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The present and future of distance learning

What's happening and what's next in distance learning?

If I had to choose an industry that might suffer some disruption in the coming years, I would point to education as the most obvious and most important.

Approximate reading time: 3m 54s

In a generation and a half, education has gone from being an expense that most families can manage, or that costs them little difficulty, to the stage where it costs an exorbitant amount that can easily put students and their parents into large and long-term loans. Instead of being an engine of upward mobility, as it has been for generations, education has become the main barrier between the rich and the rest of us. The cost of education is rising much faster than inflation and can be met mainly by those parents who started saving from the day their child came into the world. This model cannot continue on its current trajectory. The time has come when it must be broken. This largely applies to the IT field, whose representatives - programmers - are always partly self-taught and have to show their practical skills during a job interview, not certificates of course completion. 

Which universities have already embraced the idea of distance learning?

Several forward-looking universities have embraced this coming shift towards better self-learning and have started making it possible to earn credits and degrees through distance learning. Other universities, such as MIT and Stanford, have embraced the idea of running open online courses in which students can "attend" classes by watching recordings of the sessions, and sometimes even "attend" live. For some courses, this remote participation can even lead to earning credit. I believe that this model of distance learning, and its lower cost, will become the primary method of obtaining higher education in the next decade. Traditional 4-year in-person training will be seen as a luxury. Computer science will likely usher in this change because most of these disciplines do not require direct communication (unlike getting a music education, for example).

Web developers today also enjoy a wide assortment of online learning resources, which I will briefly review. There is no doubt that, at this point, any motivated student can obtain the learning equivalent of a 4-year degree in computer science. Likewise, those already working in the field can supplement their skills. The problem, however, lies in the fact that online courses are still in their early stages of development: the materials and the cognitive experience are far from the notion of ideal implementation. The accumulated experience is often insufficient, as courses do not provide enough to learners, in addition to offering limited opportunities to compensate for missing elements of face-to-face learning. This situation is gradually changing, thanks to so-called Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

Categories of distance learning

The currently available distance learning options are divided into 3 main categories: passive learning, active learning and blended learning, which usually includes more elements of passive learning than active learning. Each individual category brings different types of learning experiences.
In passive distance learning, the most commonly used tool is video recording: the instructor is recorded and the learner watches the material at a time and place convenient to them.

The passive category can be divided into 3 sub-categories:

  • University lectures (open courses).
  • One-off lectures on a specific topic.
  • Conference links. Most are free, but participation in others requires paying extremely high prices.

The early days of the educational revolution created mainly passive forms of distance learning, but gradually this model became less and less preferred. Students who purchase the courses prefer to have some form of interaction with their professors.

"Open" online courses

Among the most active options in terms of interaction are MOOCs. Leaders in this area are Coursera, Udacity and Lynda. Coursera mainly involves university professors, and the courses involve developing and grading homework assignments that, upon completion, lead to a certificate of participation in the respective course. Pre-registration is required to take the classes, which means you have to fit the course into your schedule somehow.

Udacity's courses, on the other hand, are of shorter duration and can be taken at any time. Joining this platform requires payment of a certain amount, but in return, students have options to interact with the tutors and receive a certificate of course completion. The course fees are usually not high.

To conclude, I will look at the blended category, which contains mainly passive elements but encourages reciprocal action. A good example is LiveLessons, made by the Pearson company. To work with these online courses, you need a certain set of tools, which are often open-source. With LiveLessons, the courses are a video file with a download option available on your personal computer. During the material, the instructor talks about the course topic while showing what is happening on his screen. This gives the learner the opportunity to repeat his actions quickly and easily. For these online courses, the use of two monitors is recommended. In this form of training, there are no options to interact with the instructor or the other students, so any problems that arise must be solved in the classic way: a Google search, StackOverflow, etc.

All these solutions, to a large extent, depend on the skills of the tutor; and here, perhaps, is the weak point of the system. In more cases, there is no way to know in advance whether the tutor is good enough, how useful the materials are and exactly what experience the student should have. Prospective students still have to rely on trial-and-error to find the right resource. But once distance learning becomes a mainstream educational method, this problem will be addressed and we will all benefit from the benefits that a quality and accessible education provides.

Moreover, distance education has sufficient tools and approaches to replace traditional education, such as the virtual classroom. Its use can completely eliminate the need for face-to-face communication between student and teacher. Distance learning also incorporates some of the basic pedagogical models: cognitive-behavioural, social constructivist and connectivist. Proper combination of all available elements and possibilities will surely lead to the formation of a new, successful educational model. 

Besides the MOOCs mentioned in the source, we can also mention Lynda.com. It is a private company developing activities in the field of online learning. Established in 1995 as a personal project, it started offering online courses in 2002. As of January 2014, there are 2400 courses available on Lynda's website in various educational fields: business, programming, design, photography, etc. The courses are delivered in the form of videos, and at the end of their training, students receive a certificate of successful completion of distance learning.

Source: http://www.drdobbs.com/tools/remote-learning-the-lay-of-the-land/240168860.