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Cyber-Education. Can It Happen?

Using technology to change the way we learn.

Want to go to paramedic school? Thinking about finishing that fire science degree? Want to learn the latest response guidelines regarding bio-terrorism but can’t find a local class? Can distance education be the answer? This article explores the strengths and limitations of distance learning.

Definition of Distance Education
As in any field, distance education has its own unique language.

It seems as though each authority on distance education defines the term in his or her own way, which can be quite confusing. However, there is an underlying theme – distance education is planned learning where the student is separated by time and/or distance from the instructor. Recently, many definitions also acknowledge that distance education involves the use of some kind of telecommunication technology.

Often incorrectly, the expression ‘distance learning’ is interchanged with distance education. By its true definition, education involves an instructor, who influences the content and delivery. Thus distance learning is simply the end result of distance education.

You also may have heard of ‘distributed learning.’ Distributed learning is a new buzz word that is used to describe a distance learning program that combines multiple delivery modes to take advantage of each one’s strengths. A delivery mode is the method for conveying information. Students might have some classroom activities combined with other methods, such as web sites, video conferencing, chat rooms, calendar programs, video, audio, and Microsoft® PowerPoint®.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning Distance education can be broken up into two main categories, synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous education requires both the student and the participant to participate and interact in ‘real time.’ Synchronous learning in a distance setting is accomplished through technologies such as video conferencing, instant messaging, chat rooms and teleconferencing. The advantage is a virtual environment that closely mimics a classroom setting. The disadvantage is that students and instructors have to be there at the same time – a real problem if they are in vastly different time zones.

Asynchronous education does not require participants to learn at the same time. Although synchronous education is a great way for the students to communicate quickly with each other and the instructor, asynchronous learning allows students to learn at a time most convenient for them. Typically, asynchronous learning is achieved through modes such as e-mail, chat groups, videotapes, Web sites and CD-ROM distribution.

Distance education programs generally exceed the preparation requirements for a typical classroom. The golden rule is that a distance education program takes about three times longer to prepare than traditional classroom lectures. For example, a 1-hour lecture on Scene Safety may take two hours to prepare. If the same content were delivered via distance education, it would take a minimum of six hours of preparation. That’s assuming that you are fluent in the technologies necessary to conduct a distance-training program.

However, to balance that time commitment is the fact that one of the strengths of a distance program is the ability to reach large numbers of students. Once those materials are produced, they can extend far beyond the 25 or 30 students who typically gather in a classroom. And, in asynchronous instruction, the distance materials are around long after the one-hour lecture is finished.

As Tania H. Gottschalk wrote in the University of Idaho’s Distance of Education Overview Guide:

“Without exception, effective distance education programs begin with careful planning and a focused understanding of course requirements and student needs. Appropriate technology can only be selected once these elements are understood in detail. There is no mystery to the way effective distance education programs develop. They don’t happen spontaneously; they evolve through the hard work and dedicated efforts of many individuals and organizations. In fact, successful distance education programs rely on the consistent and integrated efforts of students, faculty, facilitators, support staff, and administrators.”

There are four broad technology categories that all delivery modes fall into:
Voice – tools include telephone, teleconferencing, audiotapes, and radio.
Video – tools include film, videotape, and videoconferencing.
Data – tools include web, chat, and forums.
Print – tools include textbooks, workbooks, and syllabi.

In order to provide the best education, it’s important to use the right tools for the right job. Graphics and video do a great job of illustrating skills and techniques that are difficult to explain, but they can’t offer any kind of interactivity. Chats and telephone are great for interactivity, but there’s no graphic capability. Video conferencing is the closest thing to a classroom setting, but can limit interaction. Web sites and CD-ROMs can track a student’s progress as they move through a course and offer interactivity with the materials, but they can’t answer unexpected questions from students.

Distance Education and Public Safety
Becoming a paramedic is a long process, involving between 1000-2000 hours. The time commitment is substantial, especially for would-be paramedics who live in rural areas. Often, these students must travel to training, taking time away from their jobs and families to attend classes. Of these hours, 30 - 40% are used to learn didactic materials – the knowledge and rationale behind the skills.

Clearly, clinical time is essential in order to gain the skills and knowledge needed to become a paramedic. A complete ‘cyber-paramedic’ class would just as ridiculous as a practicing physician who received her MD through correspondence. However, distance education is well suited for didactic materials. Imagine an environment where much of the classroom setting could be completed virtually to a number of students over a large geographical area. The proper combination of distance education coupled with solid clinical time and hands-on instructor training can bring the best elements from all disciplines into one training course.

Web sites and CD-ROMs have the power of a textbook to cover materials in detail, with the added advantages of video. For learning that requires memory skills, both these technologies can add interactive drills or quizzes to help the students and instructor test the students’ comprehension. And just as a good textbook index helps students review what they’ve learned, a good search function accomplishes the same goal on a Web site or CD-ROM. Web sites and CD-ROMs also have the capability of tracking a student’s progress through the program. Instructors can use a variety of distance methods to cover these materials, saving the face-to-face meetings for skills practice and testing.

But it doesn’t stop with didactic materials. Technology also is useful for skills demonstrations, whether it’s classroom or distance instruction. A well-done video clip on videotape, CD-ROM or a web site ensures that skills demonstrations are done consistently. And, the students can review them as often as they want.

Distance education can be extremely valuable to help public safety professionals fulfill continuing education requirements. One advantage is the ability to provide access to experts from other areas without the added expense of travel.

Continuing education is a constant need in public safety. Not only because the hours are required for re-certification, but also because these professionals know they need to remain current in their field. Traditionally, these hours are earned by “seat time” in a classroom. These classes range from excellent learning experiences to dreadful sessions with instructors who stand up in front and read their slides or handouts to the class. And, in-class sessions again require students to arrange their schedules around the class. Sometimes, this isn’t a problem, but it can limit attendance and training opportunities, especially for public safety professionals who do shift work. Training coordinators who must reach all workers will most likely have to schedule several classes at different times, an inefficient use of instructor time.

Even some skills work can take place at a distance. Consider the idea of videotaping performance and sending it to a remote instructor for critique. Videotaping has been used in several studies as a method of keeping evaluators separated from the students so they would not influence the students’ performance or be biased by any interaction they might have with the students. The studies generally have found few limitations to evaluating performance through videotape. Being able to submit a videotape gives students access to guidance from experts who may not be available in their location. An added advantage is that the students have a video record of their own performance and can review the video to see what the evaluator saw. Exceptional performances can become video models. If you consider the amount of time and effort it takes to set up a good skills performance station, it makes sense to preserve these performances and get as much training mileage out of them as possible.

Distributed learning uses various strategies for learning. An example of this is a web-based triage training program based on the well-known Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment program. The information is contained on a web site, which includes an online ungraded “test.” However, the course also contains a classroom component. After students have completed the web-based training and their tests have been forwarded to the instructor, they meet with the instructor to review and discuss the triage system. The training materials include several triage scenarios, intended to spark discussions that reinforce the materials and give the instructor an indication of what points the students are missing. A remote instructor using video conferencing technology also can conduct the on-site class. A final option is for an individual to study the web-based materials and conduct the discussions through email with a remote instructor.

One major issue in distance education is how to document the learning in order to award continuing education credit. The continuing education credit system evolved from the classroom model. In many areas, students are not required to pass any kind of test to earn the credit. Rather, credits are awarded for attendance.

There are several strategies to get around this limitation. One is to develop technology solutions that document the student’s progress through the program and send the information to an instructor or training coordinator. An EMS continuing education program in North Dakota embeds a certification number in one of the web site’s video clips. Students are instructed to listen for and write down the number so they can submit it to receive their credit.

More common is requiring students to complete some kind of test. Computer-based tests are relatively easy to develop and can include both multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank tests. The easiest test to develop is a multiple-choice test, because it can be scored by a computer and can return instant results. Fill-in-the-blank tests, unless they are extremely short answers, usually require someone to score the answers.

The Continuing Education Coordinating Board for Emergency Medical Services (CECBEMS) offers certification for distributed learning courses. Those submitting applications to this board must have a system in place to document how tests will be scored and how they will ensure that certificates are awarded only to persons who have completed the course.

Cheating is of some concern. It is difficult to document who is completing the test and to make sure students aren’t sharing their answers. Some course organizers get around this problem by requiring students to attend supervised testing sessions. This negates some of the advantage of distance learning since it is not as convenient as being able to complete everything through distance methods. Some instructors scramble electronic test questions so that every student has a slightly different version of the test, making sharing answers more difficult. Or testing can be more elaborate, such as having to conduct a written case review, which makes sharing answers more difficult.

Common Myths about Distance Education
Distance education is not as good as a traditional classroom setting.
Researchers have been studying this issue for the past 50 years, usually comparing the achievement of students who learn on-site with students who learn at a distance. The general finding is that there is no real difference between the groups of students. Classroom instruction evolved because, for a long time, the only alternative was one-on-one training or apprenticeship. Classroom instruction was more efficient than either of these. Now, with the advantages of technology, other teaching methods are evolving. Many learning theorists even challenge the effectiveness of a learning model that is based on an expert (instructor) standing up and transferring knowledge to the students, the basic lecture model. True learning, these theorists argue, is a discovery with the instructor acting more as a guide. The cute slogan for this view is: “Guide on the side, rather than sage on the stage.

There’s no difference between distance education and classroom-based education.
Just because studies have shown that students can learn equally in both distance and classroom-based education, doesn’t mean the methods are the same. There are plenty of differences. Most of us are very familiar with classroom-based education because the U.S. public school system, as well as higher education, uses this method. Classroom instructors have learned to rely on many subtle cues – mostly visual – from the students to adjust the pace and/or content of their lectures and to determine whether the students are “getting it.” In most distance education classes, these cues are not available. Even in videoconference classes, they are more difficult to pick up on. Instructors in distance courses have to use different methods. One of the most important is paying careful attention to the design of the materials. Interactivity is another big difference. In most classrooms, students interact by talking. Lively discussions can be a great benefit of the classroom – as students react to each other, spurring “more discussion. This same interaction can take place through email or chats; the reactions take a little longer but can be just as lively. Some distance education proponents argue that email or chat discussions actually encourage participation by shyer students or students who like to take more time to respond. Just as in a classroom, there will be students who will tend to “lurk,” reading others’ comments but not responding. Instructors need to find ways to draw these students out, just as they do in a classroom. Distance education instructors may find that they are doing more one-on-one interaction with the students – through e-mail or chats – than they would in a traditional classroom.

Taking a distance education course is a quick way to get a certificate or degree.
Distance education takes a lot of time and commitment. Again, because we are familiar with classroom-based instruction we have developed techniques for getting the most out of them. A skilled instructor guides us through the materials and we pick up on cues from the instructor on what is important. We even gauge our own progress by comparing ourselves to the other students. The necessity of physically having to attend class helps focus our attention. Distance education requires a higher level of motivation. Distance students who are working from home may find themselves interrupted or distracted by family members and responsibilities. Those attempting to study at work may find supervisors don’t grant them the same amount of time away from other responsibilities as they would if the students were physically in a classroom. There also are many different types of learners. Those who learn best through classroom techniques may find that distance techniques take considerably more time and be frustrated by the self-study demands. The flip side of this is that students who are frustrated with classroom lectures. may find distance learning quite liberating. Also, because instructors in distance programs do not oversee students physically, they may require more work from students to document their progress or to ensure that they are spending a comparable amount of “seat time.”

Any person can learn through distance education.
Researchers have tried to identify factors that influence a student’s success in distance education. The level of higher education is one factor – those who have had more higher education tend to do better in distance education. Another factor is personality or learning style – studies have suggested that introverted people and those who are less influenced by environment do better with distance education. Other concerns, such as employment, family responsibilities and social obligations, also have been shown to impact distance education success. None of these factors alone is a key element. Motivation and a firm intention to complete are usually named as the most important success indicators.

Developing a distance education course is easier than lecturing.
The truth of this issue lies more in the approach to distance education than in any blanket statement. In the beginning of distance education, and far too often even today, some classroom instructors posted their lecture notes and electronic slides on a web site and called it distance education – certainly easy, but not particularly effective. Conversely, we all know classroom instructors who can rely on their performance skills and entrance an audience with very little preparation. But for the majority, developing either a lecture or distance education course takes preparation. It is possible to develop a good classroom learning session relying primarily on a good textbook, slide show and handouts. Professionally produced textbooks and slide shows often can be purchased, reducing the preparation time.

In the distance education realm, however, organizers generally have to do more production before they can launch their course. In the case of a CD-ROM or web site that is highly interactive, this production can be quite expensive and time-consuming. As yet, there are few packaged distance education components available for purchase. This situation may change as distance education becomes more widespread.

Some distance education guides suggest that producing distance education courses should be a team effort because of the amount of work required. Added to that is the simple fact that distance education is less familiar to all of us than classroom-based education. Even those who have never taught in a classroom have at least been a student in a classroom and have witnessed first-hand both good and bad classroom techniques. As more people are involved in distance education, familiarity will no doubt help ease some of the production difficulties.

Distance education is a viable option for public safety professionals and volunteers. Although we can learn equally well through either classroom or distance methods, they are not the same. Those who create such offerings generally rely on a variety of telecommunication technologies to connect students with instructors. Each method has its particular strengths and weaknesses, which designers, instructors and students must keep in mind for distance education.

Jeri D. Pullum. Jeri has spent the past 15 years working with rural EMS providers, primarily on training projects for the Critical Illness and Trauma Foundation. She has designed, produced and authored numerous interactive computer-based training programs and contributes substantially to both the development of grant projects and in overseeing their completion. Using her background in print journalism and bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana, Jeri writes and edits scripts, training materials, proposals, reports and newsletters. She was an editor for a daily newspaper and worked for several years for a video production company. Jeri has a master’s degree in distance education and instructional technology. You can contact her at columnist Krisendath D. Kaull, a paramedic and former firefighter, specializes in technology trends and their effect in Public Safety. During almost 15 years in both rural and urban fire and EMS settings, he has enhanced technology communications between field EMS providers and emergency departments.
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