Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Today's Fad or Tomorrow's Future?

Jesse Dingle
Lisa Napp
Wendy Gooch
Alicia Kelly

Educational Leadership Program

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What is the issue?

In today's world of rapidly expanding technology, education is struggling to keep abreast. The challenge that the education system faces is how to provide increased learning opportunities and maximize technology with the constraint of limited funding. Distance learning emerged on the educational scene in the form of correspondence courses and has evolved at a rapid pace consistent with the expanding technology of the past two decades. It provides numerous chances to expand educational opportunities in K-12 schools. However, distance learning has many critics who maintain that it is not as effective as face-to-face interaction in a classroom. Despite the above criticism, distance learning is growing in popularity and facility and therefore is a trend that begs further investigation. The purpose of this paper is to describe the background of distance education, examine the forces driving the issue, where it is going in public schools, its implications for public education, and what actions we recommend to educational leaders vis-a-vis using distance learning in public education.

Background and Context

Distance learning has been defined in numerous ways. Virginia Steiner states: "distance learning is instructional delivery that allows the student to be in a separate geographical location from the instructor" (May 1996, p.1). 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" (Cartwright, 1994). Edward F. Spodick, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology believes that a universal definition of distance learning is not as crucial as the prospect of "increased educational opportunities offered for broader segments of the population, while accommodating different situations and needs." The definitions vary but the central theme echoes the concept of distance learning as off-site content delivery.

Distance learning has been in existence in various modes since the birth of correspondence courses in the 1800's. Historically its primary purpose was to transmit information between individuals in different locations. The evolution of distance learning, following a modest lineage, is presently experiencing a trajectory with expeditious innovations in technological advancement.

Written correspondence-Since the creation of written language, information and ideas have been transmitted between people. This increased with the expansion of technology such as the printing press, the establishment of early schools and the advancement of postal delivery services.

Audio-conferencing-The invention of the telephone enabled instructors and students to share ideas. The technology was simple. The innovative technology of the time was hooking up phone lines and a voice box to transmit two-way conversations across great distances.

Telecommunication-In the 1950's the television created a new form of classroom. Many secondary schools and universities taught classes via television. These classes were either one-way lectures or two-way communications.

Information Superhighway-The past decade is characterized by rapidly expanding technology which has greatly increased the scope of educational opportunities available for distance education. Computers, CD-ROM, computer networks and the World Wide Web have played an integral role in bridging distance gaps throughout the US and the world.

Tools for Distance Learning

The type of technology utilized is a key component of effective distance education. However, the needs of the learners, requirements of the content, and the instructional limitations should be considered before selecting a delivery system. A systematic and integrated approach is the best method to employ a mix of instructional media. The four main technological mediums to transmit distance learning are voice, video, computer, and print. An effective distance education course should include a mix of media, each serving a specific purpose. An example follows:

  • A strong print component is needed to provide the basic content of the course. This includes a carefully chosen text as well as an organized syllabus, class outlines and supplementary readings.
  • Interactive audio and video conferencing allows students to communicate with each other and the instructor. This is also an ideal way to incorporate guest speakers and scholars.
  • Electronic mail can be used to update assignments, clarify questions, provide prompt feedback and allow students to react and comment on each others work.
  • Pre-recorded video tapes is an effective method for review and to ensure that absent students have the opportunity to stay current in their work. Tapes can also facilitate the continuity of the learning process when and if an instructor is temporarily unavailable to meet with his or her class.
  • Fax can distribute assignments, make last minute changes, receive assignments and tests, and provide prompt feedback.
  • The World Wide Web, in combination with other Internet tools, allows instructors and students to access a wide range of resources to facilitate a creative and interactive learning environment.

Driving Forces

There are a number of forces driving the increase in distance learning methodologies in public education.

  1. Rate of Technological Change-The acceleration of technological development is having an enormous impact on distance education. A collection of interoperable systems capable of transmitting data, text, images, voice and video are available and are becoming increasingly affordable. Many states are funding large-scale information systems that provide access to these networks, such as North Carolina's Information Highway . These networks are constantly being enhanced to meet user requirements as the technology is developed.
  2. Optimal Learning Conditions-Economic constraints hinder our ability to provide necessary resources for optimal learning conditions. All districts can access vital information to meet the demands of a diverse student population. Distance education can decrease geographic barriers and can facilitate communication beyond regional and national boundaries to promote expanded educational interaction. The crucial directive to educate more people with limited or declining resources, without lowering standards can be realized.
  3. Demands of Business and Industry-Since the early days of education reform, economic leaders have criticized schools for failing to produce a competitive workforce. Complaints include charges that students lack many basic skills including experience with new technology. Many businesses are infusing money into the schools to improve education and often these dollars are earmarked for equipment and teacher training in new technology. Businesses are willing to allocate time and money to advance efforts targeted at improving the preparation of the future workforce.
  4. Interactive Educational Experiences-There is little debate that most students have become disengaged from the typical high school curriculum. Constructivist theories claim that increased learning occurs when students are actively involved and interested in their education. Distance education technologies encourage students to be active in their learning process. For example, interactive technologies allow students far greater opportunities to engage in research processes than is currently available in most traditional learning environments.
  5. Diverse Social Awareness-The exposure to the evolving "global village" is rapidly advancing due to media and technology. Today's student population will need to be comfortable in a world of expanding diversity. Distance learning exposes students to our vast and ever expanding universe and allows students to work with students in other cultures across the world.

Future Prospects

At present, distance learning is utilized by a wide-range of agencies for a variety of purposes. Businesses have incorporated the technology into staff development and training programs. Hospitals, churches and other agencies are able to link to other institutions. Community resources such as arts councils and homework hotlines can be easily accessed. The most rapidly growing sector using distance learning technology is K-12 education. A 1996 study by the Department of Education conducted a survey on advanced telecommunications, including distance learning, in public schools. The results, based on voluntary responses from 37% of those solicited, indicate that almost a quarter of K-12 public schools are engaging in some type of telecommunication in the classroom. The results, also reveal that large, rural schools in the southeast have the highest amount of activity in implementing and sustaining programs utilizing advanced technology.

Table 1: Percent of Public Schools Using Distance Learning, by School Characteristics

Characteristic of School
Percentage Using Distance Learning
All Public Schools
Instructional Level
Size of Enrollment
Less than 300
300 to 999
1000 or more
Metropolitan Status
Urban Fringe
Geographic Region

US Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, Fast Response Survey System. (1996). Survey on advanced telecommunication in public schools, fall 1996, FRSS 61, Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Benefits and Challenges of Distance Learning

It is projected that the number of schools implementing distance learning will increase as the positive effects of learning opportunities are realized. There are many advantages to distance education but also many correlating challenges. Both sides of the ledger need to be examined and addressed as schools make decisions to match their local resources, target audience, and institutional philosophy. Schools systems offering distance education programs need to focus on what best fits their particular mission, goals, and circumstances. For each potential benefit, their is also a perceived challenge. For example, one of the most widely accepted advantages of distance learning is that it increases exposure to master teachers and specialized courses. Small school districts with limited resources can offer a small group of students Advanced Placement courses, highly specialized vocational courses, or exotic foreign languages. The corresponding challenge is that courses taught via network are not cognizant of the organic integument of the individual schools. Furthermore, teachers and unions may perceive the use of distance learning as a threat to jobs, if it is not made clear that the intent is not to replace teachers with technology. Distance learning programs are an ideal way to utilize advanced technology and expose students to a creative and interactive learning environment. However, if not carefully constructed, the content of the course may be overpowered rather than augmented by the available resources such as computer graphics and the World Wide Web. Therefore, distance learning programs need to be designed to supplement the classroom experience and enhance learning opportunities while recognizing the obstacles.

Table 2: Benefits and Challenges of Distance Education

Exposes more students to master teachers Threatens perceived job security
Provides access to courses otherwise not available Neglects unique cultural environments if individual schools
Encourages teacher collaboration and teaming Requires paradigm shift of teacher roles and training
Promotes education reform and interaction between business, education, and technology Demands vision to develop strategies for training, implementation, and evaluation
Introduces students to emerging technology Diminishes focus on content to technology
Assists with reaching special population Lacks face to face interaction

Implications for Public Education

Implications for Key Players

Creating an effective distance learning program does not occur without hard work and without the consistent and integrated efforts of several key players within the educational organization. Below is a list of the key players are and the role each position should play.

  • Students - Because the instruction in distance learning occurs form a distant point, students miss out on opportunities to interact with teachers and other students or share their backgrounds. They can only rely on "technical linkages to bridge the gap separating class participant" (Cartwright, 1994). It becomes the student's responsibility to be able to evaluate and internalize the instruction being presented so that learning can occur. It also allows the student to self-select areas of interest for further investigation.
  • Faculty - The faculty is responsible for the success (or lack) of the distance education program. Distance learning produces several challenges to teachers because the instructors must determine the needs of distant students without face-to-face contact. It is difficult to adapt teaching styles so as to meet the needs of the diverse audience, particularly when wide geographical areas are involved. In addition, instructors must be able to effectively balance the ability to deliver the technology and focus on the role of the instructor simultaneously.
  • Facilitators - The facilitator plays a crucial role because he/she acts as the bridge connecting the instructor to the student. Not only are facilitators responsible for "setting up equipment, collecting assignments, proctoring tests, and acting as the instructor's on-site eyes and ears" (Cartwright, 1994), facilitators are also required to follow through with the instructor's directions and expectations for the students.
  • Support Staff - Better known as the "glue that keeps the distance education effort together and on track," (Trier, 1996) the support personnel must work hard to register students, duplicate and distribute materials, order textbooks and schedule facilities, while keeping track of grade reports for each student.
  • Administrators - Effective distance education administrators work hard to "build consensus, make decisions, and act as referees, while working with technical and support service personnel to ensure that the technological resources are effectively deployed to further the institution's academic mission" (Trier, 1996). It is important for administrators to keep in constant contact with the facilitators so as to maintain the academic objectives of each school.

Preparing for the Future: Instructional Development for Distance Education

Technology is merely an enabler. However, what it enables is nothing less than human individuals, organizations, and cultures, newly empowered to evolve to compete in this new global climate. In order for successful distance learning programs to be implemented, we offer the following suggestions for K-12 schools:

  1. View distance learning as an opportunity to revitalize and innovate current curricular programs. Advanced telecommunications technology allows educators to enhance the classroom experience with new visual and audio media. Graphics, CD-ROM, and applications from the World Wide Web can be easily incorporated to enhance learning opportunities and goals.
  2. Initiate a multi-level program evaluation. Incorporate summative and formative evaluation to evaluate and improve programs. Conduct surveys of student and faculty satisfaction to review along with qualitative research on increased performance. Results of all evaluation can be used proactively for improvement of current practices.
  3. Keep the technology transparent. Take caution to ensure that the content does not get lost in the technology. An orientation program can familiarize participants with the technology in the early stages so that the technology is not a distraction to the learning process. On the other hand, simply using the technology as a means to transmit lecture would be a gross misuse as a distance learning is a resource, not a replacement for the teacher.
  4. Gain internal and external approval for distance learning programs. Change is often met with ambivalence if all stakeholders are not allowed a voice in the process (Fullan, 1993). Gain the support of the students and staff. Market achievements and spread the word to other organizations.
  5. Conduct a needs analysis. The first step in the implementation process should involve input form a cross-functional team of teachers, instructional designers, technology staff and students. Identify and address any needs or concerns prior to delivering the first distance learning program. It is far more efficient to build the support into the system rather than add on at a later date.
  6. Use on-site coordination. One of the key players in successful implementation is the facilitator. The coordinator should be skilled in using the technology, testing all equipment, and troubleshooting. Organization skills are essential as distribution of course material, contact with the initiating site, and communication are fundamental to smooth operation.
  7. Obtain local commitment. Prior to undertaking a distance learning program, get commitment from administrators, legislators, and local servers to continue the program for a pre-determined time.
  8. Make sure instructors are well-trained. The central focus of any distance learning program should be expertise in teaching. Take advantage of master teachers and those with unique skills but also ensure that individuals receive proper training and assistance with delivery techniques and incorporation of interactive relationships between the technology, content and people.
  9. Design programs for distance learning. Plan carefully and meticulously when designing a distance learning program. Classes should consist of a balance between human interaction and technical "props" to enhance the educational experience. Charts, graphics and video components should enhance classroom activities such as role-playing, case studies and discussion sessions. Student interaction and participation must not be overlooked.
  10. Use reliable equipment and stay abreast of the latest technolgy. Establishing a distance learning lab costs an estimated $80,000 with an additional cost of $23 for an hour of air time. It is expensive but also essential that corners are not shaved and cutting-edge technology is incorporated.

Fad or Future?

Distance learning is not a fad. Distance learning is here. Every educator needs to take the initiative to campaign for comprehensive training on-site in order to facilitate professional expertise and positive student outcomes. Distance learning is leading us to the future and the future is distributed learning.

Distributed learning is rooted in the concept of distributed resources. This instructional model leads us closer to equitable distribution of educational experiences. It allows for the instructor, student, and content to be located in different, non-centralized locations so that instruction and learning occur independent of time and place. This model can create classrooms ranging from the traditional to the wholly virtual.

As World Wide Web technologies become more sophisticated and the bandwidth of the Internet increases, the trend will provide more tools and more choices in developing creative learning environments. The beauty of all this is that since the Internet is based on standard communications protocols, we can ensure that students accessing the Internet in Maine will be able to access the same resources as the students in Texas.


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