Full Citation:Copyright © 1995 AACE. All rights reserved.
Sherry, L. (1996). Issues in Distance Learning. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1 (4), 337-365.
This review of literature and current information related to distance learning is an expansion and update of Schlosser and Anderson's (1994) literature review for the Iowa model of distance education. Additional reports were obtained through the Pacific Mountain Network, the ERIC database, electronic communications via Internet with administrators of open universities and open learning agencies throughout the world, collections of manuscripts and documents in the Department of Instructional Technology and Special Education at the University of Colorado at Denver, and personal communications with distance education developers at professional conferences as well as school districts in the Greater Denver area. It is intended as a companion piece to Sherry and Morse's (1995) Needs Assessment for Distance Education, as well as background information for other projects in telecommunications and distance learning.
The issues addressed in this report reflect some of the primary research issues covered by Schlosser and Anderson (1994), those stressed in the Far View I-IV (1994) videotape series, descriptions and evaluations of current distance education delivery systems by key administrators of open universities and open learning agencies, and issues deemed important by participants in the Needs Assessment for Distance Learning. These include redefining the roles of key participants, technology selection and adoption, design issues, strategies to increase interactivity and active learning, learner characteristics, learner support, operational issues, policy and management issues, equity and accessibility, and cost/benefit tradeoffs.
We will start with some definitions, history, theories, and systems of distance education. Next, we will deal with methods and strategies for designing and delivering instruction at a distance. We will then describe the characteristics of distance learners, their modes of learning, factors which influence success, and learner support systems. We will deal with operational issues, including technology adoption and defining the roles of key personnel. Finally, we will address management and policy decisions.
According to Margaret Cambre (1991), in the late 1950's and early 1960's, television production technology was largely confined to studios and live broadcasts, in which master teachers conducted widely-broadcast classes. Unfortunately, teachers who were expert in the subject matter were not necessarily the best and most captivating television talent, nor was the dull "talking head" medium the best production method for holding the interest of the audience. In the early 1970's, the emphasis turned from bringing master teachers into the classroom to taking children out of the classroom into the outside world. This had the negative effect of relegating television to the position of enrichment, which was not perceived as really related to school work. This trend was reversed later in the 1970's, as professionally designed and produced television series introduced students to new subject matter that was not being currently taught, yet was considered to be an important complement to the classroom curriculum. Then, in the 1980's, the pendulum swung back to the basics. The most recent trend has been one of multiculturalism, humanities, and world affairs.
The major drawback of radio and broadcast television for instruction was the lack of a 2-way communications channel between teacher and student. As increasingly sophisticated interactive communications technologies became available, however, they were adopted by distance educators. Currently, the most popular media are computer-based communication including electronic mail (E-mail), bulletin board systems (BBSs), and Internet; telephone-based audioconferencing; and videoconferencing with 1- or 2-way video and 2-way audio via broadcast, cable, telephone, fiber optics, satellite, microwave, closed-circuit or low power television. Audiographic teleconferencing using slow scan or compressed video and FAX is a low-cost solution for transmitting visuals as well as audio (see Schamber, 1988; Barron & Orwig, 1993, for a description of distance education delivery systems). Mosaic, a graphical interface to the World Wide Web, has become popular in parts of Canada, Europe, and Australia over the past year.
Today, political and public interest in distance education is especially high in areas where the student population is widely distributed. Each region has developed its own form of distance education in accordance with local resources, target audience, and philosophy of the organizations which provide the instruction. Many institutions, both public and private, offer university courses for self-motivated individuals through independent study programs. Students work on their own, with supplied course materials, print-based media and postal communication, some form of teleconferencing and/or electronic networking, and learner support from tutors and mentors via telephone or E-mail.
The Office of Technology Assessment finds that, "...teachers have to be allowed to choose, willing to make choices, and qualified to implement their choices effectively. OTA finds that, just as there is no one best use of technology, there is no one best way of teaching with technology. Flexibility should be encouraged, allowing teachers to develop their personal teaching approach utilizing the variety of options offered by technology" (US. Congress, 1988, p. 17).
Until recently, the dominant view has been the traditional, information processing approach, based on the concept of a computer performing formal operations on symbols (Seamans, 1990). The key concept is that the teacher can transmit a fixed body of information to students via an external representation. She represents an abstract idea as a concrete image and then presents the image to the learner via a medium. The learner, in turn, perceives, decodes, and stores it. Horton (1994) modifies this approach by adding two additional factors: the student's context (environment, current situation, other sensory input) and mind (memories, associations, emotions, inference and reasoning, curiosity and interest) to the representation. The learner then develops his own image and uses it to construct new knowledge, in context, based on his own prior knowledge and abilities.
The alternative approach is based on constructivist principles, in which a learner actively constructs an internal representation of knowledge by interacting with the material to be learned. This is the basis for both situated cognition (Streibel, 1991) and problem-based learning (Savery & Duffy, 1995). According to this viewpoint, both social and physical interaction enter into both the definition of a problem and the construction of its solution. Neither the information to be learned, nor its symbolic description, is specified outside the process of inquiry and the conclusions that emerge from that process. Prawat and Floden (1994) state that, to implement constructivism in a lesson, one must shift one's focus away from the traditional transmission model to one which is much more complex, interactive, and evolving.
Though these two theories are totally different in nature, effective designers usually start with empirical knowledge: objects, events, and practices which mirror the everyday environment of their designated learners. Then, with a firm theoretical grounding, they develop a presentation which enables learners to construct appropriate new knowledge by interacting with the instruction. To quote the AI researcher, Herbert A. Simon, "Human beings are at their best when they interact with the real world and draw lessons from the bumps and bruises they get" (Simon, 1994).
Schlosser and Anderson (1994) refer to Desmond Keegan's theory of distance education, in which the distance learning system must artificially recreate the teaching-learning interaction and re-integrate it back into the instructional process. This is the basis of their Iowa Model: to offer to the distance learner an experience as much like traditional, face-to-face instruction, via intact classrooms and live, two-way audio-visual interaction. In contrast, the Norwegian Model has a long tradition of combining mediated distance teaching with local face-to-face teaching (Rekkedal, 1994).
Hilary Perraton (1988) defines the role of the distance teacher. When, through the most effective choice of media, she meets the distance students face-to-face, she now becomes a facilitator of learning, rather than a communicator of a fixed body of information. The learning process proceeds as knowledge building among teacher and students. (See Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1994, for an example of electronic knowledge building discussions.)
Distance education systems now involve a high degree of interactivity between teacher and student, even in rural and isolated communities separated by perhaps thousands of miles. The Office of Technology Assessment stresses the importance of interactivity: distance learning allows students to hear and perhaps see teachers, as well as allowing teachers to react to their students' comments and questions (US. Congress, 1988). Moreover, virtual learning communities can be formed, in which students and researchers throughout the world who are part of the same class or study group can contact one another at any time of the day or night to share observations, information, and expertise with one another (VanderVen, 1994; Wolfe, 1994).
At the elementary and middle school levels, distance learning usually takes the form of curriculum enrichment modules and ongoing telecommunications projects. Some examples of current projects are: De Orilla a Orilla, National Geographic Kids Network, Biomes Exchange Project, Earth Lab, Ask Professor Math, and AskAScientist (Barron, Hoffman, Ivers, & Sherry, 1994; US. Congress, 1988). Other modules are television-based, with the teacher as facilitator. Students work in collaborative groups, using manipulatives and hands-on activities in a distance learning environment (Pacific Mountain Network, 1994).
At the secondary level, locally or federally funded distance education addresses the needs of small rural school districts or underserved urban school districts. Some secondary school students may enroll in courses to meet graduation requirements which their own districts are unable to offer; some take advanced placement, foreign language, or vocational classes; others may be homebound or disabled. In many instances, talented or gifted high school students have been selected to attend distance classes because of their high academic ability and capacity for handling independent work. This makes classroom management easier, but it may disenfranchise students who lack discipline or time management skills. The resulting inequity of access then becomes a policy problem, not a technology problem.
Although technology is an integral part of distance education, any successful program must focus on the instructional needs of the students, rather than on the technology itself. It is essential to consider their ages, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, interests and experiences, educational levels, and familiarity with distance education methods and delivery systems (Schamber, 1988). Students usually adapt more quickly than their teachers to new technology. On the other hand, teachers who have begun to feel comfortable with the equipment don't mind having their students teach them new tips and tricks (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, 1992). The most important factor for successful distance learning is a caring, concerned teacher who is confident, experienced, at ease with the equipment, uses the media creatively, and maintains a high level of interactivity with the students.
Revision based on feedback from instructors, content specialists, and learners is an ongoing process. Provisions must be made for continually updating courses which depend on volatile information, to keep the subject matter current and relevant (Porter, 1994).
Millbank (1994) studied the effectiveness of a mix of audio plus video in corporate training. When he introduced real-time interactivity, the retention rate of the trainees was raised from about 20 percent (using ordinary classroom methods) to about 75 percent (p. 75). A key element in Porter's (1994) New Directions in Distance Learning (NDDL) project is the enhancement of independent learning materials through the use of interactive communications technologies and teacher mediation. He projects a completion/success rate of around 60 percent over the life span of the pilot project (p. 26).
Interactivity takes many forms; it is not just limited to audio and video, nor solely to teacher-student interactions. It represents the connectivity the students feel with the distance teacher, the local teachers, aides, and facilitators, and their peers. Garrison (1990) argued that the quality and integrity of the educational process depends upon sustained, two-way communication. Without connectivity, distance learning degenerates into the old correspondence course model of independent study. The student becomes autonomous and isolated, procrastinates, and eventually drops out. Effective distance education should not be an independent and isolated form of learning; it should approach Keegan's ideal of an authentic learning experience.
White (1987) adds that if complex issues are presented in short units, through powerful images which may occur in any order, the end result may be oversimplification and superficiality. Students must learn to discriminate between "junk" information and quality information, to judge its reliability or bias, to identify distortions and sensationalism, to distinguish facts from persuasion, and to understand how the technology itself shapes the information it carries (p. 60).
Needless to say, no two learners will form the same idea, nor is it likely that their idea will be the same as that of the designer. How can this problem be solved? The key to good instructional design lies in the image presented. To quote Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message". Horton (1994) notes that it is up to the designer to
Site facilitators, too, benefit from training programs which emphasize hands-on practice with the equipment they are expected to use. Sherry and Morse (1995) found that those who had participated in structured training programs felt comfortable using the equipment, were able to engage their students in the learning process, and had mastered classroom management in a high-tech classroom.
Effective distance learning requires extensive preparation, as well as adapting traditional teaching strategies to a new learning environment which often lacks visual cues. Porter (1994) speaks of the triad consisting of the student, the teacher, and the site facilitator, all of whom must function as a team. Students must quickly become aware of and comfortable with new patterns of communication, learn to manage their time, and take responsibility for their own learning. Teachers must enable students to establish contact with them, as well as interact among themselves. Site facilitators can act as the on-site "eyes" and "ears" of the teacher, stimulating interaction when distant students are hesitant to ask questions or participate in discussions.
Willis (1993) describes the strategies which are effective in distance learning: namely, developing appropriate methods of feedback and reinforcement, optimizing content and pace, adapting to different student learning styles, using case studies and examples which are relevant to the target audience, being concise, supplementing courseware with print information, and personalizing instruction.
The variety of available media, too, presents a formidable research problem. One cannot compare print-based independent study courses, electronic projects on the Internet, classroom BBS postings, audioconferences, and live, two-way interactive television, and expect that these comparisons will be valid. To add to this dilemma, media selection is often a question of media assignment. Teachers and site facilitators need training in those technologies which they are expected to use (Sherry & Morse, 1995).
McNabb(1994) notes that more experimental studies are needed in the area of media selection, where researchers can compare the effectiveness of different technologies which deliver similar content to similar audiences. It would be useful to analyze the content of a learning module, the goals of the students, teacher, and the school itself, implement some different technologies, and determine what factors influence successful delivery.
The Office of Technology Assessment (US. Congress, 1988) notes that inquiry teaching promotes an environment that tolerates ambiguity and encourages students' questions. In their studies of classrooms using the "Voyage of the Mimi" multimedia program, OTA researchers observed that teachers tended to ask the majority of the questions, rewarded students for guessing correctly, and required continual help in maintaining a classroom climate that emphasized reasoning rather than right answers. Only those teachers who had experience in inquiry-based instruction used the materials in open-ended ways. They found that it was important not only to provide training in the scientific concepts covered in the materials, but also to give participating teachers rich and varied suggestions for classroom activities (p. 58).
Distance educators in the Far View Project have developed several inquiry learning modules. Collaborative groups of young distance learners participated in self-discovery activities, using manipulatives and conducting experiments under the guidance of the site facilitator, and then discussed their experiences with the studio teacher. Evidence of success is shown in the PMN video series (Pacific Mountain Network, 1994) through the enthusiastic responses of both teachers and students during and after the instructional sessions.
Technology providers, too, are available to answer questions from new users. The Satellite Educational Resource Consortium (SERC), for example, provides a contact person who visits the site, answers telephone calls, or provides printed support material. Studio teachers are available between sessions to reply to FAX messages or telephone calls. The process of adapting new learning resources to the classroom, such as instructional television and videoconferencing, is not immediately transparent. Administrators cannot expect teachers to feel comfortable with the technology, to use it effectively, and to maintain it as well, without giving them extra resources and time. Instructors need access to data links and E-mail, as well as video links. They need to download and upload resources and lesson plans, consult with other teachers, and try out new learning modules.
Apple Computer (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, 1992) has found that it takes up to two years for instructors to adjust to and work with the tools, to implement them successfully, and to integrate them into their curriculum.
Scardamalia and Bereiter's (1994) CSILE Project relies on distribution of knowledge among students. Knowledge-building is accomplished through student-initiated interactions and reflections, in real-time in class, and in delayed-time using an electronic bulletin board system (BBS). Pea's (1994) distributed multimedia learning environments involve a dialectical opposition between the symbol-processing and constructivist viewpoints, to enable students to construct and transform knowledge through progressive discourse.
Effective learning, however, requires both knowledge of learner styles and advance preparation on the part of the teacher or site facilitator. Teachers and site facilitators are better able to make curriculum decisions to suit the preferences of their students, such as grouping certain students productively for project work, or assigning particular students to individual research projects, if they can determine the prevalent learning modes within their own classrooms. Site facilitators have the advantage of eye-to-eye contact and personal contact with students in their classrooms, whereas studio teachers must often rely on televised images, telephone conversations, or electronic messaging for feedback on student preferences.
If a teacher recognizes the existence of these alternate learning styles, and if he attempts to make a match between these modes and the content to be learned, then he can develop a local instructional theory. As with most distance learning situations, a localized theory has a greater prospect of success than a general instructional theory intended to function satisfactorily in variety of settings, with a variety of practitioners (Owens & Straton, 1980, p. 160).
Bernt and Bugbee's study (as cited in Schlosser & Anderson, 1994), examined two types of study strategies used by distance students: primary, cognitive strategies, such as active listening, and secondary, affective strategies, such as ability to work independently of the instructor. As expected, the researchers found that students who passed their courses differed significantly in primary strategies from those who failed: in testwiseness, concentration, and time management skills. In contrast to Charp, they found little difference among them in secondary strategies: active learning, diligence, and positive attitude.
Instructors tend to blame the high dropout rate among post-secondary students on poor time management and procrastination. However, in a study of the effectiveness of university-level audioconference courses in Alaska, Sponder (1990) found that climate, geography, the efficiency of the postal system, the university support network, telecommunications facilities, students’ hearing problems, and other factors also come into play. Miscommunication between students and teachers, and lack of course relevance to students, may also have negative repercussions.
Like Charp and Godfrey, Porter (1994) found that teacher mediation increases the completion rate for distance education courses. Neither can we assume that all students have sharpened their primary study skills to the same extent, nor that a positive attitude will make the difference between success and failure. Students need support and direction to enable them to make the transition from traditional classroom environments to self-directed learning—particularly tools to help them monitor their progress and obtain timely feedback on their activities.
Interaction and support may also take place by delayed time. Students may E-mail or FAX questions to their instructors or fellow students, or post them on electronic BBSs. Teachers and peers, in turn, may respond at their convenience. Frequent teacher-student interaction enables the teachers to get to know the students better than if their only contact were via a televised image from a distant classroom. Students, too, need guidance in putting information together, reaching their tutors, completing and submitting assignments, and charting their progress (Porter, 1994).
Teachers also need support when they are learning about new technology, regardless of their level of classroom experience. As they begin their hands-on training with new technologies, some feel intimidated by the equipment, even in a non-threatening environment. At this point, they need to be able to communicate with other teachers who have gone through this process themselves, and who are competent to advise them and serve as role models. For example, the University of South Florida has set up a mentoring system and an on-line discussion for participants in the telecommunications course. Athabasca University assigns ten students to one mentor in the Master of Distance Education program. The University of Wisconsin uses audioconference seminars to link instructors together. The University of British Columbia uses teleconferences with other students and tutors, as well as a telephone tutoring system. Georgia College has an electronic BBS with on-line resources, electronic conferencing, and a Teacher Clearinghouse for contacting other teachers interested in telecommunications (Barron, Ivers, & Sherry, 1994).
A studio teacher must be better organized than an ordinary classroom teacher. Additionally, she must be at ease with the equipment, and not let the technology get in the way of her presentation. This requires ongoing training in the form of regular observation of a master teacher, training in the use of carefully selected print, audio, graphics, and video materials, hands-on hardware training, and the chance to network with other teachers and facilitators on course progress (Talab & Newhouse, 1993). For example, the Iowa Department of Education requires a teacher, who is appropriately licensed and endorsed for the educational level and content being taught, to receive training regarding effective practices which enhance learning by telecommunications (Schlosser & Anderson, 1993, p. 40).
Currently, few teachers have had sufficient training or field experience to enable them either to be effective distant teachers or to use technology successfully in their classrooms. Proper training would help distance learning teachers to change their method of teaching and give more attention to advanced preparation, student interaction, visual materials, activities for independent study, and follow-up activities (US. Congress, 1989, p. 11).
Schlosser and Anderson (1993) identify the new skills which teachers must learn as they assume the role of distance educators:
Schlosser and Anderson (1994) have found that, in general, site facilitators have an average of four classes, are mid-career staff rather than beginning teachers, are anxious about using new technology, and are selected by their principals because of their subject background, availability, and general teaching ability, rather than volunteering to be assigned as facilitators (p. 4).
Talab and Newhouse (1993) identified a number of concerns about instructional design and classroom management which were voiced by site facilitators, including
Since their activities are closely related to those of the teacher, facilitators need similar training. However, some site facilitators perceive themselves as end users, rather than designers, of distance instruction, so they feel that they require less emphasis on instructional systems design. Typical comments of site facilitators about the teaching/learning experience are that they have benefited from
Talab and Newhouse (1993) have found that many teachers are slow to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms because they are now seen as workers, rather than as instructional leaders or motivating forces within their classrooms. On the other hand, the technological innovations that have been adopted by teachers are those which solved problems that the teachers themselves identified as important, regardless of outside change agents, the school administration, or the opinions of non-teachers. Successful technological innovations must take into consideration the social and political climate of the school, and must also reinforce the authority of the teacher, rather than undermine it.
The Office of Technology Assessment has found many powerful examples of creative teachers using computers and other learning technologies to enhance and enrich their teaching. But first, four interrelated conditions must be met:
Kell and others (1990) reinforced this view by naming five conditions that are conducive to change in the classroom:
Holloway and Ohler (1991) found that a widely accepted technology is most often defined by a single characteristic: it makes a task rewarding for the user, where the "user" includes the student first, and the faculty second. If it does not make performance of a task rewarding, there is little motivation to accept the technology. Conversely, if it simplifies or expedites accomplishment of a goal, the probability of acceptance is high (p. 263).
Talab and Newhouse (1993) cite Bichelmeyer's (1991) doctoral dissertation. Bichelmeyer found that teachers and facilitators adopt technology innovations in a hierarchy of needs, with the most basic needs generally being fulfilled before the higher ones. From basic needs to higher level ones, these are:
Talab and Newhouse (1993) have found that those site facilitators who believe in their own abilities to design instruction using satellite technology, and who are willing and able to continue in their role as teaching partners, have successfully incorporated technology into their classrooms. These site facilitators:
Talab and Newhouse (1993) conclude that this success is based upon a match between the identified needs of the facilitators and the resources which are available to them:
Distance education enterprises are partnerships; they are characterized by the integration of a great many parts working toward a common goal (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994, p. 39; Pacific Mountain Network, 1994). Each school has its own aims, goals, and objectives, both stated and unstated. Each school also has its own culture, urban or rural, as well as its own perceived value of student learning. There are personnel issues, with clerical, technical, and educational support staff forming a vital link between teacher and student. Many facets of the project must be considered, especially linking student needs within the particular school district with current and projected technology resources. As opportunities arise, so do problems which must be dealt with. New policy issues must be addressed, as well. Items for further consideration include:
Instructional development and production is also a team effort. A development team should include subject matter experts, instructional designers, writers and editors, audio and video production staff, and curriculum developers. It is important to identify these "people resources", and assign appropriate tasks, responsibilities, and timelines, so that quality control can be maintained. Moreover, it is important that learning modules be delivered on time to mesh with both the school schedule and that of the service provider.
Implementation of distance education is resource-intensive. Sufficient money and time must be allocated to deliver whatever courseware was promised. Schlosser and Anderson (1994) note that because funds come from the district, not from individual schools, distance education enterprises need to show a high degree of fiscal accountability. And, although prices for technology are declining, taxpayers, school boards, and state legislatures, as well as both government and non-government funding agencies, expect to get the most for their funds.
If money is short, then there are two options: either downsize the project or extend the time frame. Holloway and Ohler (1991) note that many proposals are written without regard for the time it takes to resolve development and delivery problems. People also require resources and time to build an effective team, to start and maintain the instructional development project, to develop a plan for formative evaluation, and to obtain a commitment on compensation issues (p. 262). Once developed, the program schedule may not fit in with the school schedule. Programs may be too long, too short, or broadcast at the wrong time, resulting in a loss of real-time interactivity. One may always videotape the program and show it later. However, it is important to realize that interactivity costs a lot more than a videotape.
The cost/benefit of technology can vary significantly with the specific characteristics of schools and students. A successful program in one location may be less successful elsewhere. Jerry Pournelle (1994) notes that, while technology often improves educational quality, it is not necessarily cost-efficient. Citing a report by Danish researcher Hans Siggard Jensen of the Copenhagen Business School, Pournelle comments that teacher productivity can be raised only if the instructors behave as if they are in a virtual classroom (i.e., facilitate knowledge building among all distant sites simultaneously), rather than deal with point-to-point or one-on-one communication situations. He notes that, though videoconferencing is effective, many classrooms lack access to dedicated telephone lines and modems, much less several thousand dollars worth of software and proprietary hardware.
In the formative evaluation of Vancouver's New Directions in Distance Learning pilot project, David Porter (1994) shifts the focus from the relative difference in the dollar cost per student to the increase in completion/success rate of distance education programs by students.
As completion and success rates improve, as students continue with their education, gain access to courses previously unavailable to them, and as they increase their chances of going on to post-secondary education or workplace training, the benefits to the system and to society as a whole can begin to be factored in to the policy options and decision making equations (p. 26).
We will conclude with this insight by Holloway and Ohler (1991):
Little happens of any magnitude without administration buy-in, and the best way to achieve that is to succeed on a small level first. Put most of your effort into finding the right people rather than the most exciting technology...Some teachers work well on camera, behind a microphone, or running a computer conference, and others do not. Find teachers who feel comfortable and work well with the media, then give them all of the technical support you can afford. Their job is to teach, not splice cords together or figure out why their conferencing software is misbehaving. The more transparent the media are to them, the better service they will deliver. This has a financial payoff too: the better a teacher works with media, the less necessary the expensive elements of distance delivery coursework (like graphics and sophisticated editing) become to the creation of a quality product (p. 264).
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Sponder, B. (1990). Distance education in rural Alaska: An overview of teaching and learning practices in audioconference courses. (University of Alaska Monograph Series in Distance Education No. 1.) Fairbanks, Alaska: Alaska University, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies.
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Talab, R.S., & Newhouse, B. (1993, January). Self-efficacy, performance variables and distance learning facilitator technology adoption: Support for the teacher needs hierarchy. In Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Presentations at the convention of the AECT, Research and Theory Division, New Orleans.
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Wolfe, L. (1994). The digital co-op: Trends in the virtual community. Paper presented at the Writers’ Retreat on Interactive Technology and Equipment. Vancouver, BC: The University of British Columbia Continuing Studies.
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