Distance education and online learning are not the same thing (opinion)


At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, students, faculty, and administrators faced challenges as part of the urgent pivot to emergency distance learning. The pandemic and the resulting quarantines are unprecedented large-scale crises. In the spring of 2020, more than 4,000 American higher education institutions were forced to mobilize emergency distance learning for more than 20 million students. The massive shift of classes to a crisis-friendly form of remote learning has protected the health of our communities and preserved academic continuity for students. Faculty members and support staff have shown heroic creativity, commitment and courage to make it all happen.

Entering 2022, the Omicron variant has created an unprecedented increase in the number of infected individuals. Once again, many colleges and universities have chosen to start the term using distance learning to deal with this emergency. With the return of what was seen as a temporary measure to safeguard the health of students, faculty and staff, our organizations believe now is the time to have a nationwide conversation about some common misconceptions that have arisen.

Chief among them is the inaccurate use of terminology which has caused confusion among students, their families, professors, administrators, policy makers, members of the press, and the general public. In particular, people confuse “distance” learning with “online” learning. Quite simply, the difference between the two lies in planning and preparation:

  • Remote learning is an emergency measure used to ensure continuity of learning. It involves taking a course designed for the face-to-face classroom and quickly moving it to a distance learning modality (usually synchronous and delivered via web conferencing tools, such as Zoom). Generally, the goal is to attempt to replicate the classroom experience in person. Most professors have too little training, support, or time to effectively pivot their face-to-face course to what we would call high-quality online learning.
  • E-learning is a planned experience over weeks or months where the course has been deliberately designed for the online environment. The technology and accompanying tools have been carefully selected for educational purposes. Teachers receive professional development and support to succeed in this modality.

To distinguish between the two, we sometimes use the analogy of the lifeboat – the lifeboat is great if the ship is sinking, but the onboard experience cannot compare to that of a luxury cruise liner. .

Through emergency distance learning, what many students experience is not the high-quality online learning that has been developed and delivered by countless institutions over the past decades. This emergency teaching has also not been guided by the pedagogies and best practices supported by online learning research. For example, quality eLearning that is purposefully designed takes into account online presence and multiple forms of interaction, includes digitally accessible materials, and is well organized in an eLearning site to guide students through throughout their learning journey. For those unfamiliar with online learning, however, the distinction between quality online courses and emergency distance learning was, and still is, unclear.

Emergency distance learning is no match for the online learning that those of us who have long worked in the field strive to provide. At the National Council for Online Education, we believe that students deserve the best possible experience for their education – and institutional leaders must be committed to delivering high-quality, rigorous and engaging learning experiences, regardless of the modality. In fact, some accrediting agencies explicitly expect the quality to be the same for all modalities or even have additional, stricter requirements for online education.

High-quality online learning is the result of teachers trained and supported in online pedagogy, intentional instructional design, and a host of other important ingredients that we’ve been fine-tuning for over 25 years. This work has been guided over the years by research-based practices, online course and program design guidelines (such as the Quality Matters Rubric, OLC Quality Scorecards, and Characteristics of Excellence in online leadership from UPCEA) and tools designed to help teachers design quality courses.

As described in the book Every Learner Everywhere Optimizing High-Quality Digital Learning Experiences: A Handbook for Faculty, high-quality digital learning experiences “are well organized and thoughtfully designed. These experiences draw on instructional design principles and strategies to align learning outcomes with learning assignments, activities, and assessment practices… not only through strategic design, but also by integrating intentional opportunities for community building and interaction in the digital environment.

Research shows that, when delivered correctly, quality online classes are as effective as face-to-face classes and, in fact, often lead to greater student success. But while professors teaching distance learning courses are doing their best, they simply haven’t had the necessary development time. And the process of creating these courses and preparing instructors to teach them effectively takes time – a resource that the rush to respond to COVID-19 does not provide. At the start of the pandemic, 97% of US institutions reported assigning faculty members with no prior online teaching experience to distance learning courses. Additionally, many students have struggled to access the technology and internet connectivity needed to succeed, especially when separated from on-campus computer labs and other vital resources. The widespread stress of a global pandemic has only intensified these difficulties.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, before the pandemic, one in six post-secondary students was a fully online student who had already realized the flexibility the learning modality afforded them to navigate between full-time jobs, family obligations or other needs. . Then, during the pandemic, the flexibility offered by the use of online learning tools when transitioning to distance education has allowed a significant portion of post-secondary learners to learn without risk to themselves, their relatives or their communities.

We have all learned many lessons during the pandemic, including that students want – and need – the flexibility that online learning provides. Even when students returned to campus, many asked for continued online options, and not just for health reasons. They asked for flexibility in the modality, duration and scheduling of learning that best meets their educational needs. Many students have full-time jobs, are caregivers, and have been impacted by the pandemic in ways that will continue to influence and challenge them. We also learned the importance of preparation and found that institutions that had invested in building a quality online foundation before the pandemic – such as basic faculty training for online teaching, l student orientation for online learning and the necessary technology and institutional infrastructure – have reaped dividends for this work. Institutions lacking online experience struggled to respond to the pandemic because they lacked a core of faculty, instructional designers, and leaders to support the transition to remote emergency mode.

Rethink, adapt and evolve

For this and other reasons, the National Council for Online Education and institutions of higher education owe it to our learning communities to continue to advance high-quality, intentionally designed online learning through which Institutions can contribute to student outcomes in new and profound ways. By enabling our faculty members to teach even more skillfully online, we will make classes more engaging and learning more effective. By rethinking ad hoc and distance learning materials, we can offer students new online courses that both respect well-established quality frameworks and expand the opportunities that have made online learning a meaningful experience. for millions of learners.

We certainly don’t expect all courses to be online in the future, but institutions would do well to help all faculty take advantage of digital learning tools and best practices. We hear of more interest in integrating digital technologies as a complement to face-to-face courses, in blended courses or in new fully online courses. To best use these tools to serve students, institutions will need to rely on thoughtful technology selection, faculty development, instructional design, and the application of proven frameworks to best ensure quality online learning.

As colleges and universities offer more online options in response to student demands, they are also challenged to adequately portray the student experience and ensure quality learning for every course. Students should know what learning environment to expect for each, such as face-to-face or online time. They also need to know what technologies will be used, including how their instructor and institutional support services will help them. These communications with students are made more difficult when people confuse the terms “distance” and “online” learning. Therefore, we call on institutions, researchers and the press to be more thoughtful and precise with terminology when discussing or reviewing any given educational experience.

Finally, the pandemic has reinforced why online learning is so vital to the future of higher education: thanks to digital tools, students have been able to continue learning. Digital tools have enabled a new wave of students and educators to realize the benefits and opportunities of online learning. As leaders in online education, we are committed to using these lessons to continually adapt and evolve so that we can meet the needs of future students, while helping our communities through unpredictable future emergencies.


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