Possible limits and benefits of distance learning

Following the definition provided by one of the main popular sites, distance education means “distance education, (…) the set of educational activities carried out within an educational project that provides for the non-attendance of teachers and learners in the same place”. This is a formula that is increasingly exploited and increasingly widespread in the most disparate areas of learning and the transmission of notions, which moves hand in hand with the daily increase in means, possibilities and tools offered by new technologies. Like every aspect of life, however, also that of distance education lives with light and shadow, for and against, which we have tried to summarize and analyze in this article through the voice of experts and the most recent research.

The ISTUD Foundation has also made use of this practical method of transmitting knowledge in certain contexts, the most important of which is undoubtedly the Healthy project. It is a project funded by the European Erasmus plus programme, carried out in collaboration with European partners. Healthy wants to provide useful tools to raise public awareness about a healthy lifestyle. The first tool created was a “training kit” useful for professionals and people who want to change their lifestyle or accompany people along this path. In particular, the project is aimed at people with obesity.

Everything, when it comes to distance education, depends largely on the material that you intend to provide, as we are reminded by a detailed study carried out by UCIIM:

“The effectiveness of a distance learning action is linked in large part to the goodness of the teaching materials that must be organized in a textual or multimedia path. Structured didactic materials must not be understood as the reproduction in electronic format of the teacher’s notes’ transparencies. The process that leads to the structuring of the materials is born from a precise didactic project and from the knowledge of the potential of the technological tools used in the distance education”.

Here are some of the qualifying points necessary for a good success in the field of distance learning:

– Motivating the student

– Specify what the student should learn and when.

– Encourage the student to recall and apply previous knowledge.

– Provide documents and information taking into account the potential and characteristics of the tools available.

– Provide support and feedback

– Controlling comprehension.

– To ensure that the best students are provided with in-depth information and stimuli and that students in difficulty are given opportunities to recover.

One of the most effective methods of evaluating a method is through direct comparison, active collection of opinions and suggestions in this regard. This is exactly what The Guardian has done in a very useful contribution, exposing to the readers some pros and cons concerning the relationship between distance educationand the health system, expressed directly by professionals.

A few examples of pro:

“One of the main advantages is the flexibility that e-learning offers. This can help to ensure that learning is more accessible and not overlooked. There are also advantages when it comes to managing compliance and continuous professional development, both from an individual and an organisational point of view. There can also be benefits for the organization in terms of budget and time. – Colin McEwen, account manager, eCom Scotland

“E-learning can be cheap, time efficient and a flexible way to access training. In an industry like health, where people can be quickly removed, it’s something you can go back and forth from – you’re not locked up in a classroom. – Emily Newlands, Head of Development and Support, National Skills Academy for Health

A few examples of cons:

“There is a continuous duplication of resources throughout the sector, with different educational institutions creating similar content, resulting in reduced use. There is certainly a need for an intelligent meta-site that accumulates all available resources. – Dr. Dirk Pilat, Medical Director for e-learning, Royal College of GPs

“Well thought out e-learning is good for some aspects of education, in particular for theoretical elements. However, I don’t think it is suitable for aspects that require a much more sensitive and personalised approach, such as the treatment of dementia. – Beth Britton, activist, consultant, writer and blogger:

There are also many studies and scientific articles on this very topical subject. In a study entitled “Leveraging e-learning in medical education” a systematic analysis of databases of studies published in the field of e-learning in paediatric education between 2003 and 2013 was used. The research was conducted using educational and health databases. In total, 72 reference articles were found to be suitable for analysis. The research found that most of the studies focused on the effectiveness and satisfaction of teaching while there were few studies on the development of e-learning, on the implementation and assessment of the needs used to identify institutional and learner needs.

A further study, entitled “Impact of e-learning on nurses’ and student nurses knowledge, skills, and satisfaction: a systematic review and meta-analysis“, aimed to examine the impact of e-learning on the knowledge, skills and satisfaction of nurses and student nurses in relation to e-learning. Eleven randomised controlled trials were identified, for a total of 2491 nurses and student nurses. First, the size of the random effect for four studies showed some improvement associated with e-learning compared to traditional knowledge techniques. However, the difference was not statistically significant. Secondly, one study reported a slight impact on e-learning on competences, but even the difference is not statistically significant. Thirdly, it was not possible to report results on the satisfaction of nurses or nursing students because statistical data from three possible studies were not available.

The results concluded that there was no statistical difference between e-learning groups and traditional learning related to the knowledge, skills and satisfaction of nurses or student nurses. However, e-learning can offer an alternative method of training.

There is also an interesting article, entitled “Interprofessional online learning for primary healthcare: findings from a scoping review“, which presents the results of a research that explored the nature of interprofessional online learning in primary health care. The evaluation was based on the following questions: What is the nature of the evidence on post-graduate online education for inter-professional primary health teams? What learning approaches and study methods are used in this context? What is the range of results reported for primary health students, their organisations and the care they provide to patients/clients?

Most of the studies included reported results associated with participants’ reactions and positive changes in participants’ attitudes/perceptions and improved knowledge/skills as a result of engagement in an e-learning course. On the contrary, fewer studies reported changes in participants’ behaviour, changes in organisational practice and improvements for patients/clients. In conclusion, e-learning can improve the learning experience, support development, reduce time constraints, overcome geographical limitations and offer greater flexibility. However, it can also contribute to student isolation and its benefits can be offset by technical problems.

Distance learning can also be used as a leverage in developing countries. There are many reports from, for example, the African continent, such as the narratives reported by Donald Clark in his blog, as in this excerpt concerning the close relationship between literacy, youth and mobile phones:

“In my workshop on “Mobiles and literacy” I was pushing the idea that mobile phones had produced a “renaissance of reading and writing” among young people. It will, I think, be the most important factor in increasing literacy on the planet. Why? Every child is strongly motivated to learn how to send text messages, posts and messages to mobile phones. Evidence shows that they become obsessive readers and writers through mobile device”.

Finally, as far as the world of distance education is concerned, there are many studies and guides that have emerged from this peculiar reality, useful to have a broad vision on the subject, such as this interesting booklet produced by the USAID Assist Project.



Written by

Graduated in Literature at the University of Eastern Piedmont, he's now studying anthropological and ethnological science at the University of Milano-Bicocca. Journalist and writer, he collaborated with many local newspapers and in the 2015 he published his first book "Qui non arriva la pioggia". In the 2017 published "Il peccato armeno, ovvero la binarietà del male".

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