Distance Learning: New Name, Familiar Idea – by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

I was sitting in some online meetings this week and the topic of discussion was Distance Learning. Like many of you, I have trouble focusing for long periods of time looking at little boxes with people’s heads in them and found myself drifting off, thinking about the idea of Distance Learning. Why Distance Learning? Why the name-change from Online Learning? I typed in my search bar “distance learning vs online learning” and found myself at a site defining each and differentiating between the two. I sighed, recognizing that yet again my field has moved and renamed concepts to shape public thinking about them. As a recovering trekkie, I instantly wanted to put up my deflector shields and stay in my current bubble, but alas, this I cannot do. And I’m encouraging you to join me –bubble-free–as we move into this new era of Distance Learning.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define our terms. Online Learning is now considered learning that is done in a setting where technology is used to enhance at least SOME in-person learning, so if you engage in projects in your classroom that require students to conduct online research or submit assignments to an electronic inbox, or any kind of activity that requires the internet, this is considered Online Learning. If you are not going to be meeting your students in person at all during your course, this would be considered Distance Learning. Without any solid evidence to back it up, my opinion on this is that the whole world grew mightily weary hearing the phrase “online learning” during the course of the pandemic, and so we were in need of a re-brand.

To be fair, online learning has taken a few hard hits to the chin. First and foremost, in the spring of 2020 teachers from all backgrounds with all different kinds of training and experience were forced to pivot in a miniscule amount of time and provide learning experiences in a virtual environment. For many, this meant turning on cameras in their classrooms or simply moving course content onto a web page and holding zoom class meetings. As you might surmise, this situation was not ideal. One of the key ingredients in student success is an engaged student, and those who were teetering on the edge in their classes were more likely to suffer learning losses and disengage. It’s hard to cater to all of the different learning styles when in crisis mode! And it was naïve to think that everyone would become a skilled online instructor in a heartbeat because the need existed for skilled online instructors.

Because of this widespread issue, there has been a call to return to normal in all aspects of our lives, but especially in the arena of education. This may be premature, as these are some of the benefits of online and distance learning that emerged from the past two years:

1.) There is a burgeoning awareness of the disparity in access to technology (i.e., internet, computers, etc…)

Some school districts were able to provide tablets or laptops to their students for the duration of the school years during the pandemic, while others were forced to share or devise different methods of instruction.

This process has jumpstarted the necessary conversations regarding digital inequity. Digital equity, also called the digital divide, can be defined as the economic, educational, and cultural disparities that emerge due to poor access to current technology. Right now, state education entities are working to identify areas of inequity so they can adequately address them. If you want to know what your state is up to regarding digital equity, check out your state board of education, as well as other agencies that are working diligently to bridge the gap. A June 2020 LEANLAB report found that as many as 20% of students in the Kansas City metropolitan area had no access to technology to complete their school work—that’s one in 5. Very rarely in history have we had such an impactful opportunity to find out exactly what the gaping holes are in our efforts and work to repair them.

20% of students in the Kansas City metropolitan area had no access to technology

2.) Parents claim they communicated more often and more directly with schools during the pandemic and were more familiar with what was expected of their children since they had to actively engage in the learning process. Also, many figured out which times of day were better for various activities and how long each task could continue before there were diminishing returns. This could be why social media was flooded with messages of support, love, and appreciation for teachers in the first year of COVID. Parents who grew up learning in the classroom without much in the way of technology were also introduced to today’s learning tools.

3.) Studies are emerging that indicate online and distance learning might have some benefits for mental health. Yes, I saw them, too—all the posts that came out in 2020-2021 about how students were missing out on key experiences, and can’t sports teams and extracurricular activities resume already?

Interestingly enough, a study in South West England emerged in January of 2021 that was originally going to evaluate the negative results on students’ mental health during lockdown; the results surprised everyone. They looked at 1000 students, and overall girls had a decrease of 10% in anxiety and stress, while boys experienced an 18-26% drop in the same. While the study’s authors decline to state their results are conclusive, it does prompt one to ask more questions. Could it be that social anxiety is a greater inhibitor than we had thought? In my experience with teaching online, my students reported feeling more relaxed about trying new skills and failing if they weren’t going to be observed doing so by their peers. Distance Learning also allows those who need it to read, watch, or listen to instructions as many times as they need to without feeling like asking for clarification or repetition would annoy their instructor or their classmates. They can also email or video chat with their classmates or their instructor at a time that works for them.

Does distance learning help to decrease anxiety and stress in students?

Not all Distance Learning is created equal. We continuously use trial and error to figure out what good distance education looks like, but it starts with instructors learning how to deliver effective Distance Learning courses. Sometimes that can be as straightforward as TAKING a distance learning class and evaluating what you think works, as well as what you think doesn’t. Most community colleges have Teaching and Learning Centers (sometimes known by other names) with highly qualified instructional designers to help faculty adapt their learning objectives to an effective online environment, and some even offer certificates for those teachers who go through the process to become a certified online instructor. Rest assured, it is NOT enough to simply translate your worksheets, activities, or in-person assignments into an online environment. It requires us to be students again—to embrace the imperfect, model what it’s like to be curious, and try new things whether or not they’re successful, and to remember that people DO still want to be seen, heard, and understood, even if it’s in a virtual environment.  Distance learning is the front edge of a wave that is changing education forever, so come out of your bubble and play!