AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

13. Distance Education

13.1 Introduction
13.2 History of Distance Education
13.3 Theory of Distance Education
13.4 Distance Learning Technologies
13.5 Future Directions and Emerging Technologies
13.6 Research Related to Media in Distance Education
13.7 International Issues
13.8 Summary and Recommendations
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Marina Stock McIsaac


Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena




Distance education, structured learning in which the student and instructor are separated by time and place, is currently the fastest growing form of domestic and international education. What was once considered a special form of education using nontraditional delivery systems is now becoming an important concept in mainstream education.

Due to the rapid development of technology, courses using a variety of media are being delivered to students in various locations in an effort to serve the educational needs of growing populations. In many cases, developments in technology allow distance education programs to provide specialized courses to students in remote geographic areas with increasing interactivity between student and teacher. Although the ways in which distance education is implemented differ markedly from country to country, most distance learning programs rely on technologies that are either already in place or are being considered for their cost effectiveness. Such programs are particularly beneficial for the many people who are not financially, physically, or geographically able to obtain traditional education.

Distance education has experienced dramatic growth both nationally and internationally since the early 1980s. It has evolved from early correspondence education using primarily print-based materials into a worldwide movement using various technologies. The goals of distance education, as an alternative to traditional education, have been to offer degree-granting programs, to battle illiteracy in developing countries, to provide training opportunities for economic growth, and to offer curriculum enrichment in nontraditional educational settings. A variety of technologies have been used as delivery systems to facilitate this learning at a distance.

In order to understand how research and research issues have developed in distance education, it is necessary to understand the context of the field. Distance education relies heavily on technologies of delivery. Print materials (see Chapter 27), broadcast radio (see Chapter 28, 16.1), broadcast television (see 11.7), computer conferencing (see Chapter 13), e-mail, interactive video, satellite tele-communications, and multimedia computer technology (see 24.6) are all used to promote student-teacher interaction and provide necessary feedback to the learner at a distance. Because technologies as delivery systems have been so crucial to the growth of distance education, research has reflected rather than driven practice. Research in distance education has focused on media comparison studies (see 39.5.4), descriptive studies (see Chapter 41), and evaluation reports. Researchers have examined those issues that have been of particular interest to administrators of distance education programs, such as, student attrition rates, the design of instructional materials for large-scale distribution, the appropriateness of certain technologies for delivery of instruction, and the cost effectiveness of programs.

However, recent developments in interactive multimedia technologies that promise to facilitate "individualized" and "collaborative" learning (see Chapter 35) are blurring the distinctions between distance and traditional education. These technologies also have the capability of creating such new environments for learning as "virtual communities." Students in traditional settings are being given entire courses on CD-ROM multimedia disks through which they progress at their own pace, interacting with the instructor and other students on electronic mail or face-to-face according to their needs (Technology Based Learning, 1994). Through international collaboration, students around the world participate in cooperative learning activities, sharing information through the use of computer networks (Riel, 1993). In such cases, global classrooms may have participants from various countries interacting with each other at a distance. Many mediated educational activities allow students to participate in collaborative, authentic, situated learning activities (Brown & Palincsar, 1989; Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). In fact, the explosion of information technologies has brought learners together by erasing the boundaries of time and place for both site-based and distance learners.

Research in distance education reflects the rapid technological changes in this field. Although early research was centered around media comparison studies (see 39.5.4), educators have recently become more interested in examining how the attributes of different media promote the construction of knowledge (Salomon, Perkins & Globerson, 1991). It is within the theoretical framework of knowledge construction and expert systems (Glaser, 1992) that some of the most promising research on mediated learning appears (Barrett, 1992; Harasim, 1993; Salomon, 1993).

This chapter traces the history of the distance education movement, discusses the definitions and theoretical principles that have marked the development of the field, and explores the research in this field which is inextricably tied to the technology of course delivery. A critical analysis of current research (1988-1993) in distance education was conducted for this chapter. Material for the analysis came from four primary data sources. The first source was an ERIC search, which resulted in over 900 entries. This largely North American review was supplemented with international studies located in the International Centre for Distance Learning (ICDL) database. The entries were then categorized according to content and source. Second, conference papers were reviewed which represented current, completed work in the field of distance education. Third, dissertations were obtained from universities which produced the majority of doctoral dissertations in Educational Technology doctoral programs. Finally, four journals were chosen for further examination because of their recurrent frequency in the ERIC listing. Those journals were Open Learning, American Journal of Distance Education, Research in Distance Education, and Distance Education.

*The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Rosalie Wells, John Barnard, and Angie Parker.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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