Thursday, July 21, 2011

Creating Meaningful Learning in Distance Education

Distance learning opportunities are growing by leaps and bounds in both high school and universities across Canada and the United States. A 2009 report by the Canadian Council on Learning indicates that more rural schools than urban schools had students participating in online courses. It is estimated that between 150, 000 and 175, 000 students K-12 are enrolled in distance education in Canada, which is 2.8% or 3.4% of the total K-12 student population.
For post-secondary schools, Statistics Canada reports that cost plays an important role in why students choose online education.
According to Jamie Littlefield, high school students are choosing the online option as a result of the flexibility, and accessibility offered by online courses. Setting their own learning pace is another benefit for highly motivated students. Students who need to catch up on missing credits are also exploring online courses as a way to reach this goal.

What is Distance Education?
As the name implies, distance education takes place when the instructor and the student are physically separate from each other. However, instructor-student and student-student interactions still form an integral part of the courses, with communication occurring through media such as email, online chat, discussion forums and through platforms such as Elluminate and Skype. Even Facebook Video and Google Chat have opened up new media opportunities in which students can “meet” online.
Traditional distance courses, like correspondence, evoke images of solitary students huddled over mounds of workbooks, assigned the mundane task of reading and writing responses to questions. But new technologies offer more pedagogical choice when designing online learning environments. Educators are invited to embrace constructivist learning theories by incorporating opportunities for students to be immersed in complex, realistic, and relevant environments. (Driscoll)
Constructivists see knowledge as something that is created by learners as they make sense of their experiences.
The basic goals of education are simple:
  • 1) retention
  • 2) understanding
  • 3) actively use newly acquired knowledge and skills.

How do instructors ensure that quality learning takes place in these distance, online environments?
To facilitate this learning, students need to be actively engaged in problem solving so that lessons learned can be applied to new situations. Students are encouraged to work collaboratively to solve problems, creating a community of learners in the process. This approach also empowers students to direct their own learning in relevant work.
For those new to distance education, the challenge of designing such interactive learning experiences can be daunting. There is no standard formula for developing a constructivist-based course, but there are suggestions that might help when beginning your own design:  
Barbara Frey of the Denver Connections Academy offers the following suggestions for incorporating constructivist activities in your online course:
  • 1.      Develop learning activities that encourage students to work together. “The social construction of knowledge” forms the backbone of meaningful learning experiences.
  • 2.      Include multidisciplinary real world experiences, like simulations, problem-based learning and case studies.
  • 3.      Allow student the chance to practice new skills.
  • 4.      Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning throughout the process. Teaching meta-cognition allows students to be more involved in directing their learning.

from Flickr (Lewis Global PR cc)


  1. In any kind of online learning it is not possible for student to hide or be as passive as they can be in a classroom where an small number of students often dominate discussions and ask most of the questions. This, however, can increase the load for the teachers as they now have to interact with all students, not just the noisy few. Check my summary of "The World Is Open" at for more insight on the subject and keep up the good work. Douglas W. Green, EdD

  2. I have personally experienced Distance Learning when I pursued my Masters in Science in Instructional Technology in 2002 with Walden University. At that time, this was relatively new and we were one of the first graduate classes. This was the only way I would have been able to get an advanced degree while having a full-time job and full-time family. I also live in a very rural area with the nearest college at least an hour away.
    The experience was wonderful and I worked with educators from all over the US. Not only was the learning environment fantastic, the coursework was meaningful and relevant to my day-to-day instruction. It certainly prepared me for today's social media as well!
    I think Distance Education could change the way students learn and prepare for the world in all levels of education. It would provide access, relevancy and truly meet the needs of the learners.

  3. I took my first distance education course in 2001, but it was more about going through the textbook myself and answering questions, as mentioned in your post, which basically made it a correspondence course. I have since taken many more distance learning classes, and have noticed an increase in all four of Barbara Frey's characteristics (which I think is a good thing).

    With all of the new web 2.0 technologies out there with the potential to make distance learning a much more interactive experience, I feel that distance learning is a much more educationally viable and valuable option, for colleges and for high school. You can still have active and interactive learning, but also teach students current technological skills.

    Having run an online class for high school, the only caution I would make is that students at this level (and possibly the college level) might not all have the necessary independent learning and collaborative skills needed for success in an online environment. This is where you may have to teach them not only the web 2.0 tools necessary for the class, but also the thinking and "working together" skills they may lack.

  4. I like Mrs. E's caution. I've seen that too, but given that most of my online teaching happens in our graduate program in Educational Technology and Design, I get to work with students who are able to transcend the technology, and in fact revel in it -- and also who are passionate and self-directed learners. But we do need to prepare people to learn in a new way, don't we. We spend a lot of years socializing kids into learning a particular way, in group settings, sometimes working in groups but having responsibility for their own work, and being assessed on their performance by someone who is right in front of them. Teaching people how to flourish in an online setting takes time too, so I think we need to be deliberate and patient about teaching students to learn in new contexts.

  5. You can delete that test post. I figured it out.

    I have become so excited about the prospects of online learning. Our school division does not really have anything especially in Grades 6-8. It is interesting that there is so much demand in Canada for online learning.
    I do wonder how this will eventually affect the bricks and mortar school system as we know it today.
    Excellent site Jade!

  6. Thanks everyone for your input on this blog!

    You raise some good points about supporting learners in navigating and using any technology that is used to facilitate distance learning. I am excited by technologies such as Moodle and Edmodo. They have integrated tools such as discussion boards, chat, journals and wikis. And just as a teacher needs to work with students to set expectations for f2f classrooms, the distance teachers needs to do the same in the online classroom.

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