Distance Learning (DL) is a huge promise that can provide access to education for millions of people. However, something is not working in Distance Learning. We can see the drop-out rate in MOOCs (Massive Online Open Course), which leads some people to say that "MOOCs are Dead".
In higher education, vocational teaching, and corporate training – Distance Learning is not delivering on its promise.
Students express frustration with huge amounts of boring material that is thrown at them. They are expected to cope with this mass of material, almost always – on their own. No wonder students feel alone, deserted and neglected. Anyone who has ever tried to learn remotely will agree.
What if some adjustments could be made through technology, which takes into consideration the human factors in learning? Could this make Distance Learning more successful and engaging?
I propose 9 things that would allow Distance Learning to keep its promise - to bring high quality education to all.
Please feel free to add your comments or questions below, or come by to see me at the 22nd CIAED on September 20, 2016 in Aguas de Lindoia, Brazil, where I will be presenting with Time to Know.
1. Interesting, rich, engaging learning materials
This first element is almost trivial. In today's world, why should any student learn from flat, boring material?
I remember the days when I was a teenager, in the 70’s. I joined a correspondence course given by the Universal Brazilian Institute for learning how to be an Electronics Technician. That was the first mode of Distance Learning. Material would be mailed to you every week, and you were supposed to read the booklets, do the exercises, do an exam at the end, and send the exam back to them at the end of each marking period. You would only receive the next batch of material after passing the exam.
I don’t know how many Electronics Technicians came out of that course along the years. I definitely wasn’t one of them. I didn’t make it through the second module; I simply ran out of patience and motivation.
Doesn’t this seem funny? So long ago, so seventies!!! But I assure you that in many training institutions in the world today, this is still the how Distance Learning is done. You get the material at home, once a month you visit the school or the university office to do an exam, and go back home to receive the rest of the books until the following month.
Some of those early Distance Learning models got “a lot better”. They scanned all of their content to PDF format, installed a free LMS, and released their PDFs online, together with some tests.
Come on!!! PDFs??? Look at this guy in the picture above. How bored does he look studying from the flat PDF on his computer?
I would like to present the following case study: An institution spends millions of dollars for a very sophisticated LMS platform, and then prepares its course plans in an LMS and uploads all of their PDF files to be read by the students. Interspersed between each PDF, a short test of multiple-choice questions is provided to be executed by the student for measuring his/her level of learning from the PDF.
Yes, after reading the previous paragraph I am sure you can empathize with the young guy in the picture. You are locked inside a great platform with a terrible content. Not much you can do to succeed with that.
We are in the digital era – let's maximize its potential! Let’s engage learners with interesting images, movies, games, audio, external websites. Who says that the only way to learn is through a lengthy text? There are so many resources available in cyberspace to inspire learners. We need the opportunity and the right tools to deliver learning materials that will motivate learners to continue learning, even if the tasks are challenging.
2. Interactive content
This seems to be covered by point #1 – interesting and engaging material – but interactive content refers to much more than that.
Interactive content means that the instructor knows how the learner is performing and progressing in real time.
It also means that the student knows in real time how he/she is performing.
We don’t need to wait for the monthly test, or force the students to fill in a paper questionnaire (that everybody hates).
With the right technology, we can present learning sequences in which students answer questions, complete exercises, view media, analyze data and "interact with the content". In that way, we achieve two goals. We make the whole learning process much more interesting and engaging. At the same time, we keep the instructor, who receives each student's results and progress, informed and knowledgeable in real time about each student’s learning situation. The students are also motivated by the ongoing feedback they receive, which enables them to monitor and adjust their own study habits.
3. Monitoring and tracking
So, now that we have identified interactive content, which lets the instructor follow the progress or the difficulties of each student at every step of the learning process… what is our next step? If you are thinking, use the appropriate tools to monitor the participants of the courses to lead to increased motivation and success, you’re absolutely right!
Using the interactive sessions, and any answers or assignments completed by the students, we can monitor their learning situation. Is the student struggling with a particular question, or perhaps the whole chapter? Do we recognize some weak points? We can only help the students if we know about their difficulties on time, and not only during the final exam – that is, IF they manage to make it to the final exam at all after wading through the course material by themselves.
Then the instructor can intervene, based on input received about student performance. Sometimes, the intervention is as simple as a notification email. "Dear student, I noticed that you are having some difficulties in Chapter 3. I'm here to assist if you want to ask questions or discuss any item regarding this subject. Best regards, Your instructor".
This simple notification may be the extra boost to motivate the students and increase their determination to continue to the end of the course.
In my experience with Distance Learning educators, I have seen institutions that used to offer phone help to the students. They were all surprised to find that the students who were called didn’t want to talk with just any tutor/instructor who answered the phone. They wanted to talk to a specific one, and in most cases it was the tutor/instructor that gave them a good answer in a previous call. After moving to chats and to web conferences, the contact between students and tutors became even closer. At the end of the course, there were observations that many students were motivated by this close contact to finish the course, and some even reported that they only got to the end of the course because they didn’t want to disappoint the tutor who had worked so hard to get them through.
So we say – let's give the teachers a tool to monitor and track the success (or failure) of each student, in real time, and let's provide the needed information to the teacher in an easy, straightforward manner.
Until today, in most cases, monitoring Distance Learning students would mean going through reports of your class results in tests and examinations.
However, in today's Distance Leaning programs, one teacher or tutor may be responsible for hundreds of students. Or thousands. How is an instructor going to manage to go through these long reports over time? As I mentioned in my previous points, you know that the problem is even more challenging – the teacher has much more that 2-3 quizzes or tests to evaluate for each student. An effective tool gathers and reports on dozens of data points for each lesson, for each student. In this meaning, how can one person, even the most talented and devoted instructor, cover this huge mass of information?
Despite the large number of students enrolled in a given course, we still don’t want any learner to be left behind. We need a sophisticated alerting system to identify any problem – either with a student, a group of students or in any course content – and "push" the notification to the tutor/instructor – the faster the better.
Alerts should be the response to these needs.
Alerts should come in real time and should enable the tutors/ instructors to address all needs of all students in real time, at the very moment that they are in need, no matter how remote they are from the students.
So, our advanced technological tools found out that a student is having difficulties in some chapters.
What can we do?
That is the moment instructors should take an active role in providing students with interventions that can assist students to overcome the difficulty they face with the specific content. Perhaps sending learners an instructional video or explanatory text, that will present the concept in a different manner, or providing additional guided practice with hints or other tips for solving a difficult problem will help the student get past the barrier that stands in their way to success.
The instructor can also schedule and invite students to a live web-conference that will be held the following day, just for the struggling students.
Taking such actions should be easy and transparent, both for the teacher and for the student, and this involves using integrated technology that supports such interventions.
Intervention should be easy for the teacher, as simple as choosing and sending an additional assignment to the student through the LMS or by email. And the student is able to access the intervention seamlessly, for example, something that pops up or appears in their calendar without expecting students to look for it.
The ability to intervene is the power that turns an instructor into a real educator in Distance Learning. The moment instructors decide to intervene is the moment in which they can change the fate of their students and lead them from frustration to competence.
For students, the intervention creates the feeling of collaboration - that they are not alone, that someone is there looking after them, and that there is an organization behind the course they have entered. It is the value behind the investment. It is the motivation that will get them to the end of the course.
This is the value of intervention. It is the personalization of the process for the student. When done well, it is the differentiator between success and failure.
6. Student collaboration
Sometimes, students can help one another. Modern Distance Learning technology must be social enough to let the students interact in a manner that most closely resembles the way they would interact if they were all in a classroom.
For example, students should be able to initiate a smart forum, in which students can share ideas, or ask each other for opinions. They should have a smart chat that will enable them to exchange real-time messages, in groups or privately, and share interesting content related to the course one with others.
Students, as all human beings, are a social crowd. We must make them feel that they are part of a community. The biggest sign of success of a Distance Learning class is when the students don’t want simply to print their certificate, but they prefer to have an end of course ceremony where they can meet their peers and their tutors. We can help here with technology that will let them feel that way.
7. Student grouping
We have said it earlier many times: Distance Learning students feel alone. Why don’t we assign 5-7 students together, as a virtual study group?
In the last few years, many studies were conducted about "Collaborative Learning". All these studies showed the great advantage of putting students together to learn. Let's use technology to enable this in Distance Learning environments where it is most needed.
They can support each other and become a study group that can compete against the other groups. The competition among groups will bring the groups forward, and give them motivation to learn effectively in order to compete and succeed.
Groups will also be able to identify more clearly parts of the content in which they have more difficulties, and why these difficulties are appearing. They can also find new interesting materials to be presented. By doing both, they can be a very good source of improvement to the course content. Students will be happy and proud to provide meaningful input to the course.
We have already talked about personalization when we addressed intervention; but personalization is also a topic related to the customization of the learning content.
We do not all share the same strengths and weaknesses. Some of us need more explanation; others need more practice when learning new concepts. Some prefer to listen to lectures; others prefer to read as a way to learn new information.
A good Distance Learning program should support a high level of personalization within the educational content. Content should address all the needs and learning styles of every student. Whenever possible, the content should be designed to provide alternative paths for the students to choose what they want to do to learn the topic.
As we mentioned previously, students should feel they are not alone; and they should also feel that we have tailored the course with their specific needs in mind. This is another important step to lead learners to success in the course.
9. Friendly platforms
Not all of us are computer savvy. Distance Learning courses need to be based on user friendly technologies.
Remember our first scenario in item #1, of the institution that bought the best LMS in the world and filled it with PDF content?
Well, now, in our second use case scenario, we have organizations that invest a lot of money in their content. They really combine thoughtful pedagogical and cost-effective considerations in offering the best possible pedagogic preparation of their digital content.
Then, when the content is ready, the organization either loads the content onto a portal or install it on an open-source LMS. Unfortunately, this is done with very little internal customization, done by someone who wasn’t really an expert on the subject, and students can’t find where the material is or what to do with it.
At the end, this is also what they get:
My friends, this is also not the way to leverage learning. Content is king, but a proper Distance Learning solution must be a “joint-venture” between content and tools.
As we would all agree content must be very well prepared to serve the needs of students and instructors. The tools in the platform must be deeply integrated and user-friendly for instructors and students so that they can navigate the platform and easily access every tool they need in single seconds to enhance their learning experience.
We can say a lot about the rise and almost fall of Distance Learning. Much has been said about that, and much will still be said.
I believe most readers of this article are aware of the new research, which has proven that happy students are better performers.
Following the 9 ways specified above, we ensure that we can motivate learners in order to build the vibe they need to complete their course of study.
Allow me to be a bit pompous, maybe even sentimental – a lot is at stake here. Distance Learning is the only key to education for millions of people who don’t have access to proper classrooms, and we all know that education is the key for success, self-fulfillment, and happiness. Using the right technology, we can deliver the promise of Distance Learning. After so many years of broken promises….we can make it happen!
Helio Diamant is a Project Manager at Time to Know, specializing in large scale Distance Learning implementations.