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How does distance learning work?

Bryan Smith
Oct 16, 2020 8:00:00 AM

Education has changed from a very hands-on approach that involved guided personal experience to a much more technologically-enabled format that involves research, and the use of theory.

Distance learning more specifically is a protocol for sharing information and instruction with students at a distance. Effectively, this always means ‘learning over the internet, but with a designated instructor or course material.’

What’s different this time?

Due to recent events, both students and teachers have altered their school year to include distance learning – mostly to keep faculty and students safe from the spread of contagions. 

While higher education has been a first mover for having their learning programs include the use of the internet and technology, now high school and even more elementary education systems have been interested in developing their learning programs to include online-based learning.

This means that teachers have to get up to speed on how to teach in this new environment due to school closures.

How does the technology work?

The technology for making online learning work is surprisingly straightforward, and emulates the environment of the classroom quite well.

Devices like desktops, laptops, tablets, or even phones can capture video and audio inputs from users such as students or teachers, and then connect several of these users together to give them tele-presence.

This helps emulate the environment of doing in-person lectures – but there are a few actual improvements that this educational technology makes over traditional methods.

Improvements that come with learning online

Have you ever had to read something more than once to really comprehend it? Do you always retain 100% of what’s said or shown to you?

If you are a normal human and not a living miracle, then the answer is a definitive and resounding ‘no’ to both of those questions.

Live lectures have a problem with that, because even well-intentioned students don’t have the ability to retain all of the course material as it’s presented. Even very effective note-takers generally can’t keep up entirely, or take more or less ineffective notes.

With online courses, the lectures are easily recorded and can be revisited at any time. They aren’t always recorded, but if there’s a follow-up email that provides research resources to students, then at least they always have everything covered in the lecture available to them. This is fundamentally an improvement over in-person lectures.

Here’s another improvement: What do you do with students who are being problematic? In person, moderation can take up a lot of class time and distract other students substantially.

Online moderation is extremely efficient. A global mute or kick or ban happens in about a second rather than taking several minutes to get a VP or principal to come escort a student out of a room should it come to that.

Another major improvement that comes with online learning is logistical costs. It actually takes a lot of resources to do centralized learning in a physical space. The transportation of students and faculty to an actual building – and then having to have a building is quite logistically costly..

Additionally, transitioning students from classroom to classroom several times a day, and feeding each and every one of them in sequence is a resource challenge. Invariably it takes up a large portion of everyones’ time in a day, so less time and attention can be directed towards research and self-development.

Distance learning doesn’t have these challenges, since generally both students and teachers attend these classes from their homes. There’s no transit costs associated with physically travelling to a building each day.

Since everyone is attending from their own house, online universities or individual classes don’t have requirements for real estate or land development & maintenance. 

There’s also far less logistics challenge with lunch, and transition time between classes. Since the lectures can often really direct, and don’t have their own internal logistics costs such as students packing and unpacking, the classes actually tend to cover their course material faster than traditional classrooms. 

The lack of need to allow for transition time for students – and the lack of a need for a lunch line – means that online courses are much, much more efficient with time than their traditional counterparts.

Getting started with distance learning

Most learning institutions have some game plan for handling school closures that will involve their choice of online video conferencing software. However there may be some flexibility for teachers to opt to use a software solution that offers free connection to students.

Typically this involves some sort of notification going out to parents and/or faculty as to what software specifically to use, and it will probably include some orientation or training material for faculty to digest.

From the student or end-user standpoint, these online learning systems are substantially less complicated to use, since they don’t have to administer the class. For students it’s a very straightforward process.

Faculty will usually have to schedule class times and manage notifications that go out to the rest of the class.

Each system is different but will have basic similarities of sharing ‘rooms’ with attendees, and having scheduled times for the attendees to connect to the rooms.

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