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Virtual Learning

The Lingo of Learning

A primer on the definitions, pros and cons of distance, online and blended learning.

posted July 4, 2012  |  Appears in the Summer 2012 issue of EdTech Magazine.

What's the difference between distance learning, online learning, and blended or hybrid learning? Here's a quick overview.

DISTANCE LEARNING — This style relies on cameras, a video conferencing system, microphones and other interactive technologies, such as student response systems to present live, two-way, interactive instruction (synchronous) or live one-way teaching (asynchronous).

Pros: Officials can pull together far-flung students who hail from different schools (or even different districts) into a single class, without losing the appeal and traditional benefits of face-to-face, lecture-based instruction.

Cons: This approach usually requires an additional investment in dedicated distance learning technologies and demands classroom space at all student locations. Students must participate at those locations at a designated time during the traditional school day.

ONLINE LEARNING — Students access prerecorded lectures, lesson plans and assignments, which are delivered by learning management systems over the web; and communicate with teachers and other students via e-mail, social media and other forms of online communication.

Pros: Students can take more types of courses and learn at their own pace, when and where they want to learn. It's especially beneficial for students who need to recover credits, are expelled or homebound because of illness, have fallen behind in their classes, or are gifted and want to take advanced classes that better prepare them for college or help them gain advanced-placement credits.

Cons: Not all students perform well because it requires self-direction and self-motivation. Schools need to invest in an online coordinator or arrange for teachers to help those students who struggle or get off track.

BLENDED (OR HYBRID) LEARNING — Students take the majority of their coursework online, but the class gets together on a regular basis for face-to-face lectures or to engage in classroom demonstrations or projects.

Pros: Combines the convenience and virtual nature of online coursework with the personalized benefits of traditional, teacher-led classwork.

Cons: Students who want to move through coursework more quickly are held to the speed of the overall class, and schools must provide the classroom space and designated teacher time for face-to-face meetings.

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