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Choosing the Right Tools for Distance Learning

written by: Nicki.B•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 11/9/2010

As an online instructor you have many choices open to you for delivering an engaging learning experience. In this article we will take a look at some of the different types of communication that can be used in online instruction and at the specific distance learning tools you can use.

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    Discovering What Works

    If you are already teaching online or are designing distance learning courses it is likely that you already have a favorite tool or application. It is useful to know what works well for the needs of your learners and past experience can be valuable in guiding your decisions. At the same time, keeping up to date with other distance learning tools will only add to the choices available to you.

    Adding variety to your course with innovative applications and learning environments can encourage greater participation and interaction, and may open up new possibilities for effective learning.

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    Types of Communication

    In distance learning communication is of key importance in keeping students involved. When thinking about tools for distance learning it makes sense to figure out how you will communicate with your learners to ensure they get the best possible learning experience.

    Many of us are familiar with reading as the main component of distance learning. This is a one-way style of instruction with only one active participant (the writer).

    Distance learning also permits more interactive discussions. These can be divided into asynchronous (discussion involving a time delay) and synchronous (taking place in real time). The advantage of these methods of communication is that they involve the students, who can contribute their ideas and debate ideas with one another. This creates a more learner-centered (also known as constructivist) experience.

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    One-Way Communication

    Communication in traditional distance learning was principally one-way. Information was transmitted by the instructor to the learners. Today this method of learning still holds an important place in education. Course texts, whether printed books or electronic documents, are one-way. So are educational videos and podcasts.

    The advantage of material of this type is that it opens up new perspectives to learners that otherwise they would not have found within the instructor-student circle. As an online student I remember watching a video given by one of the key researchers in my field. It had been recorded some years ago in Australia. Even with the resources to fly to Australia and the influence to arrange a meeting with this professor, it still would not have been possible for me to be there without discovering the secret to time travel!

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      One-Way Instructional Tools

      Some of the uni-directional distance learning tools in use today include:

      • Printed text
      • Electronic text: web pages, ebooks, PDF files, printable worksheets
      • Instruction delivered via email
      • Podcasts and other audio material
      • Video: lectures, step-by-step instructional video
      • Multimedia presentations: simple text-based slide presentations and media-rich presentations with narration and animations
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      Asynchronous Communication

      With asynchronous communication there is a delay between a message and each response. This allows for discussion to take place over a longer time-frame than the traditional one-hour face-to-face class.

      The benefits of this style of communication are clear. Learners do not need to be available at a particular time and can post at their convenience. This fits in well with the idea of distance learning as being flexible. In my own experience I have found this a useful way for students in different parts of the world to work together on team projects. It also works well for those who study alongside a career or other commitments.

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      Asynchronous Distance Learning Tools

      • The VLE (Virtual Learning Environment): course management and discussion packages such as Blackboard or Moodle
      • A Wiki: an online web page creation and editing environment which allows learners and instructors to collectively create course texts
      • Educational blogs: individual or class blogs which allow learners to post on a topic and hold discussions via the comments section
      • Discussion via email
      • Phone text messaging ('Texting')
      • Email discussions

      There are many more Web 2.0 tools that may be used to encourage asynchronous discussion. These range from tools with a very specific scope (e.g. creating a timeline) to those that are very broad (e.g. social networking sites). Your choices will be limited only by whether the tool can usefully contribute to the learning experience within the constraints of the time you have available and the technical requirements of the application.

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      Distance learning tools such as online discussion software have made it possible to create learning experiences for distance students that allow them to take part in real time discussions. This can be as simple as a text-based chat or as complex as virtual world seminars. Find out how to create a more effective style of communication and instruction with these tools.
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      Synchronous Communication

      As you may know, synchronous communication takes place in 'real time', just like a conversation. Traditionally, the only synchronous learning tool open to distance learning instructors and their students was the telephone. These days you are more likely to use voice-over IP which is similar to a telephone call (or a conference call) but uses the Internet connection to transmit your conversation. Skype is one example that you might have used. With this kind of discussion there is a further option of using web cams.

      An even more innovative setting for educational discussion is the virtual world. Here learners and instructors use 3D avatars to represent their physical selves in a virtual setting.

      These modes of synchronous discussion can be a valuable distance learning tool as they introduce a physical presence, whether the voice, a recorded image or an avatar. This can make the learning experience seem more 'real' and less isolating for learners.

      Synchronous communication tools can also be much simpler than this, using just text to communicate. Instant messaging and text chat software can allow one-on-one or group conversations with few technical demands or hardware requirements. Although the sense of physical presence is not as strong, the sessions can still help to reduce isolation in learners.

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      Synchronous Distance Learning Tools

      Some of the synchronous learning tools are:

      • Instant messaging and text chat software
      • Voice over IP (VoIP) software (e.g. Skype)
      • Telephone and conference calls
      • Virtual Worlds such as Second Life

      The main disadvantage of synchronous discussion is that it requires all participants to be available and have access to the same software at the same time. Those who miss a synchronous session can feel left behind. It is also subject to distractions, technical hitches, and in my own experience can be too fast-moving to take everything in. Conversation threads can also become disjointed which can make it hard to follow. It is nonetheless important for giving learners a feeling of belonging to a physical group.

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      These are exciting times to be involved in distance learning. The Internet has given us many options to create rich, interactive learning experiences. With a little thought and some careful experimentation, these can be combined with our tried-and-tested instructional methods to enable learners to interact with the course material and with one another.

      It goes without saying that the learners' needs will be the principal factor in your choice of distance learning tools. While too much innovation too soon may lead to confusion, too little will result in dry coursework that demotivates learners who thrive in a fast-moving digital culture. Knowing what your options are and how they can benefit your course design is a good first step to selecting the right distance learning tools for your students.

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      McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community. Educational Technology & Society, 7 (3), 73-81.