Distance learning is a mode of delivering education and instruction to learners without having a consistent physical interaction with the teachers (Rogers, 2009). This mode of education was developed as a means of addressing the needs of students who although desired to acquire knowledge, are separated from the teacher by distance, time or both (Rogers, 2009). This, therefore, creates an option of attaining knowledge without involving the traditional classroom setting. Although certain occasions may demand the physical interaction between the students and the teacher, such durations are often very short and are only meant to fulfill a particular purpose that may not be achieved without such interaction with the teacher. These include administration of examination and practical lessons (Howard, 2004). The paper, thus, dwells on some of the challenges that this mode of learning faces.
The Scope and Concept of Distance Learning
Although the issue of attaining education without physical interaction with the teacher stands as a universal definition of distance education, various scholars have raised up several technical issues surrounding the concept. For instance, the U.S Department of Education and Research defines this concept as the application of telecommunications and electronic devices, which enables students and learners to receive instructions from some distant location (Gura & Percy, 2005). However, according to Visser, there are two important aspects that qualify distance education system. For him, the process must involve two way communication paths between students and the teacher. He also argues that the process must involve the use of technology to mediate the necessary communication process (Visser, 2012).
From a philosophy of education point of view, other scholars have raised up a debate in an attempt to qualify distance education as a genuine teaching mode or as mere vehicle of transfer of instructions (Moore & Kearsley, 2011). As an attempt to reconcile the two arguments, Mayer tends to blend both perspectives of distance learning by pointing out three important aspects of such a system (Mayer, 2005).
For her, distance learning is marked by a quasi-permanent separation between the teacher and the student throughout the learning process (Mayer, 2005). Secondly, there has to be continued influence of educational organization with specific reference to planning, learning materials as well as other student support services. She further confirms that the use of technical media, such as print, audio, video or computer, is necessary to facilitate this communication (Mayer, 2005).
From these conceptual definitions, it can be deduced that any successful distance learning process has to be marked by certain common indicators. For instance, there has to be a separation of time or distance between the student and the teacher. Despite this physical separation, there is a need for consistent communication channel that will facilitate transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the learner and this employs the use of modern technology. Although the knowledge exchange is between the teacher and the learner, the role of an institution in supporting, organizing, facilitating, monitoring and sustaining the program remains paramount.
Development of Distance Learning
The formal implementation of distance learning traces its origin from mid 19th century in Europe and the United States (Goldin 2008; Schlosser, et al, 2010). An English man by the name Isaac Pitman has been credited to be the pioneer of such a program. He is reported to have successfully taught shorthand by correspondence in Bath, England in 1840. In his approach, he instructed students to copy short hand passages from biblical texts before submitting them for grading via the post (Goldin 2008).
From Pitman’s invention, various institutions begun to adopt the trend to offer correspondence education to people such as those with physical disabilities, women who could not formally enroll in institutions that were meant for men, employees who could not access schools during official working hours, and also residents of remote areas that could not easily access schools on regular basis (Howard, 2004). During this initial stage, the use of post was the most effective means of communication (Goldin, 2008).
In America, Illinois University became the first institution of higher learning to offer degrees from 1874 through distance learning (Discenza & Schenk, 2003). By 1900, this mode of learning became more popular in many American institutions. However, this was marked by a number of challenges regarding ethical practice and equality in the process (Rogers, 2009). In response to these challenges, a number of intervarsity associations, such as National Home Study Council (NHSC) and National University Extension Association, became very vocal in addressing the challenges of credibility as well as improving the programs (Discenza & Schenk 2003).
The advent of radios and televisions in 1920s and 1940s respectively became major technological developments in distance learning in the 20th century (Matheswaran, 2005). Institutions utilized these technologies to broadcast educational programs, hence, reaching out to millions of learners beyond the walls of the learning institutions (Visser 2012). Nonetheless, with the current development of computer technology, much has been achieved in distance learning than ever before. Electronic transfer of study materials, email chats and other internet models have made this mode of learning more convenient across the globe (Discenza & Schenk, 2003).
Challenges and Benefits of Distance Learning
A critical evaluation of this mode of study reveals that there are three types of barriers affecting distance learning. These include student based barriers that range from ineffective feedback mechanism, limited student teacher contact, alienation and isolation, as well as lack of socialization and mentorship (Gura & Percy, 2005). This system is also challenged by a number of faculty based barriers. These include lack of proper staff training, inadequate faculty selection, limited learning materials and difficulty in handling technical and practical subjects (Gura & Percy, 2005).
The third categories of challenges are those based on organizational barriers. These include insufficient funds to install, maintain and upgrade technological devices (Moore & Kearsley, 2011). Since the students are scattered across the globe, the institutions find it hard to manage and monitor the periodic progress of their students. Furthermore, there is a great challenge in maintaining learning environment since such learners study either in homes or offices that may not be study-friendly (Gura & Percy 2005).
Despite the numerous challenges, distant learning has in one way or the other remained beneficial to the current generation. It has expanded the scope of learning beyond the physical geographical boundaries of colleges, created opportunity for employees to study without necessarily absconding duties and has also reduced the costs of study that the learners could have incurred especially in travel and accommodation (Gura & Percy, 2005).
From the above reviewed literature, it is evident that the concept of distant learning has been considered as a relevant area of study in education. The approaches have been ranging from conceptual, historical and technological developments. However, very little has been researched on the sociological challenges of the distant learners. Since previous researches have viewed educational programs from a purely academic perspective, this work considers academic as part of but not the only goal of educational system. The social interaction between the learners and the teachers is, therefore, viewed as an important aspect of learning such that missing it is likely to dilute the learning process. The work, therefore, intends to explore such challenges, thereby recommending ways of managing them, hence, improving the quality of distant learning.