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Does Distance Education Measure Up to Traditional Schooling?

Does Distance Education Measure Up to Traditional Schooling?

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By Barry Shollenberger, Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Sports Management, American Public University

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed so many issues for the U.S. in 2020, none more challenging than those in the education sector. By dire necessity, schools and colleges were closed during the spring term, and many K-12 institutions resorted to some kind of distance learning to complete the school year.

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With sporadic medical improvements in reducing the spread of the deadly disease during the summer, many students and their parents have opted to continue learning online rather than going back to traditional classrooms. In essence, millions of additional students are now being home-schooled.

Forms of Learning at a Distance

Distance education, per se, is not new, but the circumstances that led to so many students following this online delivery system is without precedent. The earliest form of distance learning, correspondence courses, has been around for over a century with print-based lessons carried on through the U.S. mail system.

Assignments, examinations, and other class materials are exchanged via the mail according to weekly learning modules and a strict time schedule. There are still some course and program offerings by correspondence in 2020, but they are limited and most have been replaced with online learning.

Education traditionalists saw questionable value in this form of course delivery due to the unknown nature of who was completing the courses and the absence of proctored examinations. And the problem of plagiarism was self-evident.

There was also concern about the lack of interaction between students and instructors and among other students in the class. But supporters argued that students who completed course work by correspondence showed comparable student learning outcomes (SLOs) compared to traditional classroom students. Many studies over the years have confirmed this argument.

One of the earliest forms of distance learning were the courses taught on live TV on NYU’s Sunrise Semester. Tests and exams were mailed in to instructors and returned marked and graded. In other instances, tapes of lectures were sent to students located off campus. They were required to find appropriate proctors for the examinations. Though cumbersome, the system worked well enough.

A satellite uplink/downlink was able to similarly provide synchronous (real-time) learning for distance students. Another synchronous distance learning delivery system provided video conferencing among connecting locations within the same learning system. This technology was an early form of Zoom, which today features online real-time conferencing as part of the online learning platform. These alternative distance learning techniques became somewhat obsolete with the advent of the Internet and online learning.

Online Distance Education

Since their inception in the mid-1990s, online courses have multiplied exponentially as newer and better platforms have permitted most higher education institutions to offer courses and whole degree programs over the Internet. There are now institutions of higher learning, such as American Public University, that have no traditional students or classrooms. Even the most stubborn of detractors have to agree that distance education is here to stay, and more and more students will take advantage of the opportunity.

Detractors of distance education, however, argue that traditional classrooms provide social and interactive skills that online courses can never hope to replicate. They also see a disadvantage in that lifelong relationships are formed on college campuses whereas they may be rare in learning at a distance. Oral skills are a final challenge for online classes compared to traditional classrooms, according to a study at Purdue University.

What distance education can do is provide the college learning experience for thousands of far-off students such as active-duty military personnel who otherwise would not be able to undertake college coursework. In addition, most of these distance learners are adults who have little need for the brick-and-mortar, face-to-face classroom experiences.

Evaluation in Distance Courses

Evaluation and grading have to be the most challenging aspects of education at a distance. Several methods have been tried over the years to ensure validity, each of which having its pros and cons. Most testing mechanisms use an aspect of the honor system whereby students pledge that they have completed their work with no outside assistance. They may be required to sign a “Student Testing Agreement Form” agreeing to abide by their statement of honesty and accept the consequences if detected in any acts of dishonesty.

Online classes are characterized by using comprehensive rubrics (or scoring tools/charts) that list the criteria for a piece of classwork. They can be as simple as a checklist or as complicated as a detailed analysis of every component of a successful project along with accompanying point values.

Open-book exams allow students to answer questions utilizing the class learning materials. This method of testing works best with essay or short-answer questions, which force students to organize their thoughts into meaningful writings derived from what they have learned in class.

Proctored (face-to-face/synchronous) evaluation requires students to travel to testing sites approved by the institution. When this travel is not possible, other arrangements can be made to ensure that legitimate proctors are administering the testing materials in a timely fashion.

Individuals who may qualify as proctors include local high school administrators, education officers, teachers, counselors or librarians. The responsibility to identify appropriate proctors falls on the students with approval from their instructor.

Technology and Distance Education

In addition to testing, online courses offer the opportunity to add many innovative activities to measure SLOs. Ample use of other evaluation measures like research papers, class participation (usually from threaded discussions, discussion groups, or online forums) as well as collaborative learning techniques (group projects, case-work analyses, and portfolio development) make for a varied and comprehensive learning experience.

Instruction and evaluation in distance education courses should not try to replicate traditional classrooms. Rather, they should take advantage of the tools of technology and the advanced opportunities provided by 21st-century online platforms. It is also important that online students are evaluated in terms of both the process and product of learning.

As Pieter Toth, a veteran secondary school teacher, points out, SLOs only evaluate the product so the process must be scored in terms of how well and organized the online environment is presented to each student and received.

Improvements in distance education in the past 25 years are obvious and the speed at which offerings are growing is a testament to the hard work of instructors, administrators, and course designers who are constantly adding pedagogical innovations to make the platforms more educationally meaningful. As acceptance of online education grows, a whole new genre of learning is made available to students at a distance.

About the Author

Dr. Barry Shollenberger is an Associate Professor in the Sports Management program at American Public University. He holds a B.A. in General Studies from Moravian College, an M.A. in Education from Western Kentucky University, and an Ed.D. in Health, Physical Education and Recreation from The University of Alabama. Dr. Shollenberger was the Associate Director of Distance Education at The University of Alabama and designed numerous online courses at both Alabama and Virginia College, where he served as Senior Vice President and Provost and originator and Director of VC Online. He has taught at a distance at American Public University since 1997.

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