World Futures: Distance Learning And Teaching – Part Four

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

Part Three of this series included the words vestibular, proprioception, sesquipedalian, and circumlocution. Did you know or recognize them, look them up, or simply ignore them?

If you were a distance learning student and I was the teacher, would I have been successful in teaching the words? Probably not, but who cares? But if the words were an essential part of vocabulary, how do I do my job as a “distance teacher?”

The teachers at the primary and secondary school levels are skilled in interacting with students personally. They observe and interpret voice tone, body language, attention span and so forth. The teacher then adjusts his or her teaching strategy based on observation and interpretation. In the process, it is assumed that the teacher is an expert in the subject and she or he is educated on collective student performance and teacher-student interaction.

Past the secondary school level (high school), teacher-student interaction evolves (degrades?) significantly. One can argue that the change occurs in high school and you would be correct, at least partially. And when you arrive in graduate school, at least as I remember it, it is four or five hours of study for every classroom hour and the classroom is a passive activity of watching a lecture. There is more student-student and student-material interactivity.

If one could really measure the need for teacher-student interactivity, a plot of the data probably would show a continuing decrease as one progresses through the learning system. This suggests that teachers at lower educational levels need to be better at distance teaching than the Nobel Prize winning college professor. But what is involved?

To be a good distance teaching individual or team you need skills in and knowledge of media, interactivity (including instructional strategies and collective learning), performance evaluation and implementation. This is a pretty short list so it should be easy to achieve. We should start with media or are you going to apply psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory and say that media is too complicated so let’s skip it? Or, is it so important that it is essential to modern education?

What if all teachers had to write their own books? Obviously a foolish question since schools use “standardized” texts and first grade books differ significantly from high school texts. But is the teacher’s presentation documented in a “permanent” fashion or adjusted in real time based on student reaction? In distance teaching the media includes print and text, audio and video, computer-based training where the machine does the teaching, and synchronous communications (telephone, texting, audio and video networking, on-line conferences, etc.).

If you are an elementary grade teacher, how skilled are you in the use of these tools to effectively teach a distant learner?

As a teacher you must use the media to establish interactivity with the student so that he or she can process and internalize the information and convert it to knowledge. Enter again Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory. As a distance teacher can you adapt in real time because of student response? Using distance teaching you can employ a range of instructional strategies. These would include lecture, drill and practice, tutorial, games, simulation, coaching and dialogue. Obviously, lecture should be straight forward. Simply sit in front of your computer or cell phone camera and talk. Yet, it is one way and you may or may not look acceptable (to you or the student?). Of course, a team could be established to ensure good videography, assuming the school system can afford it. Or perhaps standardized videos could be used and the teacher becomes merely an assistant.

Essentially, as a teacher you must evaluate the student. While this is done informally in every in-person class, it also is done using tests. While one can argue that writing an essay is not a test, if it is used to assess proficiency of learning, it is a test. But whatever the format, how can it be accomplished at a distance? How do you know that the student test performance is not affected by the testing tools? If you ever watch talent contest television shows you will notice that some of the contestants are very nervous. Is the cause the judges, the audience, or all of the electronic paraphernalia being used? How do you, as a teacher, calm your students when they must take tests on a computer or smart phone?

A final aspect (for this article) of distance teaching is collective learning. A group of students assemble to solve a problem, reinforce one another, and coach each other with common level understanding. If the students are separated from the teacher, they probably are separated from each other. How does the teacher, instructional designer, or instructor adapt to this challenge? Or put another way, how do you implement distance learning and pay for it?

Til next time….
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