Educational Opportunities through Distance Learning
As our world becomes increasingly based around technology, our
classroom practices and approaches to teaching will inevitably change.
Technology provides tools that were not available in the past and opens
up new opportunities for both teaching and learning. While technology
cannot replace a classroom teacher, it can offer unique opportunities for
both the teacher and the student. Distance learning (DL) programs can
utilize technology to offer students diverse learning opportunities and
provide them with additional tools for success.
DL programs give students the opportunity to study outside the classroom.
Traditional classes necessarily limit study to hours when the
teacher and classroom are available. Therefore, many adult learners
may only attend class and receive instruction for a few hours a week.
DL enables students to continue work on their own after leaving the
classroom. This additional practice reinforces the classroom teacher's
lessons and can provide the student with more of an immersion experience.
Websites—such as www.usalearns.org and www.myefa.org--
provide students with grammar practice, listening comprehension, and
vocabulary building exercises. Furthermore, these websites present
stories in a real-world context and ask students to use critical thinking
skills in different ethical situations. For example, one unit focuses on an
accident at work and whether or not the employee should tell the truth in
court. These scenarios engage students and help to teach them about
civil responsibilities while also allowing them to practice language skills.
Students can be in control of their learning and can gain as much or as
little from these online resources as they choose.
DL also provides unique opportunities for teachers. The role of the DL
teacher differs from the role of the traditional classroom-based teacher,
though many of the same principles of effective teaching apply. While
a classroom teacher provides structured lesson plans, a DL teacher
acts as a guide to students. Students are able to work through lessons
largely on their own, and the teacher may not plan the lessons. However,
the DL teacher, like a classroom teacher, checks each student's
work and progress and may provide additional material if a student is
struggling in a particular area. Perhaps more importantly, the DL teacher
is responsible for motivating and encouraging students and ensuring
that they continue to complete work. DL students must have a degree
of self-motivation because, unlike in the classroom, the students are at
home or in a library on their own time, potentially distracted by personal
obligations that challenge all adult education students. In a traditional
classroom, students build relationships with the teacher and with fellow
students, and these relationships often contribute to student attendance
and retention. In an online community, relationships are just as important
and effective. The DL teacher cannot always be present to build a
relationship and so must employ technological tools to build a relationship
with students. Facebook may function as a way to connect with DL
students. The DL program at Central Texas College (CTC) has a private
group where the teacher and students post and get extra practice, and
the teacher is "friends" with many students and has weekly hours scheduled
to chat with students. Allowing students to see the teacher's profile--
that includes personal pictures and anecdotes about the teacher's
life--helps students to connect to the teacher in a more personal way.
Furthermore, the DL teacher emails students on a weekly basis, offering
encouragement, asking questions when a student has been "absent" from the website, updating the student on progress made and hours
earned, and sending congratulatory emails and e-cards when the student
makes progress or completes a certain number of units. All of these
efforts cannot ensure a personal connection that will help students retain
motivation, but they can aid the teacher in establishing relationships and
helping students to build self-motivation and perseverance to continue
work in the program.
While the CTC program is a new program, it has already seen success
with its DL students. During its pilot program in the Spring of 2011,
ten students enrolled in the program. They earned a combined total of
616.25 hours from January to May and all students made progress in
both oral and literacy skills. Students have responded positively to the
program, saying, "It is good for me. Thank you…I am really enjoying…I
learn from this website because it has some easy things but some things
I did not know…This website is very helpful to me…I have to say thanks;
because of you my English is going better." While DL programs are not
suitable for every ESL student, many students can and will benefit from
the additional opportunities to learn and study outside the traditional
classroom. As technology continues to change our world and our teaching
practices, DL programs will play an important and useful role in Adult
About the Author
Bethany Leach is the current Distance Learning ESL Instructor at CTC. She has a B.A. in Spanish from College of the Ozarks and an M.A. in Applied Lingustics: Foreign Language Pedagogy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She began working at CTC in March of 2010 and developed the Distance Learning program in August 2010. She has recently relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland but continues to teach for CTC's DL program.