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Implementing Distance Learning in Urban Schools
Author: Gibran Majdalany and Susan Guiney, Teachers College, Columbia University
One of the greatest challenges confronting large urban school districts is the ability to provide students with low-cost high quality educational services. In addition, urban schools often face large numbers of adult learners with a plethora of educational needs, from basic literacy to career planning, training, and placement. Constricted by a shortage of resources, lack of public transportation, and questionable street safety, these schools are increasingly turning to distance education as a means of service delivery (Harrington-Leuker, 1999).
Distance learning can be defined simply as an instruction and learning practice utilizing technology and involving students and teachers who are separated by time and space. It can occur between schools, between schools and colleges and universities, and even within school buildings and districts. Distance education first emerged as a concept in the nineteenth century, when it was characterized as a correspondence course. It reappeared as the open universities of the 1970s, and then as the videotape, broadcast, satellite, and cable productions of the 1980s. Today, distance education commonly refers to the use of audio, video, and computer videoconferencing technologies as delivery modes (Steiner, forthcoming).
This digest discusses how urban schools can implement effective distance learning programs through customized development of the three elements crucial to a successful distance education program: a sound instructional design; appropriate technology applications; and support for teachers, students, and collaborative partners (Steiner, 1999).
Early decisions determine whether distance learning includes one school building or several within one or more districts. They also establish budgeting and program scheduling arrangements. Additional initial planning includes the creation of new forms for assessing students and providing feedback on their work; the selection, development, and technology training of program staff; and the development of effective instructional designs. Relationships with business, government, and other educational institutions, such as colleges and universities, are considered as possible future support for the program. Finally, contingency plans for teachers and students are prepared to deal with technical problems.
Student benefits include these (New York State Distance Learning Consortium, 1999):
The Learning Café is the home of a set of four 30-seat computer laboratories in four Brooklyn, NY, high schools connected by a T1 line to the Internet established though a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Brooklyn College, and The College Board. Catering to at-risk students, the Café offers web-based pre-college and college level courses to students who are demographically less likely to pursue higher education. Students are able to learn new technologies and explore career options in addition to pursuing their college careers. Early college core courses are offered to students at no cost. Students who successfully complete the Café courses are automatically admitted to Brooklyn College. Engaging, easy to use, and non-threatening personalized software is used to welcome students to online distance learning. A database component was created to link students to work as well as to evaluate and to monitor student access and performance (Case Studies, 1999).
Connectivity standards are key to implementing a distance learning program. Connections must be widely and easily available, reliable, and predictable. The most common ways to transmit a videoconference today are these:
Basic hardware components for a videoconferencing system include a camera, a microphone, a monitor for viewing, a CODEC (COmpressor/DECompressor) to code and decode video signals for transmission, and a device that sends and receives the signals over a phone line or network connection. Based on budget and need, videoconferencing systems can be permanent (classroom or boardroom), portable (group systems on a wheeled cart), compact (videophones), desktop- or LAN based, or Internet-available (Heines, 1997).
A distance learning facilitator is needed to assist student learning and ensure technology maintenance. Support for staff participants is also an important factor in the success of a program, since the introduction of distance learning can be intimidating, even for experienced teachers. Online mentoring systems that match teachers with experienced distance learning staff provide support and advice to new members. To be effective distance educators, teachers become involved in the programs organization, collaborative planning, and decision-making, and must be able to do the following (Schlosser & Anderson, 1997):
Finally, in urban settings, additional fiscal and individual support of the program can be secured from community distance learning events, such as sessions covering public health or senior interests.
Case studies. (1999). Syllabus, 12(10), 48-49.
Harrington-Leuker, D. (1999). Urban tech. The American School Board Journal, 186(7), 25-28.
Heines, Scott. (1997, April). Videoconferencing. Presentations, 11(4), 34-36, 38, 40-41, 43-45.
Los Angeles County Office of Education. (1999). TEAMS distance learning for all K-12 educators. Available:
New York State Distance Learning Consortium. (1999). NYSDLC discussion paper. Available:
Pearson, V.W. (1989). Critical factors considered in the planning for the administration and implementation of long-distance interactive video instruction. Doctoral Dissertation, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.
Reed, J., & Woodruff, M. (1995, Fall). Using compressed video for distance learning. Distance Educator, 1(3), 2, 6-10.
Schlosser, C.A., & Anderson, M.L. (1997). Distance education: review of the literature (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.
Sherry, L. (1996). Issues in distance learning. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(4), 337-65.
Steiner, Virginia. (Forthcoming.) What is distance education? Distance learning resource guide. San Francisco: WestEd.
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