Issues in Distance Learning
Sherry, L. (1996). Issues in Distance Learning. International Journal
of Educational Telecommunications, 1 (4), 337-365.
Copyright © 1995 AACE. All rights reserved.
Permission has been granted by AACE to post this article on this server as
part of a compilation of my own works.
This review of literature and current information
related to distance learning deals with several primary research issues.
These include redefining the roles of partners in distance education
teams, technology selection and adoption, design issues, methods and
strategies to increase interactivity and active learning, learner
characteristics, learner support, operational issues, policy and
management issues, equity and accessibility, and cost/benefit tradoffs. It
is intended as a companion piece to Sherry and Morse's (1995) Needs
Assessment for Distance Education.
Issues in Distance Learning
Distance education technologies are expanding at an
extremely rapid rate. Too often, instructional designers and curriculum
developers have become enamored of the latest technologies without dealing
with the underlying issues of learner characteristics and needs, the
influence of media upon the instructional process, equity of access to
interactive delivery systems, and the new roles of teacher, site
facilitator, and student in the distance learning process.
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.
What is distance education?
The terms "distance education" or
"distance learning" have been applied interchangeably by many
different researchers to a great variety of programs, providers,
audiences, and media. Its hallmarks are the separation of teacher and
learner in space and/or time (Perraton, 1988), the volitional control of
learning by the student rather than the distant instructor (Jonassen,
1992), and noncontiguous communication between student and teacher,
mediated by print or some form of technology (Keegan, 1986; Garrison and
History and media
We find a rich history as each form of instructional
media evolved, from print, to instructional television, to current
interactive technologies. The earliest form of distance learning took
place through correspondence courses in Europe. This was the accepted norm
until the middle of this century, when instructional radio and television
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
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).
Theories and philosophies of distance education
The theoretical basis on which instructional models
is based affects not only the way in which information is communicated to
the student, but also the way in which the student makes sense and
constructs new knowledge from the information which is presented.
Currently, there are two opposing views which impact instructional design:
symbol-processing and situated cognition (see Bredo, 1994, for a full
description and comparison of these two approaches).
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
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,
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,
Systems of distance education
Traditionally, we think of distance learners as
adults. Whole institutions of higher learning, such as the United
Kingdom's Open University, Vancouver's Open Learning Agency, Norway's NKS
and NKI Distance Education organizations, Florida's Nova University, and a
host of others, have been dedicated to providing distance education at the
post-secondary level for decades. The University of South Africa (UNISA),
in Praetoria, serving both black and white students, has had a successful
distance learning program for decades. The Televised Japanese Language
Program, developed at North Carolina State University, provides
instruction in Japanese to ten colleges and universities in five
Southeastern states (Clifford, 1990). The adult learner tradition is now
changing as new programs, such as the US. Federal government’s Star
Schools Program, come into existence to serve the K-12 student population.
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.
Systematic design and development
Willis (1992) describes the instructional development
process for distance education, consisting of the customary stages of
design, development, evaluation, and revision. In designing effective
distance instruction, one must consider not only the goals, needs, and
characteristics of teachers and students, but also content requirements
and technical constraints. If unusual delivery systems are required, they
must be made accessible to all participants.
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
Successful distance education systems involve
interactivity between teacher and students, between students and the
learning environment, and among students themselves, as well as active
learning in the classroom. McNabb (1994) noted that, though students felt
that the accessibility of distance learning courses far outweighs the lack
of dialogue, there is still a considerable lack of dialogue in telecourses
when compared to face-to-face classes.
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
As active participants in the learning process,
students affect the manner in which they deal with the material to be
learned. Learners must have a sense of ownership of the learning goals (Savery
& Duffy, 1995). They must be both willing and able to receive
instructional messages. Salomon's study (as cited in Saettler, 1990),
found that the mental effort which a learner will invest in a learning
task depends on his own perception of two factors:
- the relevance of both the
medium and the message which it contains
- his ability to make something
meaningful out of the material presented.
Interestingly enough, Salomon found that television
proved to be mentally less demanding than printed text when comparable
content was employed. By giving students some expectations about the
purpose of their viewing, he was able to influence the effort that
students invested in processing the content of television instruction (Saettler,
1990, p. 487).
Researchers have consistently found that
instructional television can motivate and captivate students, and
stimulate an interest in the learning process. Ravitch (1987), however,
cautions us against the unintended side effects of educational television
in particular as well as "edutainment" in general. Reliance on
exciting visuals may distort the curriculum by focusing students'
attention on the entertaining and provocative features of the presentation
rather than encouraging thoughtful analysis of their underlying meaning.
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).
Ben Shneiderman (1992) cautions all instructional
designers to begin with an understanding of their intended users, and to
recognize them as individuals whose outlook is different from the
designer's own. Horton (1994) states the golden rule for designers of
instructional visuals: "communicate unto others as they would
communicate unto themselves" (p. 32). In other words, if you want the
learner to construct an idea which is similar to yours, then use an image
for your presentation which will trigger a similar idea in the learner's
mind, in the context of the learning environment and the learner's prior
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
- use advance organizers to
create an appropriate context for instruction
- select effective images, using
appropriate objects with relevant attributes, that will convey the
same idea to the user as they did to the designer.
Methods and strategies
The more familiar teachers are with the instructional
design and delivery process, the more effective their presentations will
be. On a practical note, they need training in instructional message
design, strategies for delivering instruction on-camera, methods of
diversifying types of presentation, selecting various mixes of
student-teacher activities and interactions, choosing situations and
examples which are relevant to their students, and assessing the level of
learning by distant students. They also need plenty of guided, hands-on
practice developing and delivering courseware using audio, full-motion
video, graphics, and text, in front of a live audience, yet still in a
non-threatening situation. Strategies such as using fewer overheads and
more moving video, interspersing "talking heads" with videos of
sites, using hands-on experiments, incorporating text and graphic art, and
other guidelines for effective video production are also valuable (see
Willis, 1993, for a synopsis of distance education strategies).
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
Foreign language instruction presents special
instructional challenges, not only because of the lack of immediate 2-way
interaction that characterizes many distance education programs, but also
because of the loss of visual detail in videoconferences due to signal
compression—-especially detailed lip movements. This can be overcome by
providing students with oral practice and feedback through telephone
conversations with the instructor, and by instructional strategies that
encourage frequent student-teacher and teacher-student dialogue (Clifford,
1990; see also Bruce & Shade, 1994).
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
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.
Inquiry learning is a new technique to many teachers.
No longer is the teacher "the sage on the stage" — the
deliverer of a fixed body of information; she becomes the facilitator of
discovery learning for her students, through progressive discourse. Thus,
even if a teacher is well-practiced and at ease with the equipment in the
classroom, she still requires training in order to integrate new teaching
strategies with the technology.
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
Progressive teachers who are early adapters of
technology can become change agents for their peers (Pacific Mountain
Network, 1994). They can support other teachers by planning ahead as a
group, and by working with the learning modules and equipment before using
them in the classroom. Facilitators can try out learning modules as
videotapes, building in interactivity as it suits the learning styles of
their particular students, and then integrate real-time satellite programs
into their schedule later on.
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.
Many important issues stem from the characteristics
of distance learners, whose aims and goals may be quite different from
those of traditional students. As we have already mentioned, distance
education systems were originally developed at the post-secondary level,
and are only recently being used at the K-12 level.
Aims and goals
Adult learners have a wide variety of reasons for
pursuing learning at a distance: constraints of time, distance, and
finances, the opportunity to take courses or hear outside speakers who
would otherwise be unavailable, and the ability to come in contact with
other students from different social, cultural, economic, and experiential
backgrounds (Willis, 1993). As a result, they gain not only new knowledge
but also new social skills, including the ability to communicate and
collaborate with widely dispersed colleagues and peers whom they may never
Modes of learning
Another important variable in learning effectiveness
is the preference of the student for a particular mode of learning, i.e.,
cooperative, competitive, or individualized (Johnson & Johnson, 1974).
Many current distance education projects incorporate cooperative learning,
collaborative projects, and interactivity within groups of students as
well as between sites.
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.
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
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).
Factors which influence success
Sylvia Charp (1994) notes that with greater autonomy,
student characteristics such as active listening and the ability to work
independently in the absence of a live instructor become crucial for
success. David Godfrey (personal communication, June 17, 1994) found that
at most 80 percent of his former students at the University of Victoria
may possess such characteristics. As a result, frequent, supportive
teacher-student interaction and student-student networking take on
increased importance for the remaining 20 percent, as well as facilitating
the learning process for all students involved in the program.
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
There are many ways of facilitating learner support.
Studio teachers may visit the distant site, or students may take a trip to
the studio. This has worked well in the Denver area where sites are few in
number and not widely scattered. Audio and video teleconferences or
interactive chats with mentors and other students are two real-time
alternatives to site visitation, office hours or telephone calls.
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).
These involve planning, administration, management,
and economics, all of which are crucial for a successful distance
education program. In particular, we must consider the roles of the
teacher-facilitator-student triad, training of teachers and staff,
implementation and adoption of new technology, and policy issues such as
facilities, cost, and scheduling.
The teacher-facilitator-student triad
In traditional education, teachers interact directly
with their students. They prepare their own support materials, lecture
notes, and tests, and are autonomous within their classroom. In contrast,
distance learning teachers are not in direct classroom contact with their
students. Communication is mediated not only by the technology, but also
by a host of team partners which may include editors, designers,
producers, technicians, media specialists, local tutors, aides, site
facilitators, and service providers. Since many people must collaborate to
produce and disseminate quality distance educational programming, the need
to plan and coordinate staff activity is essential. In particular, we must
define the roles of two key people: the teacher and the site facilitator.
The distance learning teacher, or studio teacher, is
the common thread throughout the distance learning process. She must be
certified for the appropriate grade level, knowledgeable in her subject
area, and trained in effective distance education strategies. She is
responsible for knowing the subject matter, preparing lesson plans and
producing an instructional module or course, selecting support materials,
delivering the instruction effectively on-camera, determining the degree
of student interaction, and selecting the form of distance evaluation or
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:
- understanding the nature and
philosophy of distance education
- identifying learner
characteristics at distant sites
- designing and developing
interactive courseware to suit each new technology
- adapting teaching strategies
to deliver instruction at a distance
- organizing instructional
resources in a format suitable for independent study
- training and practice in the
use of telecommunications systems
- becoming involved in
organization, collaborative planning, and decision-making
- evaluating student
achievement, attitudes, and perceptions at distant sites
- dealing with copyright issues
(pp. 32-37). (See Sherry and Morse, 1995, for
rankings of these skills by Denver educators.)
The site facilitator
The site facilitator is an extension of the studio
teacher, though he need not be a teacher himself. His responsibilities are
to motivate and encourage the remote site students, keep up their
enthusiasm, and maintain discipline in the classroom. He is also
responsible for smooth running of equipment, helping students with
interaction, handing out, collecting, and grading papers, guiding
collaborative groups who are working with manipulatives, answering
questions when necessary, and assisting the studio teacher when asked. The
site facilitator also carries out the assessment procedure defined by the
teacher, via print, portfolios, on-line communications, or FAX.
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
- facilitating vs. traditional
- timing and scheduling
- classroom logistics
- other responsibilities.
ACOT researchers (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, 1992)
identified these concerns:
- student misbehavior and
- physical environment
- technical problems
- classroom dynamics.
ACOT notes that classroom management, like technology
expertise, is not a skill that is mastered once and for all by instructors
in high-tech classrooms. They progress through a three-stage model of
survival, mastery, and impact. It may take them at least two years to
change their focus from being anxious about themselves, their new physical
environment, equipment malfunctions, and student misbehavior, to
anticipating problems and developing alternate strategies, exploring
software more aggressively, sharing ideas more freely, increasing student
motivation and interest, and using technology to their advantage. As
classroom contexts change, so do classroom management issues. Educational
change takes time, a great deal of support, and peer networking and
guidance. In general, teachers tend to focus on the increased workload and
drawbacks associated with an innovation before the benefits of change
emerge and the innovation takes hold.
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
- hands-on training and practice
with assigned equipment
- a technical support team who
can install, troubleshoot, and maintain classroom equipment and
- their own experiences
anticipating equipment problems and working around them
- site visitation by studio
teachers (Sherry & Morse, 1995).
Purchasing and maintaining appropriate equipment, and
training teachers and facilitators to use it effectively, are necessary
conditions, but are not sufficient in themselves to assure a school
district of an excellent distance education program. There are other
factors involved, many of which are affective rather than cognitive, such
as user-friendliness and the ability to implement learner support. Ravitch
(1993) notes that school organization has been traditionally hierarchical
and bureaucratic, whereas new technologies challenge this model.
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:
- training in the skills needed
to work with technology
- education providing vision and
understanding of state-of-the-art developments and applications
- support for experimentation
- sufficient time for learning
(US. Congress, 1988, p. 16).
Kell and others (1990)
reinforced this view by naming five conditions that are conducive to
change in the classroom:
- a shared vision of teaching
- leadership and support for
new technology from school administrators
- organizational conditions
allowing flexibility, time, and incentives to experiment with new
- opportunities for
communication, interaction, and peer support among teachers
- training and personalized
support over time for teachers.
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:
- time and accessibility
- ownership and authority
- control (influence on design)
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:
- are committed to the concept
of equality of education that satellite-based education provides
- see opportunities for
professional advancement through learning new skills and networking
- seem revitalized by the
observation of a master teacher and exceptional instructional design
- realize that the program will
not work without their participation
- receive training in
satellite-based instruction, either live or on tape, professional
troubleshooting, and program feedback.
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:
- they are given time and
- they are given assistance
with equipment operation and troubleshooting
- they take part in training
and program planning, and they control the grading, classroom
management, and classroom activities
- they influence the program
- they see the need for
technology integration in order to take part in the program.
Management and policy issues
Distance education changes the learning relationship
from the common, centralized school model to a more decentralized,
flexible model. It also reverses social dynamics by bringing school to
students, rather than students to school. This leads to a host of new
issues for administrators to debate, including:
- the impact of electronic
education on tenured teaching
- balancing the budget with
potentially low-cost electronic learning options
- redefining what it means to
have a teacher present in the classroom
- revising teacher
certification requirements to accommodate those teachers who
electronically cross service area boundaries.
(Holloway & Ohler, 1991, p. 259).
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:
- new forms of assessment and
evaluation, including means to insure that the student's work is
original and authentic
- a set of nationally accepted
institutional accreditation standards to insure the quality of
- a nationally accepted set of
teacher certification standards which meet a minimum criterion,
including training in distance education theory, methods, and
- the need for cooperation
among business, government, and education sectors
- technology training and
accessibility for all, not just for progressive students and teachers.
A distance education delivery team requires
well-trained individuals in addition to teachers, site facilitators, and
administrators. Old roles are redefined, and new roles emerge.
- The principal or district
administrator handles logistics, acquires equipment, and provides
training and support.
- Some school districts have
funds for a media specialist or technology coordinator.
- Certain technologies, like
microwave videoconferencing, require a technician to run specialized
equipment in a control room.
- Technical support staff
install, maintain, and upgrade equipment.
- Clerical personnel process
requests for equipment acquisition and repair, as well as reproduction
and distribution of course material.
- Technologically astute
students often assist teachers with new hardware and software and
serve as peer tutors for slower students.
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
Scheduling and cost/benefit tradeoffs
One indicator of the need for distance learning teams
to cooperate is the continuously rising costs of production. According to
Margaret Cambre (1991), local productions in 1962 cost about $165 per
15-minute program. Today, the estimate for high-quality instructional
television programs is approximately $3000 per minute (p. 269).
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
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).
This report was prepared for the Pacific Mountain
Network, Far View Distance Learning Project, under a Star Schools Grant.
Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, Advanced Technology
Group, Apple Computer, Inc. (1992, May). Classroom Management: Teaching in
high-tech environments: First-fourth year findings (Classroom Management
Research Summary #10). Cupertino, CA: J.H. Sandholz, C. Ringstaff, &
Barron, A., & Orwig,
G. (1993). New technologies for education. Englewood, CO: Libraries
Barron, A., Hoffman, D.,
Ivers, K.., & Sherry, L. (1994). Telecommunications: Ideas,
activities, and resources. Tampa: Florida Center for Instructional
Barron, A., Ivers, K. S.,
& Sherry, L. (1994).
Exploring the Internet.The Computing Teacher, 22(2), 14-19.
Bredo, E. (1994).
Reconstructing educational psychology: Situated Cognition and Deweyan
Pragmatism. Educational Psychologist, 29(1), 23-25.
Bruce, M.S., & Shade,
R.A. (1994). Teaching via compressed video: Promising practices and
potential pitfalls. DEOSNEWS [On-line journal], 4(8). Available Usenet
Newsgroup alt.education.distance, September 3, 1994.
Cambre, M.A. (1991). The
state of the art of instructional television. In G.J. Anglin, (ed.),
Instructional technology, past, present, and future (pp. 267-275).
Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Charp, S. (1994, April).
Viewpoint. The On-line Chronicle of Distance Education and Communication,
7(2). Available Usenet Newsgroup alt.education.distance, May 3, 1994.
Clifford, R. (1990).
Foreign languages and distance education: The next best thing to being
there. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 327 066)
Garrison, D.R. (1990). An
analysis and evaluation of audio teleconferencing to facilitate education
at a distance. The American Journal of Distance Education, 4(3), 16-23.
Garrison, D.R., &
Shale, D. (1987). Mapping the boundaries of distance education: Problems
in defining the field. The American Journal of Distance Education, 1(1),
Holloway, R.E., &
Ohler, J. (1991). Distance education in the next decade. In G.J. Anglin,
(ed.), Instructional technology, past, present, and future (pp. 259-66).
Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Horton, W. (1994, June).
How we communicate. Paper presented at the meeting of the Rocky Mountain
Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. Denver, CO.
Kell, D., et al. (1990).
Educational technology and the restructuring movement: Lessons from
research on computers in classrooms. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting
of the American Educational Research Association, Boston.
Johnson, D.W., &
Johnson, R.T. (1974). Instructional goal structures: co-operative,
competitive, or individualistic. Review of Educational Research, 44,
Jonassen, D.H. (1992).
Applications and limitations of hypertext technology for distance
learning. Paper presented at the Distance Learning Workshop, Armstrong
Laboratory, San Antonio, TX.
Keegan, D. (1986). The
foundations of distance education. London: Croom Helm.
McNabb, J. (1994,
October). Telecourse effectiveness: Findings in the current literature.
Tech Trends, 39-40.
Millbank, G. (1994).
Writing multimedia training with integrated simulation. Paper presented at
the Writers' Retreat on Interactive Technology and Equipment. Vancouver,
BC: The University of British Columbia Continuing Studies.
Owens, L., & Straton,
R.G. (1980). The development of a cooperative, competitive, and
individualized learning preference scale for students, British Journal of
Educational Psychology, 50, 147-61.
Perraton, H. (1988). A
theory for distance education. In D. Sewart, D. Keegan, & B. Holmberg
(Ed.), Distance education: International perspectives (pp. 34-45). New
Pacific Mountain Network
(Producer). (1994). Far View I-IV [Videotape series]. (Available from PMN,
1550 Park Avenue, Denver, CO 80218-1661.)
Pea, R.A. (1994). Seeing
what we build together: Distributed multimedia learning environments for
transformative communications. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3),
Porter, D. (Ed.). (1994,
March). New directions in distance learning: Interim report. (Available:
David Porter, Manager, Schools Curriculum Programs, 4355 Mathissi Place,
Burnaby, BC., Canada V5G 4S8.)
Pournelle, J. (1994,
July). An Educational Trip. Byte, 197-210.
Prawat, R. and Floden, R.E.
(1994). Philosophical perspectives on constructivist views of learning.
Educational Psychology, 29(1), 37-48.
Ravitch, D. (1987).
Technology and the curriculum. In M.A. White (Ed.), What curriculum for
the information age? Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Rekkedal, T. (1994,
October 3). Distance education in Norway. ANDREA [Listserv]. Available:
TORSTEIN.REKKEDAL@ADM.nki.no Saettler, P. (1990). A history of
instructional technology. Englewood, Co: Libraries Unlimited.
Savery, J.R., & Duffy,
T.M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its
constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(5), 31-38.
Scardamalia, M., &
Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities.
Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283.
Schamber, L. (1988).
Delivery systems for distance education. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 304 111).
Schlosser, C.A., & Anderson, M.L. (1994). Distance education: review
of the literature. Washington, DC: Association for Educational
Communications and Technology.
Seamans, M.C. (1990). New
perspectives on user-centered design. Presentation at the Interchange
Technical Writing Conference. Lowell, MA: University of Lowell.
Sherry, L., & Morse,
An assessment of training needs in the use of distance education for
instruction. International Journal of Telecommunications, 1(1), 5-22.
Shneiderman, B. (1992).
Designing the user interface. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Simon, H.A. (1994).
Interview. OMNI Magazine, 16(9), 71-89.
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.
Streibel, M.J. (1991).
Instructional plans and situated learning. In G.J. Anglin, (ed.),
Instructional technology, past, present, and future (pp. 117-132).
Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
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,
US. Congress, Office of
Technology Assessment. (1988). Power on! New tools for teaching and
learning. OTA-SET-379. Washington, DC: US. Government Printing Office.
VanderVen, K. (1994,
April). Viewpoint: The power and paradox of distance education. The
On-line Chronicle of Distance Education and Communication [On-line
journal] 7(2). Available Usenet Newsgroup alt.education.distance, May 3,
White, M.A. (1987).
Information and imagery education. In M.A. White (Ed.), What curriculum
for the information age? Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Willis, B. (1992).
Instructional development for distance education. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 351 007).
Willis, B. (1993).
Strategies for teaching at a distance. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 351 008)
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.
to Lorraine's List of Publications
to UCD Scholarly Publications
to School of Education Home Page
University of Colorado at Denver
Updated April 7, 1997