By Bill Anderton
Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientist
Distance learning is a family of exciting technologies that have been effectively and efficiently employed in university-, high-school- and adult-education level applications for a number of years.
As we start, it will help to have a basic understanding of the definition of distance learning. For use here, I shall make my own definition of the term "distance learning:"
Distance learning is a formalized learning and training system specifically designed to be performed remotely where the teacher and the student are separated by distance and, optionally, time. Electronic communications technologies, typically the Internet, telephone and historically satellite television, are typically used to link the teacher with students unconstrained by spatial distances. Distance learning almost always employs real-time synchronous communications that allows live interaction among students and teachers. Also, asynchronous on-demand communications are frequently integrated into distance learning to provided additional communications channels among students and teachers that allow temporal differences where students and teachers are interacting at different times. Distance learning typically models the physical classroom or lecture hall as an analog: teachers teach, mentor and guide while students learn, ask questions and seek understanding of the material being presented.
Note that distance learning should not be confused with "educational television." While distance learning may integrate live or pre-recorded video as a component of distance learning, the primary difference between the two is that distance learning is always interactive with the student and requires student involvement whereas educational television is non-interactive (one-way broadcast) and, therefore, more passive with the student and lacks the student feedback channel.
Also, distance learning should not be confused with "computer-based training" where a student learns solely from an interactive computer program by viewing content and interacting with the program via responses and feedback. While CBT can be a powerful tool in education and training, it does not replace the teacher or instructor-led learning favored by distance learning. CBT can be integrated as a component in an overall distance learning architecture but not to replace teachers.
In modern distance learning systems, full-motion video and rich media (audio/graphics media) is delivered live by a teacher to each remote student via the Internet to Web browsers. The provided media is typically also supported by documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides as desired by the teacher/instructor.
In addition to the media provided, both teachers and students further communicate interactively with each other by voice, chat/text and e-mail. Occasionally, a video return channel is provided via a student's webcam that is bridged into the channel to allow the other students in the session to see the video of the student asking the question.
The teacher/instructor is typically presenting live although the generous use of pre-recorded material is usually integrated. However, whenever pre-recorded materials are used, the teacher/instructor is almost always on-line in real time to field questions or guide discussions.
Modern distance learning systems also integrate other e-learning systems for follow-up after the live distance learning class has concluded for the day. In some systems, pre-recorded content and CBT are viewed on-demand (with the teacher/instructor off-line). The on-demand material is usually used on a self-paced basis by the student. Then, at a scheduled time, students and teacher/instructor meet live on-line to discuss the on-demand delivered material.
Some advanced distance learning systems also make mentors or "study-buddies" available on-line for extended periods where the student has additional human-based support available even when the teacher/instructor is not available. These techniques have allowed some distance learning class to be very large (500-600 students in the author's experience) but still deliver excellent quality education. In essence, the mentors and study-buddies made available after hours reduced the student-to-instructor ratio to be better than most current public school systems. In a very real sense, the teacher and mentors formed a coordinated team to help students.
The art of teaching and methods used in learning are diverse. Rather than forcing our instructors and students into a single methodology forced on them by our platform, our philosophy is to provide a rich toolkit that our instructors and course developers can use that blends multiple methods that are based on traditional face-to-face in-class learning.
Our resulting platform provides many methods for use in our courses. Our course developers can use any or all of these methods to make efficacious and efficient learning experiences. Just how our tools are blended is totally within the discretion of our instructors and course designers.
The four cornerstones of our learning methods are:
Blended learning produces the best and most efficacious learning experience by combining two or more of our learning methods into more complete and more powerful learning experiences. Our instructors and course designers can use any or all of our technologies in any of our courses to build a blended learning experience. While each technique has its own unique advantages when blended, synergies result in more effective learning experiences. The particular advantages each learning method can be used to its maximum advantage, efficiency and synergy.
For example, students might begin with the power and ease of self-directed On-Demand Learning for lectures. Then, after viewing the on-demand media, students and instructors can meet in live real-time sessions for questions and class discussions. Students can ask the instructor questions or to explain things the student didn’t understand the first time through the material. Then, all students and instructors can join in the in-depth discussions that occur with the Learning Communities. Finally, if needed or desired, private tutoring or mentoring can happen for highly customized learning.
Taken all together, the components are blended learning