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Foundations of Distance Learning Linda A. Cook Texas Tech University


This paper provides an overview of concepts addressed within the first section of Teaching and Learning at a Distance (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012) with additional supplementary resources. A definition and history of distance learning are provided. Theories of distance learning, research areas and technology tools are compared.

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING Foundations of Distance Learning Distance learning is an educational delivery system through which teachers and

students, located at different places and perhaps at different times, communicate, collaborate, interact with content, and provide feedback to one another to support learning. Students report that, when given a choice, they prefer face-to-face instruction over distance learning. Students are, however, increasingly selecting and requesting distance learning (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). Distance learning can be considered a disruptive innovation (Christensen, 2003) (Simonson, 2010) in that it competes with traditional education institutions by meeting the needs of those who are underserved through the traditional system. Distance learning in higher education provides an alternative choice to those for whom college is not accessible due to transportation needs, learning needs, specific course offerings, excessive costs, work schedule conflicts or family circumstances. Distance learning can make an otherwise inaccessible education accessible. Distance education is a growing trend. Rather than being taught by a few rogue

university professors, distance learning courses are commonly taught by core faculty (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). Although there are numerous examples of universities that only offer courses through distance learning, such as the University of Phoenix, most traditional universities and colleges offer distance learning course options. More than 90% of midwestern doctoral research institutions offer online programs (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). Most universities today consider distance learning courses as a part of their long range plans.

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING Distance education options within K-12 systems are growing as well. Some virtual

K-12 school programs are partially supported by universities while others are partially supported by state or federal government funds. Florida and Arkansas both offer state- adopted virtual school programs. Indiana University, the University of Missouri (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012), and Texas Tech University offer virtual education programs for students in grades K-12 or 9-12. Due to increased availability of distance learning courses, small high schools are now able to provide programs such as AP, languages other than English, and elective course options that meet the needs of a few students. Historically the development of distance learning courses within the US and England

was driven by specific course needs. Examples include correspondence courses to learn shorthand in England and mining and the US. The Society to Encourage Home Studies was developed in the late 1800s in the US to provide a variety of courses for customized study at home (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). In contrast, distance learning in China began as a centralized national system through the National Higher Education Distance Education Program. The benefit of a centralized system is efficiency and consistency in delivering content. A drawback is that students may demand more specialized courses than are offered through the nationalized system. Theories of distance learning address different perspectives. Schlosser and

Simonson (2009) describe the equivalency theory and advocate for the intentionality of design of distance learning courses so that the overall learning experience is equivalent to what would have been experienced through face-to-face delivery. Wedemeyer (1981) refers to distance learning as independent study and addresses the use of technology to


provide greater customization through choice of content, format and methodology. Moore (2007) classifies distance learning experiences based upon the level of autonomy of the learner. He refers to this autonomy as transactional distance between the learner and the educator. Peters (1988) refers to distance learning as industrialized teaching and learning in that it can result in a reduction of power, time and money as compared with traditional education. Holmberg (1985) developed a theory of distance learning as a means for interaction and communication. Within a distance learning environment, some students gain positive feelings which increase motivation to learn. The positive feelings are linked to the ability to learn in private rather than appear publically within a face-to-face environment. Distance learning can embody aspects of all of these theories. A school system may initiate distance learning courses in order to customize the learning for some students, but a result may be increased efficiency due to decreased need for classrooms and teachers. Various research studies indicate that the media used to deliver instruction do not

influence achievement (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). This indicates that distance courses can be as effective as face-to-face courses. Within both learning environments, however, the quality of instruction can vary greatly and can influence achievement. In order to provide quality distance learning experiences, equivalency (Schlosser & Simonson, 2009) rather than duplicity needs to be applied. Distance learning requires different experiences than are provided within face-to-face courses in order for the learning outcomes to be equivalent. Distance learning courses need to be intentionally designed with this concept in mind. Simply transferring content from a face-to-face course to a distance learning platform does not ensure equivalency. Designers of distance learning

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING courses should consider the learning needs of individuals, including the specific needs for

content interaction, discussion, and simulated experiences, and provide these components within the course design. Within distance learning courses, especially those which offer open enrollment,

some student groups are more likely to struggle with successful course completion than are others (Simpson, 2006) (Xu & Jaggers, 2013). Younger students, black students, male students, and students with less academic background experience have been shown to be less likely to successfully complete distance learning courses. These findings might be used to administer pre-emptive interventions for students considered to be at risk for failure within a distance learning environment (Simpson, 2006) (Subotsky & Prinsloss, 2011). Because the groups most likely to struggle within the distance learning environment are similar to the groups most likely to struggle within traditional learning environments, measures need to be taken to ensure that distance learning does not widen the achievement gap. Design of distance learning experiences necessitates investigation of various

technologies for content delivery and communication. Although in the past distance learning has included correspondence by mail, radio and television, computer technologies and the Internet have widely increased accessibility to as well as interactivity within distance learning courses. Many virtual courses are built within a platform such as Ning, Blackboard, Edmodo, Schoology, or others. The digital platforms provide means for content delivery, assignment submission, email communication, grading and assessment feedback, discussion boards, and links for extended learning. Within the platform and course design, a variety of additional communication tools can be included. Constructivist learning theory

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING advocates for collaborative meaning making. Through distance learning courses, collaboration can occur both synchronously and asynchronously.

Some digital tools for synchronous communication include Skype, QQ International, Google Hangout and Lync. Each of these tools provides real time audio and video communication as well as text messaging options. A benefit to dual audio and video communication in real time is that meaning may be more clearly understood because body language can be considered. Communication across language barriers may occur more effectively using text messaging through a translator program such as Google Translate. Google docs and wikis allow for either synchronous or asynchronous collaboration through text as participants write and edit a shared document. Wikis and Goolge docs can provide the means for efficient synchronous collaborative communication about a concept or a task. Asynchronous communication tools include email, blogs, discussion boards, wikis and Goolge docs (may be used synchronously or asynchronously), podcasts, vodcasts, social bookmarking, and social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Benefits of asynchronous communication are convenience, reflective time, the ability to edit prior to sharing, and flexibility. Asynchronous communication can occur across different time zones where immediate responses are not required. Discussion boards allow students within a distance learning course to interact with one another through comments and extensions. Wikis and Google docs used asynchronously provide a means for collaborative meaning making as learners edit and contribute to the groups final product. Podcasts and vodcasts offer one-way communication, but allow for inflection and tone to be heard and/or body language to be interpreted. These tools may provide clearer communication than would be

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING provided by one-way reading of text information. Social bookmarking tools, such as Diigo, allow students to collaborate about websites they find useful or meaningful. Rather than sending links through email, lists of websites can be created and shared within Diigo.

Twitter can be used to connect through short messages to and from classmates as well as to and from leaders in a field of research, educational institutions, museums, businesses, and organizations. Facebook can provide a method for quick interaction among members of a group. The effectiveness of a distance learning experience can vary depending upon the learning design, interactivity, learner-educator relationship, effectiveness of communication, and scaffolding provided. Both face-to-face and distance learning experiences are optimized through intentionality of design, clarity of communication and expectations, supportive relationships, engagement with content, and relevant learning experiences. Distance learning may provide an education to those who would otherwise not have access to one. Distance learning may also allow smaller more remote schools to offer programs and courses that they would otherwise not be able to support or sustain. Although most learners perform equally well within distance and face-to-face environments, some learners are more likely to struggle within each. Teachers within distance learning as well as face-to-face courses should provide support systems needed to help learners achieve success.

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING References Christensen, C. (2003). The innovators dilemma: The revolutionary book that will change how you do business. New York: Harper Collins. Holmberg, B. (1985). The sphere of distance education theory revisited. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED386578). Moore, M. (2007). The theory of transactional distance. In M. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Peters, O. (1988). Distance teaching and industrial production: A comparative interpretation in outline. In D. Sewart, D. Keegan, & B. Holmberg (Eds.), Distance education: International perspectives (pp. 95-113). New York: Routledge. Schlosser, L. & Simonson, M. (2009). Distance education: Definition and glossary of terms (3rd ed.). Charlotte, NC: Information Age. Simonson, M. (2010). Distance education as a disruptive technology. Distance Learning, 7(1), 71-74. Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance (5th ed.). Botson, MA: Pearson. Simpson, O. (2006). Predicting student success in open and distance learning. Open Learning, 21(2), 125-138.

Subotzky, G. & Prinsloss, P. (2011). Turning the tide: A socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at The University of South Africa. Distance Education, 32(2), 177-193. Wedemeyer, C. (1981). Learning at the backdoor. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

FOUNDATIONS OF DISTANCE LEARNING Xu, D. & Jaggers, S. S. (2013). Adaptability to online learning: Differences across types of


students and academic subject areas. Community college Research Center, Columbia University, CCRC Working Paper No. 54.