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Distance learning: one student's perspective.

Abstract

There seems to be considerable debate today on the subject of distance learning. Two of the more pertinent questions are: Is distance learning necessary and is distance learning as effective an instructional delivery method as the traditional classroom lecture method of instruction. In today's Internet society, not only is distance learning necessary, with the proper preparation by instructors and students, it is also an effective way to deliver course material and instruction. Distance learning can provide and even exceed the level of instruction and student satisfaction as that of a traditional lecture course. As a student that has participated in a variety of distance education courses as well as traditional classroom lecture courses, it is my belief that the success of all educational opportunities is considerably more dependent upon the skills of the instructor and the desires and abilities of the students than that of the method of delivery.

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Is Distance Learning Necessary

The necessity of distance learning is easily answered. Successful companies and organizations are the ones that look for changing trends in the way customers, consumers, and citizens wish to do business. The Interact provides a way for organizations to make their products and services available to consumers and clients in the home. Businesses are using the Interact to sell products to customers that may not wish to visit a retail store. Governments are providing services, such as license renewal, through the Internet. For education to ignore the opportunity to accommodate students would be a mistake. Distance learning affords educational opportunities to individuals unable to attend conventional classroom settings. This would include: Individuals with disabilities, individuals living in a rural community where the commute to a university or college would be difficult, and individuals with time restrictions preventing them from taking classes.

The arguments against the necessity of distance learning tend to be concerns regarding the loss of the traditional face-to-face rapport of the instructor and student and fears of distance learning expanding to K-12 education. Many K-12 educators are fearful that the use of computers in school or at home will do little more than offer entertainment to the students. However, these comments are contrary to the national effort to increase technology in the classrooms. Resisting the use of computer technology and distance learning may also prevent or slow students' exposure to technology that will certainly be necessary in the future. A scan of help wanted advertising clearly indicates the need for employees with computer technology skills. The more computer related skills a job seeker may have, especially in Interact related technology, the better the chance of securing meaningful employment. Companies are demanding students with technology skills, and K-12 schools must respond to this demand. Rather than fear that computers will only provide entertainment value for students, the teachers must respond by preparing their students for computer use and distance learning.

Is Distance Learning Effective

The other concern, loss of rapport among instructors and students, does not pose a question regarding the necessity of distance learning but rather asks whether distance learning can be delivered with the same results as the classroom lecture structure. This question is not as simple to answer. The main concerns are whether distance learning will provide students with the necessary interaction skills often learned through interchange with instructors and other students, whether students have the same opportunities to learn the materials, and whether students are satisfied with the distance courses (The Institute for Higher Education, 1999).

Unfortunately, a review of journal articles addressing these issues does not provide for an easy judgment. The articles offer contrasting evidence. Several report little difference and others claim "no significant difference." Other articles cite evidence of improved test scores and student satisfaction in the distance settings. Still others provide data that indicates less positive results in the distance courses when compared to students' test scores in the lecture classroom. In trying to understand why some distance learning courses are successful and others fail it becomes necessary to examine details in the journal articles. Successful distance classes have key elements in common: a thorough syllabus explaining the goals and objectives of the course, an outline of the assignments, an instructor that replies to questions promptly, and an instructor that participates in the course through e-mail, Internet chats, and Web page postings. Although a distance learning course is delivered differently than traditional classroom course, the above elements are the same ones that are necessary for success in the classroom.

Distance learning can provide and even exceed the level of instruction and student satisfaction as that of a traditional lecture course. As a student that has participated in a variety of distance education courses as well as traditional classroom lecture courses, it is my belief that the success of all educational opportunities is considerably more dependent upon the skills of the instructor and the desires and abilities of the students than that of the method of delivery. Courses, whether distance or classroom, can range from informative to redundant, intriguing to boring, and dynamic to mundane. The level of material covered can range from the reading and reviewing of a book to researching and exploring new concepts. The success and extent of each learning scenario comes down to the ability and desires of the instructors and students.

One Student's Experience

One of the most dynamic courses that I have taken was a course on magic. A few friends coerced me into taking the course and although not opposed to the idea of learning a few tricks of the trade, I thought the instruction would be trite and was less than enthusiastic. The initial class meeting found a dozen students ranging in age from ten to sixty. We waited, some anxiously, for the instructor. Without any fanfare, a white haired gentleman walked to the head of the table, stretched out his hand, and while emphatically stating, "I am a magician," shot flames from his fingertips. He had my attention. Our first lesson was not how to perform a magic trick but how to get the students', or audiences', attention. He explained that magicians, besides performing slight of hand, must entertain their audience. He also explained that he wanted to leave no doubt in our minds that he truly "was a magician."

Another rewarding classroom lecture course was an anthropology class. The course consisted of reading papers and short chapters of a textbook to provide background information on the subject. The class met once a week to discuss the readings. The discussions were never about the data found in the textbook or papers but rather about the meaning of the data. The discussions were lively and often controversial. The class explored differing viewpoints and periodically the instructor would spike the imaginations of the students by asking a thought-provoking question. The instructor's upbeat attitude was contagious and most students not only benefited from their increased knowledge but also thoroughly enjoyed the class.

Along with the classroom success stories came tales of boredom. A Russian Studies class that always seemed to be full turned out to be one of the most tiresome. Students that had previously taken the course described it as "really interesting." It was later explained that "really interesting" was actually a euphemism for "really easy." This course also consisted of reading papers and a textbook in preparation for a class discussion. However, the class time consisted of outlining the book on the whiteboard and only discussing the data in a timeline format. The lecture offered no additional benefits over just reading the book.

A programming course I took also offered students little or no added benefits over a distance learning class. The initial class meeting consisted of informing the students that there would be six programming projects due and there would be two exams. The students were told to work through the tutorial textbook and turn in the listed projects. We were than told that class meetings would only be before the two exams to review the material covered. Although the instructor informed us that he would be available for questions during the normal class time, the students found it difficult to contact him. The class proved to be quite difficult and had more than a fifty percent drop out rate. Personally, I was not pleased that I had paid tuition for a course that offered no additional training than working through a book's tutorial.

The success or failure of these four classroom courses was attributable to the preparation, skills, and enthusiasm of the instructor. Distance courses are not unlike the classroom courses. The amount of preparation and ingenuity of the instructor has a considerable impact on the success of the course. The following three distance learning courses also indicate that success is related to the preparation, skill, and enthusiasm of the instructor.

A final course project required to complete a bachelor's degree program became an exercise in tedium. The course was delivered as an "independent study course." It involved three members of the faculty delivering, by mail, a document with eleven questions. The questions were to be answered within a single essay and returned to the faculty for grading. Instructions indicated that if I had any questions I could call the administration office. The identification of the faculty responsible for the design of the test was unknown.

The intent of the course was to require the students to demonstrate their research skills and also to demonstrate that they had acquired an overall mastery of the subject material. However, in a review of the questions it was easy to see that the three faculty members did not collaborate in the development of the assignment. The design of the questions left the student with a task that required very little research but instead the ability to place answers to eleven unorganized and often unrelated questions into one flowing essay. An attempt to understand one of the sections better ended in a conversation with an administrative assistant. She would relay my questions to the faculty and contact me with their answer. The answer never came and I was unable to find out why I could not be given the identity of the faculty that designed the test. Although I passed the course, without the necessary dialogue with an instructor, the course was a wearisome task to finish rather than an opportunity to learn.

Two on-line courses offer stories of success in distance learning. Without the face-to-face instructor and student interaction realized in a classroom course, it is necessary for the instructor to develop a well-organized course site. Both instructors offered sites that were easy to navigate and student friendly. Questions were answered quickly and feedback was provided for all of the assignments. Both instructors encouraged research and provided direction in finding related resources. Asynchronous and synchronous tools were provided to communicate with the instructor and other students. Asynchronous tools consisted of postings by e-mail, Web page postings, and attachments in a WebCT forum provided by the instructor. The Synchronous tools consisted of several online chats, some with some groups of students and others with the entire class and the instructor. The asynchronous forums generated a great deal of discussion in both classes. Unfortunately, the synchronous chat rooms seemed destined to failure. One instructor assigned a group project that required collaboration through the use of one of the provided chat rooms. Although there were only four members in our group, it took three attempts to successfully have all participants in the chat room at the same time. The difficulties seemed to be generated by changes in work schedules or the necessity of some of the group members to travel and consequently unavailable at the designated times. The other instructor provided the chat room as a tool but did not require the use of the room. Most students in this class chose not to use this course tool citing the same problems in scheduling a time. Overall, both instructors provided the students with ample opportunities to learn and interact. Providing an instructor to students and student to students interface is a key to success in distance learning classes. If asynchronous and synchronous tools for communication are missing, you are indeed creating an environment void of the instructor and student rapport that is necessary for success.

The success or failure of the courses in all of the above cases, whether distance learning courses or the traditional classroom lecture, had more to do with the preparation of the instructor than the method of delivery. The second factor in ensuring the success was entirely in the hands of the students.

In the case of the Russian Studies class, most students did very well with their grades. It was unusual to receive less than the highest mark regardless of the content of two essays. The course would have to be classified as a complete success if grades were all that mattered. If the extent of the education and preparation for future classes and employment would be included in judging the success, it would have to be considered a failure for most students.

In a review of the programming class, most students that finished the class received a high grade. A student with the potential to research and solve problems independently did learn a lot about programming. However, the high drop out rate indicates that this instruction format did not fit the needs of the majority of the class.

The two on-line courses had been well organized and most students did well. Yet once again, there were indications that some of the students are struggled. Both instructors offered additional help for the students. This could be an indication that even well organized distance learning classes may not be appropriate for all students. Dianne Rahm, B. J. Reed, and Teri L. Rydl suggest that for Interact-mediated courses, "Not only are new skills required-computer literacy and general knowledge about computers-but the students must be self-learners and must initiate their own learning" (Rahm, Reed, and Rydl, 1999, p.218).

Conclusion

Distance learning classrooms may not be the answer for every student. However, some classroom courses may not always serve the needs of every student. Rather than acquiesce and decide that distance learning is not suitable for all students, it would prove to be more beneficial to continue to adapt distance courses to benefit more students. On-line distance learning is relatively new and offers tools and delivery methods typically not found in correspondence and telecommunication courses.

To prepare for the success of on-line distance learning courses, it is necessary for instructors and students to become more familiar with the technology that is now available and the technology that will become available in the future. A project at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) funded by the U. S. Department of Education hopes to better prepare pre-service teachers to use technology in K-12 schools. One part of the project will train the teachers to make videos which will latter be incorporated on a Web site. Chat rooms and bulletin boards will be demonstrated and the future teachers will be able to collaborate with other universities and K-12 schools (Kavanaugh-Brown, 2000).

Although the breadth of this paper is narrow, one student, the viewpoints are at least not contradictory and offer plausible explanations for varying results. Distance learning is here to stay. It is up to the educator to become experienced with the available technology and develop a course that will challenge and educate the students. Borrowing the words of the magician, we want to leave no doubt that "we are educators."

References

Kavanaugh-Brown, J. (2000). Next-generation teachers. Government Technology, 13 (1), 60.

Rahm, D., Reed, B. J., & Rydl, T. L. (1999). Internet-mediated learning in public affairs programs: Issues and implications. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 5 (3), 213-223.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy. (1999, April). What's the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education [On-line]. Available: http://www.ihep.com/PUB.htm

Mike is a graduate student in the Instructional Technology program at the University of South Florida. He is currently a Computer and Technology Teacher for Corpus Christi Catholic School.
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Author:McNaughton, Mike
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:2685
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