Online learning technologies have been primarily used, historically, to extend access to classroom instruction to rural or isolated sites. For the most part, adult online learning programs have done that with high levels of success long before the Internet or computer networks were cost effective. Efforts such as Project Leap in Mississippi and the GED on TV are excellent examples of successful and effective online learning programs. Overall, it is evident that online learning programs have exceeded their potential in enabling adults in rural and isolated communities to gain access to instruction.
However, is providing access to "a traditional classroom" reason enough to expand investments in such new technologies as desktop video conferencing and the Internet? Is the goal simply to make a better mouse-trap (i.e., a faster machine to deliver traditional classroom-based instruction)? We can improve our existing online learning programs cheaply by simply upgrading existing broadcast and cable systems. Instead, the emergence of new technologies enables us to shift our focus from the delivery of classroom-based instruction to the delivery of new materials and the facilitation of new ways of learning. In this environment, issues of instructional content, information resources, leaning theory, and quality are paramount. The question is not, "How can we transport the classroom?" but rather, "What can we do with the new technologies to reform, change, and improve adult learning?"
Clearly, we are no longer talking about online learning but rather beginning to envision distance learning:
• What does learning look like when it is not bound by four walls and the knowledge base of one teacher?
• How can we modify our organizational structures to enable learners to interact from a distance with more than one instructor, other learners, and extensive, accessible resources?
• How can we begin to conceptualize and initiate learning experiences that capitalize on this new extended learning environment?
Using technology to create new models of adult learning may have an impact on the adult education provision system. Adult education programs will become hubs of learning instead of just places to learn. Does this mean that formal classroom-based instruction will be viewed as obsolete and will be replaced? Actually, the number of classroom-based instructional settings could increase as adults encounter educational demands in new settings. Those who had never before considered entering an adult education program via the front door may soon enter on-line, realize their educational needs, become motivated to learn, and then choose to participate in adult education classes that provide face-to-face interactions.
How successful we are in moving from the familiar model of online learning to the future model of distance learning will depend in part on the assumptions and preparations we make now. We can begin to define and plan for what we want to happen. To influence the future, we must be proactive. To wait passively, will relegate us to the role of adjusting to changing technological and learning environments that will be thrust upon us, We suggest six assumptions as points from which to develop a model of distance learning:
• Traditional classroom-based models of online learning will be enhanced not replaced by the new technologies. Classroom-based models of online learning will change, but they will have an important and viable role. New technologies will be used to enhance formal learning. Students will have Internet tools at their fingertips to help develop their own learning paths.
• Self-authoring of learning activities will be commonplace. In the past, the resources required to customize learning were not available to teachers, let alone adult learners. Networking technologies, such as the Internet, and multimedia databases will greatly increase access to learning resources on a scale unknown to adult education. Distance learning will, at some level, be about customizing learning for specific learners.
• Instructors will become facilitators of learning not transmitters of knowledge. Research has shown that advanced skills are acquired not through the transmission of facts but through the learner interacting with content Learners learn more effectively when they create, build, and interact with knowledge, thereby constructing their own meaning.
• The future of learning will be about connecting learning to the world of work and home. New technologies can provide those important links so learning will be relevant and skills developed in one setting can be transferred to other settings (home, work, school).
• Collaborative learning will be stressed. Most adult learning emphasizes individual achievement and solving problems without the aid of other people. However, in the world of work and personal relationships, collaborative problem solving is not an exception but rather the role. Collaborative learning focuses on processes rather than isolated topics or simple one-word answers. With the development of collaborative computing, adult learners at different places can come together on-line to collaboratively solve problems anytime and anywhere.
• Staff development and teacher training will need to be continuous and ongoing. Traditional staff development models of workshops and conference presentations will not meet the need for continuous on-going technology. New methods of continuous improvement and training will need to be developed. Technology will help, but staff development will need to be readily available.
Planning for the future of distance learning requires envisioning how learning should change for a changing world. Distance learning will only be successful if it is educationally grounded and not driven by the technology. Technology will be a powerful tool that we use for a continuous renewal, reflection, and improvement. However, it will not in itself create a learning community of thousands of teachers and learners interacting and borrowing resources while at the same time building and providing new resources. Only people with ideas can do that.
Mathew Simond is a journalist and copywriter. He is also a webmaster of many websites including http://www.paralegal-degree.org and http://www.humanservicesdegree.net He aims to provide healthy information and advice on academic degrees.