The Use of Technology in Distance Learning

Subject: Tech & Engineering
Pages: 10
Words: 2949
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: PhD

Introduction

The shift from traditional teaching methodologies to online learning requires integrating distance learning technologies that deliver teaching materials and learning to students enrolled in such programs. In this case, course content and educational materials are delivered through web-based applications over the internet, offering greater flexibility and convenience. However, the impersonal nature, coupled with perceived deficiencies in instructor-student interactions and communication, threaten the educational quality and value of this type of teaching. Today’s enormous student enrollment in online learning raises a need to examine their perceptions of excellence in teaching practices in higher education and whether higher education has lost its human form and quality of learning.

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Research Problem

More students are enrolling in distance learning than traditional learning. According to Allen and Seaman (2010), there are over ten-fold increases in online student enrollments than the conventional education system. The development of digital technologies, home internet services, and the complexities of work structures and familial duties have been attributed to this huge number of enrollments (Fidalgo et al., 2020). This evaluation is motivated by the fact that students are the direct receivers of distance education. Assessing how online learning intersects with their learning needs will help develop excellence in teaching practices online. The scope of this study focuses on teaching practices, usage of technology in distance learning, assessment and integrity, and the students’ online environment in general.

Literature Review

Teaching Practices in Distance Learning

A review of existing literature shows mixed student perceptions on teaching methodologies adopted by distance learning. While some students perceive online education to be satisfactory, others denote mixed perceptions, while others denote negative perceptions (Gok, 2015). The positive satisfaction in online education programs arises from perceptions of more involvement in class discussions and more instructional materials that respond to students’ individual needs and positive learner-teacher interaction. It also depends on the availability of more study time and online lecture resources than in traditional classes, and the availability of varying instructional design and delivery approaches that allow students to learn (Kintu & Wanami, 2019). While underpinning the active learning associated with traditional face-to-face communication, these teaching practices have allowed the creation of excellence in online classes. This reality perhaps underscores the 69% preference for distance learning versus a 31% preference for traditional learning (Hannay & Newvine’s, 2006). The positive perceptions of distance learning are also underscored by Fedynich et al. (2015), showing stronger distance learning associations with students’ ample time for interaction and discussion. The presence of these teaching methodologies in distance learning has bolstered positive perceptions of online education.

Unlike studies that demonstrated positive student satisfaction with distance education, studies that showed mixed perceptions of online learning arose from the teaching methodology’s ability to satisfy some aspects of the students’ educational needs while failing to deliver on the other learning requirements. Some of the pedagogical areas where students perceived excellence in online education were the availability of adequate course materials and online resources for learning, the availability of concise instructions on materials assignments and assessments, accessibility of course instructors for interactions, and the availability and accessibility of course support materials (Kintu & Wanami, 2019). However, the student participants also voiced negative perceptions of online teaching practices, especially on the lack of organizational structures in some online instructions, particularly on presentation methods and content delivery. Some faculty members also missed some online instructions, reinforcing the need for instructor-student engagements and interactions in realizing excellent teaching practices.

Apart from the positive and mixed perceptions of online education, some studies denote entirely negative perceptions of distance education’s teaching methodology. A survey by Gok (2015) found out that students generally perceived online education as inadequate in meeting the interaction and communication aspects of learning. Ideally, communication and interaction are crucial elements in the achievement of active learning. While this challenge has been noted elsewhere, excellence in teaching practices is underscored by teachers’ and students’ abilities to communicate and interact through collaborative approaches, facilitating knowledge transfers and diffusions within the class and outside the class environment (Armstrong, 2011). Besides, teacher-student interactions and communications are required in the attainment of quality education. Since this element’s absence has been noted in some online learning methods (Gok, 2015), the perceived quality and value of higher education offered under such teaching methodologies could be perceived as compromised. Nonetheless, these perceptions show that students’ responses are a continuum of positive, mixed, and negative reactions that can be tapped to evaluate teaching practices.

Evaluating Teaching Practices

In testing students’ perceptions of teaching practices online, the following questions will help in the assessment.

  • Does distance learning offer enough time for learning?
  • Are the course materials and online support materials in distance learning useful and adequate for learning?
  • Are the course materials in distance learning organized to meet the learner’s needs for success?
  • Are the course materials, presentations, videos, and other support resources in distance learning understandable?
  • What is the level of difficulty of course content in distance learning?
  • Are distance learning courses motivational to the students?
  • Are course instructors in distance learning available and accessible to students for interaction?
  • Does the course design in distance learning encourage peer support and communication?
  • Are the course instructors in distance learning friendly and approachable?
  • Do the chosen methods for content delivery and presentation in distance learning appropriate for learning?
  • Can the student enrolled in a distance learning program recommend that program to others?

Advantages and Disadvantages of Distance Learning

Advantages

Available sources indicate that students associate distance education with many advantages. The flexibility and self-control within the learning environment is the most typical reason for selecting distance learning (Fidalgo et al., 2020). Some researchers found that most students who chose distance education had other commitments that limited them from enrolling in traditional classes. These commitments ranged from work performances to familial issues, with attributes such as shift work, long hours at work, constant work travels, and childcare (Hannay & Newvine, 2006). The flexibility in time and space is mostly attributed to asynchronous teaching methods where students can access course content and materials through the internet any time they wished (Fidalgo et al., 2020). Besides, the lack of teacher control and online learning supervision meant that students could undertake self-paced studies, though this attribute appears ambivalent in distance learning. Apart from the convenience offered by distance education, students also perceived this learning to be encouraging thoughtfulness through discussion boards, allowing them to reflect upon peer reflections (Fedynich et al., 2015). Distance learning was also positively perceived as responsive to students’ technology demands, coupled with the course designs and readily accessible and adequate course materials and online support resources.

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Disadvantages

The most significant disadvantage of online learning arises from students and instructors’ separation through space and time. The literature reviewed shows that the lack of face to face contact and communication with instructors and peers was mostly responsible for the negative perceptions of online learning. Arguably, in some distance instruction, faculty were “missing” or not easily accessible to students (Armstrong, 2011), reinforcing the lack of social presence, social interaction, and communication pervasive in the online environment. Given the role of social presence in building student cognitive and metacognitive processes, the lack of these crucial elements in distance learning, unlike traditional classes, could be responsible for the extensively negative perception of distance learning in Gok’s (2015) survey. Students also perceived inadequate organization, presentation, and delivery of course content and the technical challenges of distance technology as some of the drawbacks to distance education. Some students perceived technology to be hindering their quest for knowledge and content in distance learning than in traditional learning.

However, significant dissatisfaction with distance education emanated from the course assessments, assignments, and task performances. Most of the negative perceptions arose from the delays in feedback on assignments and examinations (Kintu & Wanami, 2019). Since feedback is vital in student assessment of their learning outcomes, the lack of timely delivery of tests and quizzes means that students cannot identify learning areas that need improvement, affecting their self-awareness and learning enthusiasm. Eventually, if feedback becomes an issue, students may perceive the course as inadequate and of low quality, occasioning drop-out or enrolment to the more “personal” traditional face to face learning.

Usage of Technology in Distance Learning

The separation of students and instructors in space and time in distance learning requires technological adoptions to facilitate communication and interaction. The mediation role of technology mainly distinguishes traditional face to face learning from distance educations. While technology usage has also been highlighted in conventional classes, their use was restricted to on-campus teaching to support content delivery. Hannay and Newvine (2006) contend that technology materials like audio recordings, radio, and television broadcasts were employed in large lecture halls to complement traditional teaching. However, in distance learning, the teaching process mostly occurs off-campus, necessitating technology hardware, software, and the internet.

Digital devices like computers and mobile gadgets can be used to access and retrieve teaching content and instructions at any time because of the flexibility of the online course. Nonetheless, course content, instructions, and other learning materials are usually available to the learner in web-based applications, necessitating internet connection using Wi-Fi or broadband connections. Given the heterogeneity in student access to and retrieval of the course materials and other supportive resources online, the chosen technological tools for student engagement should be inclusive in ways that integrate student utility efficiencies and access for better satisfaction with distance education (Fedynich et al., 2015). Therefore, instructors and institutions should deploy efficient and effective distance technologies in all student learning spheres in distance education.

Previous research on students’ perceptions of technology usage in distance learning is mostly favorable, except for some distance technologies’ perceived technicalities. Most of the studies found that students were comfortable with distant learning technologies (Fedynich et al., 2015). A literature review of the selected texts showed that distance learning occurred via web-based applications using computers. Since prior computer literacy is needed for effective and efficient learning outcomes, it is apparent that the positive perceptions of technology in distance education emanated from the students’ ability to use and maneuver the web-based applications to access and retrieve the course content and other supportive materials. It is generally understood that most college students are Generation Z (millennials), whose savvy digital skills and computer utilities could account for the high enrolments witnessed in distance learning.

Despite the high association of technology utility among college students, other researchers felt that the technicalities occasioning distance technologies contribute to the negative perceptions of distance learning. A study conducted by Gok (2015) on 66 students enrolled in a Turkish vocational college found that majority of the students negatively perceived distance education because of the technicalities (web-page access, connection, and navigation for information retrieval). The demographic characteristics of Gok’s (2015) study group fit the description for millennials, and the technical challenges they encountered in distance learning deviates from the technological savviness attributed to generation Z.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Technology

Advantages

Technology moderates for the face to face communication and interaction available in traditional learning. Unlike classroom learning, where social presence, social interaction, and active learning occur physically, in the distance, technology and the internet have facilitated instructor-student engagement and peer-to-peer collaboration and support (Fidalgo et al., 2020). This technological attribute has a similar capability as the classroom, allowing for collaborations that underpin active learning for effective learning outcomes. Technology has also been shown to bolster the learner’s deep thought processes and reflection through written communication and discussion boards and improved access competencies to additional course materials that bolster learning competencies. Besides, technology has been associated with greater peer support through online communication and discussion boards, which could perhaps explain the high preference for distance education and positive perceptions among distance learning students.

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Disadvantages

The biggest drawback of technology usage is its perceived technicality. Gok (2015) found that students negatively perceived online education because of the challenges inherent in accessing and navigating the web-based applications for course content and materials and undertaking the assessments and examinations. Distance learning access technicalities require prior exposure to hardware (computers and mobile gadgets) and adequate training in internet access and utility and navigation through web-based applications (Sahin & Shelley, 2008). These challenges can impede the perceived inclusivity and universality of distance learning since those enrolling in distance education courses have to be computer-literate. Although the additional cost of material support (hardware, internet connectivity, and webcams) required for the implementation of distance learning, these costs are traded off with the costs of traditional face-to-face knowledge, making distance education cost-effective. Nonetheless, the students’ and instructors’ physical separation through technology adversely affects communication and interaction elements, affecting the perceived value and quality of higher learning.

Evaluating Technology Usage

In testing students’ perceptions of technology usage in distance learning, the following questions will help in the assessments.

  • Are the technologies adopted in distance learning efficient and effective in the delivery of course content?
  • Are students enrolled to distance learning programs familiar and comfortable with the selected distance technologies?
  • How do students perceive the difficulty level of the technologies selected in distance learning?
  • Do the chosen technologies in the design and delivery of course materials in distance education require prior training on technology utilization?
  • Are students in distance learning programs satisfied with the distance technologies used to deliver course content and course materials?
  • Do the technologies chosen for distance education enhance the assessment and integrity of the learning?

Assessment and Integrity

Change in learning from traditional face-to-face to distance learning online impacts various facets of the education process, including assessment and examination. Traditionally, student assessments manifested in tests occurred physically, whereas, in distance learning, student evaluation occurs online and is mediated by technology. While teachers actively supervise students while administering exams in traditional settings, that aspect of supervision may lack distance learning since students could leverage technology to engage in academic dishonesty that could jeopardize the assessment’s integrity.

The available literature on student perceptions in higher learning assessments shows that academic dishonesty is prevalent more in online courses than traditional courses. These studies have associated the ease of cheating with the internet and user-friendly technological devices (King & Guyette, 2009). While this perception is shared by the students surveyed, the degree of academic dishonesty is variable. Besides, Watters et al. (2011) note that cheating can go overboard to include impersonation because some students solicit help from outside to complete their assessments. These revelations have severe consequences on the accreditation and quality of distance learning. The online assessments’ integrity is further complicated by the delayed feedback on assignments and examinations (Kintu & Wanami, 2019), impeding the overall quality and accreditation of online programs despite more students enrolling in distance education.

Evaluation of assessment and integrity

When testing student perceptions on assessments and integrity, the following questions will help in the evaluation.

  • Are student assessments in distance learning done on time?
  • Is feedback on assessment and examinations in distance learning timely?
  • Are students enrolled in a distance program inclined to cheat more than students in traditional courses?
  • Are there ways in which technology in distance learning facilitates cheating?
  • Are there ways cheating can be prevented in distance learning?
  • What is the perception of students enrolled to distance learning programs about cheating?

Online Environment in General

For students enrolled in distance learning, the online environment is synonymous with the physical class in traditional learning. As highlighted by Fidalgo et al. (2020), the web-based applications where online learning is conducted serves not only as a tool for the delivery of educational content and materials but also as a socializing space where students interact with their instructors and peers. Many of the students enrolled in distance learning are adult working or married individuals that do not have time for campus education because of their work or familial commitments, allowing them the convenience of learning from their homes (Hannay & Newvine, 2006). Other studies have shown that home internet connections like Wi-Fi and digital devices like computers, smartphones, or laptops, influence enrollment in distance education (Fidalgo et al., 2020). Some studies have shown that the online environment provides more connection to instructors and peers than the traditional class setup. Others have decried the deficiency of peer support and instructor connections in distance learning, indicating that some students could be yearning for more social connections online.

Evaluation of the Online Environment in General

When testing students’ perceptions of the online environment in general, the following questions will help in the assessment.

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  • What technology devices do students enrolled in distance learning programs use to access course materials?
  • What type of internet connection do students enrolled in distance learning use to access course materials?
  • How many technology devices are connected to the internet when students enrolled in distance learning access to the course materials?
  • How do students perceive peer support available online? Is it adequate?
  • Do students enrolled in distance learning perceive instructor-student interaction and communication more in traditional classes than online classes?

Conclusion

Pedagogical practices in distance learning are dependent on distance technologies. These technologies connect the instructors and their students through space and time as they collaborate to create an academic space that resembles traditional face-to-face learning. Given that technology use in education requires prior training, eliminating the technical challenges occasioning distance technologies will improve efficiency and excellence in delivering course content and materials. The virtual spaces are naturally deficient in social presence, and social interactions necessitating the construction of such communication and interactions between students and instructors and peer support learners. The presence of active learning in distance education attracts positive perceptions of this new form of learning, while its absence attracts negative student perceptions. Nonetheless, the flexibility and self-paced learning characteristic of distance learning could be responsible for the higher enrollments in distance education than traditional face-to-face learning.

References

Allen, E. I., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class differences – online education in the United States. Sloan Center for Online Education.

Armstrong, D.A. (2011). Students’ perceptions of online learning and instructional tools: A qualitative study of undergraduate students’ use of online tools. TOJET: The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 10(3), 222-226.

Fedynich, L.V., Bradley, K.S., Bradley, J. (2015). Graduate students’ perceptions of online learning. Research in Higher Education Journal, 27, 1-13.

Fidalgo, P., Thormann, J., Kulyk, O., & Lencastre, J.A. (2020). Students’ perceptions on distance education: A multinational study. International Journal of Education in Technology in Higher Education, 17(18), 1-18.

Gok, T. (2015). The evaluations of the college students’ perceptions on distance education from the point of the technical and educational factors. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education-TOJDE, 16(2), 84-93.

Hannay, M., & Newvine, T. (2006). Perceptions of distance learning: A comparison of online and traditional learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 2(1), 1-11.

King, C.G., & Guyette, R.W. (2009). Online exams and cheating: An empirical analysis of business students’ views. Journal of Educators Online, 6(1), 1-11.

Kintu, D., & Wanami, S. (2019). Students’ perceptions about a distance learning programme: A case of the open, distance, and e-learning programme at Kyambogo University, Uganda. International Journal of Advance Research, Ideas, and Innovations in Technology, 5(1), 338-394.

Sahin, I., & Shelley, M.C. (2008). Considering students’ perceptions: The distance education student satisfaction model. Education Technology & Society, 11(3), 216-233.

Watters, M.P., Robertson, P.J.P., Clark, R.K. (2011). Student perceptions of cheating in online business courses. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 1-14.