Distance Learning

How distance teaching differs

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Distance education differs in a number of major respects from teaching in the conventional classroom. One of the most problematic issues that confront the distance education teacher is ascertaining and understanding the way that students respond and relate to learning in this environment. Therefore, “…distance teaching remains a challenge for the inexperienced instructor. ” (Chapter 6, p.135) This also points to the contemporary emphasis on increased instruction in the training and development of distance education teachers.

A related but major difference in teaching in the distance education environment is familiarity with and mastery of the necessary technology. While teachers are familiar with the classroom environment, not all are familiar with modern technologies that are required to facilitate adequate distance education. (Chapter 6, p.135)

In essence, the difference in teaching in the distance education context requires a transformation of the qualities that normally make for good teaching methods. Teacher who are normally responsive and empathetic to their students have to learn how to provide the same awareness of the needs of their students, taking into account the technological and communicative facets that are available in this new environment.

Coupled with this is a central function of the distance education teacher; namely to teach their students how to become more independent and cope with the particular demand of this relatively new learning environment. (Chapter 6, p.135) the teacher also needs to be aware of aspects such as feedback and response in terms of marking and results from assignments. The students also have to be taught to understand these processes.

Recent trends of the way that distance education teaching differs from conventional teaching can be seen in various studies that have attempted to understand the different types of student that may be taught and their specific needs in the distance education environment. In other words, a central contemporary requirement for the modern distance education teacher is to understand and respond to the different requirements and expectations of different types and groups of students. In the distance education environment a teacher may encounter students from different backgrounds, age groups and other variables in the virtual classroom, and these factors have to be dealt with by the teacher.

In this regard, Moore and Kearsley discuss the nature of adult education in Distance Education: A System’s View. This study attempts to investigate the different apaches required by the teacher to deal with adult learners and children at school. The study found, for example, that adult learners are often more highly motivated and also show different set of learning expectations; such as a greater propensity to ask question and interrogate given facts. They also showed a tendency to be more independent and in control.

In a study entitled, Preparing Our Teachers for Distance Education by Christina De Simone, the following assessment was made of the differences between distance and conventional teaching environments.

The majority of faculty have little knowledge about what DE is, what it entails, and how it is successfully taught… Yet instructors receive little or no training prior to being assigned a DE course…which leads to teachers being underprepared, frustrated, isolated, and disillusioned. Teaching at a distance requires methods of instructional delivery that are different from the strategies and approaches commonly used in a traditional classroom setting because the structure of the teaching is changed. (De Simone, 2006)

The above quotation emphasizes certain cardinal points. In distance education teachers face an environment that is changed, with different methods and expectations. This in turn necessitates different teaching strategies and techniques. What is also implied in the above extract is that more intensive and coordinated teaching instruction is needed to prepare the teacher for this modern environment. De Simone (2006) also notes that, it is important to institute a training program for initial preparation and ongoing support that is sensitive to the needs of the teacher and the learning goals. Such a program should recognize that teachers need time to become familiar with the technology, their pedagogy in the DE environment, and their role as DE teachers. (De Simone, 2006)

Furthermore, teacher institutions should not only prepare the teacher for this environment but should also provide a common pool of resources that can be shared and help to foster more appropriate and effective teaching techniques and models for distance education.

Attitudes: classroom vs. distance learning

The question of the differences between conventional teaching experience and distance education is also a factor that impinges on the issue of student attitude and involvement. This refers to the fact that many students have different and often opposing views about distance education and these attitudinal patterns affect the success or failure of a distance learning model. As Chapter seven of the readings state, “…a common question that is examined is how students feel about distance education relative to traditional classroom instruction.” (Chapter seven, p.175)

The student responses to this aspect vary from satisfaction with the distance courses or education to views that distance education tends to detract from the overall learning experience. These can include aspects such as technological issues and problems and the experience of instructors or teachers. (Chapter seven, p.175)

One of the primary concerns that were found with regard to students converting from the conventional classrooms to the distance education environment was the lack personal guidance and the “father figure.” (Chapter seven, p.175) Another aspect that affects student attitudes towards distance education is that often the work can be perceived to be much harder in the sense that there is no teacher to rely on in a direct and immediately personal way. On the other hand, positive attitudes towards this form of education are also affected by the independence that it offers.

Various studies have also shown the different ways in which students have responded to distance education. These studies indicate that students often find distance education methods and opportunities not instrumental in higher grades and achievement levels. (Chapter seven, p. 176) Other studies have however shown results to the contrary, with students stating that they had better results and an improved learning experience in the distance learning environment than with learning in the conventional classroom situation.

More recent studies indicate that there is a greater acceptance of the distance learning environment among students than in the past. A study by Maki and Maki (2000) states that there are indications that students are more ” at home” in a web-based distance education environment. (Chapter seven, p. 176) This could be related to the fact that the Internet and Web-based modes of communication have become almost endemic in the modern work and education environment and this could be the cause of the greater attitudinal acceptance of this mode of instruction among students.

On the other hand, there are a number of negative aspects that need to be considered in assessing attitudinal changes among students. It has been noted that students often cite as an objection to distance learning the fact that there is the perception that distance education is somehow of a lower quality than other forms of education. Another negative factor is that there is the view that distance education is much more difficult and that students felt that they did not have the self-discipline needed to deal with the courses. (Chapter seven, p.178)

Technology is another aspect in understanding the attitudes of students towards this form of learning. In essence, students are more likely to respond favorably to the courses if they are familiar with the technology involved. (Chapter seven, p. 78) major factor is the need for adequate guidance and counseling systems to be in place. Students are likely to react more positively to a distance education course if there are accessible and well structured guidance and counseling facilities. (Chapter seven, p. 179)

In conclusion it is relatively easy to make a rough projection about future attitudes towards distance education. The proliferation of more accessible and user-friendly technologies and the greater ease with which students learn with this technology makes it probable that in the future there will be an even greater acceptance of distance education models of teaching and learning.


De Simone, C. (2006). Preparing Our Teachers for Distance Education. College Teaching, 54(1), 183+. Retrieved November 11, 2008, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5014218644

Moore, M.G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance Education: A System’s View. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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