Differences Between Distance Learning and Online Learning

Do not be afraid of online learning

In response to those who are seeking information about the difference between what districts are doing with their Distance Learning plans vs. what is offered through a state certified online provider it is important to recognize what a district’s and family’s goals are for their learners. The following is meant to clarify what is meant by specific practices, terms, and objectives.

Distance learning is a bandage meant for short term. The problem is that there was never any consideration about what might happen if long term distancing became a reality, first it would be over in a few months, and then just for the school year, and then the political pressures to open schools back up created more anxiety in families and educators who were concerned for the spreading of the virus to their students and families. After being tasked with redesigning education in a few months educators are now being asked to redesign it again, but this time in a setting where it is impossible to predict all that is necessary because we still do not know enough about the virus, and we must take into consideration the uninformed opinions of those who think the virus is a hoax. The safest option is to continue to allow almost all families to complete academic requirements virtually. This helps to direct resources to specific student populations who need additional supports, while allowing the vast majority of students/families safety and stability of working from home.

There are three critical components to any successful course, they are even more important to understand as we dive into just what happened during schools’ responses to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Every course should have the following:

  • Teacher Presence — a guiding force directing the learner through the course, the type of feedback that is presented to the learner based on their actions; the availability of a coach or facilitator from whom the student may receive encouragement and guidance.
  • Social Presence — this has to do with students feeling comfortable enough in a community to engage in risk-free expression; how are they connecting the material from the course with their own lives and culture and how are they sharing that with their peers to gain new understandings. Learning is a social act in which ideas are explored and connected through interaction with others, especially others from a range of backgrounds and experiences.
  • Cognitive Presence — refers to the elements of the course related to critical thinking, problem-solving, generating meaning.

These are all interrelated. For example, cognitive presence depends on social presence since constructing meaning must come through sustained communication, it requires teaching presence to guide, assess and provide meaningful feedback. Teachers must use formative assessment data to gauge what students are ready for (zone of proximal development), they can provide synergies when pairing students, or making their suggestions about next steps, and what kinds of relevance the new information or skills has as it applies to current events, their own lives and futures, the impact on their community, etc.

When schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic there was a very quick reaction to call what was happening “Distance Learning” (not Online Learning). This was for a number of reasons; students did not have the same level of access to technology, devices, or broadband internet. Teachers did not have adequate training for this type of delivery, nor did they have access to a learning management system (LMS) and if they did, training for that LMS. The goal centered around how do we get materials to learners and then how do we get the evidence of learning back from those learners? Teachers worked to digitize the lessons that they would have delivered in a face-to-face environment and provide those to students in any way they could think of. Most lessons were scrapped. This lacked a unified response in most school districts as staff scrambled for solutions. Online programs are better positioned to fill these needs because of their experience and existing policies, practices and procedures. Ironically, many online programs were being told that their courses were now too difficult when for years they were tasked with defending their online courses as being just as rigorous as face-to-face counterparts.

Most teachers are not aware, nor have they studied those three critical components of successful courses. They very often do these things naturally in a classroom setting. They see a confused look on a student, they see a glimmer of interest in which they can explore topics further, they see interactions and relationships between learners that help them group students together, formative assessment can come in real-time through class discussion and quick interactions. Need a supplemental resource to help support learners? Go right to the filing cabinet where they are prepared, or into your folder of support materials on your computer, ask a colleague across the hall what they might do. It is something they do naturally, through years of perfecting their delivery. All of that turns on its head when trying to convert to any other type of delivery.

Online programs around the country were dealing with this issue in different ways. Their curriculum was already set in place, they already had set instructional pathways, processes for feedback, student interactions, supplemental materials, communication strategies, etc. These programs jumped directly into finding ways to support students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Even more time was spent on checking in with learners, making sure they were feeling safe, supported, fed, had a connection to others outside of the home, and more communication with parents. They were well positioned to support learners as the logistics for content and delivery were already set. Many online programs changed grading practices and requirements for credit attainment early on to support the needs of their learners. Demonstration of skills aligned to academic standards was still necessary, but there was no longer any point scale or letter grade acting as a barrier. Teachers started counseling and cheerleading effort (this results in greater levels of participation and engagement).

It is important to highlight the differences here so that making informed choices about the 2020–2021 school year is possible. It is important to recognize that this is not necessarily a failure of the teachers, but at all levels of leadership across school districts and states. The practices to address new forms of delivery are not widely used by most teachers; they have a lack of training in these areas and have lacked opportunities to use the tools required due to the other demands of their jobs. It is easy to overlook them because so much can be accomplished when you are in the same physical space as a learner day after day. There are other components for which schools and teachers are underprepared in this chaotic environment; copyright, accessibility, written communication, use of technology, writing curriculum, course design, providing meaningful feedback in an online setting, assessing participation/effort asynchronously.

Distance Learning
 — As issues occur, new practices are attempted, fixes are made based on failure to address a specific issue.

Online Learning
 — Planning occurs throughout the year based on actual experience in this style of teaching and learning. Data informed decisions based on research and student use are implemented continually, but features like access, usability, have been considered in advance.

Distance Learning
Piecemeal curriculum
 — Assembled from existing and new resources. (What was used spring term of the 2019–2020 school year is no longer available if teachers utilized vendor tools that were temporarily free. Everything must be recreated.)

Online Learning
Complete curriculum
 — Designed for online instruction and interaction. This is completed before students even begin a course to be ready for those who will be picking up where they left off, or for those who need to work ahead.

Distance Learning
Lack of consistency
 — Educators making decision about tools and resources based on preference, or finding materials through search engines. Some may not utilize features of a learning management system, or platform that others do. This may or may not work for some users, but the more organizational tools and navigational strategies, the greater the complexity. Teachers find features by accident and apply them inconsistently.

Online Learning
Consistent use of tools and practices
 — District/Program approved tools, strategies, communications, instructional design are aligned to the extent possible within that system. Learners have similar experiences regardless of who is teaching the course, or in whichever subject area they may be working.

Distance Learning
Platform Dependant
 — Many selections educators make have not been vetted for learners with different devices, using different browsers, varied data plans, device security, and usability. Some tutorials are in Flash, which is not supported on some devices and soon will not be on any device. Families provided their own IT support for struggling learners trying to find work-arounds for issues with technology. A learner using SeeSaw on a Chromebook will have a different experience than those using iPads. District suggested browser add-ons may not be an option with all devices. There is a cost associated with this and different types of experiences. If learners reach out to teachers for help with access/devices, many, if not most teachers may not know how to help address those issues.

Online Learning
Platform agnostic
 — Online programs do their best to make certain that all materials and tools work across any configuration of hardware/software. Those requirements are published before students start working to avoid potential frustrations. Mobile responsiveness is also taken into consideration for users who access materials on a phone or tablet. Various suggestions are made for accessibility in those tools and apps (e.g. text to speech, speech to text). There are dedicated support staff to help users with any technology or access issues. This is best so that teachers can maintain relationships with learners around content, and not potential frustrations related to access.

Distance Learning
Lack of Social Connection 
— In distance learning experiences, students report not having contact with classmates as often as they would like. There are incomplete policies around web meetings, expectations are inconsistently applied and some students may utilize different tools for connecting based on teacher preference. Inconsistent expectations around who students will connect with, how, and when.

Online Learning
Planned Social Connection
 — Online programs plan for how they will connect learners to larger communities, they may even exist beyond the confines of one “class”. Students across multiple classes have opportunities to engage. They may find larger audiences in blogging communities or discussion forums. There are objectives tied to teacher led web meetings. Policies by online programs help guide these interactions. Students are encouraged to share their work with a larger network. Online learning is about providing options.

Topic-Learning Management System (LMS)

Distance Learning
Teachers make efforts to share materials digitally using whatever tools are available. Sometimes that involves a district purchased system or LMS.

Teachers are provided with no direction to use the system effectively or consistently. They upload materials quickly after they are developed.

Online Learning
Materials are already available in a LMS that teachers are well-versed in using. They have an instructional pathway set and are able to direct learners through the use of that system.

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
Lack of accessibility, consistent navigational experience within and across courses. Increased cognitive load which limits available energy for course work and participation.

Distance Learning
Lack of policies and practices around providing timely feedback (this is a critical component of learning and retention of information);

No training for asynchronous feedback to learners in how (mostly) written feedback may be interpreted by learners and parents.

Score based feedback is not sufficient; common phrases like good jobnice workwell done are detrimental to student engagement and effort.

Online Learning
Policies exist for online learning programs in MN for how learners will receive feedback. Learners received personalized feedback based on their actions, assignment submissions.

Teachers are continually trained and provided with research about effective feedback strategies in a virtual setting.

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
Feedback impacts engagement, information retention, areas of strength or concern, and effort.

Very often in distance learning experiences, an activity is marked as complete/incomplete without any additional information about performance.

Distance Learning
Lack of time for proper and consistent navigation, closed captioning on videos, sufficient color contrast, suggestions for learners with other impairments (dyslexia, dexterity, hearing impairment, etc.)

Online Learning
Materials are reviewed, vetted, maintained and continually developed/improved to leverage new features of accessibility, which supports all learners (even those without an identified disability). Cognitive load is reduced. These expectations exist across programs and are not necessarily subject to teacher preference.

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
These issues are compounded when a daily schedule includes more than one teacher. Each instructor uses a different style of displaying and organizing content, inconsistent use of the platform and available tools.

Topic-Learning Community
Distance Learning
Learners may have opportunities to engage in online meetings and discussion boards, but there is a lack of experience in how to facilitate these kinds of experiences, and some expectations may harm relationships if not properly utilized and facilitated.

Online Learning
Online programs use discussion forums, webinars, workshops, blogs, email, text messages to connect learners in discussions (even off-topic forums which facilitate community).

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
Continual dialogue with a learning community is a critical component of learning. If learners are not able to have regular interactions with instructors and peers then information retention (especially long term) becomes less likely. Many students report wanting other students to see their work as a component of their engagement.

Topic-Learning Supports
Distance Learning
In a best case scenario, the teacher is called or emailed by a student or parents when the learner is struggling. Teachers may follow up with students to inquire about supports when communication drops off, or scores indicate an issue.

Online Learning
Supports are built into the system by default. Suggestions are made as part of course orientations; multiple methods of delivery are often already identified; materials may be made available by default if a certain score is attained.

Educational assistants, counselors, administrators are also monitoring the system for any data that indicates a learner may be struggling and they reach out to learners proactively.

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
Many students would rather struggle than stand out. They are unlikely to reach out for assistance. They will try to make their way through without calling attention to their struggles. It is the responsibility of the system, district, program, teachers to identify issues and adjust the learner experience accordingly.

Distance Learning
Teachers are uploading materials as they are needed, but lack guidance from federal, state, district officials on what is required. They very often upload materials the day before, or the day they are needed. This does not allow students to have any control over the time/pace spend on a given course.

Schools are focused on short term solutions because of community expectations that things will be “back to normal” any time now. They are planning for the next few weeks and not for an entire school year. This prevents a systemic implementation of improvements.

Online Learning
Materials are already developed, the pathway is set, learners often choose to work at an accelerated pace if their schedule allows, or they may need to spend more time on a lesson where they are not as confident. The availability of content allows for more flexibility to fit into a learner’s or that learner’s family’s needs.

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
Students may struggle with materials and need more time without feeling like requirements are piling up; or they may want to work ahead to modify their schedules, control over pacing in this environment supports families where access to technology and parental support may occur at different times than a scheduled class time.

Distance Learning
Learning in distance learning environments is largely passive. Students are given instructional materials that they are to consume.

Online Learning
Learning opportunities range from passive to active. Students are expected to explore ideas, resources, use new tools. Supports for projects (larger in scale than simple responses, quizzes) are built into assignment directions.

Consequences for Learners in Distance Learning
Courses in which question/response assignments make up the bulk of the coursework harm learner engagement; do not promote higher level thinking skills, or connection to real world scenarios and current events.

Consistent navigational experience, user interface, user experience (UX/UI) are important not just for ease of use, and consistent branding, they are accessibility features that reduce cognitive load when done well. Users do not have to expend any mental energy figuring out how to access materials and what to do with them, they spend their time engaged with the learning materials. Even something as simple as uniform naming conventions across units/courses increase the overall ease of use. There are progress indicators and feedback loops built into well-designed platforms to make learning more efficient, improve retention of information, document progress, allow for more interaction between community members.

What districts should be doing is expanding online delivery options and the quality of those offerings as those practices can easily be used, modified, adapted for other types of delivery (hybrid/blended, face-to-face), but the converse is not necessarily true, or even an option. Without many hours of training, practice, district level policies efficient and effective practices in online learning will not occur. This results in more stress for teachers, learners (and parents). When a learner is experiencing stress or anxiety it has severe negative impacts on the learning process and the ability to connect with others in their learning communities.

Until traditional districts are able to offer sufficient learning opportunities for students who need to learn from home during this time, online learning programs should be considered by families concerned about learner engagement and connection. Online programs have an advantage over these traditional systems as they have had a head start (around 15 years) on this type of delivery. It will take traditional teachers time, training and reflection to make necessary improvements to their practices. Having one or two first year teachers in a year may not be as detrimental to the overall learning experience as having all of a learner’s teachers working in a new and unfamiliar teaching environment.

School districts with existing online options have an advantage over those who do not. The latter will be playing catch up as the year begins. Teachers have not been contracted over the summer in most districts to prepare for the transition from distance learning to online learning. It will be another year of learning on the job for most educators. This can impact the availability of instructional staff to respond to learners and families. It does not allow for improvements to be made to content that has been used because they are busy working on materials to be used the next day. They do not have the experience of online teachers to lean on for support, professional learning communities, or training teachers. Many teachers will look outside the district for tips on social media, or self-paced courses on how to write content and teach online. Teachers working in isolation will further differentiate their practices from those of their peers who are trying to figure out what to do on their own.

As a society, we should be leveraging those with over a decade of online teaching experience. They can help by taking on some of the student load for those students who may not need face to face support, special education services that require in-person delivery, learners/families who do not have a need for more technology or broadband access. Traditional districts need weeks of professional development to prepare instructional staff; without funding, this will not happen in an organized and widespread manner. Teaching online requires just as much, if not more effort than in a traditional classroom. Formative assessments that could have been handled with a class discussion now require teachers to read up to 200 (or more) individual responses and many of those responses will require feedback. Feedback just takes longer when you are not having quick in person check-ins with learners. Reducing teachers’ student loads will help ease this transition, while many experienced online teachers can handle taking on more.

You may be thinking that all of that is fine, but online learning is not for you or your child. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the old system worked out great for everyone. It worked for a privileged majority. There are plenty of examples now for how an online learning model will work better for many learners. It is a system that will be easier to document these instances and we can use the data from users to make the system even stronger and more equitable.

We have now seen what 9 weeks of distance learning looked like. When that was over, most teachers went on break. They are still on break and wondering anxiously about what will happen. They are worried about their families, what this means for their students, and most do not have any idea what school will even look like in the fall, or what the options might be for families, and who will work on what aspect of them. They have had a summer of stress without guidance, funding, reassurances of new safety protocols, what happens if they are exposed and if that quarantine that follows uses up all of their sick days in one event? This is not the kind of environment in which we can expect most teachers to reimagine the future of education. The best we can do right now is to utilize our online options to the extent possible and go from there, since there is no indication of financial support or guidance coming from federal, state, local levels related to educational practices.

By Jon Fila

Jon is a Teacher, Author, Speaker, Consultant, AI Strategist who focuses on equity issues (accessibility, racial, gender), accessibility and Open Educational Resources. He has worked in education for over twenty-five years. He has served as an Innovation Coach, Curriculum Coordinator, PD Specialist, Department Chair, and has worked on aspects of Strategic Planning and has facilitated those groups on topics of Equity. He has been making his own stuff for a long time and shares whatever he can.

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