Distance education has been around since the advent of correspondence schools in the mid-nineteenth century. Old-fashioned print-based correspondence education, despite being cumbersome, impersonal, and time-consuming, nonetheless served a clientele far removed from the formal classroom.
However, changes in information technology over the past twenty years have combined with an enlarged, non-traditional student base to renew and expand the role of distance learning. This innovative mode of instruction is now becoming an integral part of many college programmes.
One of the pioneers of distance education, C. Ralph Scharf, wrote (in the late and lamented College Canada) that its concept is based on three basic assumptions: (1) the demand to change the educational focus from teaching to learning; (2) the need to emphasize instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction; (3) the requirement of developing and implementing appropriate technology to make curriculum delivery feasible.
By definition, distance education implies a spatial remoteness between teacher and learner, and between the instructional centre and the site where learning occurs. The essence of distance education's special challenge is to overcome physical barriers and make schooling available to those who, because of geographical isolation, employment or domestic circumstances, sociological or medical constraints, cannot appear in a traditional classroom setting.
These are noble ideas, and despite some concerns about whether academic standards can be maintained in the absence of face-to-face encounters, they have produced some noble achievements.
A complacent teacher might think no more about this, as I did, until an unexpected teaching assignment suddenly made such innovation morethan a benign and abstract concept. When Northern College sought alternatives to traditional classroom teaching in the spring of 1991, I was selected as one of the first seven initiates into the teleconferencing mode of instructional delivery.
We were all truly fortunate in being assigned to teach subjects in which we had specialized for many years. Therefore, the problem was not principally one of course content, for the courses were already well-organized and had only to be adapted to the distance education format.
What was not to prove so simple was working with the technology. For example, over the first few weeks of preparation we encountered considerable difficulty in configuring the system for adequate interactive sound transmission. Because we were teachers, not technicians, we unexpectedly had to truncate rehearsal sessions when sound problems - sometimes due to our untrained voices, but more often because of the equipment - required extensive technical adjustment.
My Standard Workload Form said that I was to teach 'Macroeconomics (Distance)' which meant that I would shortly be teaching students at our campuses in both Haileybury and Porcupine (as much as 160 km. away) via the Contact North Teleconferencing Network.
Equipped only with a copy of Teleconferencing -Tips and Techniques, my long-time colleague Kishor Mehta and I began many hours of trial-and-error rehearsals and incremental adjustments. Recognizing that the room we were to work from was too small, we moved into a standard classroom, which we then reconfigured ergonomically to provide the best combination of what was functional and comfortable. This satisfactory result confirmed that the process of adjustment was working, andhelped to alleviate much of our earlier anxiety. Eventually, most of the human and technical 'bugs' were resolved, and we learned how to teach effectively in this mileu by teleconferencing.
Stresses produced by this process of learning by immersion soon abated. But while interactive distance education soon become familiar to the teachers, it was not to prove as easy for our students. No one had foreseen the resistance students would have to the 'dial-a-prof' method of education. It soon became clear that most of our students had difficulty in projecting voice clearly through their microphones. Their auditory skills were weak, for they were accustomed to visual cues. And more importantly, they perceived their professors to be distant in more ways than one. Methods of personal contact had to be developed, and all teachers visited their client 'delivery sites' at least once, but we wondered whether this would be sufficient to build the required student-teacher bonds of confidence and trust.
We have now had enough experience with the system to offer some tentative suggestions about the best way to go about preparing to deliver effective distance education. Of course, the key to all successful teaching lies in preparation for the assignment at hand. No one should enter the classroom, whether traditional or technological, without preparation: know your subject, know your students, know your environment; state your goals, ask for questions, encourage participation, be approachable, aim for a relaxed atmosphere, search for fresh and innovative approaches; maintain your sense of humour, involve students in course planning, and preview and review. The remainder of the process is both diagnostic and prescriptive, relying on functional perspective and experience as one adjusts objectives and methods to the challenges of distance education.
Testing the waters is easily done through the existing distance education networks, although these function mostly for part-time students. Keep in mind that these networks are very different from correspondence learning. Correspondence courses, which typically include learning materials organized in modular packages, audio and video tapes, assignments, testing schedules, and contact tutors, are a form of independent or self-directed learning which places the chief onus on adult students to complete the work on their own initiative.
Distance education more clearly embodies the concept of an extended classroom. Regular classes are scheduled, and there is often a live class in the room from which you are teaching. Teachers are linked to other classrooms through a telephonic 'bridge.' For instance, the Contact North network provides each class with a microphone for each student, two or more in-room audio speakers, and at least two video monitors which allow 'telewriting' among all connected locations. The extended classroom can have one student, or as many as sixty.
While course content remains essentially the same, the teacher now must prepare for an audience with which one interacts in a fundamentally different way. However, if every student regardless of location has a course outline, the current text, a study guide and other pertinent information, then a suitably adapted lesson plan agenda referenced to specific pages in assigned readings should resolve this problem.
After suitable introduction - Good morning Haileybury! Good morning Kirkland Lake! This is Kap. How's the weather? What's your attendance? - then one proceeds to the day's agenda. The review ideally begins with getting feedback - Where did we stop Friday? Could someone explain Demand? Explicit cost? PP curve? - through prompting questions.
To help keep the fifty-minute session from becoming a one-dimensional broadcast, maintain a conversational tone. Relaxed discussion will help build trust, so that students feel that they can fully participate. Treat this process as just another casual conversation; after all, you are talking to other adults, who are interested in acquiring information in your area of expertise. Canadians are prodigious telephone users, and this country is in the forefront of sophisticated communications technology; perhaps distance education is a natural 'fit.'
The audio portion of each session must be backed up by solid paper-based learning material, whereby specific assignments provide a tangible aid to acquiring knowledge. This two phased approach - the electronic session and the self-study session - are joined in providing a successful learning experience.
Results from this Northern College programme suggest that if the same material and assignments are used in both electronic distance education and in the traditional classroom, virtually the same results on tests and exams will be obtained within the expected norms of grade distribution.
Surveys of student opinion reveal that while they were initially un-comfortable with a new course delivery method, resistance will dissipate with experience.
A very important indirect benefit of the system was that our students gained a new sense of accomplishment by participating in something unconventional and innovative. The distance education experience also provides advantage in preparing community college students to be independent, to act on their own initiative, to accept more responsibility, and to meet unexpected demands. These are strengths much sought, and well-rewarded, in the work world.
The techno-rookies of 1991 invested many hours in trouble-shooting a distance education delivery system. That effort was made more worthwhile because it enabled us to salvage courses that would otherwise have been discarded for want of funding. In these poor economic times, replete with financial cutbacks, we are all expected to do more and more again, and to do so with fewer resources. Distance education has provided some of us with a valuable new tool to meet these demands, and with a significant and professionally rewarding new challenge as teachers.
Larry Lemieux teaches economics at Northern College from Kapuskasing, Ontario.