The Influence of Correspondence Courses on Modern Asynchronous Distance Learning

In a global, inter-connected world with increasing demands on individual’s time, the need for flexibility in learning programs continues to grow at a rapid rate. As a result, distance learning is on the rise. There are two broad categories of distance learning: synchronous (concurrent time and place) and asynchronous (flexible time and place) environments between facilitators, learners, and learning activities. Synchronous learning at a distance is a great way to connect facilitators and learners who are not in the same physical space, but can connect together at the same time online from their locations. Asynchronous distance learning offers more flexibility, allowing for interactions and learning to occur outside of unified time constraints. Many organizations utilize a combination of synchronous and asynchronous distance learning depending on the objectives, outcomes, participants, and environmental circumstances impacting the learning program. Here, we’ll focus on asynchronous distance learning

The original asynchronous distance learning program was the correspondence course which took root in the 18th century and rose to prominence in the 19th century. The format of the correspondence course was simple: the facilitator would send an assignment to a learner via mail, the learner would complete the assignment and mail it back to the instructor, and the facilitator would provide feedback on the assignment and mail the feedback to the learner. This simple format provided the foundation for the modern asynchronous distance learning programs. As technologies evolved, asynchronous learning incorporated radio, television, to all of the modern educational technology conveniences currently available (email, document sharing, discussion forums, blogs, wikis, streaming audio and video, and much more). As we continue to evolve asynchronous learning programs it is worth remembering the lessons learned from the pioneer of the field:

Facilitator-Learner Interaction is Important… In order to be successful learners need structure and guidance. The facilitator is the coach for the learner who provides a framework and constructive feedback on performance to assist the learning through the process. Correspondence courses set the stage here in maintaining the framework-feedback loop in the asynchronous format.

…but so is Peer-to-Peer Interaction One of the shortcomings of correspondence courses was that they offered no interaction with other learners. Social learning is powerful and can greatly enhance the learning process if implemented well. Developing relationships asynchronously is far more difficult than in a synchronous environment, so it is vital that the facilitator develops a structure that promotes learners getting to know other learning, building relationships, and requiring interaction throughout the course through a variety of learning activities.

Time is of the Essence Early correspondence courses were constrained on how quickly learning assignments and feedback could be given by a slow mail system. However, there was still an emphasis on a turnaround that was timely. Asynchronous does not mean devoid of time constraints, it simply offers flexibility. Facilitators still need to ensure they set up and maintain deadlines for facilitator-learner and learner-learner interactions to ensure learners stay engaged and the learning progress occurs. Modern educational technologies make it easier than ever to assign, partake in, and track learning interactions through numerous mediums.

Asynchronous distance learning will continue to grow and evolve, as it has since the first correspondence courses hundreds of years ago. As with any learning program there are challenges to the asynchronous distance modality: development time, costs, and the need for technical access and skills. However, there also many positives, especially the flexibility afforded by the modality and the ability to actively engage all learners, which can be challenging in time-bound synchronous environments. As the field continues to evolve, it is important to remember the early lessons learned from pioneering correspondence courses. Learning, at its heart, is about relationships. We learn from the coaching and guidance of our facilitators as well as from interactions with our peers. Ultimately, for our relationships to result in learning, our interactions must be structured, consistent, and timely.

Joshua Mathews Ailsworth currently serves as Informatics Educator Lead at Sidra Medical & Research Center in Doha, Qatar. Joshua is an experienced learning and development professional with a background in higher education, long-term care, and medical centers. Joshua is passionate about the philosophy and psychology of learning, learner engagement, and the role of technology in enhancing the learning experience.

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