I remember, when I was younger, that distance learning meant a correspondence course where materials would be mailed out to the students, who would do the work and then mail it back. Presently, due to technology, we can now access course materials online, but are the courses any better? Maybe a little, but not much. The biggest difference that I have noticed between the old-fashioned correspondence courses and the distance learning courses of today is that today’s technology allows for more frequent and more immediate opportunities for communication between students, their classmates, and their teachers. However, based on the ten or so online courses that I have taken and many others that I have viewed, I really do not feel that distance learning has evolved as far as it could have and as far as it should have from the old-fashioned correspondence courses. On the other hand, I do feel that distance learning is on the brink of great change, and that, while perceptions may not change much over the next five years to ten years, if we look fifteen to twenty years down the line, it is highly possible that perceptions of distance learning will be completely different.
Most of the distance learning courses that I have experienced so far have involved lots of assigned readings and a whole bunch of writing assignments, and, truthfully, this is not much different from what I faced in a traditional classroom as I was growing up. Moller, Foshay and Huett (2008b) agree that is is commonplace for professors to simply take what they are doing in face-to-face classroom and put that material online, but that what works well in a classroom does not always work well online. This occurs frequently due to the high demand for distance learning courses and a lack of qualified people to create the courses (Moller et al., 2008a). As such, most courses that people encounter in distance learning are poorly made and therefore create a negative impression of distance learning (Moller et al., 2008a). I do not believe that we will be able to change this perception within the next five years, and possibly not even within ten years.
However, if distance learning opportunities improve, and I do believe that, given time, they will, and as more and more people participate in them, it is possible that in ten to fifteen years, people will perceive distance learning more positively. I agree with Moller, Foshay and Huett (2008a), who state, “We believe that the dominant approach [of online distance learning] now realizes very little, if any, of e-learning’s transformational potential” (p. 70). There is so much more we can be doing with e-learning than simply taking face-to-face course materials and dumping on the Internet, such as by making better use of simulations, creating learning communities that extend beyond the classroom walls, and focusing more on project-based learning that have real-world implications, as just a few examples. I also agree with Moller, Foshay and Huett’s (208a) claim that “Web-based instruction has the potential for never-before-seen levels of personal customization” (p. 75). As such, I believe that in order for me to be a proponent for improving societal perceptions of distance learning, I need to make sure that any courses I design do take advantage of “e-learning’s transformational potential” and “personal customization”. In addition, it is my responsibility to make sure that the courses and learning opportunities that I am a part of creating make the best use of everything that we know about the nature of distance learners, distance learning theories, and good pedagogy/andragogy as it applies to the audience that I am designing courses for. Most importantly, as an instructional designer, some of the perceptions that I will need to help change are the perceptions of the people that I am working for and working with as I design the courses and learning experiences. I may, at times, need to help them change their perceptions of the needs of the learners, uses of technology, and options in learning experiences (Campbell, Schwier, & Kenny, 2009). It is absolutely imperative for me to be able to change the perceptions of the stakeholders as to how online learning can be transformative and individualized in order to advocate for and be able to create learning experiences that truly are both of those things.
I can be a positive force for continuous improvement in the field of distance education by staying knowledgeable about any and all changes taking place, and sharing my knowledge with others. Simonson, Smaldino, Albright and Zvacek (2012) point out that “The changing and diverse environment in which distance education is practiced has inhibited the development of a single theory on which to base practice and research” (p. 59), and I believe that this will continue to be the case into the future. Therefore, it is imperative that I, and all instructional designers, continue learning about and staying up-to-date with changes in technology, educational theory, knowledge of the brain, as well as the changes that are happening in the public, private, and alternative educational arenas. Schwier, Campbell and Kenny (2004) state, “We believe that instructional designers are actually engaging in a process of professional and personal transformation that has the potential to transform the institution….The instructional design process, in which designers and others develop new ideas and understandings through conversation, may be a form of cultural learning or collaborative learning. These collaborations, however formed, may express themselves as communities of practice” (para 16). I have been involved in communities of practice centered around my teaching career for many years now, via Twitter, Facebook, Ning, EdWeb, and other social networking sites, and have found them to be tremendously educational and helpful in my career as a teacher. I have recently, via LinkedIn, joined communities that are centered around instructional design and e-learning. There are many other varieties of communities of practice as well that instructional designers should be a part of, from professional organizations to more casual ones. I have found that communities such as these definitely serve as positive forces for continuous improvement because it is through them that we share ideas, discuss and challenge what is presently happening, and come to new understandings about ourselves and our field.
There is a lot of work to be done to change society’s perceptions of distance learning, and it is not something that is going to happen quickly. However, there are a lot of forces at work trying to change the nature of how we educate our K-12 learners altogether (Natriello, 2005), and I think that this will eventually cause distance learning to change as well, and once those changes happen, people’s perceptions of distance learning will change. Instructional designers stand at the forefront of those changes, and play an imperative role.
Campbell, K., Schwier, R., & Kenny, R. (2009). The critical, relational practice of instructional design in higher education: an emerging model of change agency. Educational Technology Research & Development, 57(5), 645-663. doi:10.1007/s11423-007-9061-6
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008a). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 1: Training and development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75.
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008b). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher education). TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70.
Natriello, G. (2005). Modest changes, revolutionary possibilities: Distance learning and the future of education. The Teachers College Record, 107(8), 1885-1904.
Schwier, R. A., Campbell, K., & Kenny, R. (2004). Instructional designers’ observations about identity, communities of practice and change agency.Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 20(1), 69-100.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.