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Distance Education -- When Distance is an Issue

By Margarete Epstein

[This article was originally written for The Family Literacy Resource Notebook. Much of the information pertains to adult literacy practitioners and students as well.]

What is it?
Distance education occurs when distance and/or time prevents the learner and instructor from meeting together face to face. Distance learning is often characterized as independent study, though new technologies can provide considerable real time interaction and support. This support is desirable for many learners; without it some people may fail to learn.

Distance education has existed for a long time. Known as correspondence coursework, instructional materials are sent to the learner via mail. There are time lags when using conventional mail systems, but many people still rely on these avenues because they do not have the ability to take advantage of new technology. Distance education alternatives have steadily grown as the result of communication technology that has advanced rapidly over the past several decades. Distance education is not for everyone, but certain aspects of distance education can be useful for many.

Some materials and venues for providing distance learning opportunities are as follows:

Why use distance education?
Distance education is an alternative to conventional education. Often learners who choose distance learning do not have access to facilities that provide standard courses. Some dislike a school environment. Others have restricted hours that prevent on-site participation. Distance education allows them to continue their education without these constraints.

Distance education is not for everyone however. It often involves more learner dedication and initiative than traditional courses. Because many students feel isolated, continued participation is compromised. Timely instructor feedback is an often cited as one of the most important aspects of a successful course.

There are several other considerations for using distance education instructional alternatives whether you are a provider or a producer of them As with all good instruction, distance instruction needs to be well designed. Distance instruction needs to take the learner's needs into consideration. This can be especially difficult if the instruction is being provided to a widely varied audience. Designers of distance instruction need to be sensitive to the lack of normal cues provided in a regular classroom setting. These include visual and auditory signals continuously provided by learners such as, head nods, eye contact, and verbal asides that can indicate lack of student understanding. Finally, modern distance education often involves the use of technical systems such as computers and V-Tel systems. It is important that both instructors and students are given time to become accustomed to their use. In a perfect world, they would be fairly proficient at them before instruction begins, but learning the system can be a real education all its own (Cyrs, 1997).

What Distance Education Options are available to Family Literacy Providers?
Although distance education alternatives are becoming more prevalent, there is little in the way of distance education available specifically for family literacy. Two ways to begin to explore the area are using distance learning for on-going professional development and for parent education and parent/child involvement.

Though there are some Adult Education courses and programs available for those seeking credited instruction, these will not necessarily be tailored to the family literacy provider. If you discuss your family literacy emphasis, many instructors would be willing to assist you in tailoring the course to it. This would mean emailing or calling the instructor of the course, explaining your family literacy emphasis, and determining if the goals of the course can accommodate your focus. You can also do informal continuous professional development through organizations and Listservs dedicated to the topic of family literacy.

Distance components can be incorporated into your family literacy program for students as well. Some ideas are:

Though distance learning avenues may seem "unnecessary," it is important to realize that the push for lifelong learning and continuous learning is very strong because of the increasing amount and rate of change of information in our society today. It is likely that your students and certain that their children will be confronted with one or more of these types of instructional distance delivery. It would be advantageous for family members to become more accustomed to using these modes of learning together and enjoy exploring a variety of distance learning avenues.

Some Distance Education Jargon
Bulletin Boards (BBS): These may also be called discussion groups. They are on-line message centers usually with discussions devoted to a topic. You can read the various "threaded" messages (i.e., messages that are in direct response to another message will be in a subcategory to the original message) and respond to the message or send a new one of your own.

Chat: Interactive chat is the ability to communicate over the Internet in real time with other people.

Cyberspace: The "place" in which interaction, exploration, etc. occurs when on-line. (e.g., One "chats" in cyberspace). A term originally created by William Gibson in his book Neuromancer.

E-mail: Electronic transmission of mail through the Internet. Its advantages are that it transmits nearly immediately. The disadvantage is that you need access to a personal computer and an E-mail account.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions. This is a common addition to many web sites that allow the newcomer to quickly find out information about the topic, site, and customary way of interacting. It is advisable to look for and read the FAQ information before asking a lot of questions of others on the Listserv, bulletin board, etc.

Internet: A broad interconnection of computers and servers (computers specifically used to provide Internet services to other computers). The World Wide Web is commonly used interchangeably with the Internet. It is however actually a sub-set of the Internet. The Internet provides other functions such as FTP (file transfer protocol), E-mail, gopher, etc.

Listservs: Electronically distributed messages that are specific to a certain topic or organization. You subscribe to a Listserv via E-mail. Your subscription is OK'd by the Listserv. You receive messages from other people subscribed to the list and are able to send your own messages to the list.

Real-time (RT): This term is commonly used for chat or other synchronous interaction. Satellite: Satellites receive and send signals from one point to another. They provide high quality data and allow for many users of the programming. "Satellite technology has been a major influence on educational telecommunications and instructional programming, and will likely to be the next major technological step for education, as costs continue to decrease." ( Snail Mail: This term refers to regular postal service, which in comparison to E-mail is considerably slower.

Synchronous/Asynchronous: Synchronous refers to communication that occurs at the same time. Asynchronous is when communication is occurring at different times. (eg. E-mail is typically asynchronous and having a conversation with someone on the phone is synchronous.)

Teleconferencing (audioconferencing, videoconferencing): The use of tele- (distance) technologies to bring together two or more people for discussion about a topic. These can be enhanced with technology that allows for simultaneous work on papers or other computer-based applications.

URL: Uniform Resource Locator, also known as the web address of a site. It is the information that you put in the location or address box of your browser. (e.g., to get to the White House web site, use this URL

Web-based learning: Learning conducted with the use of the World Wide Web, an interconnection of servers and personal computers throughout the world. It uses a variety of text-based and multimedia resources such as video, audio, and pictures to display information about a topic.

Some resources for further information
Print based

More information on Distance Learning

Family Literacy Specific Sites

Just a few of the fun educational web-sites and directories for parents and their children.

Ohio Resource Center Network Literacy Information and Communication System Ohio Adult Basic and Literacy Education
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