K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 25/What is Distance Learning in a K-12 Environment?

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What is Distance Learning in a K-12 Environment?

Distance Learning is typically defined as a learning experience where the student and the instructor are separated by distance and/or time. Historically, the notion of distance learning has been around for some time. Over 100 years ago, distance learning was represented by correspondence courses where lessons were received, completed and sent through the mail. Later, radio and television were adapted for instructional purposes. Currently, online or virtual learning is the primary means of distance education. Recent reports show online learning is on the rise for all ages, including K-12 students. A 2001 study conducted by the Distance Learning Resource Network (DLRN), looked specifically at K-12 virtual schools and found the trend from ‘virtual high schools’ to ‘virtual K-12 schools’ one that continues to grow (Clark, 2001).

A more recent report (2007) by the Sloan Consortium shows the number of K-12 students enrolled in online courses to have risen significantly. The researchers surveyed more than 350 school districts representing 44 states. According to the report, approximately two-thirds of responding school districts offered some form of online courses, either fully online or blended. Fully online courses were more common, with 57.9% of the districts surveyed having one or more students enrolled, while a smaller percentage of districts - 32.4% of them - had at least one student enrolled in a blended course (Sloan Consortium, 2007, p. 9).

The Sloan study distinguished and defined three types of online courses:

Online — Course where most or all of the content is delivered online. Defined as at least 80% of seat time being replaced by online activity.

Blended/Hybrid — Course that blends online and face-to-face delivery. Substantial proportion (30 to 79%) of the content is delivered online.

Web-Facilitated — Course that uses web-based technology (1 to 29% of the content is delivered online) to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course. (Sloan Consortium, 2007, p. 4)

Benefits and Challenges for K-12 Distance Learning[edit]

Existing and emerging technologies offer many opportunities for distance education. Some of these opportunities include:

1. Students in rural K-12 schools are offered broader educational opportunities through online classes.

2. Students are given access to instructors and resources that may not be available locally.

3. High schools are able to offer Advanced Placement courses.

4. Online classes alleviate scheduling constraints.

5. Advanced students can supplement their learning beyond the classroom.

6. Students who have failed a course or require remedial review do not have to re-enroll in a classroom course.

7. Blended or hybrid courses give students (especially those who are more reserved in a classroom) a platform for engagement, expression and collaboration.

8. Students concurrently learn technological skills when they take an online or blended course.

9. Online learning communities can promote multicultural understanding and collaboration.

10. Students can communicate with experts ‘in the field.’

In addition, studies seem to show little difference between students’ learning outcomes in a classroom vs. an online environment, although this is an area requiring further study. A major study by Cavanaugh, Gillan, Kromey, Hess, & Blomeyer in 2004 presented a meta-analysis of fourteen studies focusing specifically on student outcomes. Their conclusion was:

Students can experience similar levels of academic success while learning using telecommunications and learning in classroom settings. While distance learning as it is practiced in today’s virtual schools uses technology that is less than ten years old and advances rapidly, the literature has shown that a student’s education online can be as effective as it is in a classroom (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 21-22).

The authors also state:

For literature on K–12 distance education to be meaningfully synthesized, the inclusion criteria had to be narrowly specified. This synthesis included studies with data on the performance of grades 3–12 students in web-based distance learning programs compared to students in classrooms. Measures of performance present in the literature do not draw a complete picture of the full range of effects that students experience as a result of participation in distance education. Qualitative studies, strict experimental studies, narrative reports, and other designs offer information not acquired in this analysis. Although the inclusion criteria were designed to allow a wide range of studies to be analyzed so that a comprehensive knowledge of K–12 distance education would result, a small number of studies was analyzed. The results should be interpreted with caution (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 13).

Technology, despite its potential, can certainly be used improperly used or not used adequately. Learning is not promoted by the addition of technology; learning results from sound pedagogical practices which effectively incorporate technology.

Current literature seems to be in agreement as to the challenges and issues pertaining to distance learning. Course quality, technology requirements/costs, and teacher training are universal concerns. Also, an online learning environment may not be successful for all types of learners. Certain students may feel isolated or lack the necessary discipline. Concerns have been raised about the online environment impeding children’s social development and skills. Children who have language difficulties may struggle with a text-heavy online environment. Highly technical or complex subjects may be especially challenging for an online curriculum.

Creating Successful K-12 Distance Learning Environments[edit]

Constructivist learning theory tells us that meaningful learning is achieved when learners are actively engaged in authentic tasks, constructing and articulating their own knowledge, and reflecting on their activities and accomplishments. When students participate in realistic, meaningful tasks, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are promoted. Instructional design models apply this pedagogy to online learning tools, modules, and lessons.

Janicki & Liegle (2001) have synthesized the work of a range of instructional design experts to develop a list of 10 concepts they believe support effective design of web-based instruction. These are:

· instructors acting as facilitators;

· use of a variety of presentation styles;

· multiple exercises;

· hands-on problems;

· learner control of pacing;

· frequent testing;

· clear feedback;

· consistent layout;

· clear navigation;

· available help screens.

Adult online learners typically possess the discipline and self-direction required from an online learning environment, whereas, children are still learning these skills. Therefore, virtual K-12 teachers need to skillfully help students not only learn the subject at hand, but they must teach students to “learn how to learn” in the online environment. This requires a careful, scaffolded course design with consistent supervision and reinforcement.

Research has found that older children have more internal locus of control than younger children, reinforcing the need for careful design and teaching of distance education at K–12 levels. Younger students will need more supervision, fewer and simpler instructions, and a more extensive reinforcement system than older students. Effective online programs for young learners include frequent teacher contact with students and parents, lessons divided into short segments, mastery sequences so student progress can grow in stages, and rewards for learning such as multimedia praise and printable stickers or certificates. (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 7).

Neo-Piagetian theorists such as Vygotsky proposed that historical and cultural context play significant roles in helping people think, communicate, and solve problems, proposing that cognitive development is strongly linked to input from others. Vygotsky’s theory implies that cognitive development and the ability to use thought to control our own actions require first mastering cultural communication systems and then learning to use these systems to regulate our own thought process. Online learning communities can provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences possible (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 7-8). Through distance learning, students may have exposure to and share with people of other cultures and perspectives.

Online learning environments, when designed to fully use the many tools of communication that are available, is often a more active, constructive, and cooperative experience than classroom learning. In addition, technologies that are easily employed in online environments, such as mind mapping tools and simulations, are effective means for helping students make meaning of abstract phenomena and strengthen their meta-cognitive abilities (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992).


Cavanaugh, C.S., Gillan, K.J., Kromrey, J., Hess, M., & Blomeyer, R. (2004). The effects of distance education on K–12 student outcomes: A meta-analysis. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.

Clark, T. (2001). Virtual schools: Trends and issues (A study of virtual schools in the United States). Retrieved December 1, 2008 from http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/virtualschools.pdf

Duffy, T., & Jonassen, D. (Eds.). (1992). Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction: A Conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publisher.

Janicki, T., Liegle, J.O. (2001). Development and Evaluation of a Framework for Creating Web-based Learning Modules: A Pedagogical and Systems Perspective. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 5, Issue 1 - May 2001. p.5

Picciano, A., Seaman, J., The Sloan Consortium. (2007). K–12 ONLINE LEARNING: A SURVEY OF U.S. SCHOOL DISTRICT ADMINISTRATORS.