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