Distance learning has been in existence for decades. The history of distance learning dates back to the 1720s when lessons were being sent via mail. In today’s world, with the increasing technological opportunities, there is a rapid growth and increased demand for distance learning in every corner of the world. Technological improvements help distance learning offer better educational opportunities. Although there are many definitions for distance learning, it can be described as a way of learning in which educators and learners are separated from each other regardless of time and place (Yousuf, 2007). Distance education can be efficient as much as conventional instruction. When technology is properly used for the educational purposes, there is a good relationship among students, effective feedback from teachers to learners (Moore & Thompson, 1990). Malik (2012) states that there are several reasons for increasing demand in distance learning like flexibility, costs, and convenience of distance education.
Learning Materials and Tools
There are variety of tools that can be used for communication that provide teachers and learners interaction with each other through educational session. Thanks to some software such as skype, instructors and learners have chance to face-to-face communicate with each other. “High-quality materials, suitable for distance learning are essential. These remarks apply equally to electronic and printed media” (Jones, 2007, p. 237). Quality of the materials has huge effects on the efficiency of learning in distance education. “The very nature of distance education discourse makes quality of the study materials as the touchstone of success and failure of any course being run in the institution. Learning material keeps the students in touch with the subject content” (Thapliyal, 2014, p. 63). Materials and tools used in distance learning are big concerns because these are the tolls which will be used by learners. Email, chat rooms, video conferencing, audio conferencing (Malik, 2012), electronic, and online discussion forums (Kupczynski et al., 2012) can be arrayed as examples of using materials in distance learning. These are the ways in which learners can interact with each other and their instructors during the course. There are also some types of software such as screen reading software and screen magnification software which facilitate the understanding of content of the subjects. This is because, there are not just young people who are interested in distance learning but also adults and others who have difficulty with reading. Additionally printed materials are used as a learning material (Malik, 2012). “A mix of printed and electronic media is good. The latter is not essential for effective distance learning, but it greatly helps” (Jones, 2007, p.238). With the advancement of technology, mobile learning started being a part of distance learning that provide students and teachers with quicker interaction opportunities with each other. “Mobile technology can also be used to increase interaction among students, faculty, facilitators, supporting staff, and distance education administrators” (Yousuf, 2007, p. 115).
Email is a way to communicate for learners and teachers. Via email, instructors may send the announcement of assignments to students. Also, when students have questions about subjects or anything else related to the topic, they can email their instructors to get responses. Other ways for communication such as chat rooms, video conferencing, and audio conferencing, we can consider these implements as a virtual classroom. By means of these tools, learners will be able to participate in their professors’ lecturers online and hear their course mates, ask their questions and concerns to them, and express themselves to them. Yousuf (2012) pointed out that “interactive audio or video conferencing can provide real time face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) interaction. This is also an excellent and cost-effective way to incorporate guest speakers and content experts. Computer conferencing or electronic mail can be used to send messages, assignment feedback, and other targeted communication to one or more class members. Pre-recorded video tapes can be used to present class lectures and visually oriented content” (p. 115). In addition to these tools, there are also electronic/online discussion forums which is one of the most common ways to send assignments and make comments to others. By using this technique, learners may have chances to improve their writing skills and improve the relationship with their course mates.
Opportunities and Advantages
When distance learning compared to traditional education, there is no need in distance learning to buy meal plans for lunch or to pay for transportation to be able to go to school as students have to do in traditional education. By means of a variety of payment options, learners can pay their tuition in variety of ways. In addition, learners can save their money because you can take their classes at home with their computers. They do not have to pay for transportation since there is no need to go anywhere to get the information they need. Tools used by students for the purpose of reaching the content of subjects or communicating with instructors are cheap. For example, one of the most popular technique is mobile technology. There are some devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers and these are utilized as learning tools because they are inexpensive. “One of the characteristics of mobile learning is that it uses devices which citizens are used to carrying everywhere with them, which they regard as friendly and personal devices, which are cheap and easy to use, which they use constantly in all walks of life and in a variety of different settings, except education” (Yousuf, 2007, p. 117).
Variety of Materials
Thanks to the internet, there is tremendous amount of information online that learners can reach at any time and from anywhere. Printed and online materials can be used in distance learning. One of the advantages of distance learning is being internet-based. As new information comes out, they can be updated immediately. So, learners always have the chance to reach updated knowledge. Also, different kind of printed materials can be used like textbooks, study guides, workbooks, and case studies (Yousuf, 2007, p. 115). “A mix of printed and electronic media is good” (Jones, 2007, p. 238).
One of the main advantages of distance learning is flexibility. Learners can start to learn whenever and wherever they want at their own pace. Yousuf (2007) asserts that “it allows students’ progress at their own pace. Thus varying rates of individual progression can be accommodated, unlike typical conventional educational practices where the whole class tends to progress at the same pace in synchronization with the delivery of information through mass lectures and tutorials” (p. 116). Contrary to traditional ways, there is no need to complete assignments for every day. In conventional education system, students are wanted to make their homework be ready for next day. On the other hand, in distance learning you have time to complete your assignments until its due date.
With the innovations in technology, amount and accessibility of knowledge increase constantly. Also, there is a set of helpful and useful software that may assist learners to learn easier and better. Technology is always developing by giving learners variety of opportunities for getting more quality distance education. As technology improves, devices such as cellphones, tablets, and computers will be also developed so that learners will have opportunities to better access to context of the lessons. In addition, tools used in distance learning like audio and video conferencing o voice mail, will be able to used easier and more effective (Hanover Research, 2013).
Learners can reach endless information at anytime from anywhere by smartphones, tablets, computers, or kindles as long as they have internet access. Learners have the chance to reach the content of the lessons at anytime and anywhere by smartphones, and tablets (Custer, 2014). In fact, advantages of distance learning are related to each other. Even learners are not home, they have chances to ask questions and get responses from their instructors. Also, there is no need to carry books in case of learners need to get information about their lessons. They can reach to content of the class any time thanks to variety of delivery systems in distance learning.
Challenges and Disadvantages
Format of content used in distance learning may not be ideal for every participants. There are not only young learners but also adult people who are interested in distance learning. So, they may not be familiar with the latest technology that they need to use to reach the information. Learners may encounter problems during learning process. Malik (2012) states that there are some sets in these techniques. In a virtual class instructors cannot accommodate as much learners as they can in a traditional class. Beside there is improvement in technology, new difficulties and problems can be added within this enhancement. Furthermore, because of the technology develop, there will be needs to train the instructors to learn how to use those kind of technologies.
The feedback system in distance learning has always been criticized due to its inefficiency on getting responses on time. Feedback is one of the key factor of distance learning. It is essential to understand how well students learn. Also, according to feedbacks, the way how to teach can be improved. “Any educational system must seek to improve itself. A crucial ingredient is feedback from students. Do not rely passively on feedback, but design a system, perhaps with some enticement, such as reduced fees on future courses” (Jones, 2007, p. 240).
Lack of face-to-face communication
Although there several communication tools in distance learning such as virtual classrooms, video conferencing, or electronic forums, these tools sometimes may not be effective as much as face-to-face contact. Some errors may occur during using online tools that may make learners miss important points of subject. There is no timely two-way communication because the lack of access to teachers. Although there are several ways to interact with instructors, there are not sufficient for two-way communication. Another challenges caused by lack of face-to-face contact told by Berge (2013) “For most students and teachers, anxiety levels are increased when they are involved in distance education, if for no other reason than the unfamiliarity of the delivery systems and changes in communication methods and patterns. It takes extra communication efforts, especially by the teacher, to reduce the students’ concerns that they are missing important information, assignment due dates, or generally misunderstanding expectations of the course” (p. 382). This demanding situation may sometimes affect students in negative ways.
Learners may have difficulty focusing on their study and making themselves ready to study due to its flexibility. They need be organized and concentrate on their study and have more discipline to be successful (Custer, 2014). In addition, sometimes there may be students participating to online courses from various time zones. So, they need be make themselves ready physically and mentally for the classes which may be at night according to their own time zones (Berge, 2013). It can be considered as a challenge for learners since it requires self-motivation for learning.
Distance learning becomes more common in every place of the world. “Technology-supported teaching and learning has helped in covering the physical distances between teachers and students, to enable the flexible delivery of education at a distance, anyplace and anytime” (Yousuf, 2007, p. 121).
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