Investigating the Characteristics of Effective Distance Learning

 

Computer Based Learning and Training Principles

Hilary Page-Bucci – (January 2002)

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Abstract
Introduction
Why Distance Learning?
Learning Concepts and Theoretical Perspectives
Are there any Weaknesses to 'Open Learning'?
What makes 'Open Learning' Successful?
Conclusions
Bibliography

 

 

 

Abstract

 

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Flexible learning is known by a variety of names, including: Open Learning, Independent Learning, Distance Learning, Home Study, Correspondence Course Learning, Resource Based Learning, Experiential Learning.

 

Learners take responsibility for their own learning making use of their meta-cognitive skills, “thinking about one’s own thinking” (Huitt, 1997) and by using the humanistic approach as advocated by Maslow (1973) and Rogers (1969).  It could be argued that this kind of learning is independent of the tutor because the student is involved in instructing themselves by use of teacher-produced materials; the author’s contention with this is that if the learning is to be successful, considerable collaboration and communication needs to take place between the learner, tutor and other learners as in the more traditionally delivered methods of education; the separation being only in space and/or time (Perraton, 1998) and a needs to be a ‘negotiable commodity between teacher and pupil’ (Esland, 1971).  

To support this argument, this paper investigates the available evidence and characteristics of effective open learning.

 

Introduction

 

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In order to determine which pedagogical principles best relate to flexible learning it is necessary to first consider a range of educational theories.  Some of these theories will be discussed to determine if they can be associated with flexible learning and if they have an impact on successful learning in this context.

 

Why Distance Learning?

 

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Social trends and increasing demand have led to the development of distance and open learning.  An increasing number of adults from varying backgrounds, age groups and income levels are beginning to appreciate the importance of lifelong learning but one of the problems to be overcome is that the demands and pressures of work and family mean that attending a traditional time and place bound classroom is not always possible. 

 

Educational opportunities specific to a learner’s particular needs can be covered using a variety of media including electronic technologies.  It doesn’t have to be delivered in an educational institution but can be used anywhere – at home, at work, on the train, even abroad.  The aim is to “promote active learning” (Rowntree, 1986) through various activities, experiences and connections, and by doing so, the learners become involved in their own learning and “learn better” (Rowntree, 1986).

 

Learning Concepts and Theoretical Perspectives

 

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Curzon (1997) argues, “It [distance learning] possesses a quality of personal involvement and stimulates the feelings and cognitive aspects of personality” this suggests that the student becomes autonomous in their learning.  Certainly they will need to be self disciplined and able to manage their own time efficiently; does this mean that only certain types of learners will benefit from this kind of learning?   Cunningham (1987) narrows the question even further by suggesting that open learning will “not work unless learners learn how to learn”; they need to take responsibility for their own learning by making use of their meta-cognitive skills, “thinking about one’s own thinking” (Huitt, 1997) and by using the humanistic approach as advocated by Maslow (1973) and Rogers (1969).

But all groups of learners are different from one another – they all learn in a different way – they have different styles of learning.  There are several schools of thought and theoretical models of how people learn. One of the most useful for adult learning has proved to be that initially developed by David Kolb (1984). In it learning is presented as a cycle. 

 

 

 

 

Fig 1. Kolb's Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984)

 

 

According to Kolb the most effective learner has abilities in all four areas, but most people have varying abilities in only one or two areas.  It is very important that the teacher knows what is to be learned in order to teach it effectively – teaching methods and course content need to taken into account along with the learning styles of the students.

 

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford (1982) subsequently adapted Kolb's original cycle to:

 

 

 

 

 

 Fig 2. Kolb's Learning Cycle - adapted by Honey and Mumford (1982)

 

 

Honey and Mumford (1982) identified four different preferences, or ways in which people prefer to learn, each related to a different stage of the learning cycle. They called these preferred ''learning styles'' Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist.

 

 

 

 

 Fig 3. Learning Styles identified by Honey and Mumford (1982)

 

Robin Barrow (1984) suggests that “people come to learning in different ways, partly as a result of content, partly as a result of being different people preferring to or finding it easier to acquire understanding in different ways” and makes the point that if the teacher knows exactly what has to be learned then the students will learn better.  This comes back to having a solid structure for the syllabus and curriculum.

 

Rowntree (1986) suggests there are “three essentials in teaching – appropriate and effective examples; learner activity or practice; and feedback on activities”.  This is basically what an open learning package should contain; the objectives need to be clear, the instructions need to be easily understood with diagrams if necessary, and there should be some sort of feedback for the student when the work is completed. This opinion is supported by Race (1994) who argues, open learning materials are interaction-centred; it’s what learners do that really matters.  Learning happens by ‘having a go’, then getting feedback.

 

As with any medium there will be disadvantages to learning by distance and some would claim there are weaknesses in this kind of package; the author suggests the claimed advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  One only has to think of institutions like the Open University who was the first main provider and all the other colleges and universities who continue to produce open learning materials all over the world; evidence in itself that open/distance learning is successful. 

 

Jonassen and Tessmer (1996/97) questioned the commonly used taxonomies of learning, proposing that “engaging in a greater range of learning outcomes rather than isolated intellectual skills is essential for meaningful learning”.  This leans towards a constructivist view - that we learn through a continual process of interpretation through our own experiences.  The developments of new media including telecommunications and software have increased the ability to place learners in situations where they investigate for themselves. There are a number of researchers who have discussed how constructivism can be used within technology supported learning environments; Cunningham, Duffy and Knuth (1993) formulated a set of pedagogical tools for designers of constructivist learning environments, these included:

 

o       All knowledge is constructed:  All learning is a process of construction.

o       Many worldviews can be constructed: hence there will be multiple perspectives.

o       Knowledge is context dependent, so learning should occur in contexts to which it is relevant.

o       Learning is mediated by tools and signs.

o       Learning is inherently social-dialogical activity.

o       Learners are distributed, multi-dimensional participant in a socio-cultural process.

o       Knowing how we know is the ultimate human accomplishment.

 

Looking further into the tools they describe, they could be applied in a broad sense to open learning using a variety of formats. The theories focus on a learner’s ability to mentally interpret and construct the meaning of their learning and by doing so, create their own learning. This also links to cognitive theory; the author argues, fundamentally constructivism could be a cognitive learning theory because of its focus on the mental processes that construct meaning.

 

Are there any weaknesses to ‘Open Learning’?

 

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Having discovered that the learning process in open and distance learning is very much student-centred, the motivation of the student will have a strong influence on their own retention and ultimate achievement. Kerka (1996) suggests “reliance on learner initiative can be a drawback for those who prefer more structure” consequently the effectiveness of the package will reflect its structure and design. From this supposition the author suggests, focusing on the needs of the learners is vital to effective open learning.  In support of this suggestion, Woods (2001) in writing for the Financial Markets Association in Singapore claims,

 

“to be effective, our tutors must develop an understanding of the characteristics and needs of distant students with little first-hand experience and limited, if any, face to face contact”

 

In some cases, access to the Internet can present a problem, along with a lack of technical skills and computer illiteracy. “Widespread computer illiteracy still exists. While computers have been widely used since the 1960's, there are many who do not have access to computers or computer networks.” (Gottschalk, 2001)  This would mean those without computers would be restricted and possibly revert to the more traditional delivery methods for distance learning.  Even so, a seemingly persistent problem is that of student support; Washington State University believes that “success in attracting, serving, and retaining students will hinge more on excellent support services than on any technology issues” (Oaks, 1996).  As Boyd Barrett (1990) point out, “The interpersonal dimension of any learning partnership is somehow vital”; although this was meant in a slightly different context of teaching children with computers it still has strikingly familiar connotations for teaching adults by distance/open learning.

 

Research into the decisions taken by distance education students to use technology in their studies, the barriers encountered and the impact of the competing demands of work, family and study led by Massey University, New Zealand has revealed that one group in particular is disadvantaged by the introduction of technology into distance education.

 

“The results clearly showed that technology presented significant barriers to those on low incomes and affected their attitudes, perceptions and use of technology.” (Cleland et al, 2000)

 

As Bates (1997) argued, introducing new technologies appears to be at odds with the fundamental concepts of distance education—openness and distance. Similarly, Davison (1996) suggests that using computer-mediated technologies to improve education access for diverse groups is somewhat ironic, as it requires students to possess or have access to the requisite technologies. This is a point reinforced by Kirkwood (1998) who states that where web-based technology is necessary for study, certain groups, such as ethnic minorities, older students, women, rural students and those from poorer socio-economic environments, may be especially vulnerable.

 

“Despite the huge potential of technology, our results lead us to doubt the ready assumption that it enhances the learning experience and acts as a mechanism for improving access.” (Cleland et al, 2000)

 

Some would perceive conventional instruction to be better organized and more clearly presented than distance education (Egan, et al., 1991).  It could also be asked if distant students learn as much as students receiving traditional face-to-face instruction. It is claimed that research comparing distance education to traditional face-to-face instruction indicates that teaching and studying at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction, when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks, there is student-to-student interaction, and when there is timely teacher-to- student feedback (Moore & Thompson, 1990; Verduin & Clark, 1991).  Threlkeld and Brzoska (1994) have the same opinion “Many distant learners require support and guidance to make the most of their distance learning experiences”.

In addition to barriers relating to access, resources and costs, distance education students can experience a number of other disadvantages when using technology in their studies. Daugherty and Funke (1998) identify several drawbacks, including feelings of isolation that can result from low levels of interaction between instructor and students and the high levels of experience and skill required to negotiate and complete course materials on the Web. 

 

It could also be argued that some learners need to feel part of a community, to share the learning process with other learners, this in turn, could alleviate some of their personal problems and insecurities.  The ‘distance’ aspect, if not well planned, could remove some of the social interactions present in a traditional learning environment.  Lally and Barrett (1999) support this argument

 

“Social exchanges by individual students are an important part of the formal, group interaction.  They help build a sense of trust and respect among the community members”.

 

What makes ‘Open Learning’ successful?

 

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In Africa, there is a need to provide a more flexible educational system for students and distance learning techniques are being employed by a growing number of higher institutions. (Darkwa et al, 2000) Even though distance education in this continent is still in its infancy it has already been recognized that “ a learner support system needs to be put in place to assist students confronting the challenges of distance education…” “faculty training is essential…” “to realize the potential of information technology as a means to take advantage of opportunities offered…”(Darkwa et al, 2000)

 

Repenning et al (1998) argue ‘ reconceptualising the computer as a constructionist medium increases the computer’s educational value, by allowing the development and support of communities of learners’.  The initial idea of the computer being an educational tool that ‘emphasises a solitary interaction between the learner and the computer’ is contrary to the above statement with little evidence to support it.  The author suggests communication is an essential part of learning and computers can improve communication between learners and teachers and allows interactivity with other learners; the students should be  “comfortable with new patterns of communication to be used in the course” (Holmberg1985). The active environment of social learning provided by a computer with access to local, national, and international networks increases interaction and communication among students, their teachers, peers, parents, and other members of the world community.  According to Papert (1993) the computer is an appropriate tool to allow learners to become motivated, critical thinkers, problem-solvers and meta-cognitionists.  The link between constructivism and Cognitivism being re-echoed by these writers.

 

The Universities and the Government of Hong Kong have produced a mandate to share the goals of teaching, learning and assessment taking maximum advantage of new technologies.  Vogel and Klassen (2001) describe that this new learning approach has come about because students are no longer treated as “passive receptors of information; rather, they begin to actively construct transform and extend their knowledge”.  They include studies to demonstrate that students learn “more quickly and more enjoyably” when using interactive materials, “they learn the much needed life skill of learning how to learn and take responsibility for their own learning” (Lamb, 1992). However, whilst it would be reasonable to agree with the statements, these studies do not seem to be fully substantiated although the involvement of the Government with added financial implications shows that the inclusion of new technologies in teaching and learning is being taken very seriously.

 

It could be argued, good distance teaching practices are fundamentally identical to good traditional teaching practices; Wilkes & Burnham (1991) agree, stating “those factors which influence good instruction may be generally universal across different environments and populations”. Schlosser and Anderson (1994) make the following deductions:

 

“Because distance education and its technologies require extensive planning and preparation, distance educators must consider the following in order to improve their effectiveness”

 

o            Extensive pre-planning and formative evaluation is necessary. Distance learners value instructors who are well prepared and organized 

              (Egan, et al., 1991).

o            Learners benefit significantly from a well-designed syllabus and presentation outlines (Egan, et al.,1991).

              Structured note taking, using tools such as interactive study guides, and the use of visuals and graphics as part of the syllabus and presentation

              outlines contribute to student understanding of the course. However, these visuals must be tailored to the characteristics of the medium and to the

              characteristics of the students.

o            Teachers must be properly trained both in the use of equipment and in those techniques proven effective

              in the distance education environment. Learners get more from the courses when the instructor

              seems comfortable with the technology, maintains eye contact with the camera, repeats questions, and

               possesses a sense of humour (Egan, et al., 1991).

 

Other research indicates that the instructional format itself (e.g., interactive video vs. videotape vs. "live" instructor) has little effect on student achievement as long as the delivery technology is appropriate to the content being offered and all participants have access to the same technology.

 

Some conclusions drawn from this line of research suggest:

 

   o         Achievement on various tests administered by course instructors tends to be higher for distant as opposed to traditional students (Souder, 1993),

              yet no significant difference in positive attitudes toward course material is apparent between distant and traditional education 

              (Martin & Rainey, 1993).

   o          The organization and reflection needed to effectively teach at a distance often improves an instructor's

               traditional teaching.

   o          Future research should focus on the critical factor in determining student achievement: the design of instruction itself (Whittington, 1987).

 

Arguably, open/distance learning students bring other basic characteristics to their learning experience, which influence their success in coursework; these could be that distance education students:

 

o           Are voluntarily seeking further education; this in itself is a good base for motivation.

o           Have post-secondary education goals with expectations for higher grades (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994).

o           Are highly motivated and self-disciplined.

o           Are older. “Older students (over 50 years) appear to have higher course completion rates” (Rekkedal, 1983)

 

 

Other studies also claim that similar factors determine successful learning whether the students are distant or traditional. These factors include:

 

o           Willingness to initiate calls to instructors for assistance.

o           Possessing a more serious attitude toward the courses.

o           Employment in a field where career advances can be readily "achieved through academic upgrading in a distance education environment" 

             (Ross & Powell, 1990).

o           Previous completion of a college degree (Bernt & Bugbee, 1993). Educational level prior to enrolment in a distance course or programme

             has been found to be significantly related to persistence (Rekkedal, 1983)

 

After research at the Online Learning 2000 exposition in Denver, ‘Lguide’, an independent e-learning research and consulting company produced a report to “help e-learning customers identify and evaluate the e-learning courses that best meet their needs”.  Included in their summary of findings they supported the theory that users learn more by doing than by watching; they claimed, “the most effective learning products are those that try to help users acquire concrete skills, and that do so by offering the ability for hands-on skills practice”. (Lguide, 2001)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 4. The Online Learning Continuum for skill mastery learning methods (Source: www.elearningmag.com)

 

Although design is not being dealt with in this paper, it is interesting to note that the above chart indicates some possible applications of e-learning methods that could support various levels of acquiring skills.  How learners acquire and remember their skills could apply both to the traditional and technological methods of learning.

 

Finally, the Open University suggests that we “imagine a student in an isolated community with limited or no access to resources or experts in the subject and with little or no contact with other students.  We should bear such a student in mind…if the materials can be studied successfully by such a student they will be studied successfully by other, less isolated students as well” (Walker, 1998)

 

The student will need “materials that make the learner feel involved…feedback to reassure of continuing progress…and personally suited communication.” (Walker, 1998)

 

The need for peer interaction amongst students is paramount, and described by Harasim (1990) as a "critical variable in learning". By following Kolb's cycle, constructing their own knowledge by acting on it, reformulating it, making an interpretation of it and then discussing it with others, learners should then be able to build upon their ideas and concepts through the reactions and responses of their peers.

 

Online education, where education can be almost entirely computer mediated, could offer students a rich learning environment, with much opportunity for active learning collaboration. The asynchronous nature of online discussion could be an advantage in situations like this, as it allows learners to reflect on the topic and do further research, before responding in their own time. Hiltz (1986) found that “time for reflection” was an important factor in learning effectiveness. Online collaboration also allows students to benefit from discussions taking place even though they may not have initiated it themselves.

 

The connections between writing and thinking explored in the 1960s by language theorists such as Vygotsky (1962) continue to have relevance in this new medium. The text-based nature of online discussion could also contribute to the construction of meaning and increase the learner’s knowledge base.

 

Conclusions

 

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From the evidence presented, it would seem reasonable to suggest; effective distance education programmes should begin with careful planning and a focused understanding of course requirements and student needs. Appropriate media and technology can only be selected once these elements are understood in detail.  Successful distance education programmes rely on the consistent and integrated efforts of students, faculty, facilitators, support staff, and administrators.

 

Although technology plays a key role in the delivery of distance education, educators must remain focused on instructional outcomes, not necessarily the technology of delivery. The key to effective distance education is focusing on the needs of the learners, the requirements of the content, and the constraints faced by the teacher, before selecting a delivery system. This approach will probably result in a mix of media, each serving a specific purpose. For example:

 

o       A strong print component can provide much of the basic instructional content in the form of a course text, as well as readings, the syllabus, and

         day-to-day schedule.

o       Interactive audio or video conferencing can provide real time face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) interaction. This is also an excellent and cost-effective

         way to incorporate guest speakers and content experts.

o       Computer conferencing or electronic mail can be used to send messages, assignment feedback, and other targeted communication to one or 

         more class members. It can also be used to increase interaction among students.

o       Pre-recorded videotapes can be used to present class lectures and visually oriented content.

o       Fax can be used to distribute assignments, last minute announcements, to receive student assignments, and to provide timely feedback.

 

“Using this integrated approach, the educator's task is to carefully select from the technological options. The goal is to build a mix of instructional media, meeting the needs of the learner in a manner that is instructionally effective and economically prudent”. (Willis, 2001)


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