In higher education, vocational teaching, and corporate training Distance Learning (DL) is not delivering on its promise.
Learners express frustration with huge amounts of boring material. 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.
Let's make adjustments through technology, which takes into consideration the human factors in learning. I propose 9 ways that allow DL to keep its promise of bringing high-quality education to all.
1. Enriched Materials
I remember the days when I was a teenager, in the '70s. I joined a correspondence course given by the Universal Brazilian Institute for Learning on "How to be an Electronics Technician."
This was the first mode of DL. The material was 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, but I assure you that in many training institutions in the world today this is still how DL 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 DL 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?
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. 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.
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? 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.
Interactive content means that the instructor knows how the learner is performing and progressing in real-time. It also means that the learner knows in real time how they're performing.
We don’t need to wait for the monthly test or force the learner to fill in a paper questionnaire (that everybody hates.)
With the right technology, we can present learning sequences in which learners 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 learners' results and progress, informed and knowledgeable in real-time about each learning situation. Learners are also motivated by the ongoing feedback they receive, which enables them to monitor and adjust their own study habits.
3. Monitoring and Tracking
Using the interactive sessions, and any answers or assignments completed by the students, we can monitor their learning situation. Is the learner struggling with a particular question, or perhaps the whole chapter? Do we recognize some weak points? We can only help the learner 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 X, 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 learner and increase their determination to continue to the end of the course.
In my experience with DL instructors, I have seen institutions that used to offer phone help. They were all surprised to find that the learners 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.
After moving to chats and to web conferences, the contact between learners and tutors became even closer. At the end of the course, there were observations that many learners y 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.
After moving to chats and to web conferences, the contact between learners and tutors became even closer. At the end of the course, there were observations that many learners 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 – you need tools to monitor and track the success (or failure) of each learner, in real time, and let's provide the needed information to the instructor in an easy, straightforward manner.
Monitoring DL learners use to mean going through reports of your class results in tests and examinations.
However, in today's DL programs, one instructor 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? You know that the problem is even more challenging – the instructor has much more that 2-3 quizzes or tests to evaluate for each learner. An effective tool gathers and reports on dozens of data points for each lesson, for each student. How can one person, even the most talented and devoted instructor, cover this huge mass of information?
Despite a large number of learners 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, (Like T2K Echo Alerts) should come in real-time and should enable the tutors/instructors to address all needs of all learners at the very moment that they are in need, no matter how remote they are.
Instructors should take an active role in providing learners with interventions that can assist them 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 learner 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 instructor and learner and involves using integrated technology that supports such interventions.
Intervention should be as simple as choosing and sending an additional assignment to the learner through the LMS or by email. And the learner is able to access the intervention seamlessly, for example, something that pops up or appears in their calendar.
Quote of the day: 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 learners' and lead them from frustration to competence.
For learners, 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 of 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 learner. When done well, it is the differentiator between success and failure.
6. Learner Collaboration
Sometimes, learners can help one another. Modern DL technology must be social enough to let the learners interact in a manner that most closely resembles the way they would interact if they were all in a classroom.
For example, learners should be able to initiate a smart forum, in which they 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.
Learners 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 DL class is when the learner doesn't want to just print their certificate, but they prefer to have an end of course ceremony where they can meet their peers and their tutors!
7. Learner Grouping
We have said it earlier many times: distance learners 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 of which showed the great advantages of putting learners together. Let's use technology to enable this in DL 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 the 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. Learners 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 DL program should support a high-level of personalization within the educational content. Content should address all the needs and learning styles. Whenever possible, the content should be designed to provide alternative paths for the learners to choose what they want to do.
As we mentioned previously, learners should feel they are not alone and they should also feel that we have tailored the course to 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. DL 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 DL 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 learners and instructors. The tools in the platform must be deeply integrated and user-friendly so that they can navigate the platform and easily access every tool they need in seconds to enhance their learning experience.
Following the 9 ways specified above, we ensure that we can motivate learners in order to build the environment they need to complete their course of study.
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 to success, self-fulfillment, and happiness. Using the right technology, we can deliver the promise of DL. 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.
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