Distance Learning Providers Do Their Own Homework

January 2000
By Michelle L. Hankins

A focus on last-mile technologies leads quest for a fully interactive environment.

When it comes to education, industry is getting back to the basics: It is exploring the fundamentals of exactly how people learn. The objective is to perfect the virtual classroom by matching technology to the learning process rather than matching the learning process to the technology.

The new generation of learners requires constant stimulation, and companies that use distance learning to train employees want to maximize the experience to ensure a good return on their investment. Interaction is key, industry and educators have ascertained, and they are tooling technology to meet this requirement.

No longer are pop quizzes and group assignments limited to the classroom. They are occurring online. Professors and instructors are now able to use technology to monitor each student's level of understanding in ways that exceed the ability to evaluate student progress in the traditional classroom setting. They can use information from databases, surveys and polling features to statistically analyze how students are performing and to determine how they might increase students' understanding.

Technology is being used as a tool by both instructors and students to build the schoolhouse of the future. While the technology to support distance learning is here, industry officials say it is available only for a price. Those who seek full human interaction in the virtual classroom via two-way video can have it now, but only if they are willing to pay. However, as advancements are made, officials believe the cost of distance learning technology will decrease, allowing even greater flexibility in the increasingly popular educational domain.

Distance learning, or distributive learning, is being used for education, training and increasingly for certification programs. This trend is being driven by the need to save on costs associated with traditional methods of education and training such as travel and lodging.

Ray Vigil, vice president, global learning solutions, Lucent Technologies, has witnessed the growth in the field of distance learning. "Technology is increasing the speed at which we deploy learning around the world. We have reduced the time it takes to deploy classroom information from months to weeks. We have reduced the cost of delivery of training to individuals by anywhere from 50 to 60 percent. We have increased our ability to reach students by a factor of four," he says.

Lucent uses learning trials to determine the best way to employ technology for distance learning. According to Vigil, "If we just took what we knew about learning and classroom events and tried to take the same activity and deploy it through technology, our experience has been that it doesn't work." Carroll Wright, chief technologist, government solutions at Lucent, comments, "In the past, people tended to take the classroom and try to squeeze it through the technology. We're now changing the way we deliver distance learning."

Historically, distance learning has been limited to one-way communication with the teacher delivering the information to the student, but new distance learning techniques are designed to be highly interactive, and fluent two-way communication is ideal. Those developing distance learning software and services are exploring the fundamentals of how people actually learn and are structuring their programs accordingly. The knowledge to create a really valuable distance learning experience is not yet fully developed. "It's not as simple as setting up a camera in a room," Wright cautions.

Distance learning specialists know, however, that attention span is critical. Particularly for the generation Y learner, experts contend that a person must be actively engaged every 3 to 5 minutes to stay focused on the learning process.

"When you isolate a learner, it does create a challenge," Vigil says. While out-of-the-classroom learning offers flexibility, it does separate the learner from the stimulation of the interactive classroom experience. Industry is working to mimic the interactive aspect of the traditional classroom experience as closely as possible while maintaining the customization advantages of the virtual classroom. Technology is allowing students to choose the coursework approach that best suits their learning style. In what Lucent calls a learning network, equipment is being used in conjunction with the Internet to create different learning platforms.

Employing this technology allows students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule. Going beyond the confines of the traditional classroom, students are afforded luxuries such as archiving class sessions to support learning over various time zones or to allow later review. Students can target specific subjects and take a few sessions of the course to learn only what they need. They can use full interactive video or opt to use only audio. In a situation where they might be inhibited about asking questions, students can participate anonymously. Learners can be either active or passive participants in the learning process, using whatever option appeals to them.

Students are not the only ones in the classroom who are empowered by new developments in distance learning technology. Teachers and instructors are able to analyze statistical data that is often compiled transparently to determine how well students understand what is being taught. A teacher can ask questions, take a poll or conduct a survey to measure learning and identify those who are struggling with the material. Teachers can also archive and review sessions and students' queries to fully address any questions. They can allow students to learn at an individualized pace by giving them different tests that match their level of progress. Instructors could also profit from selling electronic versions of their classes to students.

The technology being used to deploy distance learning is identical, experts say, to videoconferencing technology used in interactive business meetings. "Think of distance learning as a multimedia teleconference where learning is the purpose of the meeting instead of decision making," Wright suggests.

Software and equipment are available that allow students to participate in multimedia sessions--voice, data, video--interactively with other students as well as with teachers. Sessions can include audio interactions, satellite broadcasting and videostreaming over the Internet.

Wireless technologies are enabling learners to connect while on the move, creating an anywhere, anytime schoolhouse. "A lot of the technology is changing to allow a person on a cell phone to participate in a distance learning environment," Wright says. Wherever a learner is, he or she can join a session by picking up a cellular telephone and listening to a class. A multimedia communications exchange can be used to call in to a specific telephone number just as is done for a teleconference.

Distance learning providers can even use full-motion video for an interactive learning experience. It is pricey, developers say, but it is available. "The technology is there today. We can do all of these things. It's simply rolling it out to a lot more people aggressively. That's sort of the evolutionary part," Wright maintains. Rick Simone, director of business development for General Dynamics' Pathways product, says that video is the last thing people are using, but it is the next phase of what is coming in the field.

But the greatest challenge to providing a virtual education on this level is occurring within the last mile of reaching the learner. Because bandwidth is the major limiting factor in distance learning capabilities, industry is focusing on this challenge. "The whole idea is to have distance learning over a ubiquitous network, which means it will be [on] the Internet and it will be IP [Internet protocol]-based," Wright contends. "This means we must be able to use flavors of DSL [digital subscriber line technology]." A distance learning environment could be created with a 56-kilobit line going up but a 2- to 6-megabit line going down, he says.

Industry is using this concept to expand the delivery mechanism for distance learning, but it calls for high requirements within the infrastructure environment. The greatest challenge facing maximization of distance learning capabilities is in bringing it all the way to the user. "The last mile infrastructure is a very significant burden," Wright says. "The problem is the infrastructure is not changing as fast as we would like it to."

Vigil explains the challenges of employing distance learning capabilities around the world. "The Internet has allowed us to create real-time interactions with people, but the infrastructure isn't in place to deliver broadband, particularly when you're looking around the world and trying to, on a global basis, deliver training as we are." He concurs that having the bandwidth to allow delivery of full-motion video and live interaction with a large number of students is an important issue.

Yet, as enhancements to distance learning capabilities are made, the expectations and requirements for the infrastructure also change. Wright believes strengthening a backbone network will only improve the distance learning environment.

According to Vigil, many challenges appear in using distance learning technologies in other nations. "The infrastructure varies from country to country. There are different formats, different standards even within countries, within companies. You have firewall considerations and certainly bandwidth limitations," Vigil notes.

Many nations are not as sophisticated technologically, and as a result, technologies are easier to implement in some parts of the world than in others. In many cases, several technologies can be used together to provide distance learning. "When you have an infrastructure around the world that may not be ready for any individual technology, the ability to mix and match learning networks and platforms is a real advantage," Vigil says.

Simone further explains the ideal distance learning condition. "The optimum learning environment is one where there is total interaction--video and audio--with an instructor. You don't have that environment yet because of restrictions on bandwidth. But you're going that way. DSL technology is going to get you there. New breakthroughs in bandwidth and the utilization are going to get you where you really need to be someday."