Happy’s Essential Skills: Online Instruction and Long-Distance Learning

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More and more learning and knowledge are now available over the Internet. For this to be effective there are specific requirements for a course taken or produced over the Internet (without a live instructor) in order for the instructed (user) to have a positive experience. 


In today's fast-paced global, competitive environment, which requires constant innovation, skills improvements, and upskilling, personal learning is very important. Distance learning is the only efficient, scalable, sustainable way to build and protect the value of our workforces. Face-to-face learning is still the most effective, but time, money, geography, health and availability makes this tougher the older you get. 

Why is this Important?

We are all aware of how globalized manufacturing has affected jobs in the USA. Were you aware that we have now globalized learning and that the rest of the world can get our best courses from Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, Princeton and many more! 

As many as 12.2 million (as of 2007) people are taking online courses from various universities and technical companies. Nearly half are not from the USA, even though these courses are taught in English. Today, the estimate is more than 25 million with two-thirds of learners outside the U.S. There are 21,200 college-level programs designed to be completed totally through distance education; 66% of the 4,160 2-year and 4-year Title IV degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the nation offered college-level distance education courses with degrees or certificates[1].

Happy_Table1.jpgTable 1 shows non-English speaking countries where the technical people all speak English

If you wonder why Taiwan is up front, it’s because I have firsthand knowledge about Taiwan, having lived there for many years. Every young student learns to read English. It costs more to learn to pronounce and speak English. The Taiwan government had to pass a law to keep English from being taught in kindergarten, English was perceived to be so important. For technical people, this is essential, as they use U.S. or UK textbooks printed in English. Even while doing something as mundane as bowling, the high-school student would compete to keep our score so they could practice their English with my two boys. 

If you are concerned about your job and your future, but not motivated to accumulate additional knowledge and skills—remember, there are millions of foreigners that want your job! My motivation for this series of columns is to alert you to some of the skills that I value as an engineering manager and former CTO of the world’s biggest electronics manufacturer. But I am not teaching these skills, that is still something that you have to do.

In the document, “Distance Learning: Enabling the Race to the Top,”[1] sent to members of Congress and the Office of Economics for the White House in November, 2009, the United States Distance Learning Association said, “In the current Knowledge Economy and Conceptual Age, distance learning arguably also presents our richest opportunities for new business and product innovation. Here is just a tiny sampling of how other nations are using distance learning to obtain competitive advantage.” Major non-English programs are from:

  • China (the largest with millions enrolled)
  • India (second largest with most in English)
  • Korea
  • European Union
  • Latin America
  • Mexico 

Traditional Learning

Most of us are the result of a traditional learning process because of all the years we spent in school. We are taught and lectured to by teachers, professors or other experts. Even if we have moved up to the Internet Age by viewing webinars, there still is a live instructor lecturing to us. The online learning and distance learning is the next evolutional step in learning, as seen in Figure 1. By using “learning theory” and “experimentation,” classes can now be created and stored for use anytime/anywhere. But this is a science that is more than just prerecorded webinars or audio track on PowerPoint slides. Sociology is applied to the user, on how to keep their attention and measure if they are actually learning anything. 

Distance Learning

The U.S. started all of this after the Vietnam conflict. The military realized the need for continuing education for solders, airmen and sailors. Today, more than 4.6 million hours of distributed learning takes place in the U.S. Military every year, whether on ships, foreign bases or in barracks. In 1987, the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) was formed as a nonprofit organization. They support research, development, and dissemination of best-practices across pre-K−12, higher and continuing education, corporate training, military, home schooling, telemedicine, government training and others. This is where the rest of the world is getting their knowledge. 

Retooling (upscaling) will require high-tech new skills as well as help and collaboration from industry and universities. A priority is that distance learning must also lead to a meaningful credential, whether it is a certificate of completion, certification or degree. Employers must be active partners. Since 1998, some industries have made great strides in collaborating to develop and provide education and training to their entire industry through industry-based online learning initiatives. Each initiative:

  • Targets both incumbent workers and those new to the industry
  • Partners with carefully selected high-performing online education and training providers and led by a broad-based company coalition
  • Provides curriculum content co-developed by industry and educational experts, and reaches participants nationally and internationally
  • Manages digital resources using the Internet and new learning technologies 

Managing Digital Resources

Management of digital resources is an important part of e-learning. Numerous open source and proprietary software tools are available to assist in the e-learning development process. A few to consider:

  • Plone
  • Atutor
  • Microsoft CMS
  • Eedo Force Ten
  • DSpace


Figure 1: Learning has evolved over time, and the Internet has enabled the emergence and rapid advancement of online learning.

New Technologies

These can be grouped by their action potential, into six categories as seen in Figure 2:

  • Access resources
  • Declare or state Presence (as currently online or in declaring physical proximity through GPS)
  • Expression through tools such as Second Life, podcasting, video (YouTube), Elluminate, or profile features of most social networking site.
  • Creation of new content and resources through blogs, Wikis and social bookmarking (Diigo, Stumble)
  • Interaction with others through asynchronous and synchronous tools like discussion forums, Twitter, Skype, ELGG, etc.
  • Aggregation of resources and relationships through Facebook, iGoogle, Google Reader or NetVibes.


Figure 2: Affordances of emerging technologies[2]. 


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