Sunday, September 5, 2010

Does the discipline of Distance Education have a future?

In his article "A Canadian Perspective on the Uncertain Future of Distance Education," Distance Education.  Melbourne: Aug 2005. Vol. 26, Iss. 2; pg. 239, 16 pgs,  Bill Muirhead expresses concern about the discipline of Distance Education (DE) being no longer considered the major informing body to all aspects of DE  delivery,  services, and programs.  Traditionally DE was a distinct field with influence over all matters related to learning and teaching at a distance, and as you will find out in this class, some of these distances were huge.  The only way that some students could complete school or obtain a certificate or degree was by learning and completing programs by not actually being on campus.  They would stay home or go to a regional centre to participate in learning.

In our modern times we are finding that many learners select to take courses at a distance in order to have family or job flexibility, while living a block or two from the university, and potentially being able to physically attend class on campus.  Thus DE courses are meeting the needs of the distance learner who lives in town.  

Muirhead's comment "distance education [being] conceived of only in terms of overcoming the tyranny of distance" by enabling interaction and material sharing between students and instructors, by connecting over the distance can be seen in contrast to the more and more widely spread rich technology enhanced learning (TEL) environments that exist all over campus.  Are these TEL environments informed by the discipline of DE?  Should they be?  What does it mean today to learn at a distance?

Muirhead asks the question "why, when aspects of distance education are so widely practiced at the beginning of the 21st century, do distance educators feel so pessimistic about their roles and possible influence in a world increasingly using learning at a distance?"  

Another question that Muirhead poses and then comments on is "How is Greater Availability of Distance Learning Opportunities Transforming Traditional Conceptions of Distance Education?"

Perhaps the concept of DE needs to be reconfigured, or maybe we need to give what occurs today as DE a new name (read the connection to Chaos Theory in the reading).   What could the future landscape of DE look like?  What are its options?


These above questions in bold and italics are some of the questions you should be thinking about and deliberating on in your responses to this post.  You can reflect on the reading and connect aspects of the reading to your own understanding about the meaning of DE and how you use it in some way, or see others use it, for teaching and learning purposes in your classroom or workplace environment.












 

16 comments:

  1. Well, I will break the ice on the blog posting.

    After finishing the readings, it would appear that DE was initially created as a means for people in geographically disadvantaged areas to receive education.

    Being in the school system, I am familiar with the former Technology Supported Learning (TSL)unit (formerly called the Saskatchewan Government Correspondence School) which delivered distance education courses (http://www.education.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=b7ae624b-f246-4007-870a-07f490a1c66f). I would think the orignial intention behind TSL was to allow students living in remote and rural Saskatchewan, to complete their grade 12 through distance education rather than having to move to a community that had a high school. I would view this in the light of what Muirhead discusses as traditional DE.

    With the advent of technology, the internet, etc., teachers, schools and school divisions began to look at how technology could be incorporated into the classroom and into education. As such, on July 3, 2009 the TSL unit was closed for good as school divisions had more capactity to deliver distance education than the Ministry of Education did (this date is one I think should also be added to the DE timeline as in my opinion, in the education sector, this is a huge event in DE in the public school system in Saskatchewan).

    With the closure of the TSL, school divisions have taken over DE, and this is where I feel the future of DE in education lies. Schools are exploring the technology enhanced learning (TEL) opportunites that Muirhead talked about in his article. I feel the TEL environments that schools are working in are directly influenced by DE. Teachers are utilizing technology to teach a DE course over the internet rather than through Canada Post. Teachers are also using DE concepts in their face-to-face classes as ways of supporting and enhancing the learning opportunities for students.

    I would think that the future of DE lies in TEL environments. As the video on YouTube showed, we are living in a technologically advanced age. The students we work with now have grown up with technology and their world is all about technology. TEL environments are where the future of DE lies.

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  2. I agree with Ryan pointing to technology as an important driving force behind the changes in education. Technology is becoming an increasingly important element of our students’ lives and it is only natural for technology to play a role in their education.

    If distance is no longer the ultimate reason for an individual to take a course at a distance, then it is not surprising to see the field of distance education is at a time of great change. Perhaps it is the changes in technology that has led to the shift in why individuals choose to take courses off campus. There has been an increase in the availability and the ability of technology, which is allowing more individuals to consider these distance education courses. When they are offered asynchronous, allowing students to access the material on their own time and at their own pace, they become an attractive option for individuals who are trying to fit education into a busy work and home life.

    Technology may have another impact on distance education beyond influencing more individuals to take courses because of the increased access to the technologies needed to engage in them. As technology becomes increasingly user-friendly, elements of distance learning can be incorporated into courses or courses taught at a distance are being created without the help of a specialized distance education department within an educational institution. The potential of the decreased role of distance education specialization perhaps can explain why distance educators are feeling pessimistic about their future roles in distance education.

    The greater availability and utilization of distance education is shifting the control of the learning away from the teacher and placing it on the student. This shift may make distance education attractive to many learners as they are given increased freedom over their education. They are able to access course material independently and on their own schedule. In their book Distance Education, Moore and Kearsley in reference to this shift state, “we are in the middle of a Copernican revolution as it becomes ever more apparent that the learner constitutes the center of the universe” (2005, p.20). They expand on the learner centered educational environment by noting that the increased freedom that is given to the learner will lead to an increase in responsibility.

    I believe that Moore and Kearsley touch on a very important element of the distance education when they focus on the role of the learner. Freedom, the very element that makes distance education an attractive choice in a very busy world, may also be an obstacle to success for some individuals. As classes exist in a non-traditional manner, away from a classroom setting, students may find that they will need to be more intrinsically motivated to access course materials, to engage with the content and to meet the objectives that have been set. Moore and Kearsley state that students may need to be aided in adjusting to the new expectations that they are faced with.

    I see distance education playing a role in the future of education. I believe that the role it will play will go beyond simply allowing individuals to access course material on their own schedule. With technology as the driving force of change in distance education, it will act as a means of connecting individuals over great distances, allowing those of varying backgrounds and perspectives to engage in content, informing ideas and broadening understandings.

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  3. When I hear the term Distance Education, I cannot help but think back to grade nine. You see I was living in small town Saskatchewan and the K-12 school (89 students) I attended did not offer French. My parents thought it would be a great idea to enroll in a correspondence course! All the manuals and cassette tapes arrived, and on a nightly basis I would sit and struggle through the activities. Finally, after nights of arguments, my wonderful parents gave in and allowed me to drop the course.
    DE has definitely progressed from the days of correspondence, to independent study and telecourses, to what we have today with interactive TV and web based/virtual schools. Amy mentioned in her post that freedom makes DE a very attractive choice but may also cause an obstacle to success for many. I could not agree more. The correspondence kit I received did not feel like freedom! Read this, listen to this and then fill out this. Today you have interactive websites and students have choices as to what they want to learn. We as educators are letting go of the reigns in the Distance Education world and allowing students to drive. Moore and Kearsly acknowledge this change stating, “teaching no longer drives learning; instead, teaching responds to and supports learning”(2005. p. 20). If I as a grade nine student had the chance be online and interactive with others and tailor my experience to suit my needs, I am sure the course would have felt more like freedom.
    DE is definitely not what it once was. Perhaps Muirhead and others are uncertain of what DE will look like. I am sure all can agree, Distance Edcuation will be a vital part of future generations. Muirhead referenced Rogers (1993) who stated, Distance Education grew as new communication technologies were invented. Who knows, there may be a technology two years down the road that takes DE in a new direction.
    I am just beginning to understand the complexity of DE and how massive it truly is. Is DE for everyone, or as mentioned by Muirhead, does there need to be a blending of both worlds. My concern is that many students are not prepared for Distance Education. Are we grooming students in elementary school and high school to be critical thinkers? DE is no longer the world of laying your readings and assignments out on the kitchen table and filling in the blanks. Do our students have the skills to be successful in this ‘virtual’ world? Do teachers have the flexibility to embrace the world of Distance Education? So many questions, so little time.

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  4. I believe there is scope for Distance Education in the future. With the increase in student enrollment and demand for flexible courses, Distance Education is thriving in the education market today. More and more learners are requiring courses that accommodate their learning styles, professional stance, and flexible schedules. By providing a platform for anytime anywhere learning, Distance Education supports these students’ demands making room for non-linear, self-directed instruction. Hence, Muirheads’ need for “rebranding” Distance Education is justified because of the changes seen in the education system today (p.2.).

    Technology also has a great role to play. In the video by Karl Fishe et.al, it is clearly evident that technology is changing rapidly because of which information is growing exponentially, online social communities are evolving and distances (both physical and transactional) between students and teachers are shrinking. Technology devices have multi-purposes and are not only providing opportunities for students to seek out information, socialize, and communicate with people around the world but also increasing the availability of DE to more people.

    With DE on the rise and technology advancement at the fore front, it is only natural that educational institutions are integrating technologies in their courses. Distance educators are concerned with how to integrate and use technologies strategically in their courses seamlessly. Hence, there is need for training, and professional development and support. However, what is really needed is the understanding of DE and strategies involved in teaching at a distance!

    I believe the strength of DE lies in online education. Online learning has transcended to take DE to new heights, where distance disappears and learners and teachers interact, interconnect seamlessly. The continuous pace of development of technologies, the change of academic course completion to competency, and the focus on the learner will expand the future of DE.

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  5. We cannot just say a “yes” or “no” to the question whether distance education is an obsolete term. The answer will depend on how we define the “distance education” in general. It is true that there are many new changes in this area and DE has been closely tied to technologies that rapidly change or disappear, the meaning of DE has changed a lot. However, no matter what name we use to describe this format education, the basic characteristics such as flexibility, accessibility and convenience of DE still the most important factors that people choose to use it.

    I will say that DE will not going to disappear in future for sure. On the contrary, it will play more and more important roles at anywhere learning happens, which include schools, corporations, public services departments etc. Collaboration, social networking and information sharing in learning will play more and more important role in today’s learning and development for everybody. The social demands are main reasons that new technologies can be developed so fast to support and satisfy these needs. For example, people can receive exactly the same content at the same time no matter where they are located, the only thing they need is to access the Internet.

    Does the discipline of distance education have a future? My answer is “Yes”. I see the DE is the most important extension or alternative choice for F-2-F education. For example, simulation is used when it is impossible for learners to learn through hands on experience because it is too dangerous, not reachable or too much cost, especially in the area of spacecraft, medical or surgery etc. I am not saying that DE can replace F-2-F education, but I do believe that DE is much more powerful sometimes.

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  6. In South East Cornerstone School Division, students are able to access a number of asynchronous, as well as a few synchronous learning opportunities. I could not agree more with Shalini when she said "distance educators are concerned with how to integrate and use technologies strategically in their courses seamlessly. Hence, there is need for training, and professional development and support. However, what is really needed is the understanding of DE and strategies involved in teaching at a distance". The most important part of her statment is the last sentence!

    What I am noticing is that DE teachers have not had enough training in providing DE, and therefore do not understand DE and the strategies involved in teaching at a distance. I am finding that some distance education teachers do not understand how to teach in a distance education class.

    Last year, I had a student taking a DE class, and she had enormour amounts of trouble even navigating the content management system due to the way the teacher had the class set up. This did not lead to a very successful learning experience for my student.

    Brian also mentioned the freedom that DE provides. I agree with that wholeheartedly, until a student has no intrinsic motivation to complete anything, then the freedom is actually a negative thing. Students who will be successful in any DE model will be students who are motivated to learn and to complete assignments. Students who need a teacher constantly nagging them to complete assignments will not be successful in a DE learning model.

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  8. I am a film teacher and as such have a certain degree of familiarity with communication media. Having said, that I am very aware that the speed of emerging technologies, social media etc. means I have to struggle to keep up.

    An important lesson I have learned, and this is reinforced in some of the readings and comments in the course so far, is that I don't need to master every single new digital tool or software. Rather I need to understand and make best use of appropriate, available and relevant tools. These are the tools that work best, as Moore suggests, for access, opportunity, and quality of delivery.

    I appreciate that Ryan and Shalini both refer to the importance of training for Distance Education instructors. Training is critical because, in a sense, the technology or rather the combination of technology, medium and message, become the face of the teacher.

    It's also important to understand differentiation of learning with regards to Distance Education and the new tools that can be used for delivery. Yes there is a new generation of technically literate people who can quickly master the digital tools but there are many learners out there who will need instruction for basic computer function before they can even access content.

    "...the tyranny of distance" and what Cairncross refers to as the "death of distance" intrigues me because I see "distance" as more that just kilometers. It can also relate to the idea of reaching those who are disaffected or marginalized and may find an alternate way of learning what they need to know through distance education.

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  9. Part One:
    Muirhead cites the historical reasons for distance education as geography, educational equity, and economics. These no longer hold true; “Death of distance” has occurred. Technology has eliminated distance as an obstacle creating educational equity with cost-efficient on-line programs.

    The profile of the learners currently enrolled in these DL courses has varied considerably. Only 1 of the 46 students enrolled in Regina Catholic Schools’ on-line courses cited access or distance as the reason, a dramatic shift from the profile of students taking DL when I attended a rural high school in the early 80’s. An academic student, like Brian Lewis, I struggled with staying on top of timelines which lends credence to his concern that students may not have the critical skills needed for this form of education and validates Latchem’s question “do we have the vision, leadership, management … and cultural understandings” necessary for distance learning to reach its full potential? Latchem also raises the question of perception. How do we address “those who still hold that distance and technology-based education can never equal the quality and acceptability of face-to-face teaching?” When deciding on how best to pursue a Masters program, I received criticism from colleagues for even contemplating Internet –ordered education versus the traditional face-to -face academia. How do we combat the view that distance education is the educational equivalent of fast food service – pull up to our computer and in a short period of time ingest volumes of information which temporarily satisfy us, but leave us intellectually starved? Or, the view that absorption can only be obtained through group discussion and face to face dialogue? No wonder Muirhead says distance educators are feeling pessimistic!

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  10. Part II
    Although the reasons for distance education have changed, there is more of a need than ever. Educational cut bucks, the astronomical cost of print and media resources make the use of e-resources essential. Recent government cuts causing the dissolution of SCN (also a date to consider adding to the timeline, Ryan) makes web resources critical to educators and learners. If we truly are to meet the changing needs of students and prepare them for jobs of the future yet to be defined as suggested in the YouTube video, we must not only appeal to their current interests in technology but be willing to experiment with blended instruction – synchronous, asynchronous, and face to face environments.
    This seems to support the notion that the methods and media of distance learning will and must play a critical role in current and future learning and teaching practices. Out of its evolution, Distance Learning will emerge not as a form of instruction, but its history will inform a method of instruction for use in the blended environment becoming the status quo for the next generation of learners, eliminating any need for debate over the validity and credibility of virtual environments.

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  11. I think Michael Moore and Greg Kearsley (2005) are right when they say it is hard to consider the future of distance education without considering its roots. I couldn’t help but think back to my first experience with distance education which would have been the food science correspondence course I took in high school.

    I had the opportunity sometime in the late 90’s to develop my first distance education course. I typed every word into the computer using html. It was very text content dominated and was what I think might be considered web 1.0 internet delivery.

    Later I had the opportunity to develop two more distance delivery courses; one using Web CT and another with Moodle. I now had the school division and the ministries expertise to back me up and there was notable change in collaborative tools available.

    The experience of distance education that I have had since I have started my master’s degree is totally different than any of my first experiences. Web 2.0 tools and synchronous communication tools such as Elluminate, telecom and Skype have opened doors and changed the face and definition of distance learning.

    Interestingly enough, through my reading I was able to make many connections and see similarities to the changes going on in the face to face classroom. The biggest similarity seems to be the shift from the teacher being the main content source to the student or the learner taking more responsibility for learning, information gathering and analyzing. While we are moving in our face to face classrooms to allowing our students to take over more of their learning and show their learning in many different ways, the same is true for distance education.

    This is the sixth DE class I have taken since starting my masters and every class has placed the main responsibility for learning on me. I have been well supported in my learning process and have had the opportunity to collaborate and consider information given to me from people all over the world.

    I think distance learning is a big part of the future in education but what probably needs to happen is a new definition. With the ability to connect with others in an instant and have “face to face” conversations with people anywhere in the world, we are no longer learning at a distance, but rather we have closed the distance in our learning environments. According to Cairncioss as cited in Muirhead (1977) perhaps we are seeing a “death to distance” and a “growing connectedness of individuals”.

    Although I do not totally understand the politics, management and money required for large scale distance delivery, it seems to me that as our information world grows, the demand for the convenience of distance learning and the quality expected will continue to increase.

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  13. Part II

    This is the sixth DE class I have taken since starting my masters and every class has placed the main responsibility for learning on me. I have been well supported in my learning process and have had the opportunity to collaborate and consider information given to me from people all over the world.

    I think distance learning is a big part of the future in education but what probably needs to happen is a new definition. With the ability to connect with others in an instant and have “face to face” conversations with people anywhere in the world, we are no longer learning at a distance, but rather we have closed the distance in our learning environments. According to Cairncioss as cited in Muirhead (1977) perhaps we are seeing a “death to distance” and a “growing connectedness of individuals”.

    Although I do not totally understand the politics, management and money required for large scale distance delivery, it seems to me that as our information world grows, the demand for the convenience of distance learning and the quality expected will continue to increase.

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  14. Please ignore my part II post. First my post was too long and it wouldn't accept it, so I decided to try posting it in two parts. When I did that, my first post was all of a sudden published. It would let me take part I off, but not part II.

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  15. While it’s true that developments in education have erased distance and changed the look of distance education, I believe that it has not made it obsolete. I believe that now more than ever there is a need to consider distance students.

    While students are able to enrol in the same online class whether they live in a remote area of Northern Saskatchewan or living mere blocks from the University, one has to consider the reasons for enrolling in the online course. Where the Northern student has no other option, the student who lives close may choose to take the course for flexibility reasons, or learning preference. They each may be looking for an entirely different learning experience online.

    It seems then that institutions need to consider this when they develop these courses. If distance education courses become too directed toward non-traditional learners choosing flexibility over the necessity that distance learners face, then the distance learner may get lost in the mix. As Brian pointed out in his own experience, many distance students struggle with the learning, and with the technologies in distance ed. These students face a much larger learning curve than the non-traditional learner choosing online learning.

    The benefits of technology enhanced learning are endless, and should be explored further, but as Jay points out, we need to recognize that they can be scary for people who struggle with technology. I feel that while online learning has the potential to erase distance, as educators we must continue to recognize that the geographical space exists.

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