The Future of Distance Learning – Reflection

Five years ago I still had a computer that required at least two people to carry, and took up the entire surface of my desk.  I would turn the power on and leave for a cup of tea while it booted-up—a solid fifteen minutes.  I had intermittent Internet connection.  I had never heard of  Web 2.0 technologies.  My perception of distance learning was such that it was adequate for a self-paced, asynchronous, single courses, but not for a degree program.  Although I was aware of online degree programs, I had reservations about their credibility and validity.  That was only five years ago!

And here I am in 2013 (only five years later), totally immersed in an online degree program, at a fully accredited institution, receiving a robust, challenging and engaging education, adapting to numerous educational technology tools, interacting with a diversely talented group of learners and faculty, in my own time, from anywhere, and actually enjoying the learning process – all enabled through technological advancement: high-speed internet connection, sophisticated computers, mobile devices, learner-friendly course management system, pedagogically sound instructional design, and expansion of web 2.0 technologies.     Has my perception changed?  Most definitely—and favorably.

Technological advancement, particularly in the last five to ten years, has greatly influenced the status of online education today.  (Hall, Keppel, & Bourne, 2011, p.2) assert that, “Digital technologies have massively widened access to learning. Internet platforms, enhanced by real-time sound and video streaming, high-quality digital images and limitless volumes of text files, now offer a compelling alternative to the conventional classroom.” They further note that the “diminishing costs of both technology and connectivity” is providing academic institutions the opportunity to enter the online education market without the barrier of competition.  And as the number of institutions offering online programs grows, potential students will start to recognize and accept the “legitimacy” of online education.

5, 10, 20 years from now. . . .

In the next five to ten years, the perception of online learning will become more favorable.  Advancement in educational and communication technologies coupled with the education reform movement has already enabled expansion of virtual public schools, an indication of support and acceptance.  See report at The Center for Education Reform.  In higher education, Sloan Consortium (2012) reports “nearly one-third of all students in higher education are taking at least one online course.” Furthermore, “65% of institutions now say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.” Sloan Consortium (2012).  Acceptance and support is clearly growing.

The generation of learners in ten to twenty years from now will become fully accustomed to online education throughout their learning experience and will view it favorably.  To them, there would not be a distinction between traditional and online learning, since both would have integrated seamlessly and effectively.  Education will just be “education.”  The current generation of learners will also have adapted to online learning greatly through programs that are interactive and engaging, and course management systems that are even more intuitive and simple to navigate.  They will have a positive perception of online education.  Online learning will also have expanded to most regions of the developing nations.  For most in the developing nations, the lack of educational infrastructure (facilities, materials, qualified teachers, transportation) is one of the reasons preventing access to education today.  Online education will be one solution.  Access to technology and connectivity will be less of a barrier than it currently is.  Read “Ten trends in technology use in education in developing countries that you may not have heard about.”  Interestingly, as I am writing this, it occurred to me that to most learners in developing nations, who would never had had any education, online learning may be their introduction to education, and they will accept its legitimacy right from the start since they would not have had any other form of education to compare it to.  I also believe that the open courses movement by organizations such as the Open Courseware Consortium will play a significant role in the accessibility and provision of free education, particularly in the developing nations.

Watch “Build a School in the Cloud” a compelling and inspiring TED presentation by educational researcher Sugata Mitra.

Improving societal perceptions of distance learning. . . .

As an instructional designer, I can help improve societal perceptions of distance learning by educating people (potential students) about online learning: what it means, what role they play, and the benefits it presents, perhaps through webinars or workshops in my local community.  Another way I can help is by introducing potential learners to open courses such as those offered through Coursera and the African Virtual University and encouraging them to try it out.  While the Sloan Consortium (2012) reports growth of student enrollment in online education, it indicates that acceptance of online learning by faculty lacks similar growth.  I think that providing faculty the training, support, and tools they need for implementing online learning is essential.  As an instructional designer, I need to collaborate with faculty to help them recognize the crucial role they play in the online learning environment, as well as assist them in effectively designing and delivering their courses.

Continuous improvement in the field of distance education. . . .

In order to contribute to the improvement of distance education, my own continued professional development is essential.  Joining a community of practitioners and online learners, taking courses, and pursuing a career in instructional design and/or volunteering my services are ways to keep informed of trends and methodologies in the field of instructional design. And in the process, I have the opportunity to identify areas for improvement.  Through research and collaboration with fellow instructional designers, and academic and corporate professionals, I can explore in depth the distance education theories discussed in (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Svacek, 2012, Chap. 2), and potentially refine/expand the theories so as to enable instructional design that is highly engaging and effective.  Additionally, I like to take an active role (as a volunteer or an employee) in national and international organizations, such as, the World BankUNESCO, and The 50×15 Foundation, in their efforts to minimize the digital divide and promote equal access to education—online education, globally.

Marta

References

Hall, M., Keppel, M., & Bourne, J. (2011). Learning Technology and Organizations: Transformational Impact. Sloan Consortium. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 15(4). Retrieved on March 2, 2013, from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v15n4/learning-technology-and-organizations-transformational-impact

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education. (5th ed.). (Chap. 2). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Sloan Consortium (2012). Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011.  Retrieved on March 2, 2013, from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/going_distance_2011

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