by Sandi Sturm

Elementary Science 02

Montana State University

I recently attended a social event organized for adjunct faculty members of our university.  Sitting across from me was a woman from the Environmental Studies program who openly denounced the use of technology.  Begging to differ, I approached her during break to see just what the problems were.  Her strong responses were in favor of “hands-on, face to face” training.  I could have spent hours trying to convince her of the many benefits of offering distance delivered environmental education programs, but conceded to coming home and drafting the following list.

1. Reach the unreachable

Having lived and taught in rural communities, I know first hand that a large number of our educators are not able to access traditional professional development workshops.  It is a fundamental issue of equality in professional development offerings, including variables of travel, budget, and time.

While living in western Colorado, receiving professional development often meant traveling to Denver or other metropolitan areas, missing work, arranging for accommodations, and unplugging from life in general for however long the workshop would last. Now that I am in Alaska, multiply those obstacles by at least four.

Distance delivered workshops are accessible to anyone that can use a computer and a telephone.  No substitutes to hire, no packing, and no need to leave the family.

2. Diversity of participants

Local, regional, or statewide workshops provide for those living in those geographic areas.  Participants usually know each other, or are familiar with their small part of the world.

Distance delivered environmental education opens up the classroom to include people from very different cultures and backgrounds.  In a recent workshop, we had educators from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, interacting with a home school teacher in northern Minnesota.  In another workshop, we had an educator from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sharing ideas with an educator from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.  Native Alaskans share historical uses for black spruce trees with teachers along the Arctic Ocean, where the nearest tree is 400 miles away.

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3. Builds community of learners

Skeptics are still holding on to the visions of those first workshops that claimed to be distance education.  Indeed they were offered over the internet to students in another location, but they consisted only of text and test.  The learning was totally independent and attainable only by the most highly motivated learners.  The field of distance education is evolving, and with this evolution has come improved means of communication.  Learners communicate with fellow learners, facilitators communicate with learners, and learners communicate with content and community.

The spectrum of distance education is wide.  On one end is the tutorial CD, that takes you through short lessons, usually related to technology or static information.  On the other end, is a classroom instructor who uses a web page to house syllabus and lectures. In between are unlimited definitions of the term distance education.  My favorite is the blended approach, where several methods are used to achieve learning objectives.

In a workshop that uses a blended approach, you might experience some pre-course work, where you become familiar with background materials and the use of the technology.  Then you might meet at a yearly conference session to do hands on experiments or activities.  After the conference, you meet on asynchronous discussion boards and teleconferences while completing group activities and projects.  Once the official course has ended, a web page is created to receive updated materials and share experiences while using the knowledge gained during the course.

When was the last time you built such a community during a weekend training session?  Can you name any of the classmates that you did not already know?

4. Flexible schedule

Finding the perfect time for a workshop can be the most difficult part of the planning process.  Weekends are good for some but not for those attending as part of their regular work week.  Many people say they would take the workshop if only it were offered next week, not this week.

The great part about a distance delivered workshop is that it is not limited to a set number of days during a particular week.  For example, a Project Learning Tree workshop is traditionally taught in 7 to 15 hours over one or two days, usually Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday.  We have adapted this workshop to a distance delivered format, which lasts for five weeks.  Each week has its own objectives and participants have all week to complete them.  This might be during their lunch break, or after the kids are put to bed in the evening. Time is spent concentrating on content, not on getting to a location.

5. Shrinking budgets

Lets look back at the example given above, where educators in rural or remote regions need to leave their communities to receive training.  When I lived in Colorado, this meant driving 250 miles over the continental divide from Grand Junction to Denver.  Weather was always a consideration, and an overnight stay was always included in the plans. For one day of training, there was two days of travel, hotel room, food and fuel.  In Alaska, this could equal $2000 for two day training, since most rural villages are off the road system and requires air travel. Many rural educators would rather opt for the distance delivered workshop, which often costs less than $100.

Now let’s imagine you are the organizer of the training.  You need to rent a room, plan a menu, gather projectors, find speakers, provide accommodations, set up transportation — the list is long with many expenses attached.  A distance delivered training using internet and telephone requires a lot less effort and expense. One major expense is for conferencing charges, which for a group of 15 accumulating 3 hours of teleconference time, equates to $300 or less.  The facilitator must be trained to deliver in this new venue, but only once.  And of course the workshop must be designed and developed, which requires a different expertise than a face to face model.  This infrastructure will need to be in place or attainable within your organization.  A coop might be nice for environmental educators to use so they can share resources and developers.

6. Incorporate local environments

I am often told that distance delivered workshops remove you from the interaction and experience that you get in the traditional version.  The experience is definitely different, but not removed.  I reply by saying you can not achieve as deep a connection between the individual and their local environment in a face to face workshop when it is offered several hundred miles from where the participants live. If designed properly, a participant will be interacting with their local environment and community, making each lesson relevant to them.

7. Accessible resources

Traditional workshops often bring in local experts to share information about local resources.  The expert is asked to participate for a limited amount of time, giving a prepared presentation, and staying around to answer some questions, before they head back to the office. The interaction is good and participants can gather some notes and reference materials.

Now imagine having access to experts from around the world!  We have asked experts in brain research to address the connections of current research and how students learn. This is done during a teleconference, after the participants have done some background reading provided by the expert.  After the call, students are able to formulate questions and send to the expert via email.  Questions and answers are gathered and posted to a web page for everyone to review and discuss.

8. Easy to update

Information is changing at such rapid speeds these days that by the time you prepare for your face to face workshop some of the materials, which you spent hours copying at the print shop, have already changed.  Dates change, contact information changes, and current events can put a totally different slant on your session.

Most distance delivered courses include some form of internet presence, be it a web page or courseware offered through a university.  All of the scenarios mentioned in the last paragraph could easily be remedied by a few key strokes.  No late night visits to the copy center or library to make corrections to materials.

9. Save fuel and energy

We are all guilty of traveling to workshops in our individual vehicles.  They all line up nicely in the parking lot of education facilities or remote outdoor classrooms.  Maybe this is true because we enroll independently to attend sessions that interest us individually, and require less effort to jump in our own vehicles to get there.

Distance delivered workshops typically meet on the internet and/or telephone. If you have access to these things at work or at home, no travel is required, except the distance between you and the coffee cart. And when fuel is creeping to $3 per gallon, this can turn into an issue of savings for you and your organization.

10. Can be paperless

How many years have we dreamed of the paperless event?  It is now possible!  All information can be provided electronically or linked to the World Wide Web.  Notes are gathered in discussion boards and emails.  Teleconferences can be recorded and offered on a CD.  Workshops are marketed via web pages, electronic newsletters and email.

Some may say I am biased and that I think distance delivered workshops are superior to the traditional model.  I would have to agree. Personal experience has continuously proven that when participants spend five weeks together, using the materials in their own environments, with their own audiences, and sharing those experiences with fellow participants, they learn more than if they sat together for a weekend and did hands on activities.

So many variables exist in both scenarios that would divert attentions, but in distance education, everyone participates.  No one can slip out the door for a telephone call or walk around the park. Many times you are competing with great weather and a beautiful setting, as we often experience in Alaska.

No one in a distance delivered workshop is allowed to sit in the back of the room and not contribute to the conversations.  Shy and boisterous participants share equally in discussions and everyone is allowed to formulate responses.  The greatest outcome is that there is more opportunity for critical thinking, a skill all of us could spend more time practicing.

Sandi Sturm is an online learning designer and owner of Creative Conservation in Wasilla, Alaska.  Her company is dedicated to conserving rural values through creative education and outreach.  You may learn more at