Distance learning has come a long way since the first correspondence courses in the 1700’s. There has been a change through time from correspondence courses to the use of films and slides in the early 1900’s. Next were the use of television, audio tapes, VCR’s, and later CD’s and DVD’s on computers and then the use of the internet. These changes indicate that distance learning is always in a state of evolution. Availability of courses online via the internet has caused a huge increase in the number of students participating in distance learning rather than learning in traditional bricks and mortar schools.
Courses offered online in the 1990’s consisted mostly of in class lectures placed into the online environment. This meant that even if videos were used, it was just the video of the instructor giving the lecture. In most cases no demonstrations were given to help facilitate the learning of the content. They therefore were not really any more interesting nor did they make it easier to learn the information than the correspondence courses that sent out the course lectures and notes on audio tapes and/or printed pages in the mail. One of the problems with these methods was that there was no opportunity to interact with the instructor or with the other students.
However, in the 21st century, distance learning has evolved into a much more interesting and productive method for teaching students. Today courses make use of videos in many ways to present content to learners. Videos of lectures are only one of the ways they are used. Sometimes step by step videos teach how to complete a procedure in a cooking class or in a medical procedure. Sometimes they show the difference between an unsuccessful result and a successful one in a sales presentation or a photography course. In addition to PowerPoint, other tools are used in courses such as multimedia, podcasts, interactive videos, games, and virtual worlds such as Second Life. These tools create interesting content for learners and present it in ways that are more conducive to learning. The instructor can choose the method that best helps the student to learn the concept or knowledge being taught.
As well as these tools for presenting content, there is more variety in the tools that are available to interact with classmates and the instructor. There is still e-mail, chat, and discussion forums that are most often used, but others such as collaborative tools, including internet telephone services, audio conferencing, and document sharing are now widely used for students working in groups. Being connected to everyone else in the class is important for peer learning. So these new ways of being able to communicate can be very helpful to increase learning and motivation in a course.
One of the newest methods for learning is mobile learning. Already applications exist to assist people to use their phones, iPods, and tablets to learn while they are on the go. I am sure that the number of people wanting to use this method of learning will continue to grow as more applications are developed for these devices.
I am not able to foresee what new developments will occur in distance learning but I am sure that it will continue to evolve so that more and more people will have access to learning in a flexible form so that they can learn what they need when they need it.