Woman wearing VR headset.

Can Distance Learning Replace Traditional Classes?

5th May 2020

Right now, it’s not just distance learning students who are embracing education from the comfort of their homes.

Coping with Covid-19 social distancing measures, millions of us are rapidly adapting to working, networking, training, and socialising from home.

And a deluge of eLearning content (of varying quality) has flooded our social streams – on topics as diverse as keeping fit from home, baking your own bread, viral vaccine efficacy and resetting the global economy.

As some sense of normality returns, companies whose remote teams have proven successful might choose to operate digitally on a permanent basis.

But could something similar happen with formal and informal learning, with distance learning replacing traditional classes permanently? Let’s find out.

Distance learning Styles

The type of distance learning you find most effective might depend on your learning style –reflective learners prefer to digest information quietly and in isolation, whereas active learners appreciate social interaction.

In a study by John Battalio published in the American Journal of Distance Education, students with various learning styles studied an online English technical communication course – half of participants completed a collaborative version, with the remainder using self-directed study.

Reflective learners proved the most successful group overall, with higher final exam grades and better interaction with the course management software. And perhaps unsurprisingly, those active learners with good final grades had studied in the collaborative group.

But if you’re not a reflective learner, it’s no barrier to distance learning success, because flexible course formats make it accessible. For instance, ARU Distance Learning’s Virtual Learning Environment Canvas incorporates a carefully blended approach aimed at maximising inclusivity and maintaining quality.

Online learning trends

Depending on the students, provider and purpose, online learning can be delivered in a mechanism as simple as a slide show with quiz questions or as high-spec as a video game or live lecture. And as mentioned, universities who want to offer a world-class distance learning provision will incorporate many different delivery types into a holistic program that attracts all types of students.

Some of the current online learning trends have evolved to suit different learning styles, but they also attempt to address some of the traditional criticisms of distance learning – specifically that it’s not as social, interactive, and fun as physical classroom learning. Let’s take a look:

Game-based learning has been used for generations – in the middle ages, chess was used to teach strategy to nobles and today elements of ‘learning through play’ are incorporated into early years education. This is different from gamification, where tokens or rewards are used to encourage students as they progress through modules or pass quizzes – in game-based learning there’s an inherent skill or insight involved in successfully playing a game that conveys critical information about a key piece of knowledge or learning. To find out more, take a look at Zachary Hartzman’s blog – he’s a teacher from New York who has created an entire game-based learning curriculum that utilised mediums like video games and comics.

Video-based learning has been widely adopted in the corporate sphere for some time. According to Forrester Research, employees are 75% more likely to watch a video than read textual information and implementing video can reduce training travel costs dramatically. But it’s also a powerful medium in formal distance learning education too, where, for instance, teachers can live stream lectures and post recordings on secure notice boards to that anyone who can’t attend at the time can easily catch up.

Flipped classroom might combine elements of distance and physical learning. This teaching method works through students actively participating in absorbing academic knowledge, rather than passively digesting a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ lecture. So in one version of flipped delivery, tutors might send students videos or eBooks to work through at home, with the aim of them subsequently setting up classmate research groups that meet physically.

Microlearning uses small chunks of learning to make it more digestible and flexible – this is driven by cognitive load theory, which proposes that we can often learn more effectively if topics are broken down into several smaller and simpler steps. 

Adaptive learning uses algorithms to optimize course content to align with a learner’s goals, existing level of knowledge and learning style. So instead of completing a course in a prescriptive, predetermined order, different students can progress via customised pathways and interfaces. 

As you can see, there are several different online learning styles, all of which can be combined in different ways in order to make distance learning as enjoyable, eclectic, and sociable an experience as possible.

Future of immersive online classrooms

The history of distance learning stretches back to the 1840s, when Sir Isaac Pitman taught his famous shorthand system by corresponding with students via the postal service.

And although the driving principles of inclusivity and accessibility remain the same, we can see that the delivery methods have grown increasingly sophisticated. 

But what’s next in the evolution of distance learning? For starters, the more widespread adoption of AR and VR technologies probably isn’t too far away and shipping out Virtual Reality headsets to distance learning students could become fairly standard.

One advantage of VR is that the learning environments students spend time in during courses could much more closely align with the particular module or subject – looking and feeling like anything from a traditional classroom with desks and chairs to a section of the Brazilian rainforest or even the surface of Mars. 

And that’s not all – tomorrow’s students can work walk through these alternative learning dimensions shoulder to shoulder with ultra-realistic avatars of their classmates and tutors from all around the world.

The verdict

So can distance learning really replace traditional classes?

Given the technological advances we’ve described, in many ways it can – and for some students it might already be preferable. 

For example, if you’re unable to physically attend your course and institution of choice in another country, a high-tech distance learning version could offer a superior experience and greater vocational value than a lower quality bricks and mortar course at home.

But on the other hand, there’s more to education than learning – the tactile physical interactions and ambient natural environments of a physical campus can probably never be faithfully reproduced for all five senses to the extent that they replace reality. Plus, cheering on a virtual university football team then celebrating victory with a virtual beer afterwards just wouldn’t feel the same!

As tech becomes ever more mind-blowing, distance learning will complement and enhance the physical classroom in endlessly innovative and inspirational ways.

But it’s unlikely to ever replace it completely – which is probably positive news for future generations of students.

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