​​​​​​Distance education — in which students learn somewhere other than a classroom or even on a campus — is growing and innovating in ways that are giving unprecedented opportunity and access to California State University students seeking their degree.

So much so, that many students now expect that their courses will naturally include online communication and collaboration tools such as Blackboard, a learning management system;  Zoom or Skype,  video conferencing tools; or Google for Education — even if a class isn't strictly online, says Cris Guenter, Ed.D., a professor of education at California State University, Chico.

"In the 20th century these tools were considered a bonus; in the 21st century they are no longer a bonus — they are a necessity," she says of the web-based tools and portals she uses in teaching education courses.

"The vast majority of faculty have course content that is available online; the students expect it from us now," she continues. "And it's so much more than just posting your syllabus."

These days, students easily chat with one another; share documents and notes; present their work; and "meet" with the class instructor via webcam, all in a few clicks.​

In the 20th century these tools were considered a bonus; in the 21st century they're a necessity." – Dr. Cris Guenter, CSU Chico professor of education  ​

And those who live in remote areas use the tools as a way to feel included in a class environment.

Technologies like these have allowed campuses to attract and educate more students in rural locations and areas where there's not a CSU campus nearby, enabling those who normally wouldn't have access to the CSU to start or continue their studies.

What Makes a Distance Education Tool Effective

At California State University, Fullerton, Jordan Barlow, Ph.D., assistant professor of information systems and decision sciences, studies how high-tech tools can improve our ability to work and learn remotely.

For example, in an online course where students have never met each other, the lack of both social and visual cues can be an obstacle to learning, says Dr. Barlow.  

By studying the dynamics of groups working together without being in the same room or even seeing one another, he aims to determine which tools work best to encourage student success.

"I am looking at different technologies that can facilitate the ways groups work together," Barlow explains, adding that thus far, his research indicates that using tools that takes into account students' IQs, personality traits, and social sensitivity is key.

Barlow has learned that while some groups of students are able to work well together in person, they don't do as well when working on the same project remotely. He suspects this is because some tools – like video conferencing or chat – aren't suitable for the many ways in which students learn.

While more research is needed in this quickly changing field, he observes that one of the most effective qualities for a distance education tool is structure.  

Structure means that members of group working on a project agree about how they'll communicate, he says. They might use a platform like Blackboard to post their contribution to a group project and various members can comment on or edit each other's work. This "agreement between group members of how that is all going to work," says Barlow, is crucial.

"It doesn't even necessarily have to be a tool that makes it seem like you are face-to-face with a person, but it has to provide structure and the confidence to utilize individual strengths," he explains.

Avoiding "technical difficulties" is also key. When video and audio are clear, they provide important social cues that make the information being conveyed easier to follow and understand.

Both Guenter and Barlow use online communication an​​​d collaboration tools in their own classrooms and agree that more research is needed to determine how best to teach college students to use these tools effectively, as well as how to incorporate technologies that take into account a wide variety of  personalities and skills, including disabilities.

"We are trying to remain aware and stay current [of ongoing trends]," says Guenter. "We want to meet the needs of our students. We have to figure out how we can best take advantage of the technologies that we have available to us."

Distance education tools are only going to grow in popularity, adds Barlow: "We will be seeing more online collaboration and education because we are seeing more tools emerging that facilitate this process."