The Internet has changed the Distance Learning Experience
Do you remember when distance learning was all about waiting for the mailman to deliver your course materials and sending back your assignments? For decades the correspondence course model barely changed, with little more than the occasional audio cassette material or telephone call to vary the paper-based format. Then the Internet began to find its way into the lives of instructors and their students, changing everything.
Distance learning and the Internet are nowadays interlinked. Whether you are already studying as a distance learner or are just thinking about it, there are few course that are not delivered at least partly online, and even these often make use of the speed and efficiency of the Internet in communication between instructor and students.
With the Internet now a part of our daily lives, it’s easy to take for granted the ways in which it has transformed our working and personal lives. However, if your last experience of studying was sometime before the mid-nineties, you might not have experienced yet the ways in which it has transformed the distance learning experience. Most of these changes have been very positive, although some of the benefits can also have a negative aspect.
Possibly the most obvious advantage of the Internet in distance learning is that of time-saving. No more wating for essential course materials to arrive – many if not all will be available online for you access as soon as the course begins. Need to contact your instructor? You can send an email and, depending on your instructor’s schedule, may receive an equally speedy response. Messages you post to the course area online will be instantly available for others to read. You may even find that your instructor and other students on the course are communicating in real time, using instant messaging or VoIP (Voice over IP) chat applications such as Skype.
Connection with Others
This brings us to another benefit, one that was largely missing from traditional paper-based distance learning – that of connection. Unless you have enrolled on a one-to-one course, you will be learning as a member of a group. In the past, this group might have been invisible and communication with them infrequent. It was possible to feel like the only student on a course. The online learning experience has brought back the sense of being a member of a class. In a good online course format there will be plenty of opportunities to interact with others, both to discuss the course content and possibly also in a more social sense. This promotes learning from others and gives you feedback on your own ideas.
The appeal of distance learning via the Internet for many students is its convenience. Although you may have set hours for discussion activities and will almost certainly have assignment deadlines, there is likely to be much greater flexibility on the whole than a face-to-face class. If you can only access your course materials in a lunch break or have to wait until the kids are asleep before you log in for the day, or if you do your best work at 6 a.m., no problem. The beauty of asynchronous discussions (those which take place via written messages and don’t rely on everyone being online at once) is that you can fit your participation around your own daily activities.
More Engaging Learning
Depending on your topic of study, distance learning today is still likely to involve reading texts, whether course books or online documents. However, instructors have many other choices available for presenting course material and getting learners involved. They might include videos, podcasts, or live chat sessions. You could find you are asked to contribute via a wiki (interlinked web pages, often written and edited by the entire group) or to work with others on a multimedia presentation. A distance learning course that uses the power of the Internet to the full is rarely dull!
Drawbacks to Internet-Based Distance Learning
With so many positive changes to distance learning in the age of the Internet, we might wonder if there are any disadvantages to learning online? No one style of educational delivery is suited to everyone and there may be elements of distance learning via the Internet that some of us find frustrating.
The technology that allows instructors to make course material so much more engaging and enables us to participate more fully as learners can also occasionally trip us up. The wealth of technological choices available means there is a risk that an instructor or a team member in groupwork will opt to use a technology that causes problems for someone else. Not all computers have the capacity to run demanding or bandwidth-hungry online applications. Some online tools can have steep learning curves or may simply not be compatible with everyone’s browser and operating system. Technological difficulties can leave learners feeling helpless, angry or isolated, and takes valuable time away from studying course material.
Even though the Internet makes communication with others quicker and easier than was possible in traditional distance learning, it can still be an alienating experience. Some learners may miss the sound of a human voice and even those using the Internet on a regular basis can find text-only communication to be impersonal. It is hard to read another person’s intentions when faced with only words and we can take offence where none was intended or unwittingly cause offence to others. It is also more difficult to project your own identity. Some find this method of learning a lonely experience.
If a significant advantage of distance learning using the Internet is the wealth of information and resources literally at your fingertips, this can also be one of the pitfalls of studying online. With the Internet there is no fixed start and finish point, there is always something else to read. Not to mention all the other distractions such as games and social networking sites. Setting boundaries between work and pleasure and even simply recognizing the good information from the bad can be a challenge.
Learners experiencing the impact of the Internet on distance learning for the first time can be delighted with the rich experience it offers. However, there may be unexpected hurdles and even those of us who are regular users of a range of online tools can at times meet with frustrations. Of course, your instructor and institution are there to help should you face any problems, either with the technology or with finding your feet in the online environment. Even the most frustrating difficulties can normally be overcome or worked around. All in all, the Internet has opened up many possibilities for lively, interactive educational instruction.