Emerging Technologies in Distance Learning

John Bingham, Teresa Davis, Cathy Moore

Definition of Distance Learning

The nature of the "information age" and communication are changing rapidly. Technologies that were previously considered advanced are becoming commonplace and new technologies are still being developed. The nature of this trend is evident in the multitu de of definitions of long distance learning. The U. S. Office of Technology Assessment defines distance learning as the "linking of a teacher and students in several geographic locations via technology that allows for interaction" (in , 1994). According to the United States Distance Learning Association, "distance learning is the application of electronic means to education in all areas: K-12, higher education, continuing education, co rporate training, and military and government training, telemedicine and those devoted to the pursuit of lifelong learning" (USDLA, 1996). The VTEL Corporation defines interactive distance learning as usi ng "today's video technologies to reach more students, in more locations, with fewer instructors" (VTEL, 1996). The Distance Learning Homepage of Western Carolina University defines distance learning as "the delivery of instruction to the right group of people at the right time in the right place. The educator and the learner may be separated by time, distance, or both. It may or may not include technology" (WCU, 1 995). Clearly these definitions have some common ground and some differences.

Distance Learning - A Paradigm Shift

Most definitions of distance learning include the use of technology. Some, however, refer to the degree of interactivity and the distance between learners. Other definitions do not require the use of technology. In fact, distance learning, in the older paradigm, can be as simple as postal correspondence and telephone communications. Due to the technological advances of the recent past, a great deal of excitement and hope has been generated for the use of distance learning in education. Rapid advances in computer and telecommunications capabilities have made possible the development of learning modules that include elements such as video transmission, e-mail, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. These modules can function either as components of the learning process or as the basis for instruction. The progression of long distance learning from pen-pals, college correspondence courses, teleconferencing over speaker phones, teleconferencing via modem, transporting still pictures along with interactive au dio, to the latest technology of two-way, full audio, full video communication has implications for public education.

Technological advances have created a paradigm shift in education and the definition of distance learning, as described by James Morrison (1996), who states that telecommunications, software, and the Internet eliminate walls and boundaries. In addition, he states that an increasing number of students want and need non-traditional, flexible schedules. Distance education is becoming a common practice as evidenced by the number of universities that offer distance education programs, the number of businesses offering distance learning and training programs, and the number of distance learning projects K-12 that are being created or are currently in use. (see OERI report) As distance learning continues to expand, educators must be ready to examine the issues generated by this paradigm shift.

Issues and Forces Surrounding Distance Learning

Ostensibly, distance learning has the capacity to reach many more people in a more cost-effective manner than traditional classroom instruction. However, there is a question whether the emerging technologies of distance learning will resolve equity and access issues or create new equity and access issues. For instance, Ameritech (1996) states that educational institutions are faced with the growing pressure to enhance curriculum quality while maintaining equity in education. Educators must find ways to accomplish this within the framework of extreme budget constraints. However, Ameritech's solution: may be a contradiction to their acknowledgment of the educational challenge as the technological infrastructure, human resources, and training which are essential to effective distance learning do not come without expense. There exist inequities in access to these resources across the nation. Educators with limited funds find themse lves scrambling to tap into the potential of long distance learning. This is why Lemke (1992) advocates for the use of less exotic (cable and broadcast television, audio-conferencing, fax, a compressed video network, telephone, and voice mail), and theref ore, less expensive technologies in our attempt to equalize access to educational resources.

Special interests of rural education.

The issue of access to information is of special interest to education systems in rural areas of the country. Distance education technologies can help rural schools overcome the disadvantages of geographic isolation by expanding course offerings and lear ning opportunities, and by connecting teachers (and students) with access to a broader range of resource materials (Barker and Hall, 1993). Bruce O. Barker (1987) states that high school administrators in sparsely populated rural areas are showing a great interest in interactive satellite instruction as a way to resolve teacher shortages and meet rigorous state graduation requirements (p. 6). He goes further by saying that distance learning can achieve the following:

In a recent survey of distance education use in rural school districts, over half of the respondents strongly supported distance learning (Barker, 1993). So, how will more rural districts be able to cull the benefits from distance learning, given the hig h cost of emerging technologies? (see: Distance Learning: When Does it Make Business Sense? by Dave Lewis, for a sample cost analysis.) The USDLA asserts that pa ying for distance education systems can be done through such mechanisms as issuing bonds to cover construction costs; legislation to install satellite dishes on every school in the state; state, national and Federal grant programs for local projects; and various other taxes and levies (1996). This assertion reframes the issue of equity and access within the context of tax base inequities and school funding. Affluent districts are more likely to be successful than poorer, rural districts who do not have a n adequate tax base to support or enact the use of these mechanisms. Clearly, rural school districts will have to make tough decisions regarding the allocation of scarce resources if they are to reap the benefits of distance learning.

The influence of the business sector.

The apparent success of distance learning technology in the business sector is outlined by Dave Lewis, of Hewlett-Packard Media Technologies, who reports that more and more people are realizing the importance and power of interactive distance learning. He asserts that companies must have a reason for moving to a new technology (1993). Under conditions where a need exists and resources are available, the business sector takes advantage of distance learning to gain an advantage over the competition. The investment in distance learning technology can turn into long term cost reductions by reducing travel, delivery and training expenses, while increasing effectiveness and providing the ability to track results. < a href=http://www.onetouch.com/idl.htm>One Touch Systems attests that distance learning can enable companies that have remote or international sites to provide information in a more rapid and more consistent framework (1996). The challenge for educat ion is to emulate the success of distance learning in the business sector. Schools must determine the importance of distance learning and ascertain the needs and resources available in order to gain the advantages of distance learning.

The business sector has a financial interest in the success of distance learning in the public schools. Businesses will undoubtedly gain from the sale of the costly infrastructure for distance learning, as well as from the sale of the software and educat ional materials necessary for the development of distance learning. In addition, the business sector actively enlists educators to purchase training services. Many corporations and companies market these services on the World Wide Web. These web sites p rovide an opportunity to market products, programs, courses, training, and to offer help for organizations interested in exploring or enacting distance learning technologies.

The influence of private education and home schooling.

What is the role of the private and home school community on distance learning and public schools? Advocates of home schools and private schools alike have demonstrated an ability to obtain and make use of resources in order to improve upon the education provided by the public school sector. In addition, because the number of students served is smaller, fewer resources can go further with greater flexibility. Furthermore, as the number of private schools increases and as home schooling proponents establi sh a network, the competition for students will focus on access to technology, in addition to lower student/teacher ratios, the number of courses offered, and the overall relevance and quality of programs. Monohan and Wimber (1988) suggest that public sc hool educators must take the initiative in the area of financing the costs for a technology-based program or they will be preempted by private and home schooling organizations. Finally, private schools and home schools are able to shift the focus from tea cher as the deliverer of knowledge to teacher as a facilitator or guide to information.

The New Paradigm - Questions and Prospects

This paradigm shift from student-filled, single teacher-directed classrooms to "teacherless", boundary-less, timeless learning or schooling is causing a degree of stress to major stake holders in the educational community. During May, 1993 a convocation entitled "Reinventing Schools: The Technology is Now!" , gathered the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineers to discuss this very shift. At the convocation some role changes in educational settings were delineated:

One striking example of how educational stake holders are reacting to the shift can be seen at the University of Maine where the faculty of seven campuses voted "no confidence" in the System Chancellor due to his advocacy of distance learning (Lick, 1996 ). Lick accounts for these faculties' actions as an example of the determined resistance to change inherent in the faculty culture.

Clearly, not all stake holders have reacted so strongly to the changes available by the advent of distance learning technologies. But, if the changes will include a reduced need for classroom teachers and an increased need for technological expertise, on e can expect that the stakes will be high for teachers, teacher unions, and politicians.

For effective implementation, and therefore acceptance of the use of distance learning technologies, educators might view this shift to be like all educational changes of value which require new skills, behaviors, and beliefs or understandings. The emer ging technologies of distance learning can have a positive effect on the educational system if we recognize that change is a journey, not a blueprint and that the development of new skills, behaviors, and beliefs is a complex process that must embrace the problems inherent in change (Fullan, 1993).

So, what are the problems and questions related to the emerging technologies of distance learning; how can distance learning be most effectively implemented; and what are the prospects for the future?

Effectiveness and quality

In a report for the School of Continuing Studies at Indiana University and AT&T one of the questions raised is whether or not the use of distance learning technologies actually contributes to student learni ng. Hundreds of studies that attempt to assess the instructional effectiveness of new technologies in schools have been and continue to be conducted. This report maintains that most studies focus their research on the mode of instruction, media attributes , the context of learning, and distance learning success factors. The learning effectiveness is measured in terms of traditional student achievement, such as test scores and final grades. Research summaries show positive results in learning effectiveness when education employs educational technology (AT&T, 1995).

A related concern to the question of learning effectiveness is the quality of the educational experience as demonstrated by: the quality of learning materials, the process of learning, the degree of freed om in pace, content, etc., and the level of the independence of the students. Ensuring high quality in distance education programs is a top priority of distance educators and should be a critical component in developing and assessing any program (AT&T, 19 95).

Another concern, addressed in the first issue of Flexnews (1996), states that there can be poor education either in the traditional classroom setting or when delivered over a computer network in a new model. This assertion focuses on the need not to replicate a classroom, but to maximize the attributes of computer mediated communications technology. The article finishes by promoting the idea that educators must explore how to best integrate this n ew learning context into their teaching styles and into the delivery of their particular subject matter (Flexnews, 1996).

Special needs of remote learners

A report by the School of Continuing Studies at Indiana University and AT&T indicates that educators planning to implement distance learning programs will need to address the special needs of remote learne rs. The needs that are delineated in the report include: advising and counseling, access to learning resources, communication needs, and administrative support systems. In addition to needs that can be met through institutional support structures, the re port maintains that distance learners must: assume responsibility for their own learning, actively question and obtain help, be flexible, and brace for technical difficulties in the two-way flow of information. Another dimension of the needs of distance l earners is an investigation of student attitudes toward distance learning. The four categories investigated include attitudes toward technology, toward distance education teaching methods, toward student and teacher interaction, and toward being a remote student (AT&T, 1995). These attitudes contribute to the overall assessment of student needs and to the implementation of a distance education course.

One Touch Systems , reporting on the relationship of interactivity and the effectiveness of the learning program, states that "interactivity is crucial to effective distance learning as it gives instructors va luable real-time feedback to material they are presenting...Interactivity also allows students to ask questions and share ideas with their instructor, which helps to boost student attention level and interest" (One Touch, 1996). Present programs in distan ce learning contain a wide range of interactivity with varying degrees of success.

Professional development

Another issue tackled in the Indiana University and AT&T reports is the effectiveness of professional development on learning effectiveness. The report states that professional development for teachers is most effective when it: addresses teachers' needs, includes instructor input, offers opportunities to develop a range of teaching skills, utilizes a variety of instructional methods, and includes appropriate incentives (AT&T, 1995). In addition, the resu lt of the professional development should be the classroom instructor's ability to use and teach with distance learning technologies. This report states that, ideally, faculty development programs are based on the goals of: 1) helping instructors identif y life-long values in such training, 2) assisting instructors in becoming more creative and better problem solvers, and 3) stimulating curiosity and increasing enthusiasm (AT&T, 1995). Once the instructors have become comfortable with the technology, they must determine the role of distance learning in the classroom. Districts will choose to use distance learning technologies either as a resource that is a component of the overall instructional program and curriculum, or as the main method of delivery. T he report "Reinventing Schools: The Technology is Now!" addresses the use of computers as drill and practice components of the educational program versus their use as effective learning mac hines. The report calls for programs that rely on distance learning as a key that opens opportunities for students within the framework of a new model of school as previously described.

The Future of Distance Learning

What is the future of distance learning technologies in education? What are the prospects and implications? The report "Reinventing Schools: The Technology is Now!" states that education will look different than it does in most schools today. In a year-round model, schools might be open all day and all year, with groups of students rotating in and out of session. Following the trend toward multi-age grouping, classrooms might include stu dents of different ages. Traditional 50-minute classes will stretch or disappear to accommodate activities made possible by technology. A multi-disciplinary approach toward teaching and learning will result in longer-term projects that cut across discipli nes, combining the subject matter of previously separate classes. Multiple choice tests will be replaced by new kinds of assessments that measure the acquisition of higher-order skills. The ultimate goal of this new model of education is to foster communi ties of lifelong learners, where intellect and cooperation are highly valued. Within these communities, decisions will be made by those in the best position to make them - by students, teachers, and educational administrators. The elements of this new mod el of education are starting to appear in scattered communities across the United States. Schools are experimenting with new organizational structures, new forms of governance, and new uses of technology that are designed to reflect the constant flux of m odern society. This trend is about to accelerate dramatically. As distance learning technologies become more powerful and plentiful, and as the needs of society more urgently call for a new model of education, American schools will be caught irresistible forces of change (National Academy of Sciences, 1996).

Recommendations for educational leadership

As educational administrators begin to grapple with the issues of equity and access, technological expertise, quality of learning, financial constraints, and needs of remote learners in their efforts to implement distance learning technologies, an over-a rching matter that needs to be addressed is the facilitation of the change process. The future of distance learning technologies in education will be most influenced by the manner in which educational administrators handle the change process. In Change Fo rces, Michael Fullan (1993) states that visions can blind as well as enlighten. Such is the case with the emerging technologies of distance learning. He advocates the following action guidelines for building learning schools:
  1. Understand the culture of the school. Administrators must take into consideration the needs and attitudes of the school that is considering distance learning technologies. Each school has a unique set of problems, concerns, and assets which are reflected in the staff and community and which c ontribute to the culture and climate of the school. By understanding the culture, educators validate the unique nature of each school and its needs.
  2. Value teachers: promote their professional growth. Teachers are at the core of the success of distance learning technologies. Any reform effort should value the experience and professionalism of educators. The growth of distance learning technologies will be dependent upon training and professional develo pment being offered to educators. Educators, in turn, will have the resources to manage and to embrace the changes brought about by distance learning.
  3. Extend what you value.
  4. Express what you value. Education, in all forms, values excellence, equity, access, and choice. These values should be reflected in the development of distance learning technologies.
  5. Promote collaboration, not cooptation.
  6. Make menus, not mandates.
  7. Use bureaucratic means to facilitate, not to constrain. Collaboration and a sense of followership is essential to the success of any reform movement in education. All stake holders must work with shared purpose toward a shared vision. Furthermore, the capacity to promote partnerships and alliances will create a need to use bureaucratic means to facilitate change, not to constrain the efforts of advocates of distance learning.
  8. Connect with the wider environment (p. 72). As the emerging technologies of distance learning begin to break down the walls of the traditional classroom and begin to build bridges around the world, the future work of educators must be characterized by a spirit of inquiry and continuous learning tha t involves educators, students, and all other stake holders (p.66). These action guidelines can be used to manage the change process and to effectively address the issues of excellence, equity, and access that will inherently complicate the implementation of distance learning as a commonplace tool in education. The effect ive use of distance learning technologies is a potential bright spot in current educational reform movements.


AT&T, (1995, November 27). Distance Learning Research Abstracts [WWW document].

Ameritech, (1996, February). Ameritech Distance Learning [WWW document].

Barker, Bruce O. (1987), The effects of learning by satellite on rural schools - Paper presented at the Learning by Satellite Conference (Tulsa, OK, April 12-14, 1987). RIE 12:1.

Barker, Bruce O. and Hall, Robert F. (1994), A national survey of distance education use in rural school districts of 300 students or less - Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the National Rural Education Association (85th, Bur lington, VT, October 14-17, 1993). RIE, 16;1.

Cartwright, G. P. (1994, July/August). Distance Learning: A different time, a different place. Change, (26, 4) [online serial].

Flexnews, (1996, January) 1,1. Discovering the shape of a virtual classroom [online serial].

Fullan, M., (1993). Change Forces. Bristol, PA, The Falmer Press.

Lemke, Randall A. (1992). Advancing distance education programs with ordinary technologies. RIE, 8;1.

Lewis, D., (1993). Distance learning: When does it make business sense? [WWW document].

Lick, D.W., (1996). The university mouse that roared. On the Horizon :Horizon List Archives - 12 March, 1996 [WWW document].

Monahan, B. and Wimber, C. (1988), Distance learning and public school finance: RIE 9:1

Morrison, J., (1996). Paradigm shifts. On the Horizon :Horizon List Archives - 4 Feb., 1996 [WWW document].

National Academy of Sciences, (1996, February 22). Reinventing schools: The technology is now! A new model for education [WWW document].

Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) - U. S. Department of Education, (1993, February). Distance learning projects in the United States K-12 [WWW document].

One Touch, (1996, February 12). Interactive Distance Learning Questions and Answers [WWW document].

United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), (1996, January 26). Distance Learning Fact Sheet [WWW document].

VTEL, (1996, January 3). Distance Learning [WWW document].

Western Carolina University, (1995, November 22). Glossary [WWW document].