Ubiquitous Distance

The coronavirus has rapidly altered day to day life in a way few could have imagined. As it settles in, many are realizing that we are not getting back our pre coronavirus world anytime soon, but rather will need to forge a path to a new normal. As The Verge recently reported, Microsoft predicts the way we work and learn will be forever altered.

Those of us who are learning or teaching, or have desk jobs, are learning tools for remote interaction. And once the worst of this crisis passes, we’ll find ourselves in a world much more familiar with distance learning/working, and more appreciative of its benefits. It could democratize access to knowledge, reduce carbon emissions, and simplify logistics. We may even find that in some ways, distance learning improves the learning experience. For example, I’ve found that teaching students coding can be easier with a screenshare than hovering over a laptop.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous

When considering remote learning options it can be easy to miss a critical distinction. Synchronous distance learning happens when a teacher and set of students are online together at the same time interacting in real time, on Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, or potentially even text only. Asynchronous distance learning is self paced, where students watch videos and do exercises at whatever time is convenient for them, perhaps using a platform like Khan Academy. 

When the lockdown hit, most schools jumped to an asynchronous model, where teachers posted assignments and students completed them on their own, often only with email for support. As the world grapples with potentially 1-2 years of waves of social distancing, I believe synchronous distance learning will become increasingly critical for schools at all levels. 

To some extent we’ve already seen the rise and fall of eLearning (asynchronous remote). At first we thought it would replace traditional models, but it turned out that not everyone learns well without a live instructor to interact with.

eLearning vs LMS

When considering an online educational platform to put courses onto, there’s another oft overlooked distinction. A typical eLearning platform like Khan Academy is mostly designed for asynchronous learning, and a somewhat extreme version of it where a teacher doesn’t exist to support students by email. It has no notion of classroom, teacher, and student. There is no human monitoring your progress and giving you direct feedback. 

By contrast, an LMS (Learning Management System) such as Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, or Schoology is designed for synchronous learning. Even if the learning is not exactly synchronous, it is designed with a notion of organization, classes and sections, teachers and students. It excels at having multiple teachers teaching multiple courses, and students taking multiple courses (many-to-many relationship). It has a notion of class/classroom/section and a teacher can monitor the progress of each student. 
Most schools have an LMS, and perhaps also a SIS (Student Information System, such as PowerSchool), but most don’t have an eLearning platform. In most cases that is fine, and from assignments in your LMS you can assign students eLearning content from existing providers like Khan Academy. But if you do need to create your own asynchronous eLearning content you could consider a solution like the Sensei LMS for WordPress. Though it brands itself as an LMS, I’ve found it to be very useful for asynchronous eLearning content.

Tools and Best Practices

If you are interested in the specific tools and best practices to succeed with these forms of distance learning, check out our next post: The Tools of Distance Learning.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash