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What Technology Means for the Future of Distance Learning

Updated: Feb 7

Meet Jill Watson. Jill is a teaching assistant (TA) at Georgia Institute of Technology—and a robot.

Since launching in 2016, the artificial intelligence assistant has answered thousands of questions from students. Ashok Goel, professor in Interactive Computing, developed and introduced the robot for his course in the Online Master of Science in Computer Science program. Goel aimed to use artificial intelligence to create a “knowledge base” that could answer basic student questions any time and day of the week.

“The old normal is gone forever,” Goel said. “Even when students return to campus, they’ll be going back to more online and blended courses, and we’ll be looking for ways that AI can enhance those classes.”

Under new technological advancements, educators are incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning to give students a personalized learning experience. The rise of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and the global lockdown proved just that.


The global pandemic forced educational institutions worldwide to make unprecedented changes, as students and educators shifted to remote and hybrid learning environments. However, distance learning was already on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, 6.6 million students were already enrolled in some form of distance education or online learning course. Of 6.6 million students, 3.1 million students were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses in the fall 2017 semester.

Distance learning is defined as education where students and educators do not share any in-person interactions and are typically reliant on the Internet, email, or web conferencing to communicate. This form of education rapidly grew in the late 1990s with the advancement of technology. Since then, distance learning is at the forefront of today’s mid-pandemic education system.


Think back to what video conferencing meant before the pandemic. It often spurs up the thought of technical difficulties, poor audio, frozen screens, and inefficiency. Rivals such as Cisco’s Webex and Microsoft Teams fought to advance their software to capture consumers worldwide. With the global lockdown, however, the technology industry’s new battleground market became web conferencing. In fact, the video conferencing market was worth $14 billion in 2019 but is projected to increase to over $50 billion in just six years.

Zoom is now a frontrunner in the distance learning space. Its video conferencing software garnered immense growth with the platform having over a $100-billion market capitalization, as of September. The platform is recognized for its software that emulates a real, in-person classroom with the “raise hand” feature, reaction icons, among others. But, the platform received sharp scrutiny in early March as claims of security issues scarred their reputation.

Zoom has since taken steps to block hackers from gaining access to conference sessions with the development of encryption. A Zoom spokesperson released a statement in May stating that the company “recognizes the substantial work that Zoom has completed as part of our 90-day security and privacy plan, including making a number of our pre-existing security features on by default and also introducing new security enhancements.”


Distance learning reimagined the ability of adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is a dynamic education system that continually modifies the presentation of learning material to fit the needs and match the responses of student performance. Its popularity followed an educational movement that scrutinized the one-size-fits-all learning approach. Other than the algorithms being much more efficient than humans, adaptive learning also aims to equalize the playing field for all students by better accommodating students with learning disabilities (ADHD, dyslexia, etc.). Adaptive learning is now deeply embedded into distance learning, with the development of new artificial intelligence and machine learning. One example is the rise of online proctoring systems, such as Proctortrack, Proctorio, and ProctorU. To meet the current demands of preventing cheating in distance learning, AI-enabled proctoring systems have been implemented in digital classrooms nationwide.

Proctorio is one such example. The software proctored more than 1.2 million students in December 2019. How does it work? Online proctoring systems, like Proctorio, access a student’s computer screen, microphone, and webcam. Using AI and machine learning, the proctor sends educators alerts when a student potentially violates academic integrity, such as opening a new browser window or looking off the screen for an extended period of time. It also uses facial-recognition software to scan a student’s university ID card or driver’s license, and it ensures that the student taking the exam matches the ID card.


Since the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift was introduced in 2012, VR innovation has expanded into educational institutions. Google Expeditions uses virtual reality and augmented reality to let students explore history, science, the arts, and the natural world outside of the classroom space.

“VR lets you explore the world virtually while AR brings abstract concepts to life,” according to Google for Education’s website, “allowing teachers to guide students through collections of 360° scenes and 3D objects, pointing out interesting sites and artifacts along the way.”

For example, students can use the Expeditions app, Cardboard viewer, and Cardboard camera to look closely at Renaissance sculptures, or the peaks and valleys of Mount Everest, in the comfort of their own home. The new market for VR and AR is expected to reach $5.5 billion in 2023 across a wide range of applications from students taking virtual field trips to specialized, job-specific vocational training.

Ultimately, a new wave of technology has blurred the boundaries between physical and digital spaces, with the rise of AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, quantum computing, and more. These new technological developments are the present and future of distance learning.


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