Magazine article Technology & Learning

The Future of Distance Education

Magazine article Technology & Learning

The Future of Distance Education

Article excerpt

A recent television commercial by a major international communications company got me thinking about the future of distance education. Portrayed in the commercial is a futuristic classroom, but the only thing differentiating, it from the traditional American classroom is that there is no human teacher present. Students are still sitting at desks arranged in rows. No technology is visible other than the video monitor showing the head and shoulders of the teacher, who is presiding over the classroom from a remote location.


This is the wrong approach to distance learning. Restricting the future to the confines of the traditional classroom setting misuses the highly advanced technology featured in the commercial. By substituting the teacher-in-a-video-monitor for one who is present physically, without making any changes to the classroom organization or curriculum, the technology actually subtracts educational value.

How? Placing the teacher in a remote location so she can broadcast the lesson to many classrooms simultaneously prevents her from developing any depth of relationship with her students. And it places a serious constraint on the art of teaching. It's virtually impossible for the canned teacher to detect and take advantage of the teachable moment, or to perform the on-the-fly qualitative assessments of individual students so important to good teaching.

Confining distance education to the traditional classroom structure usually results in a narrowly defined, one-to-many broadcast model that focuses too much on delivering instruction and not enough on the intellectual engagement, participation, or progress of individual students.


The fundamental purpose of distance education should be to add educational value, not simply to achieve economies of scale. That requires a willingness to rethink the traditional classroom setting and a willingness to recreate the classroom curriculum. Here are examples.

* MayaQuest, a project described in this month's Newsline, allows students from across the United States to "participate" in a three-month, four-country bicycle trek to explore ancient Mayan civilization. …

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