Distance Education and the Evolution of Online Learning in the United States

distance learning

Distance education and online learning have always been part of academia since the late 1990s. But the level of acceptance has increased with advancements in technology.

Besides, socio-cultural changes like the COVID pandemic have highlighted the importance of alternatives to traditional learning.

In this article, we will discuss distance education and the evolution of online learning in the United States.

Distance Education Before COVID-19

Distance education refers to a learning format whereby students and teachers are in different locations. The chief motivations behind this learning approach were health issues and restrictions by distance. 

Students living in Russia could hold correspondence with lecturers in North America via post. Similarly, scholars with travel-restricting health issues could also keep up with school work remotely.

However, this classic definition of distance learning began to change once the digital age took effect. With the coming of the internet, students could now communicate instantly with teachers to discuss the curriculum. For the first time, students and teachers could share files via email instead of postal services. 

As devices became more innovative and interactive, academic institutions started to invest in digital solutions to advance remote learning. According to Business Insider, investments in e-learning and education were valued at 18 billion USD in 2019. These figures are expected to increase ten-fold by 2025.

With the popularization of AI and machine learning, students can now acquire knowledge from sources beyond the school system. Khan Academy and Coursera are modern e-learning sites online education for students. 

Also, cloud technology now streamlines file transfer and storage. Google Classroom now offers virtual classroom solutions for interactive e-learning online education as well — this learning platform promotes student participation and personalized learning.

Despite the promise of e-learning school education, some institutions failed to embrace this concept fully. Even progressive institutions in the United States decided to switch to hybrid learning instead of outright online classes. 

How COVID-19 Transformed Distance Learning 

Most proponents of traditional classes claim that learning without physical contact is incomplete. Be that as it may, these online education detractors changed their collective minds in 2020.

The pandemic completely shook up the entirety of academia and humanity. As a result, contactless communication and transactions became the order of the day. 

To completely understand the scope of this unprecedented transformation, let’s focus on the impacts of COVID on different areas of academia.

Institutions 

Once the global lockdown took effect, institutions halted all learning processes momentarily. But as society started to adapt to COVID-related changes, academic institutions also opened up to various forms of online learning. 

Even the most hardcore supporters of in-class learning had to settle for hybrid learning with limited physical contact. 

But since most schools were unprepared for online learning, the adaptation process was far from smooth.  Medical institutions couldn’t cope with the absence of tools for e-learning in medical education. Effectively, augmented reality and AI-powered simulations have been implemented to replicate real-life scenarios, albeit in few schools and hospitals so far.

Student body

Students all over the world now have to study online. Classes, labs, and exams now take place remotely through video conferencing and virtual laboratories. 

According to UNESCO, the 2020 school closure affected 1.2 billion children worldwide. Although this shutdown turned out to be temporary, students in developing countries still struggle to return to school to this day.

On the bright side, students no longer have to worry about daily commutes to campuses. Besides, contemporary learning tools are excellent for e-learning creative education — which helps students to explore their creative potential.

Most importantly, learning has now become a personalized experience between teachers and individual students.

Educators and non-academic staff

Teachers now have to upgrade their technical skills to meet the basic requirements of e-learning in teacher education. Automated platforms now eliminate the stress of curating classroom tasks manually. For instance, the Google Classroom also comes with other Google-powered interactive tools and plug-ins to reduce stress: every teaching tool is in one place.

However, the reverse is the case for non-academic staff. Schools now have to downsize their staff pool to make room for ‘essential’ staff. Lab assistants and other related positions are now under threat from virtual assistants.

The Challenge of Meeting Students’ Educational Needs

Despite the glowing adulations for online education e-learning, the system still has several inadequacies. Most of these problems are financial, while the rest are administrative.

Here are the challenges to e-learning at the moment:

1.  Financial problems

Advanced tools for distance learning are expensive. As a result, students from disenfranchised communities struggle to stay on pace with their peers. To put it bluntly, a student without a laptop can’t study remotely. Data from OECD shows that only 35% of students in Indonesia have a working computer, compared to 95% in countries like Norway and Switzerland.

2. Special needs

The current implementation of virtual education is untenable in e-learning special education. Students with disabilities are completely left behind in the hastily implemented e-learning for special education. Hearing and visual aids for remote learning are yet to be implemented across the board.

3. Connectivity problems

Any student with a poor internet connection cannot participate in online classes. Also, they cannot use other online academic resources, which effectively keeps them out of the loop. 

4.  Lack of technical skills

Some educators lack the technical know-how to harness the power of distance learning tools. Since they cannot utilize these tools, they fail to impart knowledge effectively. Besides, students without advanced technical skills struggle with school work — which affects their overall academic performance.

5. Lack of physical interaction

From 2020 and beyond, the primary purpose of e-learning has been to limit physical contact. However, this presents a new problem for academia. Courses like biological sciences and engineering often require hands-on learning to perfect. But since students don’t have access to in-person classes, they forfeit this vital aspect of the learning experience. 

What does the future hold?

As it stands, the current e-learning trend will continue to gain steam globally. Institutions will embrace multiple learning options instead of forcing everybody to study on campus. But to implement these changes, schools must invest in advanced e-learning solutions. These online platforms and solutions should also cater to disenfranchised students regardless of location and technical ability.

Furthermore, technical skills will also become a prerequisite for becoming an educator. Teachers in academia will also need to undergo regular tech-based training to keep up with new learning solutions.

Ultimately, the tech industry will continue working on academic solutions to replicate the classroom experience as closely as possible. 

With the help of interactive, data-driven online education platforms, the entire school system can bounce back from this COVID debacle in full force.

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