The Impact of Distance Learning

The focal articles of our resources this week highlight many pertinent trends within instructional design across several educational  environments, including work training, higher education and K-12 (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008; Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008; Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008). The expansion of distance learning and/or online learning and/or e-learning, however, as with anything else heretofore novel in application offers many potential benefits and/or opportunities, while at the  same time suffering possible challenges and impediments, which the authors readily address.

Potential Benefits/Opportunities

There are numerous potential benefits and/or opportunities with distance learning in any of the educational environments, whether work training, higher education, or K-12. One of the most significant benefits at the forefront is financial. Although, up-front costs of developing online learning / distance learning may be significant, the long-term expense is much less when factors such as number of learners, costs associated with redesign and/or redevelopment, materials, location costs, face-to-face instruction costs, etc. are put into the equation. Clearly, distance learning provides the host educational system with a competitive edge in several respects. For instance, universities offering distance learning are not limited in enrollment, but, rather, have an opportunity for unlimited enrollment as far as the web can reach. This is also beneficial to administration/ employers and instructors/employees. The instructor who lives in a rural area can still teach at a large university offering distance learning via the web. The other side of the coin is that the university is not limited to selecting from a limited pool of applicants, again, those from the native locale or willing to relocate, but can instead choose from the most qualified instructors across the nation or beyond. This opportunity also benefits the students in that it is possible for them to obtain an even better education than may have been possible before, whether because they themselves live in a rural area, have transportation issues, or the local educational opportunities are deficient in some respect. The learner also benefits from distance learning opportunities due to its flexibility when balancing work,  family, and education. Personally, I would have found it very difficult to have continued my education through traditional night school courses due to scheduling constraints, family constraints, etc.

In fact, today was my son’s first day of Fourth Grade and unfortunately, the combination of not enough breakfast, medication and too much heat resulted in his vomiting before 11:00 a.m. As a result I had to leave work, pick him up, and take him home for the  rest of the day. Had he been attending an online school, this would have been unnecessary as he would likely be home for the instruction, or, had he been ill, could have arranged to do the assignments later in the day. These options are not available in traditional settings.

Additional benefits to e-learning is that when properly designed it is based on current research regarding learning theories and instructional design for optimal student learning in addition to incorporating the most effective instructional methodologies not always available in a traditional classroom (Moller et al., 2008).

Potential Challenges/Impediments

Unfortunately, as with everything, with the sweet comes the bitter. There are also many potential challenges and/or impediments  associated with online learning as well. Several issues discussed in our reading including quality issues, whether in corporate or educational environments. This is a very large concern and fully justified. As indicated in the materials, corporations and even educational administrations are often unaware and/or disbelieving of the depth and breadth required developing an effective,  meaningful learning online course/training. In fact, one article referenced the use of a “craft approach” wherein instructors simply convert their face-to-face traditional instruction into an online format, without changing anything except location (Moller et al., 2008). Clearly, this will not result in effective instructional design; however, many universities have simply told instructors  they would be putting their classes online, without providing any guidance and/or direction in how to accomplish the task. Similarly, corporations, always vigilant in the face of the bottom line, tend to cut corners, opting to have Human Resources and/or Department Chiefs put together online training for the company. Part of the dilemma, besides ignorance or penny-watching, is unavailability of suitable instructional designers (IDs). The field of instructional design is itself overly broad and poorly defined, making it even more difficult to match appropriate personnel to positions.

Even when instructional designers are hired to develop e-learning modules, they are often given unrealistic timeframes and/or are pressured with other constraints making it difficult to provide the most effective module for the learning. For instance, corporations are especially remiss in allowing additional time for evaluation and assessment once training has been completed, again, always aware of the financial costs involved, whether for additional training time, off the job time and/or additional instructional expenses. This comes back to haunt them later, when the instruction is missing some key element. Similarly, corporations and often educational institutions as well, are in such a hurry to get an online program developed and implemented they rush through or truncate the very important needs assessment aspect of the design. The needs assessment phase is particularly important to ensuring that the instructional program will be designed to actually meet the needs of the institution and/or learners. Glossing  over this part of the process often results in superficial evaluations and negative results (Moller et al., 2008).

Conclusion

The trend is towards an ever-increasing number of distance learning options. At this point, it is in the instructional designers’ best interest to become as knowledgeable of their profession as possible, stay current with the research and develop positive working relationships with their clients. There is no going backward from this point on, only moving forward. It is up to the instructional designers to ensure they do not contribute to any negativity surrounding distance learning. There is a long way to go, but at least we are on the way.

References

Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Coleman, C. (2008, September/October). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web. TechTrends, 52(5), 63-67. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008, July/August). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web. TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008, May/June). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web. TechTrends, 52(3), 70-75. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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