Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Evolving Distance Education

After reading the three articles by Moller, Huett, Foshay and Coleman, and listening to the Simonson video programs, compare and contrast the reasons these authors believe there is a need to evolve distance education to the next generation. Do you agree with their positions? Why or why not?

In this week's assignment, we were asked to review a number of articles and videos concerning the need for more evolved forms of distance education. Simonson's (2000, 2007) point of view was perhaps the more poignant as he argued for a need to ensure that the online environment is equivalent to the traditional face-to-face environment in terms of the quality of the learning experience. He makes a very rational argument, demonstrating that the context of the two environments is different enough that one should not attempt to replicate face-to-face learning in an online situation, but rather, recognize the context and develop learning environments that are equally as effective, albeit significantly different. I'm reminded of Marshall  McCloughan's statement that, "the medium is the message" in reflecting on Simonson's assertion. The context of the learning is certainly a critical element that must be considered when constructing a quality learning experience, not only because the method by which students learn is affected, but also because the type of learner likely to be in that specific context suggests something about their learning preferences, skills, ambitions, and lifestyle. This is particularly true now, as distance education is still relatively immature. Perhaps 30 years from now, one would be unable to differentiate between the types of learners based on their selection of online versus face-to-face but I suspect there will always be an element of differentiation.

This distinction represents a serious concern for me: as distance education expands and grows, I worry that a socio-economic differentiation will accompany it. Traditional schools with face-to-face instruction are becoming increasingly expensive to operate and maintain. Consequently, accessibility is being affected. Many students are turning to less expensive online alternatives. Seemingly, distance education is providing a positive alternative but if equivalency is not attained, it will result in a bifurcated educational system where only the elite have access to "quality" higher education while the majority of individuals will be resigned to a lower standard, less effective, albeit more affordable educational experience. This type of bifurcated system would present itself in an all-too-familiar way: Nordstrom's versus Walmart. Is the product you purchase from Walmart equivalent to what you purchase from Nordstrom's? I suppose it depends on the product but generally there is at least a perception that Walmart offers lower quality. Without concerted effort to ensure equivalency, I fear that distance education will be regarded as the Walmart of the post-secondary world. As a side note, I do recognize that when it was initially emerging, this exact perception was pervasive and it has only been recently that the perception has begun to shift somewhat. My fear is that the economics of higher education coupled with a stymied evolution would cause a legitimate return to this.

Moller, Forshay, and Coleman (2008) take a somewhat similar, although less concise direction in their discussions of distance education. Relying more on business principles and the necessity of effective instructional design, the authors illustrate how many distance education programs essentially whitewash the real value of the model through ineffective, half-hearted investment. I was impressed with the authors' recognition of how human behavior influences development and progress, especially with regard to the reluctance of many practitioners to truly evaluate the effectiveness of their modules for fear that it would undermine the model as a whole. I found their focus on instructional design refreshing, although I preferred Simonson's (2000) methodology much more practical. Moller, Forshay, and Coleman certainly made a strong case for the necessity of ID, but they neglected to offer specific solutions or methodologies to account for many of the issues they outlined. Stephen Downes, one of my favorite bloggers and cybereducators, deconstrcuts the very notion of a course and the evolution it followed (http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2010/06/series-of-questions.html). In his view, the compartmentalization of learning into these "courses", whether they be online or traditional, is somewhat removed from the spirit of education. I bring this point into the discussion because I believe it calls into question the distinction between online and traditional classrooms. Drawing from Stephen's points, the foundation of education has strayed from the original principles and thus, any comparison between online and traditional courses must be understood or examined from a purely pedagogical standpoint; no, online education is not the same as traditional education, but it might be better in some contexts, especially if we set the bar at effective learning. We shouldn't strive to replicate traditional education or even to be equivalent. Hopefully, we have higher aspirations than that.

Taken together, all of the authors paint a clear picture: distance education is a tool and like any tool, it's only as good as its application. If the merits of distance education are to be truly realized, it must evolve, learn to stand on its own feet and be recognized as a legitimate venue for learning. If it does not evolve, it will likely only perpetuate socio-economic differentiation.

Clark Aldrich, one of the preeminent experts on the emergence of simulations and serious games, has an interesting take on the evolution of distance education and assessment (http://clarkaldrich.blogspot.com/2010/04/assessment-mmorpg-real-world-challenges.html). He suggests that were it possible to assess student competence in a more realistic, integrated way, many institutions would disappear. He also suggests that serious games and simulations may, as the technology advances, represent just such an assessment vehicle. While I am an advocate for the value of simulations and serious games, I wonder, again, what the social impact of this type of system would be. His discussion also raises a number of other questions that I think are being raised elsewhere, such as, "What is the purpose of higher education? What is the value-add of a higher education system? and, What is the best way to meet these ends?"

Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W. & Coleman, C. (2008, September/October). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the Web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63–67.

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008, May/June). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the Web (Part 1: Training and Development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75. .

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008, July/August). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the Web (Part 2: Higher Education). TechTrends, 52(4), 66–70.

Simonson, M. (2007) Distance education: The next generation. Laureate Publication, Inc.

Simonson, M. (2007) Equivalency theory. Principles of distance education. Laureate Publication, Inc.

Simonson, M. (2000). Making decisions: The use of electronic technology in online classrooms. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 84, 29–34. 


  1. I agree that many view online education as the Walmart version of higher education. What many fail to see or understand is that online education is probably more demanding (at least in most accredited universities) and allows people with jobs to attend without the restrictions of a brick and mortar university.

  2. The is very well written. Currently I teach at Tiffin University in the Ivy Bridge of Tiffin University partnership. This is a joint venture between a corporation and university to develop an online learning school with the intent that the corporation will buy out the university and go off on its own. In other words, it is a Internet start-up for-profit business. It is interesting to me because the university is non-profit and seeing how they work together is amazing.

    One thing I can say about both entities is that their primary concern is providing quality education. They do not want to become another Phoenix. Their goal is to become the premier online two-year college. In the past year, they have gone from 40 students to over 1,000. The growth is amazing. While other schools are laying off, we are hiring. We cannot keep up with the rate of growth.

  3. Randall - insightful view on the socioeconomic ramifications of "access"...that disparity is glaringly obvious when I have students, from the have-not echelon, brought to a technology school and there is not even the foundational knowledge that we, from points of privilege, expect (ie:using email, attaching docs, working with Word...).

    Question to all regarding Randall's statement, "...I fear that distance education will be regarded as the Walmart of the post-secondary world". How did people perceive you and Walden when they found you weren't attending a brick and mortar institution? Were you grouped with those "universities" seen as diploma mills?

    Excellent review and perceptiveness, Randall -


  4. I am reminded of a student that I had many years ago at an institution that Randall is familiar with.

    In most situations, I would recommend that a 18 year old student who is able to go to a bricks and mortar university should go. Attending school online will not necessarily present all of the different life learning that is available on a college campus (besides I love college campuses).

    However, this one student will be forever engraved in my memory.

    She was 22 years old working in a low-wage job in order to keep a roof over her head and food on the table for FOUR children. She knew that a college degree and a teacher certificate would give her what she needed to provide for family and their future. She would work on her degree from 10 pm to 2 am every night. What college campus do you know that has classes at that time??

    Without the flexibility of DE, she wouldn't be able to change her life - and the life of four precious children!

  5. Its a very well written article. I am part of an online education platform WizIQ, we see a lot of our students learning from the experts who are not available otherwise. Our students come to us and tell us how great they feel learning French from a French man or taking a midwifery course from someone who has years of experience herself in the field. This is possible only through distance education.