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Do distance and location matter in e-learning?

By Lisa Neal / October 2007

TYPE: OPINION
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There are many differences between teaching online and in the classroom-including, as I wrote in a previous column, whether an instructor can see who is making eye contact, nodding in agreement, or sighing with frustration. Vital information like this has never been replicated in the virtual classroom. Physical distance between students and teachers clearly has an impact, but does it matter how far apart participants are in an online class?

In a recent article in Communications of the ACM ("Why Nearshore Means That Distance Matters"), authors Erran Carmel and Pamela Abbott write that "the ubiquitous nature of technology has led to an assumption that common interactions such as communication, coordination, and collaboration can be easily resolved over distance by technology and that physical location therefore becomes a non-issue." To see if this applies to e-learning, we must examine separately courses with and without peer and instructor interaction.

In the case of self-paced courses, location matters primarily as regards culture and language. Some companies localize courses so that language—including dialects—and references reflect specific regions. Apart from concerns of this type, the locations of the instructional designers and others involved in creating and distributing the course don't impact the students.

In the case of instructor-led online courses, location still matters for language and cultural issues, and also impacts instructor-student interaction and student collaboration. The only "show-stopper," when synchronous technologies are used in the virtual classroom, is time-zone incompatibility. Archived sessions "solve" the problem, but remove the interactive element. Videoconferencing, especially with Cisco's TelePresence product, has potential to increase the realism of a virtual classroom, but only if students are comfortable being on camera.

I certainly prefer to work with people at a distance after having met in person. I have taught many students online without ever meeting them and felt like I knew them quite well. However, I needed techniques to make them seem real to me, not just disembodied voices or creators of text. I liked to talk to them on the phone instead of just by email, and, when I did, I pulled up their profiles which included their picture—not the same as being in a room with them, but helpful for me. I'm sure other online instructors develop their own techniques for bridging distances with students.

Most online courses include some student collaboration, mediated through technology. Carnegie Mellon professor Sara Kiesler's research looked at the role of proximity for groups in these situations and found that "technology alone is often insufficient to recreate the same facilitating environment in distributed teams that is present in co-located settings." I agree, but have found students quickly become accustomed to working together using, for instance, discussion forums or IM for communication.

Language and culture, however, can be difficult because they can limit a student's ability to fully participate in a class. In my view, that is how location matters most. I taught a class (in person) a few years ago in Poland and was amazed by the differences between Polish and American students. Polish students tended not to make eye contact with me, and far preferred to ask me questions during breaks than during class. Both of these were a noticeable contrast to the American students I was accustomed to. I was told by someone who had taught in both countries that these are typical differences. In this case, I adjusted to them, but if these Polish students were in a class with students from other countries, their style of participation might put them at a disadvantage.

Do distance and location matter? Technology certainly transcends borders although time zones restrict some forms of interaction. But ultimately, students from different locations benefit from the varied perspectives possible in an online course that transcends borders.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  2. Want better courses?
  3. Just "DO IT"
  4. Five questions...
  5. Formative evaluation
  6. Senior service
  7. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  8. My life as a Wikipedian
  9. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  10. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  11. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  12. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  13. Not all the world's a stage
  14. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  15. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  16. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  17. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  18. Music lessons
  19. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  20. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  21. Advertising or education?
  22. "Spot Learning"
  23. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  24. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  25. Online learning and fun
  26. In search of simplicity
  27. eLearning and fun
  28. Everything in moderation
  29. The basics of e-learning
  30. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  31. The Value of Voice
  32. Predictions for 2006
  33. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  34. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  35. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  36. "Deep" thoughts
  37. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  38. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  39. Back to the future
  40. Serious games for serious topics
  41. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  42. Learner on the Orient Express
  43. Q&A
  44. Blended conferences
  45. Predictions for 2002
  46. Learning from e-learning
  47. Storytelling at a distance
  48. Q&A with Don Norman
  49. Talk to me
  50. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  51. Do it yourself
  52. Degrees by mail
  53. Predictions for 2004
  54. Predictions For 2003
  55. How to get students to show up and learn