Carving a New Path for Distance Education Research

Go to edited revision, author's original with critical reviews

For many years, researchers have endeavored to determine whether distance education can provide the same level of academic excellence as courses taught in traditional modes. Moore and Thompson (1990, 1997) reviewed much of this research from the 1980s through the 1990s. They concluded that distance education was considered effective, "when effectiveness [was] measured by the achievement of learning, by the attitudes of students and teachers, and by return on investment" (1997, p. 59). They also noted, however, that many research studies demonstrated weak designs, "specifically in regard to control of the populations being compared or otherwise studied, the treatments being given, and the statistical techniques being applied" (1997, p. 59). Phipps and Merisotis (1999) suggested that design flaws in distance education research have made the results inconclusive. Others, unconvinced of the purported defects of distance studies, suggest that perhaps distance education research has unjustly faced a higher burden of proof than other scientific and educational research (Brown & Wack, 1999).

A large portion of distance education research has been devoted to comparative studies of distance and traditional methods of education. In this research, the teaching modality (traditional or distance) is considered the independent variable and the study compares distance education with traditional teaching with respect to student success (reflected in course grades, test scores, attrition, etc.). Researchers conducting comparative research often ask the same basic research question, "Is distance education as good as, or better than, traditional education?" This type of question is premised on the implicit yet rarely mentioned assumption that "traditional" education is the ideal mode of educational delivery, and thus can serve as the "gold standard" against which all other forms of "alternative" education should be measured. This assumption is untenable simply because there is no way to determine that one class method is better than another without first agreeing on the criteria for such a determination.

Another problem with comparative research is that it rarely defines what it means by "traditional" (or even "distance") education. Saba (1998, p. 3) has pointed out that, "[Comparative studies] fail to adequately define 'traditional' education or present a sufficient differentiation between traditional education and [computer] mediated education." Ehrmann (1995) added that, unless the processes being compared are explicitly defined, comparisons between distance and traditional modes of instruction can not be justified. This distinction is important to research validity because outcomes may differ substantively across disciplines, courses, and teachers. That is, there is likely to be too much variation, both within and across, disciplines, courses, or individual teachers, to make valid comparisons between distance and traditional classes.

Brown and Wack (1999) suggested that it is difficult to acquire clear, compelling evidence on the impact of technology on student learning outcomes. They noted that studies attempting to provide this evidence are usually based on the assumption that, "such 'compelling' evidence is attainable, and second, that even amid 'dizzying' technological change and shifting student populations such comparisons with conventional education are relevant." Ehrmann pointed out that by specifically defining what "traditional" or "distance" means (i.e., what materials, motives, or methods are employed), "you limit your study to a very small and temporary universe" (p. 21). In other words, when educational modalities are framed within their unique contexts, the conclusions justified by the research are also limited.

Some researchers have implied that research designs other than true experimental approaches (e.g., evaluative or descriptive research, or those without random samples) are weak, and inconclusive with respect to the efficacy of distance modalities. Phipps and Merisotis (1999, p. 20), in a sweeping critique of distance education studies, noted that "most of the studies do not use randomly selected subjects." They concluded that these studies run the risk of allowing multiple variables to confound study results thus affecting the outcome. The problem with this type of critique is that it is not practical. The reality of enrollment patterns is that students will self-select into courses based on reasons important to them: such as preferences for certain teachers, or locations, or personal schedules. Randomizing subjects in a distance study may increase generalizability in theory, but in practice many of the findings are not likely to be useful, unless one assumes that students who are randomly assigned are representative of those who self-select into a course.

Saba (1998) and Ehrmann (1995) have suggested that many studies are simply asking the wrong research questions. Saba recommended that research hypotheses focus on whether educational strategies are successfully engaging students, and whether or not there is effective communication and interaction between instructor and student to promote the construction of knowledge.

The Role of Learning Theory in Distance Research Design

This author would like to forward the hypothesis that the focus of current distance education research has been implicitly, and perhaps unknowingly, framed within the apparent dichotomy between the teacher- versus learner-centered theories of learning. In other words, I believe that the design of much of current distance education research is based on the preferred learning theory of the distance researcher.

The traditional, teacher-centered, "instructivist," learning theory reinforces a view that knowledge is attained passively by information transfer from a knowledgeable "authority" figure (teacher) to the learner. Knowledge (reality) exists independent of, and external to, the learner. This concept of learning leads quite naturally to a lecture format, a dualistic (i.e., "black and white") view of knowledge, and a passive learning perspective (Gardiner, 1998). In the instructivist view of learning, it is the teacher who controls the learning process through the "distribution" of knowledge. This approach clearly places the emphasis for learning on the method of dispensing information rather than the facilitation of learning through the matching of learning activities to student learning preferences.

Many educators still have difficulty shedding the protective cloak of their traditional instructivist training. Many teachers teach as they have been taught (Gardiner, 1998). Since an instructivist learning theory has prevailed for quite some time, many instructors have used a teacher-centered approach in the classroom (between 70% and 90% of professors still use the traditional lecture as their instructional strategy of choice), and much current research tacitly approves an instructivist worldview. Traditional students also exhibit dependent (passive) learning styles (Grasha, 1996).

At the present time, the adult learning theory paradigm has shifted from a teaching towards a learning focus (Berge and Collins, 1995; Schuyler, 1997). The "constructivist" learning perspective asserts that the learner constructs new knowledge through a process of relating new information to prior knowledge and experience (Olgren, 1998). According to the constructivist approach, teachers become guides rather than dispensers of knowledge, and instructional practice places more importance on the role of the student in constructing knowledge. Thus, geographical distance becomes irrelevant, and technology (i.e., mode of delivery) is only important to the extent that it facilitates communication and construction of knowledge (Saba, 1998).

The tide of learning theory has shifted from an instructor-centered (instructivist) toward a learner-centered (constructivist) perspective. This evolution has changed educational assumptions and has called into question the methods of traditional distance education research. To some, the proposed dichotomy between instructivism and constructivism may seem an oversimplification of learning theory. It is still important, however, to understand how underlying philosophies of education influence not only educational practice but also research. The extent to which teachers see themselves as "instructivist" versus "constructivist" may implicitly determine the extent to which classroom activities are based on teacher or student preferences, and may also influence the focus of research design.


Future research should not focus on the value of technology-mediated modes of education per se, but rather should determine whether students who enroll into distance education classes are as successful as their traditional counterparts, and specifically what factors are related to student success. In other words, future research should focus on student success rather than teaching modalities. Studies that focus on comparing student characteristics, evaluating overall student success, and profiling successful (and non-successful) students, might better help us attain that which we all seek: more successful students. Research questions should change from, "What methods are better?" to, "What characteristics facilitate student success?" and, "Can certain characteristics be altered to improve student success?"

Thompson (1998) has noted that the dynamic nature of the individual learner, as well as of the field of distance education as a whole, makes it unlikely that we can establish a "generic" profile of the distance learner in higher education. Tony Grasha's research (1996) has suggested that student learning styles are in a continual state of flux, changing significantly from year to year and even from the beginning to the end of the term. Diaz and Cartnal (1999) have confirmed Grasha's research and have demonstrated that online students display widely different learning style profiles, as well as other characteristics.

Since student characteristics are in constant flux, the usual requirement for broad generalization in research may need to be abandoned in favor of a model that continuously monitors student characteristics and determines which characteristics facilitate favorable outcomes. This student- and learning-centered approach to research would likely influence educational practice by increasing faculty sensitivity to the individual learner and by preparing them to facilitate distant education.


Berge, Z., & Collins, M. (1995). Computer-mediated communication and the online classroom in distance learning. Computer-Mediated Communications Magazine. Retrieved September 10, 1997.

Brown, G., & Wack, M. (1999, May). The difference frenzy and matching buckshot with buckshot. The Technology Source. Retrieved May 12, 1999.

Diaz, D. P., & Cartnal, R. B. (1999). Students' learning styles in two classes: Online distance learning and equivalent on-campus. College Teaching 47(4), pp. 130-135.

Ehrmann, S. C. (1995, March/April). Asking the right question. Change, 29(2), pp. 20-27.

Gardiner, L. F. (1998). Why we must change: The research evidence. The NEA Higher Education Journal, 71-88.

Grasha, A. F. (1996). Teaching with style. Pittsburgh, PA: Alliance.

Jonassen, D. H., & Reeves, T. C. (1996). Learning with technology: Using computers as cognitive tools. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 693-719). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Matthews, D. (1998, September/October). Transforming higher education: Implications for state higher education finance policy. Educom Review. Retrieved March 18, 1999.

Moore, M. G., & Thompson, M. M. (1990). The effects of distance learning: A summary of literature. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 330 321.

Moore, M. G., & Thompson M. M. (1997). The effects of distance learning (Rev. ed. ACSDE Research Monograph No. 15). University Park, PA: American Center for the Study of Distance Education, Pennsylvania State University.

Olgren, C. H. (1998). Improving learning outcomes: The effects of learning strategies and motivation. In C. Gibson (Ed.) Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes (pp. 77-95). Madison, WI: Atwood.

Phipps, R., & Merisotis, J. (1999). What's the difference?: A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education. Washington, DC: The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Saba, F. (1998). Is distance education comparable to "traditional" education? Distance Education Report, sample issue, 3.

Schuyler, G. (1997). A Paradigm shift from instruction to learning. ERIC Digests. Retrieved January 28, 1998 from the World Wide Web.

Thompson, M. M. (1998). Distance learners in higher education. In C. Gibson (Ed.), Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes (pp. 9-24). Madison, WI: Atwood.