My first experience with distance learning was at the age of 10. My mother felt attracted to a correspondence course to study the Bible. I remember receiving the books, completing them at my pace and sending them back. I used to check the mail every day expecting to hear back from my teacher. She would check my answers and send me a friendly note and stickers. At the end of each course I would receive a certificate of completion. At that time, I considered that teacher my special friend. Most likely everyone was receiving the same letter; for me it was special. Wedemeyer (1981), notes for elements that are present in a teaching/learning experience. These are: “a teacher, a learner, a communication system and something to be learned”. In my experience I can identify all four elements. This experience could be classified as Independent Study.
Many individuals list as a challenge for distance learning; social interaction. Interaction is important in the learning process. Sharing ideas, learning from others experiences and receiving feedback from your instructor or peers helps the learner continue in the right path. Holmberg (1985) presents his theory of guided direct conversation. In his theory he identifies communication as the basis for distance learning. From his assumptions we learn that “distance learning will support student motivation, promote learning pleasure, and make the study relevant to the learner and his needs creating a feeling of rapport between the learners and the institution”. In my experience, social interaction is valuable and strong in an online setting. There is no space for gestures and everything needs to be expressed. There is constant interaction between learners and space for research.
Distance learning is not a trend of the past, the present or the future. It is a learning opportunity that satisfies the student’s needs. Many schools are providing online learning opportunities for students that are “at risk”. These students weren’t able to pass the class in a regular traditional setting. These online classes "have a primary focus of helping students stay in school and graduate in time" (Watson & Gemin, 2008). Others are benefiting from a blended approach that combines classroom setting and distance learning. The learning process is the same; the tools have changed. Old textbooks are being substituted for e-books, journals for blogs and oral presentation for videos. I visualize the future of distance learning as students using their tablets everywhere they go to access their virtual classroom. Some technological instructional tools will enhance the teaching learning process: the use of video-conferencing as an interactive communication tool, the use of wikis to develop collaborative projects, podcast as oral reports, learning social networks such as ning (http://www.ning.com/), blogs to express their ideas and the use of digital portfolios to evaluate and assess their learning process.
We are living in a flat world. Distance is not longer a barrier to find a better job. To apply for a job, in most cases is required to fill an online application, submit a portfolio or a link to a website as a reference. Our students will compete with students from the entire world to find a job. Many companies are dividing their offices around the world to benefit from time difference and have 24/7 production time. The opportunities are larger than ever before. The competition is bigger also. As educators we need to provide learning opportunities to equip our students for the demands of our “flat world”. Many students will study in online universities and others might be hired as staff of distance learning. Are we providing our students with experiences to effectively perform in a flat world?
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Watson, J. & Gemin, B. (2008). Using online learning for at-risk students and credit recovery. Retrieved from http://www.inacol.org/research/promisingpractices/NACOL_CreditRecovery_PromisingPractices.pdf.