Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Distance Learning

While I do not think of myself as an expert in distance learning or distance education I have had a lot of experiences with this concept of education.  Let's generalize and clarify some terms first so that all of us are on the same page.  There is a teacher and that teacher has a subject to teach.  Then there is a medium, some form that the instructions and information are carried to the student or receiver.  This could be television, a book, audio or a host of other types of media.  Then there is the student or the receiver of the message.....someplace, sometime, somewhere.

We've always had distance learning if you consider the book as a medium of instruction. The author writes the book, the book then is transported somewhere and someone picks the book and reads it and learns something.  What seems to be missing here for the more purest of the distance learning camp is somehow testing the learner so see what they retained from the book.  However, for centuries we have had libraries (mostly privately owned) and learners who have had internal motivation to gain some information or learning(s).

If you can agree with my generalization that we need a teacher, a message and a learner who are not in the same room I think then we have some agreement on distance learning.

My first exposure to this form of education came when I was doing my "September Experience" in 1953, a procedure that I had to accomplish to be admitted to the School of Education at my undergraduate university.  It was to be a two week observation of a school getting underway for the year's classes.  I was fortunate to have had the privilege of doing this exercise at the Rye High School in Rye, New York.  A prestigious school, it is consistently in the lists of outstanding high schools in the United States.  It was then as well.

I was warmly welcomed and asked if I would help out for the first week or two by carrying a small box from classroom to classroom.  It was a two way speaker box that would allow a bed-ridden student at home to attend classes.  "Hey, no problem."  I would pick up the box at the office in the morning, plugging it in at selected classrooms and then return it to the office in the afternoon.  Generally when I got to the first classroom, I'd plug in the RCA jack and then ask, "Ellen, can you hear me?"  And Ellen would say, "Good morning, Mr. Blackwell.  Thank you for bringing me to class."  We did this all day long.  Much too soon the high school kids knew which room Ellen was supposed to be in and took over my job.  But I remember Ellen saying, "Mr. Blackwell."  No one had called me that before--I was becoming a teacher.  Distance learning--at its best.

My second experience with distance learning was in the US Army when I signed up for a course on Abnormal Psychology from the University of Wisconsin.  Someone had written a book detailing different types of Abnormal Personalities and at the end of each chapter were a series of questions and a designed paper to write detailing learnings from that chapter.  I remember doing about half of the book before I had to put it aside because of our work load at the base.  But I learned and I remember the professor writing on one of my papers that he was pleased with my work.  He didn't realize that I had more then one example in my unit in each chapter.  

My next exposure to distance learning was when I was teaching a course on Instructional Technology at my university and powers to be wanted me to do on a local television station.  Interesting problem.  Today we would call it reality television.  I had a class of educational students and once a week we taped two one hour shows on how to use instructional technology in the classroom. A product of the late 1970s, it covered film, overheads, transparencies 35 mm slide projectors and a host of things that are not available to today's classroom teacher.  

Once the tapes were made the local station then ran them at strange times throughout the week.  At that time KCTS, a television station on the campus of the University of Washington was also doing educational shows that were well done.  Their shows were beamed to school districts and teachers could turn on a television set and have the children watch the presentation.  It was well done.

Did I learn anything from doing the sixteen classroom presentation for the local television class?  Quite a bit.  There are a few people up at four in the morning who do watch.  We received two letters, both complementary but each had a complaint about something I had done.  I can't remember what they were.  I think I have mention before in this blog that this one class was the lowest ranking class in my evaluations that I had ever gotten.  The students hated the class.  Almost to a person they said they would never take a class like this again.  But this wasn't distance learning for these educational students--it was direct instruction and every time I ask a student a question a large camera would zoom in on them to record the answer.  They hated that.  And hated me for asking them.  But I was interested to see that the dress of the students improved from hippy style to pretty normal by the end of the class.  They were aware they were on television.  

I've already written in a previous blog about my experiences of teaching on a phone line.  Multiple phone lines to be exact.  The state of Washington in order to try to save time and money set up phone stations around the state, some at universities, some a community schools, one in the top floor of a department store.  People could gather at these sites and talk to each other without holding a phone to their ear.  Multiple sites could interact with relative ease.

Could we teach using audio only?  That was the test so I taught a class for experienced teachers across the state--about fifty students.  I think a lot of good came out of this experiment.  Although we couldn't SEE each other, we did get to "learn" each other's voices.  And I found that many of the students actually would call on regular phones to help each other after the class was done for the day. I was very impressed with the amount and the quality of work that was accomplished in that class over the telephone lines.

But let's clarify at this point some of the variables in distance learning.  As I have mentioned, you need a teacher and a subject to be learned.  Then you need a medium to communicate the objectives, the instructions, the nuances of that learning to the student.  Next we need the student--or students.  You could have one like the preverbal teacher on one end of the log and the student on the other end of the log or you can have a teacher in a medical school with students at hospitals all over this country.  

BUT....there is an important part here for the student component.  There has to be either internal motivation or external motivation or both.  What prompts a person to pick up a book and learn something?  There needs to be internal motivation for that to accrue. I once saw a wonderful example of external motivation at Boeings. The instructor stood up and said to a group of thirty students/workers, "You have two weeks to learn the following or you will be given pink slips."  

One thing that puzzles me in distance learning.  Do we need some form of a test to "prove" that the student has learned?  Indeed, does a student need some sort of a test to put that learning into some form of a recall?  It is a little like mixing a cake but you don't have the real thing until it comes out of the oven.  I suspect the answer to this lies within the internal and external ramifications.

In today's magical world of technology, the web, and all the magnifications of this phenomenon, we have the ability to do distance learning much easier then what I experienced earlier on.  But the quality of learning depends upon the learner.  Let me repeat myself, the quality of learning depends upon the learner.  As an example go to the Kahn Academy.  Over two thousand courses are available.  Some dealing with simple objectives, others are advanced courses.  But I suspect all of them are good--I haven't completed many of them yet.  But it is available and all those courses need is a motivated student.  See:

Given all this, I am a proponent of distance learning.  But all the pieces have to fit--the instructor, the message and the student.

If you've had a distance learning course and learned from it (notice I didn't ask if you enjoyed it), write a comment for the rest of us to learn from.  And for some of you who have taken a distance learning course, have you thanked your teacher?  I wish I had thanked that Wisconsin professor of Abnormal Psychology. He helped me get through the Army.

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