What is Distance Education?
Dr. Michael Simonson defines distance education as involving distance teaching and distance learning (Walden University, 2022). He defines distance education as formal education in which “the learning group (teacher, students, resources) are separated by geography and, sometimes, by time (Walden University, 2022).”
Watching Distance Education Evolve
My perspective, definition, and attitudes about Distance Education have evolved over the last twenty years. I grew up overseas on two different Airforce Bases in High School and was first introduced to the concept of Distance Education in the late 90s. On the base in Aviano, Italy, state-side universities had satellite campuses on base where US military service members could work on their degrees while concurrently meeting their familial and work responsibilities.
When attending a community college in Florida, I completed two Distance Education classes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The classes were not offered online but were paper and pencil format where I would complete the classes within semester on my own time, complete proctored exams, and turn in papers to the professors on campus. The remainder of my bachelor’s degree in Sociology was completed in a traditional in-person format.
While working for the State of Utah, I participated in Masters of Rehabilitation Counseling from 2007 through 2010. At that time, distance learning was considered by some to be questionable in its quality and credibility. Even though my degree was from an established, “traditional” university, Virginia Commonwealth University, I received criticism such as, “how do you become a counselor online” or “are you going to be hired with an online degree?” I remember a relative of mine told me that I would be less likely to get hired with an online degree than if I were to go to a “brick-and-mortar” school. I would respond by letting them know that I was already working in the field of Rehabilitation Counseling and that the degree format had in-person components. I felt like I always had to preface and almost apologize for it. But the degree improved my income and allowed me to sit for and pass the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor examination.
In the Simonson text, the authors emphasized that many earlier theories of distance learning would better serve adults with jobs, family responsibilities, and social commitments (Simonson et al., 2019). This was the case with this degree, as it allowed me to tend to my growing family, work, and health needs while also pursuing my education.
Working as a Trainer Across Six States
I worked as a trainer and instructional designer on a six-state project called ASPIRE from 2014 to 2019. Most of our training was delivered via digital means (videos, modules, webinars, etc) while we had two one-week training sessions in person. This was pre-COVID, so an online work training environment was a huge adjustment. I was introduced to the pros, cons, idiosyncrasies, and annoyances of Distance Training. To be honest, I was miserable
Some advantages of being able to deliver training through GoTo Webinar and GoToMeeting include are the ability to train and monitor employees across six states with fidelity. The asynchronous videos and modules allowed the employees to access the training materials when they were not meeting with clients. Real-time video conferencing allowed me and the leadership team to be able to provide one-on-one training to employees across six states.
Some disadvantages to distance training were that employees are not as active in the learning. They could easily play the video or participate in the module while performing paperwork and pay attention enough just to pass the quizzes. Working across six states means working with six different agencies all with their own virtual infrastructure and IT issues. This means we did not have a centralized common source for IT fixes.
ASPIRE also held two Annual Meetings where all the states would meet in-person to give and receive training. Even these training were recorded for future references.
Some of the weird idiosyncrasies and annoyances that would become commonplace after the virtual world post-COVID 19 were silly things like echoey alien-sounding audio, people leaving their microphones on, or eating into the microphone, freezing videos and glitchy videos and audio, and others. Some employees struggled and loathed having to navigate the learning technology landscape dragging their feet with it. The frustration with quizzes not submitting, videos not loading, losing connectivity chipped away at our learners’ patience, diminishing their overall respectively to learning. In 2019, at the close of the project, I overheard many of the employees express relief at not having to deal with a virtual training and management environment. Ironically, their relief would be short-lived.
The Pandemic Accelerates the Inevitable
I believe the world was already moving more towards a digital work and distance training environment, but this trend was accelerated. At the close of the ASPIRE, I was happy to be working primarily with clients again as a Rehabilitation Counselor, in person. I enjoyed the break from the virtual world for more than a year before a global force thrust a large part of the workforce back into the virtual environment. As a result of COVID-19 and our efforts to social distance, I began teleworking more days than I was in the office and most, if not all of my appointments were by phone or video.
I have since moved to a different State to work for the Veterans Administration as a Rehabilitation Counselor. With the exception of one day of Human Resource onboarding, all of my training, interactions with coworkers, and work with clients have been at a distance, online. We use Teams, several databases, Outlook, and a virtual meeting platform. I have never met with a client in person in the last six months that I have been working for the VA. My work office is located in a small city on the very southern tip of Georgia right on the border of Georgia and Florida, but I serve Veterans all over the state and report to supervisors three hours away. Our work system is now 100% virtual so all training is Distance Learning.
What is the Future of Distance Education?
My opinion is that Distance Education will be an antiquated term that will have a similar redundancy to hearing the term “Cellular Phone.” Most phones are cellular so it has become more implied that when someone refers to a phone, they are referring to a cell phone rather than a “landline”. Distance Education or training is just considered training. I think many universities will continue to have in-person classes, but virtual formats will be the norm. I think formats such as hybrids will be the norm. Students can read their materials or attend asynchronous lectures while attending learning experiences that are more effective or practical in-person, such as anatomy or chemistry labs.
Right now, there seems to be a lot of focus on the emerging technocentric aspects of Distance Learning, possibly at the expense of learner/employee-centered practices. Although companies, organizations, and educational institutions will be experimenting with modalities and concepts such as glitzy entertaining training videos, virtual reality, sophisticated animation, gamification, and others, I predict that improvements in virtual training will focus on basic principles of learning and multimedia design. One of my favorite researchers, Dr. Mayer, has been studying the efficacy of multimedia design with learning for over thirty years (Mayer, 2022). Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Design and his Principles of Multimedia Design will continue to guide learning environments as they continue to evolve within virtual environments.
Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Design.
I will write an article about this later, but I’ll offer a map spoiler in just a bit. Mayer’s found that we learn best through a combination of words and pictures, rather than words alone; however, too much information in one or both channels results in a diminished learning experience. Basically, there is a sweet spot. Mayer’s research found that learners have two major channels through which we process information, visual and auditory. Each channel can only process a certain amount of information at a time. In other words, too many graphics or too much audio can make it difficult to learn.
Mayer, R. E., & Fiorella, L. (2022). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press.
Simonson, Michael; Zvacek, Susan M.; Smaldino, Sharon. 2019. Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Information Age Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Walden University, LLC. (Producer). (n.d.). Distance education: The next generation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu