Distance Learning Educational Issues
Education research conducted by William Prothero (Prothero, 2000 ) points to three basic elements that contribute to learning in an inquiry-based science course: content, social context and presence. Each of these is affected by a move out of the traditional classroom and onto the web, but each is affected differently.
Content is the subject matter of the course. It encompasses the knowledge, facts and skills needed to do well in the class. For example, in a class on Structural Geology, the content aspect of the class would cover not only information about structural geology itself, but probably also knowledge on the use of tools and apparatus necessary for studying structural geology.
Content education can actually be strengthened by a move into an online format. Integrating figures, charts and other resources is very easy in a web environment. The extent of inclusion of non-text elements is essentially only limited by the time and proficiency of the designer. Students also have an incredible amount of auxiliary information at their fingertips on the internet, but must actively go looking for it. While care should be taken due to the uncertified state of much of the information on the web, the act of digging up additional resources will likely improve student performance and retention. (Shroder et al., 2002 ; Prothero, 2000 )
There is a social aspect to any face-to-face class. Students develop relationships inside and outside of class for the purpose of discussing the content provided in the class as well as get to know each other. This type of interaction helps to cement the class into one learning community (Prothero, 2000 ).
Chat rooms, bulletin boards and email email lists can simulate this type of interaction very well. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that social intimacy can develop to a higher degree online. Many people seem to be more prepared to share their thoughts more quickly in the semi-anonymous world of the internet. In addition, one-on-one videoconferencing via the web can be a valuable tool for instructors to interface in real-time with students who need additional help or support and scheduled chat sessions where everyone is "in the room" can be very valuable (McNeil et al., 2000 ; Gore, 2000 ). These tools can help a sense of community develop within the student group and between the students and the instructor (Conrad, 2002 (more info) ).
Non-verbal communication is very powerful in a face-to-face situation in a way that can't yet be simulated online. For instructors, a quick glance around the room can yield insights into who is paying attention, who is confused, and who is beginning to understand. This allows them to tailor their lesson to the current situation. For students, an outstanding instructor can become a role model for the thought processes of practicing scientists. Many current scientists credit a "special" professor as inspiring them to go into science. Identification with the instructor can motivate students to apply themselves more in one class than another, affecting which direction their education will take.
This kind of interaction is the most difficult thing to replicate where face-to-face opportunities are rare or nonexistent. The subtlety of interaction that conveys so much of the "in-class" experience is missing when communication happens over the web. But it is unclear whether this issue has global significance. It will most likely be important for some students, but may be completely irrelevant to many others (Prothero, 2000 ).