Distance Learning

Vs. Traditional Classroom Learning



Defining Distance Education

            Distance learning, in its simplest form, is the concept of a student and instructor, separated by time and distance, using technology to complete the instruction. Since Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web in 1991, distance education has rapidly evolved into a seemingly successful and practical means of attaining higher education. Before distance education was created, there were not any alternatives to receive a higher education other than to physically attend a university. In the 1700’s and 1800’s the main problem was a lack of money due to the cost of travel and scarcity of schools. Higher education was limited to aristocrats and the wealthy.

Aims and Goals of Distance Education

            Many important issues stem from the characteristics of distance learners, whose aims and goals may be quite different from those of traditional students. Distance education systems were originally developed at the post-secondary level, and are only recently being used at the K-12 level. Adult learners have a wide variety of reasons for pursuing learning at a distance: constraints of time, distance, and finances, the opportunity to take courses or hear outside speakers who would otherwise be unavailable, and the ability to come in contact with other students from different social, cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds. As a result, they gain not only new knowledge but also new social skills, including the ability to communicate and collaborate with widely dispersed colleagues and peers whom they may never have seen.

Evolution of Distance Education

The earliest form of distance learning took place through correspondence courses in Europe. In 1873, Anna Ticknor established the Society to Encourage Studies at Home in Boston, Massachusetts. This society provided educational opportunities for women across all class boundaries. In 1892, William Rainey Harper established the first college level courses by mail at the University of Chicago, creating the world’s first university distance education program. The use of radio technology in the early 1920’s for distance learning didn’t quite catch on as some thought it would. In 1921, the first radio licenses were granted to the University of Salt Lake City, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Minnesota. The following year, Pennsylvania State College broadcasted courses over the radio for the first time. The Federal Communications Commission would grant educational radio broadcasting licenses to 202 colleges, universities, and school boards between 1948 and 1946. Despite the seemingly popularity of instructional radio, there was only one college level course offered by radio by the year 1940.

Just as important as the development of the World Wide Web was in 1991 to distance learning, so was the television. The television would prove to be much more functional and productive than the radio. In 1934, the State University of Iowa became the first educational institution to broadcast courses via television. Television provided the impulse and drive for the next generation in distance education courses. In 1970, Dr. Bernard Luskin designed the “telecourse of the future”. Distribution and licensing of Luskins telecourses were assigned to a new institution, Coastline Community College. Coastline arranged for complete courses of study in a given subject to be broadcast by public television station KOCE-TV to colleges, universities and libraries in Orange County in Florida. Having no physical campus, Coastline Community College became the first virtual college in the United States.

In 1984, the first online undergraduate courses were offered by the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The now popular University of Phoenix established its first online degree program in 1989. Following the development of the World Wide Web in 1991, learning portals including HungryMinds, Click2Learn, eCollege, and Blackboard emerged on the education landscape.

Key Players in Distance Education

            In traditional education, teachers interact directly with their students. They prepare their own support materials, lecture notes, and tests, and are autonomous within their classroom. In contrast, distance learning teachers are not in direct classroom contact with their students. Communication is mediated not only by the technology, but also by a host of team partners which may include editors, designers, producers, technicians, media specialists, local tutors, aides, site facilitators, and service providers. Since many people must collaborate to produce and disseminate quality distance educational programming, the need to plan and coordinate staff activity is essential. In particular, we must define the roles of five key groups of people: the students, faculty, facilitators, support staff, and administrators.



Meeting the instructional needs of students is the cornerstone of every effective distance education program, and the test by which all efforts in the field are judged. Regardless of the educational context, the primary role of the student is to learn. This is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, requiring motivation, planning, and an ability to analyze and apply the instructional content being taught. When instruction is delivered at a distance, additional challenges result because students are often separated from others sharing their backgrounds and interests, have few if any opportunities to interact with teachers outside of class, and must rely on technical linkages to bridge the gap separating class participants.


The success of any distance education effort rests squarely on the shoulders of the faculty. In a traditional classroom setting, the instructor's responsibility includes assembling course content and developing an understanding of student needs. Special challenges confront those teaching at a distance. These special challenges include: Developing an understanding of the characteristics and needs of distant students with little first-hand experience and limited, if any, face to face contact; Adapt teaching styles while taking into consideration the needs and expectations of multiple, often diverse, audiences; Developing a working understanding of delivery technology, while remaining focused on their teaching role; Functioning effectively as a skilled facilitator as well as content provider.


The Site Facilitator

The site facilitators’ responsibilities are to motivate and encourage the remote site students, keep up their enthusiasm, and maintain discipline in the classroom. The facilitator is also responsible for smooth running of equipment, helping students with interaction, handing out, collecting, and grading papers, guiding collaborative groups, answering questions when necessary, and assisting the distance learning teacher when asked. The site facilitator also carries out the assessment procedure defined by the teacher, via print, portfolios, on-line communications, or FAX.

Support Staff

These individuals are the silent heroes of the distance education enterprise and ensure that the myriad details required for program success are dealt with effectively. Most successful distance education programs consolidate support service functions to include student registration, materials duplication and distribution, textbook ordering, securing of copyright clearances, facilities scheduling, processing grade reports, and managing technical resources. Support personnel are truly the glue that keeps the distance education effort together and on track.


Although administrators are typically influential in planning an institution's distance education program, they often lose contact or relinquish control to technical managers once the program is operational. Effective distance education administrators are consensus builders, decision makers, and referees. They work closely with technical and support service personnel, ensuring that technological resources are effectively deployed to further the institution's academic mission. Most importantly, they maintain an academic focus, realizing that meeting the instructional needs of distant students is their ultimate responsibility.

Technological Options

A wide range of technological options are available to the distance educator. They fall into four major categories:


Instructional audio tools include the interactive technologies of telephone, audio conferencing, and short wave radio. One way audio tools, passive, include tapes and radio.


Instructional video tools include still images such as slides, pre-produced moving images such as film and videotape, and real time moving images combined with audio conferencing that is one-way or two-way video with two-way audio.


Computer applications for distance learning are varied and include Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI), Computer Managed Instruction (CMI), and Computer Mediated Education (CME). CAI uses the computer as a self contained teaching machine to present individual lessons. CMI uses the computer to organize instruction and track student records and progress. The instruction itself need not be delivered through a computer, although CAI is often combined with CMI. CME describes computer applications that facilitate the delivery of instruction. Electronic mail, fax, real-time computer conferencing, and World Wide Web applications are all examples.


Print is a foundational element of distance education programs and the basis from which all other delivery systems have evolved. Various print formats include textbooks, study guides, workbooks, course syllabi, and case studies.

Is Distance Education Effective?

Many educators ask if distant students learn as much as students receiving traditional face to face instruction. 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, it involves student to student interaction, and when there is timely teacher to student feedback.

A sociology professor at California State University at Northridge has found a new way to help his students perform better: keep them out of the classroom. For the fall semester, Dr. Jerald G. Schutte randomly divided his statistics class into two groups. One attended class as usual, listening to lectures, handing in homework assignments, and taking examinations. The other took an online version of the course, completing assignments on a World Wide Web site, posting questions and comments to an electronic discussion list, and meeting with their professor in an Internet chat room. After an orientation session, students in the virtual class went to Dr. Schutte's classroom only for their mid-term and final exams. On both tests, Dr. Schutte found, the online students outscored their traditional counterparts by an average of 20 per cent.

In lieu of lectures, the online class was assigned problems to work through in small groups via e-mail or the electronic forums. The students also formed their own study groups to compensate for their lack of face to face contact with a professor. That collaboration, Dr. Schutte concluded, helped the students to learn more effectively. Dr. Schutte set up the study to gauge the effectiveness of online courses, which had been developed at many universities in recent years. The motivation for conducting this study was to provide some hard, experimental evidence that didn't seem to exist anywhere.

To participate in the online class, students had to master Web surfing, e-mail, and electronic chat programs. Some learned as much about the Internet as they did about statistics. Several members of the class used the class electronic discussion list to describe that they felt like they were continuously learning something new. They also stated that they sensed that they were intellectually even with everyone, versus feeling intimidated by the 'A' person sitting next them in a traditional classroom. Dr. Schutte explained that to be a profound statement because he had assumed that students kept quiet in class out of shyness or because they were unsure of the material. The virtual classrooms eliminated intimidation by other people because students are sitting by themselves in front of a computer. The relative anonymity of Internet chat rooms also provided the students with the freedom to ask questions and make comments that they might not make when confronted with a real-life classroom full of their peers.

For other students, the freedom of the virtual classroom seemed to do more harm than good. Due to the difficulty of the content of the class, some students needed as much interaction as possible. The majority of these students did not leave enough time for the independent study the course required and consequently fell behind. The students believe the online course was a good idea, but advised that students should be made aware of its heavy workload. Dr. Schutte now hopes to find out whether the virtual students performed better because they spent more time collaborating with their classmates or because of the online format of their class. In future research, he plans to require the same group exercises of students in both traditional and virtual classes.

Costs vs. Benefits

            Brick and mortar classrooms in colleges and universities will always have their place in the process of education, but the virtual classroom, in its many forms, is the future of education in every country with decent Internet access. The following are benefits of a virtual classroom versus a traditional classroom:


Thousands of students can learn from a single professor. Using mega-teleconferencing and chat-based systems, potentially 100,000 students can be in the same class at the same time, listening and learning via voice, watching the professor write on the electronic white board, posing questions via chat or email and viewing related materials during class time to facilitate learning. Plus, the backend class management systems can support homework submission, immediate Web based testing of the students' knowledge of facts, concepts and application and quick links to chat rooms for after class student discussions on every aspect of the professor's points that day.

Cost Savings:

Virtual school programs administrative delivery costs are significantly less than brick and mortar schools. Due to the fully automated, no-real-estate-needed, high capacity virtual classroom, a university can eliminate 80% of their facility, faculty and administration costs, overnight.


Students can learn from the best instructors and experts. Worldwide, the student is becoming a smarter consumer and will continue to require only the best instructors, not teaching assistants, and not name only professors who can't teach. With the Internet and large virtual classrooms, this requirement for quality can be met. Students will not mind the class size; they just want the best instructors.


Students from hundreds of countries can be in the same virtual classroom. The world is getting smaller when you can now have students from over 100 countries in the same classroom. The social and economic benefits of this interchange are enormous and will redefine education itself.


Students and faculty alike can learn and teach from home or from the Bahamas while on vacation. This is a tremendous benefit to both parties. As work and play continue to become more integrated, both professors and students will prefer to have a life outside of school, and fit their education and/or teaching into that life. The geographic flexibility and highly efficient teaching process available via a virtual classroom makes this high-quality life a reality.


Students can learn in the teaching format that best suits their learning style. Brick and mortar classroom learning is highly inefficient and is only moderately effective. It simply does not value the students' time or need. Virtual classrooms offer instant solutions to problems, individual attention, immediate feedback and a self-paced learning environment that every student deserves and will soon demand.


Students can learn just in time, as they need it versus investing a straight five to seven years in college. The real cost of education is far more than just the tuition expense, it's the opportunity cost that is the highest of all. However, with the development of virtual education and classrooms, training can occur just as the student needs it, which also integrates learning as a lifelong process, not five years and that's it one.

Competition/Free Market:

The best teachers will reign supreme, not the school's reputation, such as Harvard or Yale. Schools and universities face competition with each other, certainly, but nothing in comparison to business. This is because of the excellent reputation, limited availability and high demand for entrance into the prestigious universities. I predict that the smartest, savviest and most able professors will leave even prestigious universities such as Harvard when they can see a way to teach 100,000 students electronically and skip the politics, publishing pressure and constraints imposed by every brick and mortar institution. I predict a brain drain as these experts set up their own virtual schools and programs and build a name for themselves, not for their brick and mortar institutions.

Professor's Income Increased:

Increase of income for professors due to the increasing volume of students and fees from downloading of texts and materials. The Professor as an entrepreneur and electronic author is the emerging model for education today. Professors with a solid reputation can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in tuitions, program fees, consulting and book sales, and not just royalties. Given the books can be downloaded electronically, who needs a publisher? What smart professor wouldn't opt for this?

Administration Automated:

Web based student registration and program administration lowers costs. This is vital. Every aspect of a virtual school can be automated, systematized and made electronic, offering instant service to students at any hour of the day or night.


            Within a context of rapid technological change, increasing criticism of the public education system, and today’s sagging economy, the American education system is challenged with providing increased educational opportunities without increased budgets. Many educational institutions are answering this challenge by developing distance education programs. I welcome distance education with open arms because it can provide adults with a second chance at a college education, and reach those disadvantaged by limited time, distance, or physical disability.