Blended LearningOpen EducationOnline LearningHybrid LearningHyFlexCollaborationLearning Management SystemsInternetWWWComputer-Mediated CommunicationCooperationWeb 2.0Messaging ToolsWhiteboard ToolsSocial Networking ToolsVideo Communication ToolsOnline ContentAssistive Technology
Online learning offers students flexibility, connectedness, and choice in their educational path. Technology can connect people and resources anytime and anywhere around the world. The beauty of the fluid nature of the technologies allows the instructor to plan for a variety of learning opportunities.

There are many different types of distance education environments today. However, the most common are online learning courses administered in some type of learning management system. Given this, this chapter focuses predominantly on online learning.

Online Learning

Increasingly, learners are demanding any time and place educational opportunities. In fact, even before COVID-19, over 30% of students took at least one online course a year in the United States. Thus, institutions are responding by offering more courses and programs online.

Online learning offers students flexibility, connectedness, and choice in their educational path. The transition to a fully online environment is not a trivial matter. Faculty members must reconfigure their courses to consider the interface between the user and technology and between the content and those participating in the course. Students must get used to the fact that the environment in which they live, work, or sleep is now their classroom. They can spend many hours sitting in front of a computer or cell phone screen instead of interacting with others in person.

While distance learning now comes in many different forms, its history is rooted in the connection between instructor, learner, and content mediated by technology. Computers have been used in education for a variety of instructional activities. Advanced fiber optic systems, broadband, cellular data, etc., are bringing educational opportunities to those who would have previously traveled to attend classes. Technological advances have made it possible for institutions, organizations, and all types of educators to use online education in new and expanded ways like never before. Now, instead of thinking of learning spaces as confined within the four walls of a classroom, it is possible to use technology to connect people and resources anytime and anywhere around the world.

Hybrid (Blended) Learning Environments

At the same time, even before COVID-19, educators have tried to use online learning environments and communication technologies to offer local students hybrid or blended learning environments. For instance, it is possible today to arrange for some face-to-face types of sessions while part of, if not the bulk of, the instruction takes place online. The beauty of the fluid nature of the technologies allows the instructor to plan for a variety of learning opportunities for students.

The hybrid distance learning environment can be defined as any situation in which a variety of technologies are used to mediate portions of a course. For example, an instructor might meet for three weeks in a row in person with students and then turn the class over to an online venue for the rest of the semester. Or there might be optional face-to-face meetings for students monthly so that students can connect with the instructor or peers.

HyFlex Learning Environments

As mentioned earlier, the newer HyFlex (hybrid + flexibility) learning environment is a blend of multiple learning environments from which the students enrolled in the course can choose (Beatty, 2019). For example, the instructor can offer two or three equivalent ways in which the class content will be provided (in-person synchronous, online synchronous, online asynchronous), and the students will choose which method they prefer (either weekly or topically), allowing them to switch between the environments throughout the semester.

Teaching and Learning Online

Educators have discovered that the design and implementation of distance education require a reexamination of the teaching and learning process. Teaching online is a multifaceted process that can include access and investigation of information, interactive collaborative learning groups, email advising, worldwide guest speakers, and presentation of part or whole courses online. Unique opportunities and challenges emerge when teaching online because communication and learning/teaching differ from traditional classroom methods. Sometimes, the activities are so different that they require new communication techniques and new understandings of how people learn. Underlying online education’s use in education is Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) or what some now refer to as electronically mediated discourse.

Computer-Mediated Communication

Communication via the Internet has traditionally been labeled Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). CMC identifies all types of functions where computers facilitate and support human communication. CMC helps to break down location and time barriers. It can allow for interpersonal communication at a distance, enabling students to access information in a self-paced exploratory fashion, reinforce learning, and create environments for self-directed and collaborative learning.

CMC can be used anywhere an individual’s computer (or smartphone) is connected to the internet. Some of the advantages to using computer-based learning environments include:

Due to increased computer use, public internet access, and smartphone adoption and use, this type of activity has grown exponentially in the last twenty years, providing expanding learning opportunities for education.

Advantages and Limitations of Internet Use

As with any educational tool or setting, using the Internet has advantages and limitations. Benefits of Internet use in education include:

Limitations of internet use in education include:

Awareness of the advantages and limitations will assist teachers and instructional designers as they create their computer-mediated learning environments.

Collaborative/Cooperative Learning with the Internet

Using computers for online education has made it easier for students to study, problem-solve, and work in groups, with the computer used to facilitate the process. Collaborative/cooperative learning consists of small groups of students who investigate, research, discuss, present facts and opinions, and arrive at a consensus regarding a topic assigned by the instructor or agreed on by the group and the teacher. This can involve a wide range of cooperative activities requiring active peer involvement and participation using shared resources, resulting in a common experience. Given the massive, open-ended data found on the internet, rather than just selecting facts memorized from a traditional lecture, educators can require students to find and process information in a method not unlike the world awaiting them when they leave school. Information processing models such as Pathways to Knowledge (Pappas, 2000) and the Big Six (Eisenberg & Berkowitz, 1990) provide guidance for finding, using, and evaluating information. They can assist students in dealing with the plethora of information found on the internet. Students who learn to effectively process information, collaborate with others, and take responsibility for personal learning will acquire lifelong learning skills.

The role of the teacher in the collaborative/cooperative CMC learning environment (sometimes called the Community of Inquiry) is to facilitate the learners’ knowledge acquisition by assisting in developing learning exploration paths, asking reflective questions, and participating in learning negotiations. The teacher is also responsible for establishing a positive climate for collaboration through the introduction to the purpose, process, and goals of the group before students begin working together. Following the introduction, the teacher must step back and allow the groups to function. The amount of teacher intervention following the introduction will depend on the student's expertise; the more students can take responsibility for the learning process, the less the teacher needs to intervene.

The role of the student shifts from relatively passive listener, notetaker, observer to the position of explorer, contributor, discussant, problem-solver in individual or group work, from competitor to collaborator, and from learning independently to learning interdependently. This atmosphere can prepare students for the “real world,” where effective interdependence and consultation are expected and required for success.

The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) represented a significant advance in making information retrieval on the Internet quick and efficient. The ability to publish on the web opened doors and removed barriers to information dissemination. However, the WWW has evolved over the years from a static environment in which only a few people can create and share content to an environment where nearly anyone with an internet connection can publish, edit, share, and revise content online for anyone to see.

Learning Management Systems

During the 1990s, as the web grew, companies began creating online applications referred to as learning management systems (LMSs). Some of the first LMSs were FirstClass, WebCT, and Blackboard. There are hundreds of LMSs available today; common ones include Blackboard, Moodle, Desire to Learn, and Canvas. Even companies like Adobe or Articulate have developed their own LMSs as a way for customers to host eLearning created with their products (e.g., Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline). As helpful as LMSs can be, they can be expensive (e.g., even an open-source LMS requires hosting and support) and limited in the tools available for interaction and collaboration. They have also been criticized for restricting access to educational materials for only a given time for a limited number of people.

Web 2.0

During the mid-2000s, several technologies emerged that have been described as Web 2.0 technologies (to differentiate them from earlier forms of publishing on the Web). These new technologies (e.g., Blogs and Wikis, and even website creation tools like Wix and Weebly) began enabling people to create and share content easily. Educators turned to these technologies, especially early on, because they simplified the process of creating and sharing content with students from a distance. However, educators quickly realized students should also create and share content online. Thus, there began and continues today interest in using Web 2.0 technologies to deliver content for students at a distance and to get students to create content to share with the world.

Open Education

In many ways, web 2.0 and social networking technologies (discussed below) helped further democratize the web and increase the interest in open education. Educators began offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) using Web 2.0 and social networking technologies or learning management systems provided by companies such as Coursera and EdX.

Internet Tools for Interactivity

Online learning has been defined by its ability to enable students to interact with instructors, fellow students, and content. For most of its history, people differentiated online learning by how people interacted—that is, synchronously or asynchronously. Early online courses, as well as most online courses still to this day, relied heavily, if not exclusively, on text-based asynchronous communication such as email and discussion forums in LMS. As internet access improved, educators began using text-based synchronous communication (e.g., chat) and video-based synchronous communication (e.g., web conferencing applications). However, today, there are many different internet tools for interaction.

Messaging Tools

Early text-based chatting tools prompted LMS companies to offer some type of chat room in their applications to hold synchronous group chats. While nearly every LMS (and even many social networking tools) provides some type of chat room, the continual development of third-party instant messaging applications like Google Chat, WeChat, or even more recently, Slack has helped popularize this interaction between teachers and students.

Whiteboard Tools

Many LMSs and web conferencing applications offer some type of whiteboard tool where one can draw, type, or solve problems as they would on a whiteboard in a classroom. However, more recently, companies have developed offshoots of these tools like whiteboard.fi, Padlet, Lucidspark, or FigJam by Figma that enable learners to interact on a shared space or “board” either synchronously or asynchronously.

Social Networking Tools

Educators have also increasingly used social networking tools to get students to interact with each other, content, and/or the larger community. For instance, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn groups can enable students to interact and collaborate with each other and their larger communities of practice. Some educators, especially people promoting open education, even prefer to have students interact in public, with public communication tools, instead of behind the lock and key of an LMS.

Video Communication Tools

Text-based communication is often criticized for being too lean and filtering out visual cues. Distance educators today interact and collaborate with students using a variety of video-based, synchronous, and asynchronous communication tools. Synchronous video-based communication tools, like Zoom, Webex, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams, enable educators to meet in real-time, see each other via Webcams, and interact using text, audio, and video. However, less known are asynchronous video-based communication tools like Flipgrid and Voicethread that enable educators to communicate via a computer or phone by recording short videos and commenting on the videos of others.

Other Interaction Tools

And yet, there are still many interaction tools available, and more to come for educators. For instance, educators regularly use tools such as Google Docs and Google Sheets to co-create documents and presentations and tools like Hypothesis to socially and collaboratively annotate documents together.

These environments, platforms, and interaction tools provide opportunities for discussions free of preconceived notions about participants, as is often found in a face-to-face setting. However, they do need monitoring and usually active facilitation by the teacher to ensure the discussion remains appropriate to the task.

Creating Online Content

Due to the development of learning management systems and the rise of Web 2.0 technologies, teachers and students find themselves creating content for various online environments. The following are some rules of thumb to follow when creating online content:

Assistive Technology Elements

Online instructional materials should contain assistive technology or universal design for learning (UDL) properties so all users can access them. Common disabilities include visual, hearing, motor skills/physical, photosensitive, and cognitive, among others. Assistive technologies such as screen readers or speech recognition software can be used to help the user work around any issues or accommodate special needs. Therefore, to allow these technologies to work, you should consider including the following:

Additional Reading and Resources

Chapter Summary

This chapter addressed different distance education environments–specifically, topics such as learning management systems, web 2.0, and open education, as well as internet tools to use for interaction in the online classroom. Make sure the course is inclusive by using assistive technology or universal design for learning (UDL) practices. In the next chapter, you will learn more about distance education copyright.

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