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Distance Learning Deciphered

Thursday, March 15, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joy Ingram
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by Ashley Johnson, M. Ed., Distance Learning Coordinator, NWRPCA

I consider myself a “digital native.” That might be a term that is unfamiliar to you. Do the words distance learning, e-learning, online learning, m-learning, Web 2.0, webcast, webinar, screencast, podcast, vodcast, wiki, asynchronous, synchronous, hybridmake your head spin? You may be a “digital immigrant” in our current technology revolution, but that does not mean you should hold yourself back from the opportunities that distance learning is offering.

Distance learning has been around for over 100 years in the form of correspondence courses. Since then, it has adapted to many forms: radio, television, webcasts, and full-fledged online courses. Online educational offerings are exploding in count, so it can be difficult for a person to know what is worthwhile and what to ignore. 
The top three questions I am asked about distance learning are:
  • What is it?
  • Is it effective?
  • How do I find quality offerings?

What is Distance Learning? 

Distance learning is any formal educational offering where the participants are separated by time and/or locationYou might have read news articles about K-14 students enrolling in “virtual schools” or taking online classes at their university. Idaho is close to becoming the first state in the U.S. to require high school students to take an online course during their tenure.

As a professional, you surely have received many emails about webinars that might be of interest to you. A webinar is usually a live, short (30min-2 hours) broadcast of information via the Internet. Although webinars are very useful, I always find myself wanting to discover more information on the topic or be able to “do” something with the content I just consumed. That is the need online courses fulfill in the professional world. 

No matter exactly the kind of offering (webinar, online course, etc...), you might enroll in something that requires you to participate in pre-scheduled meetings (perhaps by phone or online). That would be a synchronous session (at the same time), where all of the participants are geographically separated. Or, you might enroll in an offering that just requires you to complete the specified activities or watch a recording on your own timeline, while other classmates are working through it at their own pace. That would be an asynchronous offering.

My favorite format is the hybrid form: a blend of the synchronous and asynchronous atmospheres. NWRPCA offered our “Enhancing CFO Skills for the CMHC” in this style and is currently running “Social Media for Health Centers” this way, as well. A hybrid setup can have an infinite number of configurations, depending on what is best for the learner regarding the content. However, we like to have pre-scheduled webinars so that students can participate and learn with the instructor at the time of the offering and then have a week or two for participants to digest the information, talk in discussion groups, browse supplemental resources, and other engaging activities.

Live (Webinar) = Synchronous

Recorded (Webinar) = Asynchronous

Synchronous + Asynchronous = Hybrid

Is Distance Learning Effective?

"The question is no longer IF the internet can transform learning in powerful ways."

- The Web-Based Education Commission

Have you ever sat in a conference session where attendees were asleep? Checking their email? I once was in a staff development training where someone was knitting. Studies have shown that there is “no significant difference in student outcomes based on the mode of education delivery (face to face or at a distance)." In other words, it's not how participants learn that is important, but what they learn. In both cases, it’s all about the instructor and the design.

In order for organizations to provide you with CME/CPE or any other type of professional development credit, they must go through a distance learning-specific accreditation process which, I would argue, is more rigorous than the process for face-to-face training. Overwhelmingly, online offerings are going to be more thoroughly scrutinized and tested for quality assurance before they reach your desk.

I’d like to dispel a few myths about distance learning:

Myth #1: The Quality of Education is Lower in Distance Learning Programs

I will venture to say that the person knitting in the staff development I mentioned above probably didn’t receive much from the training. On the flip-side, there are face-to-face trainings that are engaging and worthwhile. The same is true for distance learning. It depends on whether you are participating in a trusted source, but at NWRPCA, all of our distance learning offerings are taught by subject matter experts, just like our face-to-face offerings.

Myth #2: It is easier to earn credit through an online course than a face-to-face training

In response to public concern regarding online courses, accrediting agencies have created increasingly rigorous processes to authorize a distance learning course to offer professional development credit, much more so than for face-to-face trainings. In order to receive credit for a distance learning course, you will usually have to complete requirements that demonstrate an achievement of the learning objectives.

Myth #3: You miss out on interaction with instructors and other students

This honestly depends on the program. At NWRPCA, we offer two types of courses: courses that you can purchase right off the shelf and access instantly, and others that you would participate in with a cohort of people. In the asynchronous courses, we usually try to have qualified instructors available to answer any questions you have and provide resources for the learner to get involved in learning networks (via LinkedIn, listservs, forums, etc...). The cohort courses make it much easier to engage with instructor and classmates, since the “class” is held via webinars, conference calls, and online forums. In those courses, we always have a dedicated instructor for the duration of the course and have multiple student engagement activities in order to spur collaboration.

By the end of a trusted distance learning offering, only those who put in the work and achieved the learning objectives will receive the credit. (Quite unlike solely “putting in the time” during face-to-face trainings).

How to Find Quality Offerings

  • Go to a trusted source for professional development. NWRPCA, NACHC, and many others are all helpful resources that offer online offerings.
  • Check with your profession-specific association and colleagues for recommendations.
  • Contact your professional development credit organization (Ex: AAFP, NASBA, SHRM, etc...) for their list of organizations accredited to grant CME/CPE/PHR/SPHR/and other CEUs.

If you have any other questions about distance learning in general, or are looking for job-specific offerings, feel free to contact me at: ajohnson@nwrpca.org






NWRPCA welcomes and regularly publishes white papers and articles submitted by members, partners and associates with subject matter expertise. The appearance of any guest publication in our Health Center News database represents the views of the author and does not constitute endorsement by NWRPCA of the stated opinions or perspectives, nor does it suggest endorsement of the contributor's products or services.

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