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E-Learning: Emergence of the Profession

Holly Heston, John P. Sharp, and Jennifer Soliman September 2012

The purpose of this report is to summarize the evolution of e-learning. The report begins with the roots of e-learning - distance education and educational technology. Following that is a presentation of two current philosophies: transactional distance, which can apply not only to elearning but any kind of distance learning, and connectivism, which is tied specifically to today’s learning technologies. The emergence of the MOOC is also briefly discussed. Supplementing these sections is a hyper-glossary linking the learner to various web sites discussing other philosophies in e-learning. The report ends with a brief reflection on what it means to be a professional in a field that is constantly changing.

20th Century Uses of Technology for Learning
This section summarizes, in three corresponding subsections, the work of Robert A. Reiser’s two-part article, The History of Instructional Design and Technology, as well as Farhad Saba’s An Introduction to Distance Education and e-learning (2008). The progress of American education shows gradualism, though every major technological evolution has always accompanied high levels of inaccurate hype about the revolutionizing of our educational institutions. The one effect technology has had on education and society in general is that greater amounts of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds tend to gain access to communication (i.e., how we transmit information to each other). As technology continues to pervade society, it will eventually pervade American educational institutions so that all people, students and teachers are eventually exposed to and practice a daily combination of traditional and technological instruction. Instructional Media in the 20th Century At the turn of the 20th century, school museums were the way many people became exposed to learning and culture. Museums used films, slides and photographs to relay facts and information, but in no way were the materials thought of as replacements of


actual teachers or school rooms. As film technology began to grow, so did a movement called visual instruction or visual education. Some teachers began using lantern slide projectors and stereograph viewers and many, including Thomas Edison, felt that film would revolutionize education. This will prove to become a recurring pattern of hype associate with new technological developments that ultimately leave educators and students generally disappointed as new developments overshadow their predecessors. The visual education movement continued to grow into the 1930s, with the seemingly successful addition of instructional radio. Initial theories of instructional technology developed as the professional research organizations consolidated and the American government took an increased interest in communication technology. Due to World War II of the 1940s, instructional media was further developed in terms of effectiveness and quality by the American military in order to recruit, train and send out as many soldiers as quickly as possible. Types of instructional media include slide projectors and audio-visual devices executing the first training simulation programs. After the war, civilian educators and educational scientists began aggressively researching theories of communication. Originally, their research focused on the effectiveness of various tools available, but eventually turned towards assimilating communication processes. Eventually, professionals in the industry would come to agree that all elements of education must be taken into consideration: strategies, tools and the communication process itself. Though the technology was present and used before the 1950s, it wasn’t prominent until the government supported instructional television and set up its initial infrastructure through the Federal Communications Commission in 1952. The Ford Foundation also provided much financial support and still does today. Though the use of instructional television did permeate American education, the system was not ultimately revolutionized due to the cost of equipment, resistance from educators, and the tendency of program producers to sacrifice quality for quantity in terms of educational content. In the 1970s, the terminology for the industry shifted towards using terms like Educational Communications and Technology, rather than describing the field as audiovisual instruction. Professionals and researchers began to focus more on the process of communication as well as the tools of technology at hand. It wasn’t really until the 1980s that computers made a great impact on educational institutions, but researchers at IBM had created computer-assisted instruction earlier for use on mainframes and minicomputers. Though computers became readily available and widely used by public school students in the early 1990s, much of that work was


limited to content drills, typing skills, and writing and printing reports. With decreased manufacturing and distribution costs, technology is becoming more pervasive not just in the educational world, but also in everyday life. Just because the technology is more pervasive, however, does not necessarily indicate that educational institutions are using these new tools (e.g., internet, handheld computers, social networking) in an effective or even educational way. It seems like computer and satellite technology will indeed revolutionize education, but when this becomes clear remains to be seen. Instructional Design in the 20th Century The initial growth and development of research through instructional problems (i.e., instructional design) is largely due to World War II. Scientists from all over the world were acquired by the American government to develop fast and efficient training for soldiers and much of our instructional design approach today is based on solving instructional problems that arise from performing practical and pre-existing day-to-day procedures. After that war, the research of B.F. Skinner focused on the materials used to teach students and the process for developing them. He and other psychologists developed an empirical approach of trial and revision, where educational problems are analyzed and content is broken down into chunks through behavioral objectives. Roger Mager helped make this teaching approach popular in the 1960s through his own published work. Benjamin Bloom and others also worked together in the 1950s to develop the idea of a hierarchy of possible learning outcomes linked to various human behaviors. In the 1960s, criterion-referenced testing became a new, individually-focused alternative to norm-referenced testing, which ultimately groups students into winners and losers. Criterion-referenced testing analyzes different learning styles and behaviors and individualizes the experiences for each student. In 1965, Robert Gagné presented various domains of learning outcomes as well as nine teaching activities necessary to meet students’ needs. His work details a hierarchy of skills, subordinate and superordinate, so that teachers can enable students to learn more efficiently. Formative evaluation was originally advocated by Michael Scriven (1965) when he suggested a trial and revision process for developing educational materials before execution in their finalized state, as opposed to summative evaluation which determines effectiveness and quality of educational materials and strategies after their final implementation.


In the 1970s and 1980s, various instructional systems and models were developed by researchers leading to a growing number of educational degrees and programs for instructional design. Developments continued to grow in training fields during the 80s, but American public schools and traditional higher learning institutions did not yet implement many instructional design strategies within their curriculum until the 90s. Instructional design in the 1990s was marked by burgeoning computer technology, which ultimately expanded the responsibilities of instructional designers into noninstructional work practices and electronic performance support systems. The practice and theory of constructivism also became mainstream in education, which quickly affected anyone involved in designing instruction. Rapid prototyping was perhaps the greatest change in the 90s, which allowed for a more flexible trial and revision process until the product itself was in an acceptable form. With the onset of the Internet and web at the turn of the 21st century, the production and development for distance learning and the ability to create knowledge management databases and systems became realized. The field of e-learning came to fruition with the idea that electronic methods of communication are not necessarily effective as replications of face-to-face instruction and must be further developed towards the specific context of these new learning environments. Distance Education in the United States Independent learning is at the cornerstone of distance learning and American distance education can be traced back to the 17th century with apprenticeship programs to help people develop trade skills for community survival. Discussion groups were held by notable figures of the 18th century and the 19th century was especially marked by selfimprovement and professional development courses through post, or correspondence. At the turn of the 20th century, colleges and private corporations began to take correspondence programs more seriously, but the quality of education itself had not drastically improved. One area that was highly effective for correspondence education was training for farmers and other technical trades. Into the 1920s and 1930s, farming was the main trade associated with distance learning through radio broadcasts, supported and developed by the American government. The government also provided support for other types of learning through broadcast radio and the age-old question of what makes communication educational began to be considered and debated by professionals in the industry: Is communication educational if its purpose is to educate or are there greater requirements? As televisions became widespread in the 1950s and educational television became readily accepted, the even greater debate continued as to whether distance learning could stand up to traditional classroom learning. As suspected, much researched proved


that there was really no difference in the quality of educational outcomes. What researchers did come to understand is that distance education through television is a viable way to inform the general public and help provide greater educational exposure to poorer children living in urban communities. As educational television developed over the 1960s and into the 1970s, researchers and professionals agreed television had limitations in terms of the communication process, but the content of the programming could be developed with these limits in mind and, therefore, could be as beneficial as classroom learning. By the 1980s, with the additional support of satellite technology, televisions had pretty much permeated many public schools and corporate training buildings. As cable technology became more functional and available into the 1990s, television could broadcast a greater diversity of subjects and reach an even greater audience of students around the world. The internet itself has revolutionized how we communicate in business and at home and so it is no wonder that the very definition of distance education has expanded into more diverse forms of learning through online courses, webcasts, and social networking. People, as individuals, are now afforded more educational freedom, and have real options to consider, as to how and where they will receive an education. Knowing this, it seems that distance learning is coming into the fold of traditional learning and someday soon, it will be likely that all educators will be participating in some type of combined practice of face-to-face and distance learning. Learning Theories This section discusses two learning theories pertinent to distance learning: transactional distance and connectivism. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), influenced by connectivism, are also presented. This discussion is followed by a hyper-glossary of terms, theories, and experts, which can be used for further study. One theory that emerged from the practice of distance education is the transactional distance theory, developed by Michael Moore (1983). Prior to Moore, distance education was viewed from the perspective of physical separation. Moore described distance education as a transaction between the instructor and learner, i.e., a social relationship. Three variables affect transactional distance: the structure imposed by instructor, the dialog between instructor and student, and the autonomy exhibited by the student (Moore 1983). Saba and Shearer (1994) later developed a model which indicated that the greater the structure, the less autonomy the student has, and vice versa. There are many nuances and combinations of structure, dialog, and autonomy. For instance, a correspondence course where a student has little interaction with the instructor has a high transactional distance. The student might be perceived as having more autonomy because he can


study when needed. However, if the course requirements are rigid, then the student has little control over his learning, and perhaps less autonomy than a student who frequently converses with an instructor (low transactional distance) but has more control over her direction of learning. Ultimately, whether it’s best to decrease or increase transactional distance between learner and instructor depends on the student, the subject matter, and the situation. For instance, one student might be perfectly happy taking a course with minimal interaction but with specific guidelines to follow, whereas another might prefer more autonomy in scope but still want someone to serve as a guide. The second theory discussed here, Connectivism, was developed by George Siemens (2004) as the result of the rapid advance of learning technology and the rapidly changing state of knowledge as the internet came to shape society. Connectivism posits that knowledge is changing too rapidly for anyone to fully understand any complex subject. Therefore, the ability to access knowledge, process it, and make decisions based on the current situation is more important than holding information in the brain. Learners gather knowledge through their connections with others. Technology allows learners to access more information and more people than was ever possible before. Connectivism is based on three components: chaos theory, importance of networks, and the interplay of complexity and self-organization. The idea behind chaos theory is that the learner recognizes connections between seemingly unrelated things and is able to adjust quickly when things change. Networks are important because, since no one person can know all things, learners must link to sources – people, organizations, grids (all described as “nodes”) that provide information and different perspectives. Complexity and self organization can be described as the eventual self organization of a collection of random and diverse entities. As an example, a learner would seek a number of resources on the internet for information on a topic. A teacher might guide the learner, but the rapidly changing state of knowledge means that the teacher probably is unaware of the true current state. Therefore, the student has not only the autonomy but the responsibility of analyzing new information, determining its validity, incorporating it into the current schema, making decisions based on it, and disseminating “new knowledge” to others nodes in the network. Some have criticized connectivism, saying it is a pedagogy rather than a learning theory because it does not consider previous learning theories and is too generalized to describe how learning really happens (Davis et al, 2008, Wikipedia). Nonetheless, it does seem to describe an increasingly utilized process of learning in the digital age. A development derived from connectivism is the MOOC, or massive, open, online course. Massive refers to the number of participants. Open refers to the fact that


it is open to everyone, draws on a variety of sources, and does not rely on a strict curriculum. Siemens and Downes developed the first MOOC in 2008, which was on the topic of connectivism (Wikipedia, MOOCs n.d.). The paragraph above, describing how a learner might function in a connectivist situation, also describes how a student might participate in a MOOC. Where does the MOOC fit in to the transactional distance theory? Since there is little structure, the student has more autonomy. Whether there is a low or high transactional distance depends on how both the instructor and student choose to engage. Assuming that an instructor is willing to engage with students, a student who frequently seeks out input from the instructor has created a course with low transactional distance, whereas a student in the same course who is not interested in interacting with the instructor, has created a course with high transactional distance. Therefore the student is in control, not the instructor. If one accepts that in a MOOC, the nodes essentially replace the instructor, then the student might be said to have a low transactional distance with the sources of learning, even if these are not the instructor per se.

E-Learning Emerges
Out of the instructional design models discussed above and technology that is ever changing came the term e-learning. With the explosion of the internet in the 90’s came an increased interest in using the internet to deliver distance education and training. While originally, e-learning was meant to indicate learning via the internet, it’s definition has expanded to include learning content delivered via many different avenues and media including: the internet, intranet, digital or tape based audio or video, television, CD-ROM, DVD, mobile phones and smart phones. e-Learning can be synchronous or asynchronous, self-paced or led by an instructor. It encompasses multiple delivery strategies from Computer Based Training (CBT) to online classrooms via LMS or digital collaboration through the cloud. e-Learning will mean different things to different people. For instructional designers, it may mean designing instructional materials in new and creative ways, to keep the learner engaged and the content fresh. Corporate trainers may find that they need to brush up on their training skills for engaging learners that they cannot see. Students/ learners, will need to be sure to keep their motivation high and be disciplined in completing work. What does it mean to be an e-learning professional in a field where everything is constantly changing? Traditional means of defining the profession still stand. Professional standards, professional organizations, university departments and degrees, accreditation reviews, journals, textbooks and media still define what it means to be a profession, but new standards of practice, communities of practice and even other fields and professions are influencing our work. The e-learning field is stronger for it; sometimes it means that control is surrendered. What e-learning professionals think of


as important may not be what is most important to the learners themselves. We have the ability, as a profession, to surrender that control and give it back to the learner. As technology becomes more accessible, information will be more accessible. We need to rethink the way students are taught. Change is hard but it is necessary if we want to move away from the past and towards the future. In Sir Ken Robinson’s speech given at the RSA conference in October of 2010, he speaks about changing the education paradigm. e-Learning , MOOCs, and the e-learning field are on the right track for changing the paradigm and moving towards more organic, customized learning.

Concluding Thoughts
While instructional design, distance education, and e-learning share roots, theories and models, we must remember that each builds on the past. Transactional distance theory, Connectivism and MOOCs have all influenced the current state of learning. New technologies have and will continue to open up new possibilities for learning. As learning professionals learned in the past, we must remember that the strategies, tools and communication avenues of education must be taken into consideration. The strategies, tools and communication avenues will change as technology changes. Educators roles will continue to change as technology advances. Our challenge will be to embrace the new opportunities and effectively share knowledge with our networks, students and colleagues.


Clark, W. (2009, September 11). History of instructional design and technology. Retrieved from The CMC Resource Site. (2002) Transactional distance theory. Retrieved Sept 15, 2012 from Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2012 from e-learning. (n.d.). Collins English dictionary - Complete & unabridged 10th edition. Retrieved September 08, 2012, from website:http:// Masters, K. (2011). A brief guide to understanding MOOCs.The Internet Journal of Medical Education. 1(2). DOI: 10.5580/1f21. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2012 from http:// Moore, M. (1993) Theory of transactional distance. In: Desmond Keegan (Ed.): Theoretical principles of distance education. London, New York: Routledge 22-38. In Mueller (n.d.) Moore, M. (1983) The individual adult learner. In Tight, M. (Ed.) Adult learning and education 153-168. London Croom Helm. In Saba (2008). Mueller, C. (n.d.) Transactional distance. Retrieved Sept. 15, 2012 from staf9698/mullerc/3/transact.html Reiser, R.A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part I: A history of instructional media. Educational Technology Research and Development , 49 (1), 53-64. Reiser, R.A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49 (2), 57-67. Saba, F. (2008) An introduction to distance education and eLearning.


Saba, F. (2012). A systems approach to the future of distance education in colleges and universities: Research, development and implementation. Continuing Higher Education Review, 76, 30-37. Retrieved from Saba.pdf Saba, F, and Shearer, R.L., (1994). Verifying key theoretical concepts in a dynamic model of distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8(1), 36-59. In Saba (2008). Siemens, G. (2004, December 12) Connectivism. ElearnSpace. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2012 from Wikipedia. (n.d.) Connectivism. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2012 from Connectivism Wikipedia. (n.d.) MOOCS. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2012 from Massive_Open_Online_Course


A Brief Hyper-Glossary of Key Terms, Models and Experts In the spirit of independent learning, and because the internet has afforded educators and researchers the efficiency to conduct and publish excellent online research, the following terms are not described by the authors of this report but linked to excellent, carefully chosen resources and experts online. By this method, current organizations and experts in the field of e-learning are highlighted right along with the terms being used today. Instructional Media - Author and instructor Dr. Craig L. Scanlan, offers a simple, yet thorough definition . Instructional Design - This is a thorough, yet concise definition by educational innovator Richard Culatta. Criterion and Norm-Referenced Testing - FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, provides an informative summary. Constructivist Learning Theory - The Educational Broadcasting System covers constructivism as it applies to teaching and learning. Formative and Summative Evaluation - Carnegie Mellon University briefly describes evaluation and provides some interesting examples. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains - This is an in-depth summary of learning domains, followed by instructional strategies, by Don Clark, author and expert on instructional design. Open, Distance, Flexible and Online Learning - Dr. Tony Bates, author and consultant of e-learning and distance education, summarizes the four terms often mistakenly used interchangeably. Synchronous and asynchronous learning - breaks this concept down clearly and simply. Four levels of interaction - British collegiate instructor and elearning blogger Steve Wheeler briefly summarizes Michael G. Moore’s three levels of interaction and also thoughtfully describes a possible fourth level of interaction introduced in 1994 by researchers Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena. The Community of Inquiry Model - This is a direct description of the model from some of the authors who first conducted its study: Dr. Randy Garrison and many other colleagues and researchers. What is great about this site is that you can follow new updates to work and studies still being conducted on the model.