Distributed Learning

What Is Distributed Learning (DL)?

Distributed learning (DL) refers to non–face-to-face communication between students and teachers through such modes as correspondence, online learning, outreach schools, teleconferencing and video conferencing. DL allows for flexibility with respect to where and when students learn. DL is an ambiguous and broadly defined concept; this is not surprising. given the constantly changing technology in a wide variety of school/site contexts, school authorities and instructors.

In 2008 the Alberta Teachers' Association, in collaboration with University of Alberta researchers, conducted a comprehensive study of teachers' work in distributed learning environments. The sample population for the study consisted of teachers and administrators who were primarily involved in educating students through distributed learning.

Why Study Distributed Learning?

The study was initiated as a result of a 2007 Annual Representative Assembly resolution that recognized that emerging technologies have changed how teachers work and how students learn. A provincial working group of teachers with extensive experience in DL worked with the university team, which was led by Dr Phil McRae and Dr Stanley Varnhagen.

Why This Study Is Important

Teachers must maintain the right to determine their working conditions. Therefore, this study was an important step for the teaching profession, given the continuing introduction of new technologies and the blurring of the line between online and face-to-face instruction. For this reason, it was important that all teachers who use a variety of learning technologies in their work were invited to participate in the study.

Key Findings

The researchers structured the findings and emerging themes of the research into two broad categories: (1) workload considerations and (2) technologies for DL.

1. Workload Considerations

The researchers conclude the following about the working conditions of DL teachers:

  • A majority of respondents like working in a DL environment, especially with respect to such things as their level of responsibility in the school, professional autonomy, job security and the amount of clerical support they receive.

  • Rural instructors are more likely to be positive about DL teaching than their urban counterparts.

  • Most respondents reported that, in general, their school or workplace supports DL. Respondents were most satisfied with the professional autonomy found in DL environments and least satisfied with the large number of students they are expected to teach and the concomitant increased workload.

  • People not involved in DL—including other teachers and administrators—and DL students themselves tend to regard DL as second-class education that lacks the rigour of regular classroom instruction.

  • Many respondents reported that establishing boundaries between their professional and their personal lives is more difficult for them than for traditional classroom teachers. The absence of set hours and structures creates the expectation that DL teachers will teach more students, develop their own course content and keep their courses up to date.

  • Respondents were generally more satisfied with the support they receive for tasks directly related to student learning (such as instructing and interacting with and evaluating students) than with the support they receive for such noninstructional activities (such as designing course materials, taking part in professional development activities and making decisions about firewalls and filters).

  • Alberta Education’s funding is largely based on a traditional classroom model and, for that reason, seldom takes into account such unique factors as the mobility of DL students (many of whom split their time between conventional schooling and DL), the fact that such students may register any time during the year, the low completion rate of DL students, and the fairly high number of home-schooled and special needs students using DL.

  • Even though DL teaching differs significantly from traditional classroom methods, undergraduate teacher education programs (including the field experiences component) currently offer limited preparation for teachers interested in DL instruction.

  • DL teachers have relatively few opportunities for professional development in DL.

  • When curriculum is revised, the development of resources for the traditional classroom takes precedence over those developed for DL.

  • DL students are increasingly diverse with respect to digital literacy, English skills, and academic, social, medical and emotional needs.

  • Because DL teaching involves unique skills, it can be difficult to find substitute teachers.

2. Technologies for DL

  • Access to the technology required for DL varies widely throughout the province and, even in urban areas, is not optimal. A teacher’s having access to the latest technologies does not guarantee that students will have the same access from either their home or school.

  • New interactive technologies (sometimes called Web 2.0 technologies) such as wikis, blogging and podcasting, although well-suited to DL, are not widely used because (1) both the hardware and software can be expensive and (2) there is no place for teachers to train in the use of these technologies.

  • Although the infrastructure to support video conferencing exists, video conferencing is still not widely used in DL environments. Possible reasons for the low usage are (1) a lack of skill on the part of some students to learn in this context, (2) timetable conflicts among schools in a district, (3) the perception that video conferencing is an initiative driven by the government rather than the jurisdiction and (4) the need for students to travel to the video conferencing location.

Because the total number of teachers involved in DL in Alberta is unknown, the researchers were unable to calculate the response rate to the survey. Therefore, any conclusions drawn from the study cannot be applied with certainty to the population of DL teachers as a whole. Nevertheless, the significant number of responses (232) almost surely represents the opinions of the majority of DL teachers in the province.

As the voice of the teaching profession in Alberta, the Association looks forward to the ongoing dialogue about DL. This report will be a key element in facilitating further discussion.