Distance Learning: What We Learned, What Works and What Doesn’t


Editor’s Note: Commercial Integrator has partnered with IMCCA, the New York-based nonprofit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, which focuses on all things collaboration from multiple angles. .


On March 13, 2020, the President declared a national emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. If they hadn’t already, all higher education institutions announced the shift to online learning that day. It would only be temporary…or so they thought. What was initially seen as a short-term stopgap has become a transformative moment in learning: distance education has evolved from a niche enrollment category to the single most important determinant of education as it progresses.

As technologists, we naturally move on to things that make distance learning possible. Many of these tools – for example, unified communication (UC) platforms, in-room cameras, ceiling microphones, learning management systems (LMS) and recording capabilities – do not were perhaps not part of the classroom norms in the previous days. But while having the right tools is important for an efficient installation, the tools themselves are not the lessons learned.

Content is essential for distance learning

Effective distance learning is about content, especially the delivery and understanding of content. Translated, this means it’s about the people: the people who send the content and the people who consume the content. Students have adapted extremely well to delivering content online. In fact, they’ve been doing it for over a decade; just look at the popularity of TikTok, Snapchat, FaceTime and many other social media communication platforms. The college-age population was ready to learn through the screen.

Faculty members, on the other hand, experienced a roadblock. “How can I take what I’ve been doing for 20 years and put it online? asked the teachers. “You don’t,” replied the tech leads. The world is different; learning is different; and your teaching style and skills must also be different. Faculty must adapt to the technology provided and the experience students have of it.

Online teaching is a fundamentally separate business from in-person teaching. Distance education is not traditional education and should not be treated as such. The shift from physical classrooms to virtual learning has revealed some weaknesses in conventional educational practices. Issues of equity and access have become glaring. Where previously the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was considered a checklist item when designing and building space, the pandemic has demonstrated something important: there is people behind the regulations. Similarly, e-learning best practices, such as those from Quality Matters (QM), needed to become commonplace rather than being “nice to have”.

“A” comes before “V”, but the “V” is vitally important for equity and accessibility. The pandemic has helped clarify the old AV adage that audio is more important than video. In the context of work-from-home offices, many would say it’s okay if people can’t see you as long as they can hear you. This, however, is a flawed theory when it comes to distance education. While audio is important, closed captioning ranks above it – and that’s visual. It’s not the camera that’s so important, but rather the ability to consume the message of the content. And that message is delivered both orally and visually in a fair digital world.

Learning without being able to stop a live teacher for questions and discussion means the ability to rewind, replay, and replay is also a huge factor in distance learning success.

Considering the visually/hearing impaired

Distance learning has proven to be a boon for people who are visually and/or hard of hearing. While most tech managers would agree that professors aren’t supposed to serve as AV technicians and show producers, they’re supposed to follow best practices when it comes to delivering content. The teaching and learning offices of many institutions previously taught these practices, but they were rarely followed in face-to-face teaching. For example, proper audio enhancement and voice lift, as well as proper microphone placement techniques, have always been important. It’s always been good to make sure you’re speaking loud enough – and towards the students (not the whiteboard). It’s also important to consider appropriate fonts and point sizes on presentation slides, ensuring they can be easily read by the farthest student in the room.

When “screen sharing” became a norm, students were able to read content without feeling out of place and without fear of exposing their disability to the rest of their colleagues. Likewise, with streaming content, headphones and headsets were a huge boon for people who previously struggled to understand a professor’s soft voice or accent. Coupled with the previously mentioned closed captioning, true digital equity could be achieved in distance education.

Luckily, these feature sets have been around long enough that there’s no going back. Students now expect multimodal content delivery. Colleges and UC platform makers have figured out how to use automation, plugins, and hardware-based SaaS integrations to create interactive, accessible, and fair content on the fly, with limited faculty involvement.

Capitalize on transformation

How do manufacturers and integrators capitalize on this transformation? The answer is by focusing not on the technology, but rather on the outcome. This involves considering the following questions: Who is served? What barriers, if any, exist that might interfere with teaching and learning? Can lessons be recorded? Can remote students hear and see? Can the presentation slides be downloaded for review? Is the projector lighting and brightness sufficient to be picked up by an ePTZ or PTZ camera mounted in the back of the room? Since rooms are typically designed with seated viewing angles, is the camera angle enough for a distant student without being skewed? How will the faculty in the room know that the remote student wants to ask a question?

All of these questions need to be asked, thought through and answered before the appropriate technologies can be selected.

In conclusion, we learned that delivering effective content is important. What works is providing solutions for equitable and accessible learning. What doesn’t work is to assume that the world will or should return to old ways. The technology provided must complement the learning requirements to ensure that distance learning is not simply an informational transaction. More importantly, it must be a connection to the needs of the student consumer.

For more Collaboration today and tomorrow content, see our website archives.


Joe Way, PhD, CTS, is the director of learning environments at the University of Southern California (USC).

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