Distance learning, in short (kind of)

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For some folks out there, the phrase “distance learning” is nothing new, and certainly doesn’t need to be explained. However, I, for one, have always had a problem with simply defining distance learning, and perhaps others belong to this group. It seems logical at first – distance learning is learning … at a distance. But how, with whom, with what, about what, through what, for what purpose, with what effect? Questions abound and, as it turns out, so do potential answers; out there, on the bottomless Internet, I found quite a lot of information…

First of all, distance learning is not a product of recent years, but something that has existed for many decades (I didn’t see that coming). However, this article is not for the study of history. Here I want to include ‘distance learning’ in a nutshell so that you can read with interest and know something more after that. Among my generation in Poland, there’s a saying that goes: “Uncle Google will tell you the truth” or “Auntie Wikipedia will do the homework for you.” I’ve never been a fan of this mindset so I took it upon myself to do some research and go beyond the first web browser result.

image: Pixabay.com

So, what is distance learning?

I’m in that seemingly shrinking group that says: “You want to know something, open the dictionary.” So I did and found the definition: “Distance education, d-learning, dLearning – a learning method characterized by separating the teacher from the student and the student from the group of learners, replacing direct interpersonal communication with communication mediated by traditional mail and communication technology.” In more insightful descriptions, we find information that distance learning is dedicated primarily to “full-time workers, military personnel, and nonresidents or individuals in remote regions who are unable to attend classroom lectures” – ‘nontraditional students’ in short. However, as we all know, 2020 caused a peculiar revolution in the subject of distance education. Students of all ages and countries were forced into distance learning. So the world we lived in before 2020 stopped only for a moment because the pandemic mobilized us to create a “new normal” in just a few weeks. As a result, more and more entities offer this type of teaching and attract more and more interested people. So, distance learning has become an established part of the educational world, with trends pointing to ongoing growth.

The bottomless well - different types of learning opportunities

Surely everyone knows the terms ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’, but what does it have to do with distance learning? See below:

Synchronous Learning:

  • involves live communication via online chat or teleconferencing
  • one of the most recognized types of distance learning
  • most suitable for engaging in continuing education programs
  • it is preferred for study programs that emphasize communication.

Asynchronous Learning:

  • type of learning that has specific deadlines, often a weekly time limit, but allows students to learn at their own pace
  • one of the most popular types of distance learning
  • students can communicate with each other online
  • ideal for assignment-heavy programs and courses as it provides enough time to focus on assigned work.

Hybrid Distance Learning:

  • combines asynchronous and synchronous
  • students must meet at certain times in web chat or class but can work at their own pace.

 

After this short explanation, it’s time for some examples. Only a few, because as communication systems have become more advanced and widely available, by extension the Internet, mobile phones, and e-mail contribute to the rapid development of distance learning and ideas for its implementation. As in the headline, it is kind of a bottomless well.

1. E-learning / online learning

Learners receive access to educational materials on media, such as DVDs/CDs (less and less often) or websites dedicated to this purpose (so-called e-learning platforms). This example belongs to asynchronous learning.

There is also adaptive e-learning in which a system actually, well, adapts to each individual student. It assumes an individual assessment of the participant, and then matches the courses or lessons to his preferences.

2. Video Conferencing/Live Virtual Training

This is currently the most well-known type of synchronous distance learning. It is learning like in traditional classrooms or university halls but on an online video platform. Focused on the collective exchange of information, it often consists of presentations where most or all of the listeners are also speakers. Therefore, participants need a computer as well as access to a microphone and camera.

3. Video Recordings

Recording instructional videos, tutorials, or lectures is very popular. People offering various types of online courses want to attract attention and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their training. I read in a psychology article that the human brain can process a video 60,000 times faster than it can process a text. I would love to quote here a ton of materials glorifying reading over watching, but this is not the space for such polemics. Society is indeed becoming more pictorial, and written texts are off-putting (if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the cool exceptions), that’s why video recordings are popular.

4. Webinar

This is another example of synchronous distance learning where live events take place online and are designed to provide participants with knowledge in a specific field. It is a kind of transferring of the traditional ‘seminar’ to the Internet. The format is often ‘one-to-many’ – lectures and other presentations. It can also include screen sharing and demos, and even a space to ask questions to the speaker.

5. Web-based courses

Course management systems include digital reading materials, podcasts (sessions to be listened to or viewed electronically in the student’s free time), e-mail, threaded discussion forums, chat rooms, test-taking in a virtual environment (computer simulated), and many others. While most systems are generally asynchronous, allowing students to access most features at any time, synchronous technologies are also used, including live video, audio, and shared access to electronic documents at scheduled times.

Distance learning in numbers

It’s fascinating how you can reword reality in numbers. Just as a beautiful view can fit in a frame, distance learning can be presented in statistical data. However, just as a photo will never capture the beauty of a sunset, the data below only partially reflects the subject under discussion. I’ve included the ones I think are the most interesting.

image: Pixabay.com

  • In the early 2000s, more than half of all two- and four-year colleges in the United States offered distance learning courses, mostly online. With over 100,000 different correspondence courses to choose from, about a quarter of  US students took at least one distance learning program each semester.
  • In the US there were 422 online colleges (i.e., postsecondary institutions that offered courses primarily online) in 2020. These colleges enrolled 2.8 million students (15% of all college students).
  • NC-SARA’s Sixth Annual Data Report shows that among 2,200 member institutions, remote learning-only enrollment increased by 93% from autumn 2019 to 2020.
  • 60% of institutions in the world still want to continue distance learning, despite the lifting of social distancing protocols due to the pandemic.
  • In 2021, 27% of EU citizens aged 16 to 74 years reported participating in online courses.
  • Distance learning platforms are easily available, increasing MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) participation by 60 million students.
  • 65% of current online students are employed full-time or part-time.
  • The global e-learning market is anticipated to climb to $1 trillion by 2028.
  • By 2024, the total value of AI in the education market will increase to $6 billion.
  • Not only students and teachers – over 40% of Fortune 500 companies use distance learning to train their employees.
  • The UK’s largest online university, The Open University, has provided compelling evidence that online courses lead to 85% less carbon emissions per student and use 90% less energy than face-to-face teaching.

Universities - a few examples with a few facts

Please note that this paragraph is not an any way an advertisement. During my research, I came across a few interesting examples of universities offering distance learning. Their websites scream various slogans to encourage potential students to apply. Being in Poland, I’ve conjured up a European list and randomly selected examples:

image: Pixabay.com

International University of Applied Science, Germany

  • “100% online, 100% flexible, with 100% support”
  • you decide when and where to study
  • 24/7 access to all course materials, videos, and tutorials
  • build your schedule: full-time or part-time
  • take your exams online, from wherever and whenever it suits you
  • Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees in Data & IT, Business & Management, Marketing & Communication, Health & Social Care, Psychology and also general or specialised MBAs

 

The Open University, The United Kingdom

  • we’ve been the experts in distance learning for over 50 years
  • we’re allowing you to fit study around your life (three-quarters of our students study alongside work)
  • you’ll get an immersive and interactive learning experience with support from dedicated tutors every step of the way
  • choose from over 200 qualifications and 400 modules
  • 86% of our alumni say that study with us helped them achieve their career goals
  • 80% of our students pay for their courses with a student loan.

 

Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands

  • “To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life”
  • the best university in The Netherlands and #59 Best university in the world
  • the online courses are usually at Master’s level
  • tuition fees range between 500 and 2,500 EUR per academic year.

 

Stockholm University, Sweden

  • “Knowledge and education for a sustainable world”
  • especially the Science and Human Science fields
  • online courses are usually offered at Master’s level
  • tuition fees range between 0 and 13,000 EUR per academic year.

 

Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

  • the best academic institution in Ireland
  • the first place in the rankings created by TopUniversities, THE, and the Shanghai University
  • the online courses are at Master’s level
  • tuition fees range between 3,000 – 11,200 EUR per academic year.

 

University of Oxford, the United Kingdom

  • one of the best and most renowned universities in the world
  • high educational standards, some of the best professors in the world, and rigorous admission requirements
  • most online courses are at Master’s level
  • tuition fees range between 1,800 – 29,000 EUR per academic year.

 

Swiss School of Business and Management, Switzerland

  • “Our diversity, faculty and collaborations make us unique and globally successful”
  • a private university that offers Business studies
  • the institution collaborates with various scholars and organizations to design courses that prepare students for the labor market
  • most online courses are at Master’s level
  • tuition fees range between 600 – 20,000 EUR per academic year.

 

The Polish Virtual University (PUW)

  • one of the oldest and largest e-learning universities in Central and Eastern Europe
  • classes on an e-learning platform and also two or three-weekend meetings at a selected university (to run workshop/laboratory classes)
  • final and mid-year exams are at the university building
  • Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees and postgraduate studies
  • a wide range of training courses.

And so on… I can list further, and then move to other continents and list further, but this is another bottomless well. After many hours of searching for information on universities offering distance learning, I can say that you can probably find something in every corner of the world. Maybe not in Antarctica, but… you can always try it in-person 🙂

What you need to accelerate your distance learning - an equipment list

You will need:

  • cards, envelopes, postage stamps (ok – this is an increasingly rare scenario)
  • Internet access
  • computer, laptop, mobile device
  • accessories, such as headphones with a microphone (may be useful)
  • e-mail
  • profiles on required intent pages (e.g. e-learning platform)

In addition: perseverance, motivation, strong will, and focus are welcome!

image: Pixabay.com

Yay or nay - advantages and disadvantages

Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Distance learning is no different. I will write a few strengths and weaknesses after a moment of reflection, not after a moment of clicking in the browser.

image: Pixabay.com

Purely economically, universities benefit from increasing student numbers without having to build classrooms and housing. Companies offering courses, training, or webinars on diverse online platforms also charge fees, and build their brand, but do not have to worry about the location, health and safety rules, or the size of the car park. However, my thoughts are focused on students and people who take advantage of various distance learning offers. Are these only the superlatives? Let’s see:

 

+ availability at any time of the day or night in all corners of the world
+ convenience
+ possibility of bridging programmatic, intellectual, cultural, and social differences
+ opportunity for working people, students who live far away, or have children under their care
+ no extra travel or accommodation costs

but…

– costs of energy, internet, and necessary equipment, as well as often high tuition fees or fees for access to an online course
– separation from society and the long list of its negative effects
– risk of lack of commitment and only superficial learning
– problems with concentration (after all, at home, you always have a lot of things to do, such as vacuuming, cooking, looking at the wall, or scrolling the Internet in the second browser window, putting off learning until the last minute)
– and one more risk… subjectively (although based on observations of the group of students during the pandemic), the quantity of  ‘specialists’, but without their quality (“necessity is the mother of invention” – passing tests with a whisperer behind the monitor or with hints coming from the earphone are not uncommon).

 

I’ve attempted to provide you a cursory but objective overview on the topic of distance learning. In the end, it’s up to each of us individually to decide how useful the option may be for us. So, what do YOU think? Yay or nay?

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