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Essay 1
Susan Connell
Fall 2004

Defining Concepts, Growth and Development of Distance Education, and eLearning

Interesting Concepts
With its historical roots in independent learning, distance education initially appears to be a simple concept addressing a learner at a disparate location from the class or instructor. However the definitions and introductory discussions highlight the fact that “distance” is only one aspect of distance education.

In addition to location, the readings emphasize the interaction between student and teacher as well as the media they use for that interaction. How the media affect the dialog (and vice versa) is an area that is of particular interest in the current environment of rapid changes and new developments in rich media. Although a wealth of media are available, research demonstrates that the quality of instruction has proven to be more important than the medium. In real world applications, this aspect is an essential, yet often overlooked, consideration for any educational endeavor. This serves as an important reminder not to be lured by the “bells and whistles” of the latest software or communication tool at the expense of the instructional content or the interaction between student and instructor.Another concern noted in the readings was the perception by some that distance education is somehow inferior to the traditional alternative. As a student working on a masters degree at a distance, I have firsthand knowledge that this type of program can be just as rigorous (if not more so) than its traditional counterpart. Presumably, the incorporation of distance aspects into traditional programs and the adoption of distance programs by highly regarded institutions will help to dispel this prejudice. As the discipline matures and becomes more commonplace, it will be interesting to see how this perception changes.Learner traits are key to the success of any learning experience and distance education is certainly no exception. Whatever the modality, student motivation and attitude are essential to achievement of learning objectives. These facets may be harder to assess from a distance, but must remain central to any instructional design. At the same time, increased student autonomy places a greater degree of responsibility on students to determine their own goals.That the Internet has brought distance education to a new level is undeniable. The infrastructure provided by the Internet combined with budgetary restrictions and increasing impediments to travel (e.g. fuel prices, long waits, baggage limitations, etc.) will usher distance education into the accepted mainstream at an increasingly rapid pace.

Concepts Needing More Elaboration
While these brief readings serve as an introduction to the subject of distance education they bring to mind additional aspects of distance education that could be elaborated upon further. While student traits are mentioned, it would be interesting to learn more about what types of students prove to be successful in distance education courses. At the same time, one wonders if certain subjects are better suited towards a distance curriculum.Other aspects that could be pursued further include language and literacy issues as they relate to distance education. English is the lingua franca of the Internet, but the increasing adoption of technology in places like India and China may impact that. [This concept actually brings up a “whole can of worms” on a sociological level and how language impacts culture.]In addition to literacy and language, access to technology will be another important factor in the spread of distance education. While distance programs can be a boon to remote areas in developed countries, what will happen in areas where electricity is scarce, not to mention computers and telephones? Further, it will be interesting to see if increasing use of distance education will bring learning opportunities to a broader range of society or if literacy and access issues will increase the divide between rich and poor.Another aspect often overlooked in discussions of distance education and eLearning are opportunities and requirements for special needs learners. On one hand, technology can be a significant asset for students with some types of handicaps such as visual and hearing impairment or paralysis. However, other types of disabilities and learning impairments can pose a greater challenge for dialogue, structure and autonomy in distance education for these populations.In a sense, all of these considerations relate to determining which types of students are best suited for distance education. At the same time the challenges posed by language, literacy, access to media and special needs also present the prospect of reaching underserved groups with an array of educational opportunities that had not previously been available to them.

Concepts, Ideas & Techniques to Explore Further
In terms of media and technology I am especially interested further exploration about which media best promote dialogue and a sense of community. This would include development and implementation of feedback, testing and evaluation tools as well as those that facilitate dialog and collaboration. It would be difficult, if not somewhat pointless, to delve into these areas without also assessing access or barriers to access that might impact adoption of various tools by different populations or individuals.In addition to media and technology, distance education also opens up possibilities for cultural exchange that have not previously been possible. Most of us went to school in neighborhoods populated with people similar to ourselves and then attended universities full of students who fulfilled the same entrance requirements and were generally within a few years of our age. When we do training in the workplace, it is commonplace to find more cultural similarity than genuine diversity. By eliminating the barrier of location, we will see opportunities and challenges relating to cultural differences among students and instructors. On the positive side, teaching and learning can become more culturally sensitive and inclusive, offering possibilities for a more enlightened worldview, improved productivity and increased effectiveness in a global marketplace. On the negative side is the potential (either actively or passively) to homogenize the world and dictate cultural norms with the excuse of common standards for communication.Also, from the viewpoint of a distance student, I am interested in finding opportunities to promote the potential quality and benefits of distance learning to a world that is often skeptical. Identifying and citing research, clarifying cost benefits, developing systems and standards with all be an important part of advocacy for distance education and eLearning.

Technological developments of the last two decades resulted in a paradigm shift in how business, science and communication take place. The next decade or two will likely see a similar shift that we are beginning to see in the field of education. It will certainly be an interesting time to be involved with distance education.


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© 2003, 2004 Susan Connell, Educational Technology Student at San Diego State University