Distance Learning Technologies

Distance Learning TechnologiesInformation and communications technologies progress from one innovation to the next very rapidly. The moment a new product comes to the marketplace, an improved model is already on the way to replace it. Leading the advance, digital technology expands distance learning into areas never before realized by conventional textbook and chalkboard educational practices.

One negative aspect of continuously evolving technology is that educators have trouble keeping pace with the changes. As a result, delays sometimes occur between the deployment of new technology and its utilization as a learning tool. Still, the irresistible progress of information technology carries distance learning to new horizons.

  • Any form of knowledge can be digitalized and then formulated into an educational tool.
  • The technologies used to design, store, transport, and implement digital educational resources vary by type (video, computer software, Web sites, etc.), but the purpose for all is the same: to distribute knowledge in an efficient, comprehensible, interesting way.
  • Technology is useful only to convey knowledge; how effectively content is applied through information technology depends on which methods are employed and how well educators operate the tools used to achieve method objectives.
  • The two primary techniques that exploit information technologies to conduct distance learning programs are synchronous and asynchronous.


Synchronous Technology

Synchronous means “at the same time,” which describes a distance learning system whereby the instructor and the students participate in course activities simultaneously but from different locations. In one simple example, an instructor may hold a video lecture for a group of pupils gathered at a facility equipped for the purpose. Or instruction may be transmitted from one location to individual outlets where participants work alone. A mix of technical applications supports synchronous functions—from cell phone conference calls to online seminars and chat rooms. Because synchronous events occur in the present tense, interaction between participants stimulates discussion and enhances comprehension of a subject. Whatever technologies are used, synchronous distance learning methods do impose an appointed time to take part in a course. For people who have trouble studying independently, synchronous programs provide a fixed routine without resorting to classroom attendance. Anyone considering a synchronous distance learning course should think about its limited flexibility compared to other programs.

The multimedia benefits of synchronous distance learning exact a high price in terms of modern technology. Essentially, every live-action event is an interactive broadcast conducted back and forth across a digital electronics matrix. All the participants in a synchronous course ought to be equipped with the same level of technology or else the system might go haywire. An example of the latter scenario involved a Web-based seminar transmitted by a computer with a high-speed Internet connection to computers receiving the seminar at slower speeds. Blank spots caused by incompatible systems interrupted a lecture that left several participants wondering what to do next. When all the technical components harmonize, synchronous distance learning programs offer the widest range of educational possibilities—from real-time discussion to live lectures enhanced by simulations, video clips, animations, and graphics. If conditions permit, live events can be recorded for future reference.

When information technology entered the distance learning field, the earliest synchronous device was the telephone. Live contact usually involved instructors answering questions about coursework already in progress rather than introducing subject material over the phone. Video conferencing—which was restricted to specially equipped facilities until personal computers became affordable to the general public—evolved into the “virtual classroom.” As more advanced information technology becomes mainstream, new adaptations for synchronous distance learning are sure to appear.

Not to be overlooked, however, are the ordinary devices that enable synchronous distance learning. The cell phone’s potential use as an educational tool has not been fully exploited, even though cell phones incorporate the latest information technology into every new version that hits the market. What was once a cumbersome, expensive, and inefficient novelty has developed into a multimedia marvel. The newest cell phones are pocket computers with functions and applications that are not practical for laptops and desktops. Most significantly for distance learning programs, cell phone usage encompasses the whole world, extending educational opportunities to areas without any other form of communications network.

Asynchronous Technology

Educational programs conducted at different places and times define asynchronous distance learning. The earliest asynchronous distance learning system, the correspondence course delivered by mail, could not avoid delays involving study material, questions about coursework, corrections and revisions, or tutorials. Information technology has reduced the elapsed response time for asynchronous programs from days to moments, transforming delay into an educational asset instead of a tedious waiting period. Flexible study schedules and less formal interaction between participants give control of the learning process to the student and redefine the role of the instructor from knowledge provider to knowledge facilitator. The fundamental concept behind modern asynchronous programs is that time is at the student’s disposal instead of the other way around.

  • Asynchronous learning, while not an immediate face-to-face experience, nevertheless relies on group interaction and collaborative effort to achieve educational objectives.
  • Communication takes place between individuals and groups in a less hierarchical, less subdued environment.
  • By removing the time zone from a learning situation, no urgency pressures students to ask questions or to answer them; nor are students subjected to impulsive comments made by other students who, intentionally or not, create “conflicts of context” during class.
  • With time to spare, students can think about a subject and refine their ideas before contributing to a group discussion online.
  • Communication by e-mail or message boards allows mutual examination of contributions from other students, which invigorates learning through constructive collaboration.

According to the constructivist learning theory, knowledge is a product of communication during social interaction. This view holds that the best way to learn is to become a member of a learning community. Rather than taking a passive role in education, members of a learning community join in and work out strategies to accomplish course objectives together.

Instructors have a more difficult task dealing with distance learning communities than conducting an ordinary class on campus. Monitoring student progress, keeping up with online exchanges, responding to direct inquiries, and deciding whether or not to intervene in community activity compels the instructor to act as a mediator and facilitator, and to relinquish the role of authority figure. The altered roles and positions assumed by students and instructors engaged in distance learning communities place everyone involved under an educational social contract. Responsibility and accountability are evenly distributed to all members of the community. Well-designed, well-organized asynchronous programs function as base camp for distance learning communities.


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