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Distance Education?

By Gary S. Stager

Appeared in Curriculum Administrator Magazine

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Everyone seems to be talking about distance education these days, but there seems to be a great deal of confusion about what the term actually means. Besides being used as the "hot words" for securing venture capital, distance education seems to apply to an assortment of different educational activities. With any luck, I'll be able to help you navigate this sea of ambiguity.

Distance education need not require distance or represent the highest quality educational experience, although it may support both. Distance education has a well-established tradition. Correspondence courses were a means of delivering education across geographic distances and represent one form of distance education. While correspondence courses may have their value, few would choose a one over studying at Harvard. Many schools built expensive single-purpose interactive TV classrooms in which kids can watch a course taught via television with very little actual interaction. Such courses stick to the facts of a subject without the social milieu of the coffee shop, play ground or dormitory.

Some decision makers view distance learning as a way of forcing teachers to "retransmit" downloaded lesson plans or to monitor student achievement. The model of, "I send you the lesson, you present it to the kids and I monitor the results," excites many investors and politicians with little understanding of learning. Reducing creativity, innovation and collaboration will do more harm than good.

Coming to terms

Instead of distance education, I would like to suggest we focus our attention on distributed learning. The differences are not merely semantic. Distance education represents the future, distributed learning the future. Distance education is a way to solve a problem - teacher shortages, remote students, inadequate funding, schools too small to support specialist subjects. While distance education is a reaction to a problem, distributed learning is about responding to potential. The former is about teaching and the latter about learning. Distance education is prescribed by a person or body away from the learner. Distributed learning is shaped by a community of practice containing learners, teachers and practitioners. I believe that we should focus on supporting expanded learning opportunities and constructing learning communities. Distributed learning is the future, distance education the past.

Distributed learning offers opportunities to adjust the place and time for learning; increase social interaction between learners, experts and teachers; enable learners to study subjects of their choice based on need and interest level, not merely age or geographic accident.

Many people describe any learning activity in which the Internet is used as distance education. Our parent publication, Curriculum Administrator, made this error when they placed my article about ThinkQuest ( under the banner of distance education in the February 2000 issue. ThinkQuest has almost nothing to do with traditional notions of distance education. Kids use computers and the Internet to create web sites about a subject of their choosing and then make that work available to the world, hopefully to learn from, via the web. However, ThinkQuest may be an example of distributed learning in that students collaborate on these sites with neighbors and teammates in other parts of the world. Communications technology eliminates the obstacle of geographic distance and makes collaborations seem natural. This is a much richer example of constructivist learning than having lessons mailed or televised.

Learning is more social

The old canard that online learning will create socially isolated zombies is patently untrue. Pepperdine University ( has offered a partially online educational doctoral program for six years and a 90% online masters degree program for two years. Our students tell us that the quality and social interactions are higher online than in traditional face-to-face classrooms. Students have access to course resources, faculty members and most importantly, each other 24/7. Students use the net to discuss assigned readings, discuss critical issues in a timely fashion, collaborate on projects, publish their work and support each other intellectually and emotionally.

A few colleagues and I shared our online teaching experiences at last year's NECC Conference. The room was packed full of textbook publishers, test prep folks and startups hoping to learn how to make a killing by offering courses online. One after the other asked us variations of the same question, "who owns your course?" We finally realized that they were talking about packaged content and responded that while the university probably owns the name ED492, Pepperdine University has taken the novel approach that a course is not a binder full of stuff to read with a test at the end. A course is comprised of a group of people assembling around a common learning purpose." Learning can not be shrink-wrapped.

So what about distance?

There is probably a need to provide high-quality learning experiences over great geographic distances, although I question the need for distance education in Los Angeles. Australia has a long tradition of distance education because they have a great deal of distance to overcome. The Alice Springs School of the Air covers a geographic area the size of Western Europe. Teachers in this school interact with students about the work packets mailed to them for minutes per week over noisy two-way radios. The limited technology of the radio probably adds a bit of intimacy to the experience. The net should be an improvement.

As Sun Ra was fond of saying, "Space is the place." Distributed communications technologies make geographic proximity less relevant to learning. The recognized educational benefits of Pepperdine's Online Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree program has inspired students to study online despite living near the campus. Next year, all educational technology degree programs will be online. What better to advocate this cultural shift than to lead it? In the words of Silicon Valley, "we eat our own dog food."

Distributed learning is not education on the cheap. It should not be viewed as a way to replace teachers, raise class sizes, control curriculum, eliminate electives or close schools. During a consulting visit with an Australian state education ministry, I was sharing the potential of online learning with a group of bureaucrats. For the first time in history a seven-year-old interested in dinosaurs can participate in a university paleontology course or participate in a remote archaeological dig. Artificial grouping by age or curriculum sequence is no longer an impediment to learning. While sharing several similar vignettes about future learning opportunities afforded by the Internet, one of the Australians had an epiphany. She exclaimed, "Oh, I get it. We need our best teachers teaching online!"

That's exactly correct. Great teachers who can inspire all students to be engaged and construct personal knowledge in a social context are even more important in cyberspace than in brick and mortar classrooms. Distance education allowed less talented teachers to tear open envelopes, grade assignments and mail back results.

Distance education is about plugging a hole. Distributed learning is about opening a door.

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