Distance Education: What We Learned, What Works and What Doesn’t

Published: November 14, 2022
Effective distance learning is about content — specifically, content delivery and content comprehension. In other words, distance learning is about people. Because it’s people, after all, who send the content and who consume it. AKSYM YEMELYANOV/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Editor’s note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the IMCCA, the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.

On March 13, 2020, the president declared a national emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. If they had not done so already, every higher-education institution, on that day, announced a move to online learning. It would only be temporary…or so they thought. What was initially believed to be a short-term stopgap became a transformational moment in learning: Distance education moved from being a niche enrollment category to the single biggest defining factor in education as it moves forward. 

As technologists, we naturally jump to the things that make distance learning possible. Many of those tools — for example, unified communication (UC) platforms, in-room cameras, ceiling microphones, learning management systems (LMSes) and recording capabilities — might not have been part of classroom standards in prior days. But although having the proper tools is important for an effective installation, the tools themselves are not the lessons learned. 

Content is Critical for Distance Learning

Effective distance learning is about content — specifically, content delivery and content comprehension. Translated, that means it’s about the people: People sending the content and people consuming the content. Students adapted extremely well to online content delivery. In fact, they have been doing it for more than a decade; just look at the popularity of TikTok, Snapchat, FaceTime and a host of other social-media communication platforms. The college-aged demographic was primed to learn through the screen. 

Faculty members, on the other hand, experienced a roadblock. “How do I take what I have been doing for 20 years and put it online?” the professors asked. “You don’t,” the tech managers responded. The world is different; learning is different; and your teaching style and skill set must also be different. Faculty must adapt to the technology provided and students’ experience of it. 

Online teaching is a fundamentally separate endeavor than in-person instruction is. Distance education is not traditional education, and it should not be treated as such. The move out of brick-and-mortar classrooms and to virtual learning exposed some weaknesses in conventional education practices. Issues of equity and access became glaringly apparent. Whereas, formerly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was considered a checklist item during space design and construction, the pandemic demonstrated something important: There are people behind the regulations. Likewise, online-learning best practices, like those of Quality Matters (QM), had to become commonplace rather than being “nice-to-haves.” 

“A” comes before “V,” but the “V” is vitally important for equity and accessibility. The pandemic helped clarify the old AV adage that audio is more important than video. In the context of work-from-home offices, many would argue that it’s OK if people can’t see you so long as they can hear you. That, however, is a flawed theory when it comes to distance education. While audio is important, closed captioning ranks above it — and that is visual. It is not the camera that is so important, but, rather, the ability to consume the content’s message. And that message is delivered both aurally and visually in an equitable digital world. 

Learning without being able to stop a livestreaming professor for questions and discussion means that having ability to rewind, relisten and reread is also a determining factor in the success of distance learning. 

Considering the Visual/Hearing-Impaired 

Distance education proved to be a blessing for those who are visually impaired and/or hearing impaired. Although most technology managers would agree that professors aren’t supposed to serve as AV technicians and show producers, they are expected to follow best practices in content delivery. Many institutions’ Offices of Teaching and Learning formerly taught these practices, but they were rarely obeyed in in-person teaching. For example, proper audio enhancement and voice lift, as well as proper microphone-placement techniques, have always been important. It’s always been good practice to be sure you’re speaking loud enough — and toward the students (not the whiteboard). It’s also important to consider appropriate fonts and point sizes on presentation slides, ensuring they can be easily read by the farthest student in the room. 

When “share screen” became a standard, students were empowered read the content without feeling displaced and without fear of exposing their disability to the rest of their colleagues. Likewise, with streamed content, ear buds and headsets were a huge boon to people who formerly had struggled to comprehend a professor’s soft voice or accent. Paired with the previously mentioned closed captioning, true digital equity could be attained in distance education. 

Thankfully, these feature sets were enacted for a long enough time that there’s no going back. Students now expect multi-modal content delivery. Both colleges and UC platform manufacturers have figured out how to utilize automation, plugins and SaaS-to-hardware integrations to create interactive, accessible and equitable content on the fly, with limited faculty involvement. 

Capitalizing on the Transformation 

How do manufacturers and integrators capitalize on this transformation? The answer is by focusing not on the technology, but, rather, on the outcome. That entails considering the following questions: Who is being served? What obstacles are possibly present that might interfere with teaching and learning? Can the lectures be recorded? Can remote students hear and see? Can the presentation slides be uploaded for review? Is the lighting and projector brightness sufficient to be picked up by an ePTZ or PTZ camera mounted at the back of the room? Because rooms are typically designed with seated viewing angles in mind, is the camera angle sufficient for a remote student without being skewed? How will the in-room faculty know the remote student wants to ask a question? 

All those questions must be asked, thoughtfully considered and answered before the appropriate technologies can be selected. 

In conclusion, we learned that effective content delivery matters. What works is providing solutions for equitable and accessible learning. What does not work is assuming the world will, or should, return to former practices. The technology provided must complement the learning requirements to ensure that distance education is not simply an informational transaction. More importantly, it must be a connection to the needs of the student consumer.

For more Collaboration Today and Tomorrow content, check out our website archives.

Joe Way, PhD, CTS, is the director of learning environments with the University of Southern California (USC). 

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