Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: 
Cases from Higher Education

Controversies over the impact and role of distance education abound. On the one hand, it is viewed as the next revolution in education, extending the reach of education to those who cannot come to campus, making education more affordable, providing new models for life long learning, and reforming teaching practices through the emphasis on student discussion and activity and the elimination of the lecture as the central teaching activity.  On the other hand, distance education is seen as lowering the quality of instruction, a money making rather than educational enterprise, an environment where cheating cannot be controlled, and an environment that threatens the teaching role both through the lack of any physical constraints on class size and through the objectification of the "course," thus threatening course ownership and potentially leading to the disaggregation of the roles of faculty.

Of course both sides of these arguments take a very narrow view of distance education, failing to recognize the diversity of practices and goals.  One cannot say that, in general, distance education is of high or low quality any more than we can commend or condemn lectures or seminars.  The quality depends on the design of and the student's engagement in the learning environment.  There are poorly designed lecture courses and seminars, just as there are poorly designed distance education courses.  In an American Federation of Teachers (AFT, 2000) survey of 200 members who teach online, 84% said they would teach online again.  Fifty-four percent felt that their online students learned as much as students in their campus based classes, while 18% felt the distance students performed more poorly and 28% felt they outperformed students in the campus based courses. In essence, distance education courses were right in the mix with all other courses on the dimension of quality.

The one thing we think distance education has done is to force a closer examination of and attention to teaching practices in higher education regardless of whether the teaching is at a distance or in the classroom.  Perhaps one of the most interesting issues that has arisen in these debates is the quality of learning that occurs online.  Although the AFT survey indicated that the learning in online and face-to-face classes was basically equal, they nonetheless expressed a quality concern when they questioned whether "deep understanding of difficult material-beyond amassing facts - can occur in the absence of same-time same-place interaction" (AFT, 2000).

This concern is particularly interesting given the lack of research on learning in the undergraduate classroom.  Most higher education research relies on survey data, e.g., class ratings and specialized survey's like the National Survey of Student Engagement (Kuh, 2001), to infer, based on student report, that learning has occurred.  While some research has actually looked at student learning in the classroom to examine quality of discussion (Nunn, 1996; Smith, 1983) and results of learning objectives being met by students(Hayes , 1998a, 1998b), the results of these studies leads us to question the efficacy of our current classroom based model.

While the learning sciences have made tremendous contributions to K-12 education (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000), we see little attention to higher education in general and a definite absence in distance education. There is little discussion of constructivist learning theory guiding the design and practice of distance education beyond the need for active discussion among students.  It is important to clarify that we do not think that a different theory of learning applies just because we have moved to a distance environment.  We certainly see learning as a constructive process (Duffy and Cunningham, 1996; Barab and Duffy, 2000; Duffy and Jonassen, 1992). That is, in our view learners are goal directed, and they use learning environments to construct an understanding to aid them in achieving their goal.  Unfortunately, that goal is typically to pass a test, and the learning to achieve to "pass a test" often has little to do with being able to use the resources to function outside of the classroom (Honebein, Duffy and Fishman, 1993); Bransford and Schwartz, 2001).  But what is important is the theory into practice. How does the theory inform our design of web based learning environments?  And how can the the study of distance learning environments, where collaboration and discussion play a central role, inform theoretical discussions?

The authors of this book examine critical issues in the design of eight theoretically and pedagogically-based distance education programs.  Issues addressed include issues of theory, pedagogy, design, assessment, communities of practice, collaboration, and faculty development.  The descriptions, strategies, and principles inform the design of continuing education, as well as degree-based education and corporate education and training, and distance education programs for adults.

With this book, we aim to advance the discussion of how the learning sciences can inform the theory, research, and practice of distance learning as well as face-to-face learning.  We hope that others will continue the conversation as we strive to better understand the role and impact of distance learning on learning process and outcomes, pedagogy, practice, tool design, and process on supporting learners with obtaining high quality educational experiences.


References:

AFT, (2000). Distance education: Guidelines for good practice. American Federation of Teachers, May 2000. [On-line].  Available: http://www.aft.org

Barab, S., & Duffy, T. (2000). From Practice Fields to Communities of Practice. In D. Jonassen, & S. M. Land. (Eds.). Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (pp. 25-56). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Mind, brain, experience and school. Washington, DC:  National Academy Press.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.).  (2000). How people learn: Mind, brain, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (2001). Rethinking Transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications.  Review of Research in Education, 24, 61-100.

Duffy, T.M. & Cunningham, D.J. (1996). Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. NY: Simon & Schuster. pp.170-198.

Duffy, T.M., Jonassen D.H. (1992). (Eds.) Constructivism and the technology of Instruction: A Conversation. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Honebein, P., Duffy, T., and Fishman, B. (1993) Constructivism and the design of learning environments: Context and authentic activities for learning. In T. Duffy, J. Lowyck, and D. Jonassen (Eds.) The Design of Constructivist Learning Environments: Implications for Instructional Design and the Use of Technology. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Kuh, G  (2001). The National Survey of Student Engagement: The College Student Report.    Bloomington IN:  School of Education, Indiana University. [Online].  Available: http://www.iub.edu/%7Ensse/


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Folks:

In the posting above, the authors examine theoretically-based distance learning environments in higher education and discuss issues of theory, pedagogy, design, assessment, communities of practice, collaboration, and faculty development.  The descriptions, strategies, and principles discussed potentially inform the design of continuing education, as well as degree-based education and corporate education and training, and distance education programs for adults. Edited by Thomas M. Duffy and Jamie R. Kirkley, Indiana University. All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8058-4576-3. Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates. 10 Industrial Avenue, Mahwah, NJ 07430-2262 http://erlbaum.com/ Reprinted with permission.

Regards, Rick Reis, reis@stanford.edu