Distance Learning: what is it and how it works
It’s been one of the most debated and controversial issues in recent months, from the start of the health emergency. But what is distance learning exactly? And what does it really involve?
Although it might appear to be a new educational model, distance learning was actually established in the mid-1800s, with the first “correspondence courses” in Europe documented in London in 1840. They were present in the more industrialized countries and mostly aimed at adult learners. From the 20th century onwards, the pool of users has increased and gotten younger and takes advantage of new tools as they become available: radio, telephone, television, VHS, fax, the first teleconferences and then computers, first with floppy disks and CD-Rom. Today we are in what is known as the third generation of distance learning, thanks to the existence of the internet.
How it works
Distance learning can take many forms, but the common denominator is that teachers and students do not share a space: there is no physical interaction between them and the relationship is mediated by technological instruments.
This is different from integrated distance learning, which alternates in-person and remote lessons.
Distance learning can take place in two different ways:
Asynchronous, pre-taped audio or video lessons, slides, homework uploaded onto a platform (whether belonging to the educational institution or external to it) that students can access or download at any time;
Synchronous, live audio or video lessons that use a platform to recreate the experience of a real class virtually, with interaction and questions in real time.
Asynchronous distance learning requires greater independence and responsibility from the students and allows them greater flexibility in organizing their time, while the alternative takes place in scheduled timeslots.
A survey carried out by IRCCS Gaslini of Genoa, in the form of an anonymous questionnaire about three weeks in the lockdown and presented in June 2020 to the Ministry of Health, found that the experience had significantly marked children and adolescents. The main disadvantages of distance learning appear to be:
Behavioral and psychosomatic problems: analysis of the data relative to families with minor aged children revealed behavioral problems and signs of regression emerging in 65% of children under six years of age and 71% of children aged 6-18. The most frequent complaints in children under the age of six were increased irritability, sleep disturbances and anxiety disorders (restlessness, separation anxiety). In children and adolescents (6-18), the most frequent disorders were psychosomatic (anxiety and somatoform disorders such as shortness of breath) and sleep disorders (difficulty in falling asleep, difficulty in waking to start lessons on the computer). Furthermore, an increased “emotional instability with irritability and mood swings” was also identified in older children.
Problems deriving from technological devices and space: according to ISTAT data for 2018-2019, 33.8% of families do not have a computer or tablet at home, a figure that drops to 14.3% in families with at least one minor-age child. Only in 22.2% of families does every member have a computer or tablet at their disposal. This means that more than three in four students have to share the devices necessary for their education with siblings or parents who may be working from home. The situation is particularly problematic in southern Italy, where 41.6% of families do not have computers at home – which amounts to 470,000 students – and only 14.1% have a computer available for each family member. In addition, over 25% of people live in overcrowded conditions, a percentage that rises to 41.9% among minors.
Problems deriving from lack of skills: two out of three adolescents (aged 14-17) who have used the internet in the last 3 months possess only basic or poor digital skills; fewer than three in ten rate their skills as high.
Problems deriving from network connections: according to ISTAT, 76.1% of families had access to the internet and 74.7% to a broadband connection in 2019. Almost all families with at least one minor had access to broadband (95.1%); in families where all members were 65 and over, this drops to 34%. The data, however, does not differentiate between ADSL and fiber optics, and public WiFi connections were included in the tally. So, while it may appear that over 95% of families have no connection problems, there is actually no clarity about the bandwidth and its capacity to easily support the audio and video links needed for online lessons or the flow of data when downloading the material provided by teachers and uploading coursework. These problems exist for the teachers, too.
Difficulty in evaluating and involving students: distance learning requires new approaches to student assessment in a setting where teachers have far greater difficulty ensuring that tests are taken without external help, in addition to the challenge of finding effective ways to encourage student involvement, which is made more complicated by the distance created by using a device.
The distance learning numbers in Italy
In Italy there are almost 11 million students (precisely 10,876,792, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data), divided across the various educational levels:
1,535,493 in kindergartens and preschools
2,902,379 in primary school
4,601,869 in middle and secondary school
1,837,051 in tertiary education, including higher technical institutes, academies, conservatories, universities, masters and doctoral degree courses.
Disabilities and social inclusion
Four out of every ten students have disabilities; Campania and Lombardy alone, with over 50,000 children, make up almost half the total number of students requiring support for distance learning.
For these students, the risk of exclusion is even higher, given that support staff cannot provide contact and the daily interventions that are so useful in building operational independence.
In addition, some of them require adult support to use the technology. Students with specific learning difficulties or special educational needs (SEN) may have problems interfacing in a virtual class where the use of a device makes the relationship with the teacher less immediate.
Outlook for distance learning
A decree was signed on 2 November 2020 allocating €85 million for integrated digital learning to schools, distributed according to number of students and the OCSE ESCS (Economic, Social and Cultural Status) indicator that assists in targeting the greater part of funds to situations with the greatest socioeconomic needs and the lowest spread of digital devices.
The funds will be used to purchase more than 200,000 new electronic devices and provide over 100,000 connections, on loan to underprivileged students. Financing was already earmarked for these purposes in March 2020, which enabled the purchase of 432,330 devices and over 100,000 connections.
Schools acquired devices and technology for the start of the academic year in September partly using the €331 million provided directly by the institutions, in addition to making available the 1,200,000 devices already in their possession (data from the Ministry of Education website).
If nothing else, there is an attempt to fill the gaps revealed during the first wave of the pandemic, at least partially, on the technological side.