Thursday, June 23, 2011

Distance Education: What Is It and Is It Effective?

Have you recently considered going back to school, either to earn a degree or perhaps receive additional training and education as it relates to your current profession? Are you hampered by time constraints due to work and/or family demands, or by geographical distance between you and the nearest school? If so, there may be another option: distance education. In recent years, many institutions, faced with the dilemma of how to offer increased educational opportunities without increased budgets, have answered this challenge by offering more courses and programs through distance learning. To help explain this educational opportunity in a bit more detail, here we will briefly define distance education and the primary tools used to deliver it, followed by a discussion on the overall effectiveness of this type of delivery model.

Distance Education Defined

Much like the name implies, distance learning is characterized by educational situations in which the instructor and student are separated by physical distance. In this delivery model, instead of imparting the required knowledge in a traditional classroom setting, the instructor will use various technologies—data, voice, video and print—coupled with the occasional face-to-face meeting. Distance education programs allow schools and institutions to reach a wider cross-section of the population, including working adults with various time constraints, those limited by distance and/or transportation and the disabled.

Distance Education: Delivery Methods

While distance education may not have been possible, and certainly not as effective twenty years ago, technological advances since that time have provided instructors with several tools to enhance the distance learning experience. These tools or delivery methods generally fall into four main categories as outlined below:

· Voice. Although instructors still employ the use of one-way audio tools—tapes and radio—the advent of interactive audio tools, such as audio conferencing, allow teachers and students the opportunity to audibly and effectively communicate from even the greatest of distances.

· Video. Video instructional tools include Power Point slides, pre-produced film or videotape, and video conferencing technologies.

· Data. With regard to distance education, the data category, which includes any use of the computer as an educational or organizational tool, is by far the largest. This includes using data to deliver self-contained lessons to the student, organize instructional sessions, track student progress and manage records. This category also includes any secondary computer use, including the sending and receiving of emails, computer conferencing and searching the Internet.

· Print. While some contend that printed educational materials are “on their way out” due to advances in computer technology, many teachers still find these materials, which could include items such as textbooks, study guides and workbooks, very beneficial in distance education.

Distance Education: Is It Effective?

The opponents of distance education are quick to say that these types of programs are not nearly as effective as traditional classroom instruction, but the data on the subject does not bear that statement out. According to several separate research studies, when students possess the necessary technology, and when instructional tasks are appropriate, distance learning, as long as there is timely instructor feedback, can be just as effective as the traditional instructional model. What this seems to prove is what many proponents of distance learning have always contended: The instructional model used to impart knowledge is not nearly as significant as the student(s) motivation to receive it.

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