I spent some time this evening reading a series of three short articles in TechTrends titled “The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web.” If you’re looking for a solid overview of distance education in the United States, this series of articles is a good place to start. All three are linked below, and are currently available for free download through the end of the year.
Each of the three articles evaluates the current state of a particular area of distance education. The first focuses on corporate distance learning. The second focuses on higher education. The last focuses on K-12 education.
What’s interesting in all these articles is that the authors highlight circumstances unique to each field that lead to significant drawbacks in instructional design and efficacy. For example, the authors argue that the corporate sector is plagued by a distinct lack of emphasis on any sort of meaningful evaluation of the effectiveness of the training. It also seems hampered by a general lack of understanding of good instructional design. Contrast this with higher education, where the authors argue that course design suffers from instructors who attempt to recreate traditional classroom experiences in an online platform ill-suited to such endeavors, thus flying in the face of Simonson’s Equivalency Theory. Lastly, the authors argue that K-12 education challenge lies in serving a widely disparate student population ranging from high achievers looking for niche courses to students who are using online instruction as a last resort in remediation. K-12 also struggles with overworked teachers for whom developing the skills to build online courses simply involves too much work. For all of these situations, the authors look to a greater attention to instructional design to help alleviate the problem.
I think on the whole the authors have done a remarkable job of presenting an overview of distance learning in the United States, and I agree with many of their points. However, I do think there are few points worth mentioning.
The authors contend as well that poor quality in one domain of distance learning impacts others, and I would agree that this seems to be right on target. Interestingly enough, where we see this in K-12 education is in new teacher hires. We’ve often been surprised in talking with teacher candidates with high-level technology skills who say that they don’t like online learning. When pressed, the general answer that comes back is that they had an online course in college and hated it. In essence, poor quality at one level of the system impacts the whole system.
With regards to K-12 education, there is one point in particular where I would disagree with the authors. We’re seeing a large shift towards blended learning in what were formerly traditional classrooms. The authors contend that teachers don’t have the time to become adept at developing and teaching online content, but our experience has shown traditional classroom teachers can develop exciting content for use in blended environments. The blended environment, in essence, allows the teacher to develop their skills at distance education gradually. This would go against the authors’ contention that K-12 education place a greater reliance on instructional designers to work with teachers to build online courses.