Just a few years ago, distance learning was talked about as a futuristic phenomenon that would revolutionize education and training. Today it is a reality and while it has not quite caused a revolution, it is definitely impacting early childhood education in positive ways.

Distance learning is a term widely used to mean many types of education. It includes the use of videotaped sessions, CD-ROMs, computers, the Internet, and telecommunications technologies such as satellites, videoconferencing, and cable television systems that broadcast instruction from one central site to one or more remote locations. Distance learning allows participants to access classes and training from virtually any location, including their homes.

Two Types of Distance Learning

There are two primary types of distance learning: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous uses "real-time" communication and allows interaction between the instructor and students. The instructor is broadcast live to classrooms using cable TV, satellite, or video conferencing. Both instructor and students can see, hear, and interact with each other. Students must attend class at a facility that houses these technologies. Having to attend class at a specific time may be a disadvantage to busy professionals.

Asynchronous instruction can utilize a variety of media such as videotapes, television, CD-ROMs, and the Internet. Materials are prerecorded to allow the learner to access them at his own time and pace. The advantage for students is access to the content at any time, resulting in self-paced learning. Disadvantages include little or no contact and interaction with other students. Instructor contact usually takes place through phone or e-mail.

In the virtual classroom, technology supports collaborative learning, heterogeneous groupings, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills-- educational elements that a lecture format cannot facilitate.

Sources for Distance Learning & Mentoring

Community colleges are among the best sources of online or distance learning courses. In 1998, over 60% of community colleges offered distance learning courses. Most often classes are offered online and through video or cable TV viewing. Course information and links to the education or early childhood department can be found through local community college offices or Web sites. If you don't know the address of community college offices, try typing "www.(yourcommunitycollegename).edu" into your browser.

Mentoring is also being impacted by distance learning models. Telementoring is emerging as a way to pair teachers and learners with subject-matter experts who can provide advice; guidance, and feedback on learning projects. An intermediary matches online mentors and mentees. The Mentor Center (mc.musenet.org), The Electronic Emissary (emissary.ots.utexas. edu/emissary/index.html), and LearnWell eMentors (www.learnwell.org) are three examples.

Strategies for Successful Distance Learning

Look over the syllabus for activities that will allow you to learn in the ways best for you.

Constructivist-approach programs that allow the learner to construct their own meaning rather that repeat facts and information work best in distance learning.

If you need guidance or more extensive interaction with a teacher, be sure that option is available.

You will need an understanding of how to use the technology required by the course (TV, computer, and Internet). If you don't know how to use a computer, that should be one of the first courses you take.

Are you self-motivated? Can you work alone effectively? Distance courses may not be as interactive or allow the type of exchanges and information sharing that take place in live classes.

ERIC research estimates that technology-- assisted training will represent half of all training methods utilized by the year 2002. Distance education could be the single most effective solution to the extensive training and professional development needs of our industry. Distance learning, like early care and education, is here to stay.

(Questions adapted from recommendations of the U.S. Department of Education-The Web-Based Education Commission (Oct 2000).)