My perspective of distance learning dates back over 18 years ago. As a senior Communication major at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I was a student in the first distance learning class at the Downtown university campus in 1997. All of my classes previous to that were at the main campus with books, highlighters and face-to-face in a classroom with my professor. At the downtown campus, we had reading assignments and a two-way interactive video display so that we could see the lecture from the main campus and the professor could see us for attendance, answer questions and allow us to interact with the other students as needed. As a senior, I was at the cutting edge of what distance learning was for me.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, fiber-optic communication systems, considered the least expensive option for high-quality two-way audio and video, expanded and was made accessible to the field of education (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015. p.38). Based upon what I was learning about the possible future of distance learning, I saw that system as clunky and expensive, but had a lot of potential toward reaching an audience. Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek (2015) describe the four characteristics that distinguish distance education as it being carried out by an institution, but it is not self-study; there is an accessible and convenient geographical separation between students and the teacher; interactive telecommunications connects the learning group with each other and the teacher; lastly, a learning community is established that consist of students, the teacher and instructional resources.
Communicating with groups or the professor after the class during that time involved a phone call, email or chat using your “school supported” Hotmail or Instant Messenger account. Learning management systems did not exist. The formats for media and the way we use it today did not exist. This is why technology and the distance learning field is so exciting to me because it is constantly changing. Back then, what was an iPad or a tablet? AltaVista and Yahoo were the “big boy” search engines that everybody used (Wall, 2015). At home, people used a modem to connect to the Internet because access to a high speed connection was too expensive. What that meant was that downloading multimedia content, as limited as it was, took way longer than the average person was willing to wait. When I graduated from college, I did not see distance learning of any sort with the setup I saw at UTSA. Actually from that point, to this current day I have only seen a similar setup of my earlier depiction of distance learning once and it was back in 2009 when I was asked to help a teacher that wanted to set up her classroom to connect with another classroom in China. By chance I happened to be at their campus and I was able to get them connected in time for their distance learning moment.
My personal definition of distance learning from an earlier perspective entails having reading materials and other resources to learn from, access to a teacher’s lecture (pre-recorded or live) and a limited means of interaction between the student community and my teacher. Today, my thoughts about distance learning are very different compared to the way I use to think about it. I first saw a system that represented distance learning that I considered clunky and media was very limited. Therefore, the definition of distance learning constantly changes because of the advancement in technology. As technology improves, businesses and innovators are finding better ways to connect a learning community and engage them in media rich environments to maximize retention steeped in the foundations of learning theories that structure models around the different ways people learn. As the technology improves and the framework for engagement is established, professionals in the field will need to learn how to use the new system and teach others, from a user perspective, how to make it work with the subject matter of their given field. Moller, Wellesley and Huett, (2008, p.69) in their three part series regarding The Evolution of Distance Education offer three suggestions to ensure the highest level of faculty performance starting with the need for simple, highly- templated instructional models along with the tools for building learning objects; required training for faculty in the areas of instructional design, teaching and course revision before deploying the course and that faculty concerns regarding the effectiveness of the course need to be addressed. I view distance learning today as an emerging multimedia-rich supportive learning community separated, but connected with anytime/anywhere collaborative access to community members and resources.
With the changes we have seen in technology over the years, technology and the capability of learning management systems have evolved with the capability to harness media-rich features that allow for the creative engagement of a learning community. However, as we continue on a path of change, what is there to look forward to? In my distance learning future, I envision a seamless connection between mobile devices. A lecture or course could be seen on any device without regard for compatibility. Perhaps Twitter, TweetDeck and Google Maps will mash up with a video conferencing application and create a collaboration tool for education. I could FaceTime or conference in with my professor or other students in a virtual room to observe, chat, ask questions or collaborate while seeing a bio or location stamp of each person in the room so that I can know the people that I interact with better. Files can be viewed on a device of your choice, marked up with highlights and notes and be ready to view on your PC when you get home. Maybe one day, Google will re-invent the Google Glass project and take group collaboration in a virtual 3D world to the next level. These are just a few changes I see in my distance learning future that has come a long way from being confined by technology to one room with a two-way interactive video display.
Wall, A. (2015). History of Search Engines: From 1945 to Google Today. Retrieved from: http://www.searchenginehistory.com/
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Chapter 2, “Definitions, History, and Theories of Distance Education” (pp. 31-40).
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher education). TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70.