Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Personal Evolution: Distance Education

My definition of distance learning has evolved over the years.  In 1987, I defined distance learning as a correspondence course taken from Western Washington University.  In 1999, I defined distance learning as an online self-paced course taken from Chemeketa Community College.  In 2005, I defined distance learning as USB-based courses offered by a Washington community college.  By 2010, I defined distance learning as a combination of satellite, video-streamed, and interactive online courses taken from Old Dominion University.  Now, in 2014, my definition of distance learning has expanded to include all these and more.  To me, distance learning is just that – learning at a distance.  The medium can be a USB drive or a CD-ROM.  It can be an online syllabus, drop box, and learning materials.  It can be synchronous or asynchronous.  

Something that has guided my definition of distance learning is my role in the process.  As a student, distance education was a convenience.  At Chemeketa Community College, I enrolled in online courses only because there were no seats available in grounded courses.  In retrospect, I can see the benefit of a college offering an online version to help meet the demand without the cost of creating on-campus sections.  (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008a).  My opinion of distance learning, however, was forever changed by my experience with Old Dominion University (ODU).

As a means to an end, distance learning was barely adequate.  The courses I had online were difficult and lacked engagement on the part of the instructor.  It was nothing more than a web-based self-study course.  However, with ODU, I experienced online courses where the instructor was a presence upon which one could rely for guidance.  Other courses were delivered via video streaming or satellite and supplemented with the use of a learning management system.  At the time, I was unaware of the concept of instructional design, but after a year of study, I now understand why the distance learning experience at ODU was enjoyable and engaging.  In my current position, the quality of distance learning courses is negatively affected by the lack of instructional design support given to faculty (Moller, et al., 2008a).  

As an instructor, my definition of distance learning took on a new depth.  Rather than viewing it only as a means to an end, I view it as an opportunity to explore and develop new ways of presenting the same information.  I learned early in my career to be very careful of making too many assumptions about the students and their abilities and attitudes.  I also discovered that I had fallen into the trap of thinking that what works in the classroom would work at a distance.  I have learned, however, that it must be approached with a more open attitude and a willingness to try new ways of communication, assessment, and content delivery (Moller, et al., 2008a).  I continue to learn and grow and as I incorporate best practices into my distance learning courses, I am seeing an increase in student engagement, achievement, and satisfaction.

Over this week, my definition has evolved.  A concept of which I had previously not considered was introduced via Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek (2012).  This concept was distance teaching.  While it is simple to make the intellectual leap from distance learning to distance teaching, it struck me as an important distinction.  As an educator and a budding instructional designer specializing in distance education, this simple term shifts my perception from a learner’s perspective to a learner-centered perspective.  As a learner, my definition was driven by my needs and experience.  As an educator and instructional designer, my definition must be driven by the needs and experiences of my learners and tempered by sound instructional practices.

For the future, I see distance learning becoming more grounded in research-based principles.  Currently, much of the research on the efficacy of distance learning has been formulated by comparing it with campus-based learning (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008b).  The application of evidence based practice as described by Clark and Meyer (2011) will ensure methods and practices that have been shown to work through research will be utilized in the design of instruction for distance learning.  Rather than relying on the latest technology and fads, instructional design for distance learning can become a serious field that is rooted in sound educational practices (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008b). 

In closing, I think that this shift towards a more evidence-based practice in coming.  Nearly the entire July/August 2014 issue of TechTrends was devoted to online doctorate programs in instructional design and educational psychology.  Significant increase in the use of research in professional settings as well as increases in confidence and leadership skills have been indicated (Kumar & Dawson, 2014).  From this, I see evidence that distance education can be meaningful and have a positive impact on the field of instructional design, rather than be just a simple and convenient means to an end.

My perceptions and priorities in distance education - as educator and student.


Clark, R. C., & Meyer, R. E. (2011). E-Learning and the science of instruction (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kumar, S., & Dawson, K. (2014). The impact factor: Measuring student professional growth in an online doctoral program. TechTrends, 58(4), 89 - 97.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008a). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher education). TechTrends, 52(4), 66 -70.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008b). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K-12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63 - 67.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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