Your Complete Guide to Distance Learning

By Dr. Dovi Weiss | October 02,2017

Let’s face it — online courses require a ton of effort to create. Distance Learning (DL) requires self-motivation from the learners and instructors require a high-level of training about how to use web-based technology. So, how to make sure you’re experiencing desired results? First, let’s go over some basics.

MAIN CHALLENGES OF DISTANCE LEARNING

While the advantages of DL are clear, mainly inaccessibility of learning in cases when it is not available (or not cost effective), it carries several challenges and difficulties that must be addressed.

DL is almost always defined as “self-paced,” i.e. the student determines his/her own time of learning, within a given timeline (usually a week per lesson). DL is also typically self-learned, in which the students are expected to cover the learning material, answer questions, complete the assignments and attend tests, all by themselves.

Tutor’s help, if any, are provided upon request by the learner – either in a direct approach or a question submitted in the class’ forum or chat. In hybrid courses, the learner can also approach the tutor in the face-to-face meetings.

This common characteristic of DL leads to a strong feeling of loneliness – the learner feels that they lacks support and guidance when he/she is in question, doubt or confusion or under stress.

Further, since the tutor is not very accessible in the common DL courses, the learner is discouraged from raising questions and problems about “little things” which create small “holes” of knowledge across the learning material. As the courses move on, relying also on the acquired material, such “holes” necessarily lead to bigger and bigger areas of missing knowledge and understanding. In many cases, these areas of misunderstanding lead to failure in the course or (when applicable) drop out.

The lonely nature of DL learning also requires very strong self-discipline. Many of the Students, as all human beings, tend to give up. This leads to missing some lessons, failing in tests and, inevitably, failure in the course or drop out.

No wonder drop-out rates are sky-high!

Numbers vary from 35% churn to 54% for online courses and higher than 90% for MOOCs (Kloft, M., Stiehler, F., Zheng, Z., & Pinkwart, N., 2014). Some South American organizations report a staggering 60% drop-out rate from their flagship vocational training programs.

Moreover, completion of online programs doesn’t necessarily mean success. In some cases, it is higher than 60% (Rostaminezhad, M. A., Mozayani, N., Norozi, D., & Iziy, M., 2013).

In many DL course, a physical drop-out is not possible – such as in corporate training or other mandatory education systems. In these cases, it is common to view “mental drop-out” – students that stay registered as students, but gave up and actually do not learn, or at least do not invest the time and effort necessary to learn.

Since, in many cases, DL is the only possible method which may provide accessible training, special effort is to be taken in order to overcome such challenges.

 

HOW TO IMPLEMENT DISTANCE LEARNING THAT WORKS

Tutor-centric learning process

Studies show (Moore, M. G.,2013) that the tutor involvements, and sometimes only his/her presence, is crucial in reducing or eliminating the “loneliness” feeling of the learner. An available and accessible tutor will ensure the learner that questions, doubts, problems and thoughts will be addressed quickly, efficiently and empathically.

The Tutor’s presence also increases the learner’s commitment to the DL program. When they do feel alone, the learner does not want to “let down” the tutor who is there for them.

Although the Tutor role is irreplaceable, and his/her involvement is essential, it will not be effective without the proper complimentary tools, technology and methodology that should ensure that the Tutor will receive all required data, analyzed information and will be able to intervene when necessary. These other means are especially crucial when DL programs contain a high number of learners (upwards of 50, sometimes upwards of 500) per one Tutor, and when the course is under a tight timeline (typically a lesson every week, for 5-30 weeks).

Such big virtual classes should not deny the learner’s capability to interact with the Tutor. However, due to the nature of DL and the high number and learner’s in each class and per a Tutor, technology should be used in order to allow an efficient way of interaction between the student and the Tutor.

It was proven that the current tools used in DL systems – such as forums and chat rooms – are important and useful, but not optimal vehicles to promote and ensure good interaction, especially for struggling learners who face difficulties in their study.

Learners should be allowed and encouraged to ask questions and be answered by the Tutor, for every stage of the learning process. In order to allow it in massive virtual classes, questions and answers should be context related, i.e. attached to a specific piece of content. Smart tagging should be used in order to allow the other learner to choose whether they want to review the questions and answers.

Grouping of the learners, as described in the “collaboration” section below, may reduce the number of questions addressed to the Tutor and allow the more efficient process, by clearing many of the questions within the study group.

To summarize here are the teacher roles in distance learning based on Constructivist Approach

  1. Teacher promotes learner autonomy and is aware of individual differences.
  2. Teacher uses the relevant and current information to transmit knowledge. Teacher constantly researches the curriculum and provides concrete up-to-date examples.
  3. Teacher gives importance to the thoughts of learners and promotes learner research, evaluation, discussion, and reporting.
  4. Teacher is aware of individual student differences when designing course materials
  5. Teacher knows learners prerequisite skills and knowledge and uses this foundation to build new knowledge. In addition, the teacher knows how learner can learn.
  6. Teacher initiates learner-teacher interaction and has communication and technological skills to effectively implement distance education.
  7. Teacher constructs learner-centered learning with opportunities for interaction. learners are responsible for learning and responsible for contacting teacher when needed.
  8. Teacher collaborates with a learner in self-development and responsibility.
  9. Teacher provides environment, materials, and guidance for collaborative learning, interactive discussion groups, individual learning, and research.
  10. Teacher provides prompt and accurate feedback to learners to facilitate learning

 

METHOD BREAKDOWN:

Active Learner

 

Research shows that active learning is key to effective learning.

Basically, we separate the interactive sections in the DL content into 2 types –

  1. Internal interactions, used solely for the learners, to better understand the material and for their self-evaluation. Typically, these interactions will include several “tries”, will include “scaffolding” such as hints and intermediate feedbacks. These interactions typically do not report back to any learning system. If they do, they are almost always ignored by the Tutor and are not included in the learner’s grade.
  2. External interactions, which are used by the Tutor to evaluate the learner’s knowledge and understanding. We will discuss this type of interactions in this section.

The External Interactions are the basis for the evaluation, as discussed in the previous section.  We will now illustrate the way that such interactions should be created and managed. In the following section (“Intermediate Summary”)

In the way they are created, External interactions are not very different from the internal interaction. They also have to be interesting, engaging, in various types (multi-choice, drag and drop, fill in the gaps, etc.) and delivered in a colorful and attractive form. As detailed above, the evaluation provided through these interactions should not signal the learner”You are now being tested.”

The external interaction should be added to every piece of content, so the learner is evaluated on every step of his/her learning. There should be a “critical mass” of such interactions to allow proper evaluation, but not too many so the learner is not annoyed.

Chunking

 

“Chunking” in a term in psychology, usually means a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole (Neath & Surprenant, 2003). A chunk is defined as a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved (Tulving & Craik, 2000).Learning in small iterative frequent steps (from Wikipedia)

This term is “borrowed” into the close area of education, and described a small portion of content (provided to the learner in many ways), studied frequently (daily, or at least 3-4 times a week) with high repetition level with the following daily “chunk”.

Studies show that in that way, the information is quickly and efficiently absorbed into the learner’s short-term memory (or working memory). More importantly, this knowledge is cemented into the learner’s long-term memory, thanks to the repetitions and the dependencies with the other material learned during the course.

Considering the typical DL courses, we think that the optimal size of “chunk” i.e. learning unit which should be covered daily, shall last 30-45 minutes. A weekly lesson shall include 3-5 of such units.

Intermediate Summary

 

Let’s add together the 4 terms we discussed so far – “Tutor in the loop”, “chunking”, Evaluation and Active Learner – and see how they are combined into a viable solution which meets the requirements raised above.

The Tutor is in front of the learner. He or she is evaluating the learner and responds (as “intervention”) to close any knowledge and understanding gaps the learner may have. Since the evaluation is frequent and continuous, so is the intervention (when necessary). Hence, the Tutor is very “close” to the learners and very much present in their learning path.

The content, and therefore the learning itself, is built in small “chunks” – as mentioned above, 3-5 “chunks” in a weekly lesson, for about 30-45 minutes of an (almost) daily study. Since the evaluation is done for every chunk, it means that it is available on a daily basis, for the Tutor to review and intervene.

The evaluation is done by using the external interactions – so the learner is evaluated through each “chunk” and on an almost daily basis, as mentioned above, as a routine and without the “test label”. Since each “chunk” is small in size and content, evaluation is very specific and with high resolution. This allows the Tutor a “uniformed” intervention (most probably that all struggling learner in a given “chunk” share the same point of misunderstanding.

Collaboration

 

As mentioned above, loneliness is a common feeling with many DL learners, which leads to drop-out.

For Nevado (1997), the pedagogical use of technologies offers students and teachers the chance to clarify their doubts by promoting group study with geographically separated students, allowing them to discuss topics of the same interest.

Moran (2006) cites seven procedures that are also called basic principles for there to be such interaction by VLEs among those involved in the educational process:

  1. Encourage contact between students and universities
  2. Encourage student cooperation
  3. Encourage collaborative learning
  4. Give feedback and immediate answers
  5. Emphasize the issue of time in the execution of tasks
  6. Communicate high expectations
  7. Respect different talents and ways of learning

Collaborative DL learning in small groups offers the opportunity to create a highly social learning environment, characterized by participation and interactivity for the students within a group, and between the different groups.

The quality and quantity of interactivity can vary dramatically from course to course. The methodology, infrastructure, and technology should support it, while the Tutor or the course creator should decide the level of collaboration to be adopted in the specific course.

It was Lev Vygotsky (1980), a well-known Soviet psychologist and founder of the theory of cultural-historical psychology, who emphasized the importance of human communication in the learning process. Based on his research, the socio-cultural approach to learning has emerged to become one of today’s leading theories.

Social (or collaborative) learning as part of a group, together with its additional attributes such as co-operation, communication, teamwork, and community, is an important way to help students gain experience in collaboration and develop important skills in critical thinking, self-reflection, and co-construction of knowledge. DL learners should not be impoverished in terms of social learning because they cannot come to a campus. Access to education should not mean merely access to content; rather, it should mean access to a rich learning environment that provides an opportunity for interaction and connectedness. Quality learning environments include opportunities for students to engage in interactive and collaborative activities with their peers; such environments have been shown to contribute to better learning outcomes, including a development of higher order thinking skills.)

Access to education should not mean merely access to content; rather, it should mean access to a rich learning environment that provides an opportunity for interaction and connectedness. Quality learning environments include opportunities for students to engage in interactive and collaborative activities with their peers; such environments have been shown to contribute to better learning outcomes, including a development of higher order thinking skills.

Further, skills gained from the experience of collaborative learning are highly transferable to team-based work and other “real-life” environments.

In a collaborative learning environment, knowledge is shared or transmitted among learners as they work towards common learning goals, for example, a shared understanding of the subject at hand or a solution to a problem. Learners are not passive receptacles but are active in their process of knowledge acquisition as they participate in discussions, search for information, teach other members of their group and exchange opinions with their peers. Knowledge is co-created and shared among peers, not owned by one particular learner after obtaining it from the course materials or tutor. The learning process creates a bond between and among learners as their knowledge construction depends on each other’s contribution to the discussion. Hence, collaborative learning processes assist students to develop higher order thinking skills and to achieve richer knowledge generation through shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning making.

Knowledge is co-created and shared among peers, not owned by one particular learner after obtaining it from the course materials or tutor. The learning process creates a bond between and among learners as their knowledge construction depends on each other’s contribution to the discussion. Hence, collaborative learning processes assist students to develop higher order thinking skills and to achieve richer knowledge generation through shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning making.

Such bonding also works as a “support group” which helps the individual students, each with his/her weak points and hours, from falling into loneliness and despair. Knowing that you are part of the group and not alone, and other members of the group rely on you as much as you rely on them, is a powerful tool against many of the weaknesses and weak points of DL.

Gamification

 

  1. The use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game content
  2. The use of game thinking and mechanics in a non-game context to inspire employees and learners to get engaged in a learning process
  3. The use of game techniques to make activities more engaging and fun

 

As we can see, gamification is used as a tool (or, should we say, a methodology which includes set of tools) in order to make learning and education more appealing, engaging, and interesting.

In education, gamification can create learning environments that condense the learning time of key ideas and allow students the possibility to explore concepts while enhancing the natural intrinsic motivation of learning. This interaction with a simulated environment leads to a higher level of engagement.

As educators, we try to acquire our learners by intrinsic motivators, rather than extrinsic ones. However, intrinsic motivators – such as autonomy, mastery, sense of power, meaning, interest – usually take some time to be developed by the learners. In order to “gain time” and attract the learners until such intrinsic motivators are developed, gamification can help with its mechanics, techniques, and aesthetics, to provide extrinsic motivators – such as rewards, levels, badges, and points.

Even more than extrinsic motivators, gamification can help to enrich and empower the fun and meaning that the learners experience during and through the learning process – create a learning “journey,” add elements of luck, “surprises,” allow the students to make meaningful choices and other techniques which will relate to the intrinsic motivators.

Besides the learner audience engagement and development of target behaviors through the power of gameplay, the most effective uses of gamification in learning should capitalize on its ability to transform the learning process. To be considered transformative, gamification efforts must produce a high-impact positive change for a given learning environment instead of it “just a little more fun” for the learners.

While techniques, mechanism, and aesthetics of gamification are powerful tools, we should beware of “topping broccoli with chocolate.” Gamification elements should be used carefully, always in the learning context, spicing up various learning situations and drive engagement.

SUMMARY

Factors that increase learner retention rates:

  1. Quality of content
  2. Sense of belonging to a learning community
  3. Peer support
  4. Communication with instructor and level of interaction

 

That’s interesting. Loneliness, lack of collaboration, and lack of communication were not significant drop-out factors in the “old” face-to-face learning world. These are new problems that did not exist in the face-to-face classroom model.

So we went back to the origins and we observed the physical classroom model in search of the factors that keep loneliness low and commitment high.

Based on the social-constructivism theory, a leading learning theory of the past 20 years, effective learning is achieved by combining three elements:

 

  1. The learner should be active in constructing his or her own knowledge
  2. The learner should interact with peers and the instructor
  3. The instructor should be an active facilitator and function as a “Guide on the side and not sage on the stage.”

 

As Vygotsky showed, social interaction plays a major role in the learning process. The ability of the learner to express himself verbally is essential to knowledge construction. By expressing and hearing themselves, learners fine tune their understanding.

In a classic implementation of a social-constructivist classroom, the instructor plays a major role as a learning facilitator by combining guidance and authority – two key factors for an effective learning environment.

The thing is that excellent implementations of the classroom learning model are relatively rare. Mainly due to the fact that excellent conditions for classroom learning (solid teachers, modern environment, small class size – all in proximity to each other) are hard to find and expensive to duplicate.

So here is the global dilemma that learners, businesses, and learning institutions are facing.

To allow scalability and personalized learning – you have got to go online.

However, online learning fundamentally lacks key factors of effective learning, factors that exist in the non-scalable physical classroom model.

So can a third learning model that combines the best merits of the two worlds be created?

The answer is yes!

IMPLEMENT THE FOLLOWING SIX PILLARS OF EFFECTIVE DISTANCE LEARNING:

 

1) Social impact – sense of belonging

 

A community of learners that share the same experience and function as “classmates” in a large-scale program:

Discussion in Context – learners can ask their colleagues for assistance from within the content – No need to go elsewhere (LMS etc). Comments are shared and can be rated, serving as a priority mechanism for instructional supervisors.

Social Benchmark – each learner sees how he/ she compared to the group average, at each single point

One-click interaction – chat and video tools to interact immediately with a peer for prompt support

 

2) Insights & Coaching

 

Data-driven insights for supervisors, trainers, and instructors for immediate and effective intervention.
An effective DL solution should be designed for a ratio of 1 supervisor to 100’s of learners, keeping the operation very lean.

Drop-out risk and low-performance alerts – push notifications to notify about reduced usage, content incompletion, and performance that is trending down

Learners dashboard & watch-list – quick performance analysis of at-risk students

Active intervention – cost-effective tools for supervisors to assist students, including quick hint, request to redo pages or chapters, personalized quiz to guarantee comprehension

3) Active learning

 

Immerse learners in interactive experiences that keep them focused. Simple content editing tools for enriching existing documents with interactive questions, or generating new content from scratch. These interactive questions provide immediate feedback and guidance to the learner.

4) Mobile-first

 

Device, platform, OS, and browser agnostic. User experience optimized for smartphones.

5) Interoperability

 

An easy-to-integrate environment that fits seamlessly into your learning platform.

6) Modularity

 

Pick and choose an approach, allowing you to choose the components that bring you the highest value.

By implementing these six pillars in your distance learning strategy you will be able to bridge the online gaps by borrowing some principles from FACE-TO-FACE LEARNING that will create the winning synergy.

the author

Dr. Dovi Weiss

Chief Scientist at Time To Know. Named one of 50 most influential people in education. Internationally known lecturer on education innovation and technology.