything you need for learning through e-materials.
- Working and studying is a viable option – Due to a fixed lesson schedule and losing time in transport, many students were unable to achieve a balance between work and their studies. This is now possible, with the types of distance education that do not involve fixed synchronous attendance.
- Access to the latest research – Thanks to the Internet, a wealth of scientific research is now available on certain educational platforms. Using the benefits of digital technologies and distance learning, the teachers are able to include the latest research on the subject in question into their teaching, as additional materials.
- Encourages flexibility, independence and discipline – Many top students’ work ethic tends to erode once they complete their education. This is primarily because educational institutions issue warnings and corrective measures to students who fail to meet their obligations, which is good while one is still studying. On the other hand, distance learning encourages young people to organize their time themselves and find a pace that suits them best. Therefore, this form of learning is perhaps the best way to prepare children for real-life conditions that await them after school.
Disadvantages of distance learning
- Loss of focus due to disruptive factors – The disruptors such as smartphones or extra desktop screens have proven to be a problem when it comes to knowledge transfer during online teaching. The physical remoteness of the teachers and the fact that the student is shown on video within a narrow frame makes it easy for young people to engage in other activities during class. There are still no real indicators of the exact long-term negative effect of this factor to the attainment of knowledge.
- Physical interaction is still irreplaceable – As much as the teachers try to encourage interaction during a distance learning class, this communication remains limited. Many teachers, as well as many psychologists, think that this form of learning might have a certain detrimental effect on young people’s communication skills, which can prove problematic in later everyday interactions.
- Maintaining motivation is a challenge – We tend to forget how the human race started to develop in the first place and what our main triggers for motivation are. Namely, our brains are “wired” so that we need to have a visible external factor we need to “fight” for, as well as visible competition. In digital education, in a way, we have the opposite of this, as every goal needs to be achieved in digital form.
- Sense of isolation – Friendship and social interaction are indispensable human needs, rather than factors that can vary from one person to another. Although there is still no published research to support it, some social scientists claim that distance learning might increase the rates of depression and anxiety in young people.
- Many students fall behind – We have stated that one of the great advantages of distance education is the possibility that the students determine their own pace themselves. However, there are many questions that digital education is still trying to answer. What about the students from violent families, or single-mother families? What to do about the students who have some type of learning disability, considering the fact that one in ten students has a learning disability? Many think that this approach to learning will only widen the gap between those who have adjusted to the new mode of learning and those who have not. On the other hand, proponents of distance education claim that they have proper solutions that can ensure that certain groups of students do not fall too far behind with their school obligations. These solutions primarily imply regular monitoring of students’ academic results by the teachers.