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Distance learning, also called distance education, is a form of education in which instructors and students are physically separated and technology facilitates student-student and student-instructor interactions. While there are several forms of distance learning, such as hybrid learning and blended learning, each model aims to incorporate an online learning component and requires a solid technology foundation to be successful.

Distance learning is different from traditional face-to-face learning, and requires different approaches to keep students actively engaged. When creating a virtual learning environment, or virtual classroom, it's crucial to equip instructors with the right set of technology tools to help bridge the gap between in-person and online lesson plans

There's a slew of educational technologies available to help higher education institutions combat the various challenges of distance learning — lack of student motivation, collaboration, communication, etc. — and create a seamless experience for both students and instructors. 

This article will discuss how distance learning technology can positively impact student learning and five technology must-haves to get started.

How does distance learning technology impact student learning?

Many educators have mixed opinions about effectiveness of distance learning technology. This stems from a common misconception that technology alone can transform student learning. Institutions often implement distance learning technology without proper training or thoughtful course design and expect student outcomes to soar. 

It isn't until the right distance learning technology is combined with the right people (trained instructors) and right processes (learning and course design) that more personalized instruction can be delivered to positively impact student learning in higher education. This is especially important for fostering engagement and improving retention among nontraditional students and students with learning disabilities.

Distance learning technology and nontraditional students

Nontraditional students are those who attend college later in life, attend part-time, work full-time jobs and/or raise children while earning their degree. Distance learning makes education more accessible to nontraditional students who have busy schedules and may not be able to attend traditional, brick-and-mortar courses. 

According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, within the next five years, the number of nontraditional students over the age of 35 is projected to grow 20 percent, while the number of 18-to-24-year-old traditional students is projected to grow 13 percent. Distance learning courses will become increasingly important moving forward, and higher education institutions need top-notch quality to win this demographic's enrollment.  

How can institutions deliver effective distance learning courses for nontraditional students?

In a recent survey, nontraditional students were asked what they value most in distance learning courses. The top-ranked items included assessment and measurement, course technology, and availability of resources and materials. 

Nontraditional students seek well-aligned distance learning courses that encourage collaboration, provide ultimate flexibility and have clear expectations from the start. They also expect to have quality interactions with their instructor and technology support when needed. 

Distance learning technology and students with learning disabilities

Nineteen percent of college students report having a physical and/or learning disability, such as vision and hearing impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), limited fine motor skills (i.e. inability to use a mouse), mental health illness and speech disorders. As distance learning becomes more prominent, colleges and universities must consider how assistive technology provides every student the opportunity for quality education — offline and online. 

Some of the biggest challenges of distance learning for students with disabilities include lack of inclusive course design, technology support and communication. By understanding these challenges, institutions can begin to map technologies to specific learning needs to better support students.   

Five technology tools to improve the distance learning experience

After understanding the distance learning needs of both students and instructors, institutions can begin to select the right technology to support a seamless transition. While the number of distance learning technology tools on the market can be overwhelming, there are five key areas to prioritize when getting started: learning management, collaboration, productivity, digital simulations and assistive technology. 

Let's take a closer look at these technologies, what they are and how they can improve distance learning courses. 

1. Learning management systems

A learning management system (LMS) is a software application for delivering course materials, assigning quizzes, tracking student progress, providing feedback, sharing announcements and posting grades. Many learning management systems are cloud based, allowing students to access content through a web login. The LMS is the foundation of the distance learning technology stack and often integrated with collaboration and productivity tools. 

The main benefit of an LMS is the convenience of having all course materials in a central location. This allows instructors to streamline workflows and provide structure for students. A few examples of learning management systems include Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard.

2. Collaboration tools

One of the biggest challenges with distance learning is facilitating virtual collaboration. Collaboration technology tools, like Cisco Webex and Cisco Webex Rooms, can help instructors share information with students through videoconferencing, messaging, digital whiteboarding, file sharing and virtual office hours. 

Instructors can schedule classes and encourage student participation in the video chat and interactive polling or break the class into smaller virtual groups to work on projects. By leveraging collaboration technology, instructors can virtually provide the face-to-face communication that students typically experience in a traditional classroom.

3. Productivity tools 

Productivity tools refer to software or applications that help make everyday tasks more efficient. Institutions most likely have productivity tools in place as many are necessary for instructors to do their jobs. Examples include email, calendar, notetaking, to-do lists, document creation and cloud calling. 

When adding new productivity tools, look for those that can be easily integrated into existing tools and/or the LMS. It's important to avoid tool segregation as too many siloed technologies can become overwhelming and hinder adoption. Productivity tools should be logically incorporated into workflows to increase productivity, not disrupt it.

4. Digital simulations

Digital simulations are a type of experiential learning in which an instructor creates online, scenario-based environments for students to navigate and apply practical skills. This is most popular in health and human services programs, like nursing, as it allows instructors to develop students' clinical skills without being in a hospital setting. Much like a video game, an instructor can assign students to a digital simulation in which they interact with a patient and respond with specific actions as if it were real life. 

Digital simulations are an important component to consider in a distance learning technology stack because they help develop students' critical thinking skills, provide virtual "hands-on" learning, and help ensure transfer of knowledge from course materials to practice. 

5. Assistive technology

As described earlier, assistive technology is necessary in distance learning courses to support students with physical and/or learning disabilities. The Assistive Technology Industry Association defines assistive technology as "any item, piece of equipment, software program or product system that is used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities." 

An example of assistive technology might include enabling closed captioning during a video meeting for students who are hearing impaired.  

Which distance learning technology tools are right for your institution? 

Distance learning technology is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The technology tools that work for one university may not be the right fit for another. By partnering with an education technology advisor, like WWT, institutions can leverage expert guidance in building their distance learning technology stack. 

Learn more about distance learning technologies with our experts.
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