Even though I've been a classroom practitioner for more than a decade, distance (or remote) learning still strikes me as a strange little beast. I love the physical space of the classroom in all its grubby majesty and I find it hard to conceptualise my practice without it. I feed off the energy that a room full of young, impressionable minds creates and it would be difficult for me to give that up.
Having said that, I think remote learning is one of the most viable bits of ed tech. Successful models have been in existence for years (the Open University being the classic example), but with the advent of internet tools we are now at a point where there isn't much I could do in the classroom that couldn't be shared with someone halfway across the world. Yes, they'd miss the excitement of witnessing this bearded uberteacher in high-definition 3D (and, believe me, the loss would be a great one) but there are downsides to any approach.
Blackboard and Adobe Connect (offering all-in-one virtual classroom environments) are popular tools that are becoming more widely utilised, especially in higher education.
Higher education is also leading the way with online content, much of it in the form of Moocs (massive open online courses) through sites such as Coursera. These allow thousands to enrol, often for free, and study a huge variety of subjects without leaving the glare of their screens. Skype, Google Hangouts, online forums and YouTube videos all aid the delivery of content far and wide.
I've dabbled in online delivery of lessons myself, designing a course for students who suffer from social anxiety; the results (measured mostly in continued participation) were pretty good. These were students I would never have seen in a physical classroom. Kids who have been excluded and home-schooled could also benefit.
There are disadvantages, of course. Distance learning is completely reliant on the various technologies not going kaput - if they do, learning stops dead in its tracks. It can be also a steep learning curve if you're not already au fait with certain tech and social media (and there is no guarantee that students are, no matter what anyone tells you). And, as I said before, there is a lack of immediacy that I find a bit odd.
For me as a teacher, a virtual classroom pales in comparison to the real thing. But as time goes by, the approximations are getting better and better.
Perhaps in the future I'll feel the same about my online classroom as I do about my bricks and mortar one: learning happens in both, after all. But the online one doesn't have the real me in it, so it'll always be at a disadvantage.
Tom Starkey is a teacher based in Leeds. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212