My introduction into the modern distance learning field began about seven years ago when I took a position in a training and education company which had a fairly large department that delivered online courseware for mostly Department of Defense (DOD) clients. Our customers, who preferred that we use the term “distributed learning” rather than distance learning and I did not object to this definition at the time and really do not now actually.
One thing though, over the years I have encountered quite a number of what I perceived to be fad driven enthusiasm for the latest technological gimmick or new learning approach only to see it not work as promised or shoved aside by the next “new great thing”. This from the conclusion of the final of the three articles titled The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web focusing on K-12 education by clearly resonates with me with:
Is e-learning (and the technologies that support it) truly a breakthrough or is it only the latest “miracle” which promises solutions to all the problems associated with education and training? Clearly, our society loves simple answers to complex problems-especially if those answers require little or no effort…Rushing to adopt distance education, or any new technology, to avoid being seen as out of touch or outdated is as ephemeral as any fads.” (Moller et al., p. 66, 2008)…
So, I am a bit world-weary but not cynical about distance learning; however, I still hold out with quixotic fervor for the “grand unifying theory” of distance education.
The desire or impetus to capitalize on new and emerging communications means to expand educational access is a long established practice be it traveling lecturers, postal correspondence courses, classes over the radio or via the Internet.
Still, it is gratifying for me that many of the innovators behind the implementation of a new DL program appear to be motivated by progressive ideals such as to “democratize” education by offering lower cost options to those not born into higher economic strata, or to provide greater opportunities for those who had a predilection for autodidactic learning. Perhaps an unintended consequence of DL was to provide a second or third chance for those who were perhaps intellectual late bloomers. Of course, many early and present day champions of DL were in pursuit of economic gain, but some, the Chautauqua Movement in the late 19th century comes to mind, clearly had more egalitarian or even noble objectives in their distance learning approaches. I see some of that noble spirit in some of the DL innovators of today and that is a good thing.
To define DL, beyond that it involves technology, geographic separation and an institutional proponent as related by Leslie Moller, et al. in is beyond my grasp at this stage. The future of DL is in a state of flux or creative chaos perhaps, but that maybe is a normal consequence of its evolution. Perhaps the by the next decade or so the distinction of DL from what is or was mainstream education may wane, and what we now think of as DL could be assimilated into the collective conscience as a seamless component of the holistic concept of learning. Drivers for this assimilation are visible now as technology platforms for DL become increasingly ubiquitous. Perhaps the tipping point for this will be when wearable technology such as Google Glass ™ becomes as common as mobile smartphones.
Leslie Moller, Wellesley R Foshay, and Jason Huett. The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web. (Part 1 -3:Tech Trends, 52(3).