Currently, perceptions of distance learning are complex and varied. There are large pockets of individuals unfamiliar with any of the distance learning programs (print, video, audio/telephonic, video or computer) due to what is commonly referred to as the Digital Divide (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009). The Digital Divide refers to individuals who either lack access to computers and/or electronically based distance learning due to geography, socioeconomics, or cultural reasons (society, political, or religious). Additionally, many of those with access do not possess the ability or skill to utilize computers to their educational benefit. If the current situation is so varied, what is to become of distance learning in the future?
Future of Distance Learning
There are many reasons to believe that distance learning will continue to grow in a positive and increasing direction. For instance, George Siemens maintains that growing acceptance of distance learning will be occur simply because the public at large will naturally increase usage of online communication tools, develop experience using same, further becoming more comfortable conversing in an electronic format and will begin to integrate the positives associated with being able to communicate with diverse groups of individuals globally (Laureate Education, Inc. [Laureate], 2010). This reasoning aligns with typical adoption cycles of technology and/or E-Learning in general. For instance, E-Learning adoption typically occurs through four cycles, with minimal technology being incorporated during Cycle 1 and complete program reconfiguration occurring during Cycle 4 (Simonson et al., 2009). This is also consistent with the Diffusion of Innovation Theory. “Diffusion researchers believe that a population can be broken down into five different segments, based on their propensity to adopt a specific innovation: innovators, early adopters, early majorities, late majorities and laggards (Robinson, n.d., p. 5). The reality is that E-Learning is an innovation that has already bridged innovators and early adopters and is clearly making a dent into the early majorities. It is easy to believe that within 15 years online learning as a distance education medium will be much more commonplace.
There are, however, other factors that will need to be addressed prior to E-Learning becoming as commonplace as television. For instance, there is the Digital Divide, or those who do not have access to computerized technology and/or the Internet for a variety of reasons. There are also social, political and possibly religious reactions to utilizing online learning as a primary educational tool. In fact, many of those who have embraced E-Learning have done so with the caveat that it NOT include elementary and/or secondary age students, but be limited to adult learners. These pressures are further compounded by disruptive innovations from outside the educational community. As we have seen the emergence of advancing technology and the ease to which our youth have become accustomed to it, the reality is technology is advancing faster than we are keeping up with it. Siemens points out that Distance Education is impacted by new communication technology, global expert contributions to technology and the ever increasing use of multimedia, games and simulations by the public, especially our youth (Laureate, 2010).
Instructional Designer Contributions
As distance education continues to persevere and grow, the public and society will come to perceive it more positively if for no other reason than rationalization. Once E-Learning has been adopted by the majority, it will be the minority hold-outs that will continue to perceive online learning negatively. The reasons are due to several factors. The first factor is that although E-Learning is an innovation, the educational industry within which it has formed has its roots in instructional design. Instructional designers form a conduit or bridge from the traditional brick and mortar educational institutions into the new virtual and/or distance learning online forums. Fortunately, the instructional design field is founded on research, solid learning theory and distance learning theory. Additionally, research continues to investigate the most effective learning strategies to be incorporated in ANY medium, whether online or face-to-face or some blended approach. It is of paramount importance that instructional designers do their utmost to continue to develop strong instructionally sound programs. In this way, the public and society at large will see that online learning can be effective and beneficial to learning.
My own contributions to distance learning in general remain to be determined. During recent weeks there was an opportunity to interview people I knew regarding their perceptions of online learning and/or distance learning. I was surprised that even those who know me very well still hold on tenaciously to some of the myths and stereotypes about online learning regarding socialization, communication, attention, and/or learning in general (Munoz, 2010). Prior to this experience, I would have stated that although my contributions to positive perceptions regarding distance learning were not on a global scale, they were at least diffusing in my circle of relationships. Now, I am not so sure.
There is a reason the saying is, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Perhaps, this particular innovation will only become more positively perceived as the digital generation takes over. Just as there was a generation who believed televisions were a fad, there are those who need to see to believe before distance learning will finally become perceived positively. On the other hand, my 64 year old father is playing online social games on Facebook and texting me several times a week on his iPhone. Is distance learning so far-fetched?
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2010). Future of distance education [Video]. Available from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com.
Munoz, L. (2010, October 30). Interviews re perceptions of online learning [Web log message]. Retrieved from https://lynnmunoz.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/interviews-re-perceptions-of-online-learning/
Robinson, L. (n.d.). A summary of diffusion of innovations. Retrieved from http://www.enablingchange.com.au/Summary_Diffusion_Theory.pdf
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.