Why Distributed Learning is Gaining Popularity, both Online and Face-to-Face

Mar 16th, 2009
Avi Luxenburg, School District No. 71 (Comox Valley) (sd71.bc.ca)


Why are so many people, young and old, turning to distributed learning online and off? Why have schools like North Island College (NIC) and North Island Distance Education School (NIDES) expanded their online course offerings? Are online courses as good as face-to-face instruction? Why all the fuss?
In almost two decades of teaching I have worked with students from grades two to 12 in many academic subject areas, as well as focusing on film production, media, information technology, and especially, integrating technology into all subject areas. I have always enjoyed interacting with young people and ended up specializing in the middle years. I loved being in the classroom, so why am I “teaching” online?
As a classroom teacher, I found that no matter how dynamic I tried to make lessons, I could not reach all students. Invariably, the lessons moved along at a perfect pace for about a third of the students, while leaving another third of the students, who simply did not learn the way I was teaching, in a lost and frustrated paralysis. The other students would simply be bored because they were “getting it” far faster than I was going.
In experimenting with different approaches that would reach all students at all levels, I stumbled upon the power of “distributed learning” in the classroom. Like others before me, I found a way to choreograph an educational environment in which students learn at their own pace and in their own way. This was challenging, as it meant that I had to develop tutorials rather than lessons, I had to trust students to “find” their own best way to learn, and I had to confer with students about how they learned rather than teach them. The results were magnificent.
Because students had more autonomy in the way they used their time and the pace in which they learned, I found that students who would not otherwise be engaged were generating exceptional work and were happy to be in school. As a result, my lunchtimes were spent in my classroom so that students could continue their work.
Since I had computers in my room, I could help students find resources that matched their own learning styles, whether they be simulations, online manipulative tools, stories, or videos. In providing students with dynamic options for demonstrating their learning, whether a digital concept map, or a slide-show, or a radio broadcast, I found that students went above and beyond my expectations.
Schools like Arden Elementary and Lake Trail are moving more and more toward a philosophy called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is being spearheaded in the district by district special needs teacher, Karen West.
Ms. West describes Universal Design for Learning as… “a framework that teachers use to create lessons that reach the diverse learning needs of all the students in their classrooms. A universally designed lesson is one that incorporates technology, and chances for the students to have multiple means of representation (how they are taught material), multiple means of expression (how they show their learning) and multiple means of engagement (how they are kept interested). Teachers at both Arden Elementary and Lake Trail Secondary have been creating incredible UDL lessons this year; using them with their classes, and then posting them on the B.C.U.D.L website (http://setbc.org/bcudl/) so that other teachers around the world can use them.”
Distributed Learning has many faces, and learners of all ages are attracted to it for various reasons. Online distributed learning offers additional benefits. NIDES Parent Advisory Co-Chair, Colleen Clark, in discussing why she prefers to have her elementary age children engaged in online distributed learning, said that it “allows my kids to learn at their own pace, on their own schedule and to follow their passions.”
Whether adults are selecting NIC programme options through ED2GO courses in Word, Excel, Time Management, and much more, or a NIDES Digital Photography course, these learners are seeking flexibility. They want to be able to work whenever they want, in their pajamas if they wish, and wherever they want.
I recently spoke to an adult learner who is enrolled in a NIDES online German course using award winning language acquisition software, Rosetta Stone.
“I honestly did not think that an online German course would be as effective as learning in a classroom but I needed something that allowed me to fit learning into my schedule. I selected the NIDES course because it gave me access to Rosetta Stone, something I have wanted to try and that normally costs hundreds of dollars. I was surprised by how robust and satisfying the online experience was.”
Ben Gawley is a grade 10 student who chose distributed learning so that he has more time for his writing. He is currently taking an Orientation to Online Learning course at NIDES as a change from his focus on academic work.
"It's a break from typical academics because the programs you learn about are creative and compelling. I've had a chance to design my dream home on Google SketchUp, do multi-track recordings and explore learning-style assessment tools."
The course Ben is taking is also an example of the direction that many online courses are taking, using video and interactivity to add engagement and dynamism. Ben commented on this: "In addition to quick lessons infused with humour… the video tutorials give an appealing angle on the information presented."
Although online learning has several benefits, few, if any, online courses can provide for the needs of every learner. Although many online courses do offer interactivity through online conferencing and discussions, some students wish to augment their interactions with face-to-face activities. Sometimes a student just needs to talk to somebody face-to-face.
There are several programmes that are moving toward a more blended approach, a mix of online and face-to-face interactions, thus providing a variety of contact and opportunities. Lake Trail School is breaking new ground by having all grade 10 students engage in a distributed learning course. Teacher, Heather Riedle, is on site and is working with teachers and students in a “blended model” of learning, in which students experience the best of both worlds, distributed learning and regular face-to-face support. Lake Trail administration and staff are creatively removing the “walls” of scheduling limitations from their school. They are exemplifying the intent which teachers in our district are passionate about: providing for the needs of their students above all else.
Online courses can vary in cost. NIC courses offered through ED2GO are very affordable at about $150 per six-week course, and provide a rich variety of offerings. New funding policies allow NIDES to offer two and four credit secondary courses at no cost. This has several adults who wish to use Rosetta Stone to prepare for upcoming trips very excited, for although they are enrolled in a NIDES credit course, language teachers like Susan Carr-Hilton provide flexibility in how each student learns and is evaluated.
Although online learning offers many benefits in providing for the needs of many, I think that some face-to-face interaction can be beneficial for both learner and teacher. A mix of online community building, activities, and face-to-face interaction can create a perfect blend for most learners. Online and blended distributed learning is attracting more and more educators and students of all ages. This growing popularity is certainly justified, as the offer of flexible pace and diverse learning options can be irresistible.