Monday, November 12, 2007

The Joy of Distance Learning

When I attended the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in the mid-1990's, some of my AP classes were broadcast state-wide via some innovative (for the time) software. This set-up allowed kids at other high schools to see the same lectures and ask questions. Their own on-site teachers supervised labs. It wasn't perfect, but it did allow Indiana to spread around scarce resources (high school teachers who could teach advanced science well) to as many students as possible.

Ten years later, this concept still hasn't caught on as well at the high school -- or college -- level as it could have. So there's a certain genre of "gee, isn't this cool?" article that runs about these programs whenever they're launched. For one example, see this recent Baltimore Sun article called "Technology Goes the Distance for Students." These Maryland students now have the option of taking advanced math classes without going to community colleges, which is logistically easier for all involved.

Any lecture-style class can lend itself to this format. Since most 101-level classes at college fit this mold, too, it begs the question: Why not adopt distance learning for higher education more broadly? If you think about it, there's no real reason for multiple versions of Econ 101. One awesome lecturer, nationwide, could be recorded giving the basic lessons, perhaps with computer simulations that class members could do on their own PCs, all at the same time. Grad students or other faculty could lead short break-out sessions once a week to answer questions and go over homework. Of course, this would make it seem a little more odd that some universities charge much more than others. But it would probably raise the quality of most basic college level courses and create lots of efficiencies.

The distance learning model is much harder to make work for discussion-oriented classes (which would include good literature classes). Still, a few programs such as Stanford's EPGY, and Northwestern's Gifted LearningLinks, are starting to fill the void.

This is a long time in coming. The biggest problem for gifted learners is that they are so rare. In order to have enough highly gifted kids to form a class, you need a broad geographic reach for a school. This doesn't work well if kids need to go to one place to meet with certain teachers, unless you live in a big city. There are enough highly gifted children within New York City's 8 million residents to justify a high school like Stuyvesant. There probably aren't so many highly gifted kids in a rural area. With distance learning, these obstacles start to disappear.


Anonymous said...

Distance learning *sounds* good, but the reason it is still rare is that it often does not work very well. In classes with both in-class and distance learners, the in-class ones usually have better attendance and better grades than the distant ones.
(Sorry, no hard data on that---just anecdotal information from professors who have talked such mixed classes.)

Learning is often a social experience, and the isolation of distance learning is often not motivating.

The option of distance learning needs to exist, particularly for those who are too isolated or too young to travel to classes, but it is not the panacea that you seem to think.

Of course, teachers everywhere object to the notion that only one "super lecturer" is needed in the whole country, so are unwilling to support experiments designed to cause them to be fired.

Anonymous said...

There is something disconcerting about the idea of everyone getting the same lecture from one person. I don't think one person should have that much power over what our kids learn.

Also, people have different learning styles so we need a variety of educational approaches. One size doesn't fit all!

Anonymous said...

I know I've seen articles that indicate young children (and infants? I can't recall) learn far better from a human in the room than from a recording. IIRC, interaction improved over canned video but was better still if there was an adult present and doing the interaction. (I'm having trouble getting my search criteria narrow enough to turn up the articles I want. This article is close, but not the one I recall.)

Point is, if this is true for young children, perhaps there is also an effect later in life.

Though I have to agree that distance learning always sounds good to me too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, bad link...
try this

Anonymous said...

The technique of having a group of students watch a video of a lecture and stop every twenty minutes to discuss it works better than having the students watch the lecture in person. This suggests that gathering gifted students into small groups to provide the social interaction is a viable option to having them travel longer distances to attend large classes or schools for the gifted.

Gramatrick said...

This blog post comes at an interesting time, as I have a meeting with my child's elementary school principal later on today to discuss using a distance learning option (from Johns Hopkin's CTY program) as a substitute for classroom math. I'd like to try it and see if it works and I'm hoping the administration will sign off on it.

This is an all G/T class in a primarily G/T school (whatever that means), but even with enrichments, the teacher feels strongly that he needs more challenge than she can provide.

The other option on the table is acceleration to middle school for math (he's in the 4th grade). I am not convinced this is a good fit given his personality and the logistics involved (meaning he would miss science or recess, subjects he enjoys & looks forward to).

I'm not sure if this approach will be the solution to our particular challenge, but I think that distance classes of this sort may have something to offer the gifted learner. We shall see, won't we? I'm all for giving it a try.

Anonymous said...

Our experience is that a little distance learning at a time is about all we can take and I've heard many parents say the same thing. It can feel really isolating to spend so much time on a computer instead of in the presence of real people. It can be so frustrating to do work and wait days to get a response only then to wonder about the tone because you couldn't see the person.

Because teachers aren't getting feedback and distance learning students are more likely to drop out, it can lead to heaping on the busy work and of course that's a big enemy for most gifted kids.

Distance learning can also be a relatively cheap way for a school to stick a kid in the corner on a computer instead of giving them what they really need. I know our school system uses it as an excuse to deny grade skipping.

For some kids in some situations, distance learning can be a big help. But, I'm far from willing to consider it a great overall solution. Learning is a social experience and most of our kids need more positive social contact, not less.

Anonymous said...

Most universities like to see objective proof that an individual will succeed. If they are looking at schools in the United States it would make sense to have the child take the SAT. This will carry more weight than parental reports of test performance.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most comments. DL is a great option to have available but NO substitute for lectures, much less for group work.

It may be good manners, or just that I'm accustomed to use TV as background noise, but I pay much more attention to a live person.

Also, a good lecture is a performance act. How different it is for you to go to a live concert instead of just watching on TV ?

What I think we need more of is to allow the option of separating testing from teaching. Think CLEP, AP or industry certifications rather than NAEP. Having the ability to 'test out' of classes will increase flexibility a lot.