Distance Learning 2.0: It Will Take a Village

Last month, I suggested we separate hype from reality—not so much to criticize distance learning, but to seek an even higher ideal. Much of what is thrust under the umbrella of distance learning isn’t conducted at much distance, isn’t well supported and limits opportunities for institution-wide collaboration and innovation. Distance learning should be an exciting appeal, rather than just a pragmatic expediency—a positive good in itself, not a necessary evil. Settling for a low standard for online courses only validates the views of the skeptics, and justifies the doom-and-gloom malaise of those with pastoral memories of a higher learning that perhaps never was.

I offer a more aspirational definition of distance learning than simply deflecting class time to online activities: Reaching out beyond a region (nationally and even internationally) and providing a substantial investment in faculty and student support, an academic institution provides a full educational experience and learning community entirely online—worthy of the reputation and integrity of that institution.

Institutional resistance to online learning has been melting away during these recessionary times, as schools seek ways to address enrollment pressures without increasing faculty or classrooms. But the test for online learning should be based as much on learning efficacy as financial efficiency. Seeking comparability in learning outcomes should be the baseline standard. Even that understates the potential advantages that an online environment might create for faculty and students.

Faculty familiarity with technology should not be an advantage for some, but a generic function provided pervasively for the benefit of all. From our firsthand experience, we see examples of what a substantive and systematic distance education commitment can create. For example, instead of a faculty member just developing something that is used in one course, one professor, with significant support, developed a much more robust study of Boston’s Big Dig—with the idea that its use would transcend that one professor and that one course. The professor knew in advance that this component would have more utility and substance than just for his own immediate purposes. This investment in course development allows many different features of the Big Dig to be explored, and then potentially used as part of a “library” of tools by other faculty.

One program’s innovation can be applied to another: A Socratic technique for a law program worked beautifully for management case studies. Through a common platform and array of support services, courses can have a common look and feel, without the creative burden falling on the individual instructor.

With a collective commitment to distance learning and instructional technology, advances can be shared across an institution. Using “green screens” for faculty lectures, faculty can speak and illustrate at the same time. Well-constructed course materials that faculty devoted dozens of hours to developing can be archived in a media library for others to tap in future courses.

I have yet to meet a professor who hasn’t felt that teaching online makes for better in-class teaching. Opportunities abound to re-engineer the traditional classroom experience, to use technical tools to take some work out of the class setting, and to better appreciate that learning doesn’t best occur through one-way lecturing but through active student involvement—all powerful distance learning lessons that redound to the conventional classroom.

Student services can be pooled as well. A hotline for remote students can cover students’ various time zones and their weekend queries. Staff can provide webinars and discreetly monitor courses to check in with students at key points in the semester and provide quick responses to problems. Crisis intervention takes many forms; in one case, a staffer alertly caught a student posting bigoted offensive comments on a course discussion board. A central office can send discs and files to parts of the world with low bandwidth—for example, to soldiers deployed in the mountains of Afghanistan. When one Port-au-Prince student’s routine trips to Miami to take his exams were disrupted by the various Haitian crises, staff arranged for off-cycle proctored exams. Doctoral qualifying examinations have been administered in real time with students and faculty scattered in various locales. Deaf students experience distance learning through closed captioning. The opportunities to accommodate students’ needs are boundless and the examples inspirational.

Serendipitous community-building is perhaps the most exciting byproduct of a robust online environment. Rather than the typical ships passing in the night, part-time students get to know one another as they progress through a common curriculum, regardless of their busy lives and competing demands. And the potential for student diversity is far greater as distance learning expands the school’s sphere of influence beyond the limits of local homogeneity. We have built virtual space for students to network outside their course work. In one case, a course on the biology of food led some students to coauthor a class cookbook; in another, IT students designed their own career advising network; and another group created virtual “pizza and beer” gatherings across the U.S. to stay connected via Skype. Our students then tap formal university events and milestones as opportunities to congregate and finally meet one another in person.

Though concealed within the data, these are truly exciting times for recreating and redefining the learning process—through the roles faculty play, the opportunities to test new tools and techniques, the access and interaction of students across diverse locales and lifestyles, and the reach of institutions beyond their narrow borders. The future of distance learning is more about creating community than exploiting technology, more about enhancing education than enrollments—and even more about academic courage, leadership and innovation. The opportunities are endless, constrained only by our own imagination.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.

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