For me, distance learning became a reality when I took a correspondence course in the mid-90s for a private security career. I was stationed overseas and thought it would be a good idea to spend a year and a half learning about terrorism, security, and related issues. I would get a package in the mail with books and a small forest worth of paper assignments and filler material. I would have four weeks from receipt of the package to return the materials. I would then wait another month for the next box that contained the next course and the grades from the previous course. There was little communication with the school since email had not really taken off yet and there was little context for what I was learning. While educational and somewhat entertaining, I found the whole process to be laborious and frustrating. This course was truly asynchronous distance education which means “…that instruction is offered and students access it at separate times, or anytime it is convenient to them” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, Zvacek, 2012).
As my professional career evolved, I was exposed to a distance learning course through a local college that utilized a cable channel to simulcast the classroom lectures. You could watch the lectures in real time or record them to a VCR and then take three exams in the classroom on scheduled days. This, to me, was a novel approach and allowed me to keep an unpredictable flying schedule while also completing the prerequisite classes for Paramedic school. Fortunately, the university had invested in full studio setup for the courses so the audio and video were professionally done. You could email the professor as they were instructing any questions and would receive real-time guidance. This fit the learning contract that exists between a student and teacher in that “…the student be taught, assessed, given guidance, and, where appropriate, prepared for examinations…” (Simonson et al. 2012).
My personal evolution in distance education has illustrated how important personal dedication, independence, and (to a smaller degree) technology has created new opportunities for self-improvement and development. Since those humble beginnings, I have completed an Associates of Applied Science, Bachelors of Science, and am now working on a Master Degree using distance education almost exclusively. The ready availability of always-on internet connections and high speed mobile processing power has eliminated many of the reservations I may have had with attempting to obtain a quality education while also balancing work, family, and social obligations. Moller, Foshay, and Huett discussed in their article, “The explosive growth of distance education is rapidly transforming post-secondary education” (2008). Distance education degrees are becoming more accepted by employers, “… attitudes are changing and that the more employers are exposed to online degrees, the more accepting they will be” (Columbaro, Monaghan 2009). However it should be noted some professions have a strong bias toward traditional degree programs.
Today, distance education has become a central aspect of my profession. EMTs and paramedics are typically dispersed throughout a region. This geographical separation makes training a challenge while scheduling issues and shift coverage are important considerations in a dynamic emergency medical system. As a result, many prehospital agencies are adopting more distributed learning tactics that do not require students to sit in a classroom. Hybrid courses that combine online lecture with hands on skills labs have become very popular while traditional “badge” courses that every responder must keep current have migrated to a blended learning format. This is what I believe will become what students expect as an older generation of provider moves up and out of frontline duties and a new, tech-savvy student enters the workforce. They will be expecting more flexibility in obtaining and maintaining their certifications. The “sage on the stage” approach will no longer be sufficient.
The challenge for EMS educators will be to move beyond the “gee whiz” aspects of presentation technology and find methods of making the instructional process truly student centered:
“Students must be able to do more than acquire new information in class; they must be taught to manipulate and adapt that information to solve problems in the field. This is the appeal of the student-centered teaching methods now available to virtually every educator through a variety of new low-cost and no-cost technologies.” (Duckworth, 2013)
As educators, we should seek to not only introduce new information, but to also develop the critical thinking skills necessary for proper recognition and treatment of life threatening emergencies. To accomplish this, distance education will take the form of readily accessible references, case studies, and open methods of communication with clinical specialists. The future of prehospital education will require not only a solid foundation of medicine, but also the ability to rapidly research, interpret, and apply a world’s worth of information in a mobile environment.
Columbaro, N., L., & Monaghan, C., H. (2009). Employer Perceptions of Online Degrees: A Literature Review. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(1)
Duckworth, R., L., (2013). Student centered solutions for EMS education, part 1. EMSWorld. Retrieved July 4, 2013 from http://www.emsworld.com/article/10977815/using-technology-in-ems-education
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher education). TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.