A Teacher's Guide to Distance Learning

Applications in K-12 Education

Distance learning applications in higher education and industry are growing at a rapid pace. It is now possible to obtain a college degree without physically attending a traditional class. Likewise, numerous companies are using distance learning technologies to distribute training courses to employees on a worldwide basis.

Although distance learning in K-12 education is not as prevalent as it is in the adult world, there are many forms of distance learning that are becoming increasingly common in schools throughout the world. In fact, "Online learning - for students and for teachers - is one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology" (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009, p. xi). The National Center for Education Statistics (2008) estimated that the number of K-12 public school students enrolling in a technology-based distance education course grew by 65 percent in the two years from 2002-03 to 2004-05. A survey conducted by Picciano and Seaman (2009) reported an additional increase of 47% between 2005-06 and 2007-08. They estimated that more than a million K–12 students took online courses in the 2007–08 school year .

The K-12 applications for distance learning include:

Instruction for Homeschooled Students

Over 1.5 million children in the United States were homeschooled in 2007 (Planty, Hussar, Snyder, Kena, KewalRamani, Kemp, Bianco & Dinkes, 2009) for reasons related to school environments, religion, special needs, etc.. Distance learning technologies offer a variety of options for these students and parents. There are many options for meeting the needs of the homeschooled students. For example, Internet connections can provide access to online resources, virtual schools, and videoconferencing with others. T.


Ms. Lila Jones decided to homeschool her two children and was amazed at the amount of resources that were available. In particular, she::

Virtual High Schools

Students do not have to be homebound or homeschooled to benefit from distance learning technologies. Some high schools are offering credit courses for students who are home schooled, those who have previously dropped out of high school, those in juvenile detention institutions, and those who need the flexibility to "attend" school at times other than 7:00 am to 3:00 pm. Virtual high schools can offer the flexibility that appeals to certain students in specific circumstances, while maintaining high standards for education.


Paul needed to re-take American History so that he could graduate from High School with his classmates. The problem was that he also had to report to work at 4:00 each afternoon; there was no time during the school day to take the course. His counselor suggested that he connect to the Internet and check out the Florida High School at http://www.flvs.net. The "virtual" school curriculum includes content such as Chemistry, Algebra, Basic, Pascal, SAT Preparation, Economics, and American History. Each course is taught by an accredited teacher who communicates with the students via the Internet and telephone to complete the curriculum.

Instruction for Distributed Classes

A number of school districts, particularly in less-populated areas, are using distance learning technologies to share teachers among several schools. For example, if only a few students in each school need a course, they can comprise a single class large enough to justify the cost of a teacher.


Ms. Susan Williamson is teaching a Calculus lesson from her studio in Alaska and beaming it up to a satellite. Her students are scattered all over the Northwest in over 100 schools. Through satellite downlinks at each school, they can see and hear their teacher. If they have immediate questions, they can call her during the class period. Otherwise, they can send individual questions to Susan through e-mail or fax. Proctors and teacher's aides supervise the students in the remote classrooms, distribute learning materials, and administer tests.

Interactions with Outside Experts

Technologies such as videoconferences and podcasts allow teachers to bring into the classroom a guest who would normally be unable to visit. Long distances, difficult travel conditions, or busy schedules make it impractical for many individuals to visit school classrooms as guest speakers. Prominent persons are usually more willing to take 15 minutes to talk with a class by telephone or videoconference than they are to spend a couple of hours traveling to and from the school. In addition, there are numerous Web sites that offer access to experts.


Mr. Sandwich's students were just embarking on a unit related to science fiction when he learned that a well-known author lived in a nearby town. The author was very interested in education, and agreed to hold an audioconference with the student authors to help them develop story ideas.

Mentoring and Tutoring of Distant Students

Some school systems have implemented distance learning technologies to provide students access to tutors during the early evening hours or on weekends. Depending on the system, the tutors can work at their own homes or at a central location, such as the school, to mentor the remote students. Cross-age mentoring is also possible with older students helping younger students by means of distance learning.


Anita had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, and thanks to a distance learning project, she now knows how to make her dream come true. When an astronaut visited her school district, the local educational channel arranged for an interactive, live broadcast to area classrooms. Through the broadcast, Anita learned about the astronaut training program.

Students, including Anita, faxed, e-mailed, and called in questions to the TV studio for the astronaut to answer. After the broadcast, the teacher accessed NASA's Web site to find out more about the astronaut program. When the students thought of more questions, they began an on-going electronic dialogue with their new mentor by e-mailing him at NASA.

Collaborative Projects

Distance learning can also be used to enhance collaboration between students in remote classrooms. There are many projects on the Web that promote problem solving, multicultural education, and community involvement. In most cases, one teacher or organization serves as facilitator for a project. As the data is collected from the remote schools, the facilitator compiles it and disseminates or posts the results.


Ms. Romero's class was beginning a unit on conservation and the environment. In order to make the lesson more authentic, she decided to participate in a Save the Beaches project she had seen on the Internet. Through this project, her students would collaborate with students all over the world as they explored their environment. Specifically, they would visit local beaches, collect the data, then analyze it and share the data with the other students.

Access to Remote Resources

K-12 schools are often isolated from other learning environments, such as universities, museums, and libraries. Through distance learning technologies, these resources can become available for students in both urban and rural areas.


Town High School's art classes learned that the city was redesigning and updating the local art museum. The students had plenty of ideas of their own, but they needed more information on how to contribute their ideas to the remodeling project. Some of the students accessed the city government Web pages to learn about the schedule and procedure for providing input about the museum. Another group found websites for museums including the Louvre, Prado, National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. This group did comparisons and evaluations of the virtual art museums, which became a guide to use in making recommendations to the city. A third group contacted other schools and cities to ask about art museums around the country. Finally, the students at Town High addressed the city council with their findings, and offered to help create a website for the newly designed museum.

Staff Development Program

At the end of long days in the classroom, it is difficult for teachers to drive to a university or other facility for inservice credit or to pursue an advanced degree. Through distance learning technologies, the staff development programs can be delivered to the teachers' school or home. Some universities offer entire Master's and Doctoral programs via distance learning technologies.


Ms. Brown enjoyed her position as a third grade teacher, and her "job" as a mother of two small children. Through the distance learning program at a state university, she was also able to attend college and work on her Master's degree. The courses were offered through the Internet, and she was able to work at the time, place, and space that was best for her.


Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Applications in K-12 Education
  3. Benefits of Distance Learning
  4. Connectivity Issues and Alternatives
  5. Overview of Distance Learning Technologies
  6. Print Technologies
  1. Audio/Voice Technologies
  2. Computer (Data) Technologies
  3. Video Technologies
  4. Implementing Distance Learning
  5. References
  6. Glossary

Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida ©1999, 2009.