Virtual Learning: Distance Education for Law Enforcement

By Waggoner, Kim; Christenberry, Tom | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Virtual Learning: Distance Education for Law Enforcement

Waggoner, Kim, Christenberry, Tom, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Imagine a police department's roll-call room at noon, where 30 homicide detectives have gathered for in-service training on crime scene evidence. As the detectives watch, a leading forensic scientist at a university 200 miles away discusses the details of a recently concluded murder investigation.

A detective in the back of the room with a puzzled expression raises her hand. The detective's image fills the screen of a monitor at the front of the room as she asks about a blood stain found at the crime scene. A photograph of the stain now appears on the screen as the scientist answers the detective's question. Thanks to a videoconferencing system, the police detectives and the forensic expert are having a live, two-way training session despite the many miles that separate them.

Also called video teleconferencing, this technology is merely one aspect of an educational concept being implemented all over the world. Known as distance education, or distance learning,(1) it is the delivery of education or training, through a variety of means, to students separated from instructors and possibly from one another. For law enforcement agencies working with limited budgets, distance learning represents a cost-effective way to provide the training that their employees might not receive otherwise. Moreover, the technology that some programs use enables organizations to conduct long-distance meetings and seminars and tap a vast pool of expert resources.

This article explains the concept of distance education and features a number of agencies that have implemented successful distance education initiatives. It also presents guidelines that can help other law enforcement agencies start their own programs.


Technology has changed the way people accomplish tasks in every area of their lives, and education is no exception. At one time, correspondence courses provided the primary means for students to learn at a distance. Today, distance education can be as simple as a lecture prerecorded on an audio- or videotape or as complex as two-way, real-time audio- and video interaction using videoconferencing equipment. These techniques represent the limits of a broad spectrum that encompasses the two general categories of distance education: asynchronous and synchronous.(2)

Asynchronous Distance Education

Students who view lectures from prerecorded videotapes can do so from the comfort of their homes, with no interaction with the instructor or one another. This type of learning, which is known as asynchronous, does not require simultaneous participation.

Audio- and videotapes represent simple and affordable options for asynchronous education. More technologically advanced means include electronic mail and the Internet-based World Wide Web.

Because asynchronous methods involve no real-time interaction, they provide a flexible, convenient way of learning. Students who need the structure and personal interaction found in the traditional classroom, however, might prefer the interactivity provided by synchronous instruction.

Synchronous Distance Education

As its name implies, synchronous distance education requires the simultaneous participation of students and instructors. As such, it occurs in real time and, depending on the technology used, can provide two-way audio and video. Satellite training, for example, involves two-way audio but only one-way video. Specifically, students can see and hear the instructors but must ask questions or make comments using methods that, at the most, transmit their voices only. At the other end of the spectrum, certain types of videoconferencing allow participants both to see and hear one another.


Whichever delivery method they choose, law enforcement agencies around the country are using distance education. Administrators can use these examples to design similar programs or take advantage of the distance education courses the following organizations provide to members of the criminal justice community. …

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