Distance Learning, the Internet, and the World
Wide Web. ERIC Digest.
by Kerka, Sandra
In the beginning was the word--the printed word. In its earliest form,
distance education meant study by correspondence, or what is now called
"snail mail." As new technologies developed, distance instruction was delivered
through such media as audiotape, videotape, radio and television broadcasting,
and satellite transmission. Microcomputers, the Internet, and the World
Wide Web are shaping the current generation of distance learning, and virtual
reality, artificial intelligence, and knowledge systems may be next. Some
define distance education as the use of print or electronic communications
media to deliver instruction when teachers and learners are separated in
place and/or time (Eastmond 1995). However, others emphasize distance learning
over education, defining it as "getting people--and often video images
of people--into the same electronic space so they can help one another
learn" (Filipczak 1995, p. 111), or "a system and process that connects
learners with distributed resources" (ibid., p. 113). These two definitions
imply learner centeredness and control.
Typical audiences for earlier generations of distance education were
adults often seeking advanced education and training at home, on the job,
or in the military whose multiple responsibilities or physical circumstances
prevented attendance at a traditional institution (Bates 1995). Now anyone
is potentially a distance learner, a concept that has implications for
the organization of educational institutions and for teaching. This Digest
focuses on some of the newest methods of distance learning (DL) using the
Internet and the Web. It highlights some of the issues that could profoundly
change the delivery of adult, career, and vocational education.
DISTANCE LEARNING IN CYBERSPACE
Perhaps more than any other distance media, the Internet and the Web
help overcome the barriers of time and space in teaching and learning.
Educational uses of the Internet are burgeoning. The University of Wisconsin-Extension's
Distance Education Clearinghouse lists numerous institutions offering online
instruction <http://www.uwex.edu/disted/home.html> and corporate training
is featured on AT&T's Center for Excellence in Distance Learning website
<http://www.att.com/cedl/>. INTERNET WORLD's October 1995 issue gives
examples of "The Internet in Education," including online degree programs
offered by traditional institutions such as Penn State and Indiana University
as well as nontraditional entities such as University Online and the Global
Network Academy. DL on the Internet usually takes one of the following
forms (Wulf 1996): (1) electronic mail (delivery of course materials, sending
in assignments, getting/giving feedback, using a course listserv, i.e.,
electronic discussion group); (2) bulletin boards/newsgroups for discussion
of special topics; (3) downloading of course materials or tutorials; (4)
interactive tutorials on the Web; (5) real-time, interactive conferencing
using MOO (Multiuser Object Oriented) systems or Internet Relay Chat; (6)
"intranets," corporate websites protected from outside access that distribute
training for employees; and (7) informatics, the use of online databases,
library catalogs, and gopher and websites to acquire information and pursue
research related to study.
Examples of the use of these modes include the following. High school
students with disabilities in Project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities,
Internetworking, Technology) connect with the University of Washington
(UW) to receive instruction via e-mail, join worldwide discussion groups,
and access online resources (Burgstahler 1995). Also at UW, rehabilitation
therapists learn about adaptive computer technology through videotapes
and an Internet class discussion group (ibid.). The Distant Mentor project
pairs workplace experts with school-to-work "apprentices" online; they
can also simulate work environments through desktop software with an audio
channel connected through the Internet (Dede 1996). At Carnegie-Mellon
University, the Virtual Corporation simulates a work setting for business
students (ibid.). A career counselor offers group and individual online
conferences, a listserv, and a database of resumes and resources for clients
(Sherman 1994). CUSeeMe software enables technology teacher education supervisors
to observe student teachers using a desktop videoconference through the
Internet ("Agricultural Education" 1996).
Advantages of delivering distance learning on the Internet include the
following (Bates 1995; Eastmond 1995; Wulf 1996): (1) time and place flexibility;
(2) potential to reach a global audience; (3) no concern about compatibility
of computer equipment and operating systems; (4) quick development time,
compared to videos and CD-ROMs; (5) easy updating of content, as well as
archival capabilities; and (6) usually lower development and operating
costs, compared to satellite broadcasting, for example. Carefully designed
Internet courses can enhance interactivity between instructors and learners
and among learners, which is a serious limitation of some DL formats. Equity
is often mentioned as a benefit of online learning; the relative anonymity
of computer communication has the potential to give voice to those reluctant
to speak in face-to-face situations and to allow learner contributions
to be judged on their own merit, unaffected by "any obvious visual cultural
markers'" (Bates 1995, p. 209). The medium also supports self-directed
learning--computer conferencing requires learner motivation, self-discipline,
As with any medium, there are disadvantages. At present, limited bandwidth
(the capacity of the communications links) and slow modems hamper the delivery
of sound, video, and graphics, although the technology is improving all
the time. Reliance on learner initiative can be a drawback for those who
prefer more structure. Learner success also depends on technical skills
in computer operation and Internet navigation, as well as the ability to
cope with technical difficulties. Information overload is also an issue;
the volume of e-mail messages to read, reflect on, and respond to can be
overwhelming, and the proliferation of databases and websites demands information
management skills. Access to the Internet is still a problem for some rural
areas and people with disabilities. Social isolation can be a drawback,
and the lack of nonverbal cues can hinder communication. Although the Internet
can promote active learning, some contend that, like television, it can
breed passivity (Filipczak 1995). The next section takes a closer look
at distance learning processes.
DISTANCE LEARNING PROCESSES
Multimedia/hypermedia contexts such as the Web support constructivist
approaches to learning, which are based on the belief that individuals
construct their own understanding of the world as they acquire knowledge
and reflect on experiences. Dede (1996) describes how carefully designed
online learning can assist the construction of knowledge by showing learners
the links among pieces of information and supporting individual learning
When Wiesenberg and Hutton (1995) conducted a continuing education program
using computer conferencing, they found it necessitated two to three times
more delivery time. Learners appreciated the convenience of asynchronous
communication, but many were anxious about putting their written words
"out there." The course was more democratic but less interactive than expected,
and the instructors recommended giving learners a better orientation to
the online learning environment, providing technical support, and fostering
self-directed learning and learning-to-learn skills.
Eastmond (1995) highlights the ways that computer discussion both requires
and facilitates learning-how-to-learn skills, such as locating and accessing
information resources, organizing information, conducting self-assessment,
and collaborating. Adult learners in his study found the following strategies
critical to success in electronic learning: becoming comfortable with the
technology, determining how often to go online, dealing with textual ambiguity,
processing information on or off line, seeking and giving feedback, and
using one's learning style to personalize the course.
THE SOCIAL NATURE OF DISTANCE LEARNING
A common stereotype is "the loneliness of the long distance learner"
(Eastmond 1995, p. 46). Learning at a distance can be both isolating and
highly interactive, and electronic connectedness is a different kind of
interaction than what takes place in traditional classrooms; some learners
are not comfortable with it. Lack of nonverbal cues can create misunderstanding,
but communications protocols can be established and relationships among
learners developed. Because humans are involved, social norms do develop
in cyberspace, but they require new communications competencies (ibid.).
Online courses often feature consensus building and group projects, through
which learners can develop skills in collaborating with distant colleagues
and cooperating with diverse individuals. Such skills are increasingly
needed in the global workplace (Dede 1996).
Answering charges that computer learning environments cannot duplicate
the community of the classroom, Cook (1995) argues that the assumption
of a sense of community in traditional classrooms may be false. If community
is defined as shared interests, not geographic space, electronic communities
are possible. Wiesenberg and Hutton (1995) conclude that building a learning
community is of critical importance to the creation of a successful virtual
classroom. Dede (1996) agrees that "to succeed, distributed learning must
balance virtual and direct interaction in sustaining communion among people"
STRATEGIES FOR DISTANCE LEARNING
Filipczak (1996) notes that DL on the Internet can be cheaper, faster,
and usually more efficient than other learning modes, but not necessarily
more effective. As Dede (1996) puts it, "access to data does not automatically
expand students' knowledge; the availability of information does not intrinsically
create an internal framework of ideas" (p. 199). To help learners make
effective use of distance learning methods, skilled facilitation is essential.
Rohfeld and Hiemstra (1995) suggest ways to overcome the challenges of
the electronic classroom: (1) establish the tone early in the course; (2)
to overcome the text-based nature of online discussion and to build group
rapport and cohesion, introduce participants to each other, match them
with partners, and assign group projects; (3) offer training and guidelines
to help learners acquire technical competence and manage discussions; (4)
provide a variety of activities, such as debates, polling, reflection,
and critique; and (5) use learning contracts to establish goals for participation.
The following strategies are intended to make distance learning more effective
(Bates 1995; Dede 1996; Eastmond 1995; Filipczak 1995):
--Understand the technology's strengths and weaknesses
--Provide technical training and orientation
--Plan for technical failures and ensure access to technical support
--Foster learning-to-learn, self-directed learning, and critical reflection
--Develop information management skills to assist learners in selection
and critical assessment
--Mix modes--e.g., combine e-mail discussion with audio/video methods
to enhance the social aspect
--Structure learner-centered activities for both independent and group
work that foster interaction
In the end, the word is still with us. The way it is transmitted and
received is changing. Educators can play a role in the development of a
"vital form of literacy" (Dede 1996, p. 200): the transformation of information
into knowledge. The choices they make can also help determine which of
these possibilities come to pass: (1) distance technologies as an add-on
to existing institutions; (2) "knowledge in a box," impersonal, individualized,
and socially isolating; or (3) a networked learning society that keeps
human relationships at the center of learning (Bates 1995).
"Agricultural Education and Distance Education." AGRICULTURAL EDUCATION
MAGAZINE 68, no. 11 (May 1996): 3-18, 21-23.
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Burgstahler, S. E. "Distance Learning and the Information Highway."
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Caudron, S. "Wake Up to New Learning Technologies." TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT
50, no. 5 (May 1996): 30-35.
Cook, D. L. "Community and Computer-Generated Learning Environments."
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION no. 67 (Fall 1995): 33-39.
Dede, C. "Emerging Technologies in Distance Education for Business."
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Eastmond, D. V. ALONE BUT TOGETHER: ADULT DISTANCE STUDY THROUGH COMPUTER
CONFERENCING. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1995.
Filipczak, B. "Putting the Learning into Distance Learning." TRAINING
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Sherman, D. "Career Counseling in Cyberspace." JOURNAL OF CAREER PLANNING
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"The Internet in Education." INTERNET WORLD, October 1995, pp. 38-85.
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