Educational Technology & Society 1(1) 1998
ISSN 1436-4522

Problems and potentials in web-based instruction, with particular focus on distance learning

Kathleen Luchini

Undergraduate Research Assistant, Michigan State University, USA. Email:

Technology is being used to enhance learning and productivity in many diverse areas, both in educational institutions and in industry. This is a truly "multimedia" endeavor, with information being delivered via video and cable television, over the Internet, and on computer software. This instruction sometimes relies wholly on the technology and sometimes is incorporated within a larger context that provides for more traditional, face-to-face instruction. Members of this forum have provided a wide variety of examples of how web-based technology is currently being used in business and education. These examples have included college and university courses and degrees in nearly every subject area, programs targeted at primary education and lifelong learning, business training and professional development (including continued training for educators), and methods for using technology to enhance traditional, face-to-face instruction.

While technology has provided many enhancements to more traditional forms of education, its increasing popularity raises many concerns about how to use it effectively. As John Brock noted, technology alone can't make you a better educator or transform a poor curriculum into an effective one. The pedagogical questions raised by web-based education are often polarized, with one camp holding that educators must make radical shifts in their teaching methodologies to accommodate Internet technologies while the other group maintains that current practices can be modified for delivery over the web. Calls for a new pedagogy often center on the fact that the Internet itself provides new opportunities for delivering educational materials. As Carl Raschke points out, "the web lends itself to a wholly different kind of 'client-driven' learning that traditional higher education has not yet assimilated. One should be starting with the architecture of the new medium and designing how learning best arises from it. It may be that our concept of 'learning' itself will have to be radically altered." The modern university's lecture-style teaching may not be applicable in a web-based format, and many join the member from (sorry - I don't know your name!) who commented that "there needs to be a paradigm shift in learning from instructor centred to learner centred."

Not everyone agrees that such a radical shift in teaching methodology is needed, however. New technology often fails to deliver on its revolutionary promises of educational reform, and David A. Robinson notes that "in practice, the advent of CD Rom produced only a bookshelf filled with esoteric works hailing the so-called new era in education and a bunch of silvery disks gathering dust on our shelves." Modern teaching methods that have proven themselves in the classroom should not be altogether abandoned with each new wave of technology improvements. Instead, many feel that the face to face interaction of a classroom setting should be modeled within web-based educational systems. Chris O'Hagan feels that most successful methods can be transferred to web-based educational forums with some modifications. He sees the web as providing "extra resources to support what we know is effective pedagogically. It provides some new possibilities in information retrieval, in simulation, in programmed learning, in communication." Web-based classes can be successful, and discussion forums, online group work, email, and web interactions all offer ways to alleviate concerns that web-based education fails to provide the student-student and student-instructor relationships which are often essential for effective learning.

Unfortunately, this careful consideration of appropriate pedagogy is atypical of much of the software currently billed as educational. The high demand for distance education can mean that quality is traded for quantity, resulting in a large supply of mediocre products. Too many distance learning projects fail to distinguish between true education and the mere acquisition of information, and additional research is needed to understand what skills can be learned effectively through the use of web-based instruction. Some, like David A. Robinson, are concerned that computer-based courses fail to engage the student, especially since it can be "hard enough for a real person to hold someone's attention for long through the medium of speech alone." Others, like Lynn Nimtz, have had success with using technology to enhance her teaching. She has used the web for "assignments, access to reading materials and learning strategy sites and for forums which involve the classes in discussions of topics critical to the course" with great success.

While web-based technology has great potential, it is obvious that caution must be exercised when integrating technology and pedagogy. While computers are being incorporated into instruction in nearly every subject area, there is little formal research into which subjects or which students are best suited to distance learning techniques. And while web technologies have the potential to offer truly individual, tailored instruction, this promise is still largely unmet and the needs of the computer-phobic student or instructor are also rarely addressed. The lack of guidelines for developing educational software or a technology framework that allows information to be delivered in multiple platforms increases the difficulty of producing effective educational technology. Professional development is another area of significant concern, since in order to develop truly educational uses of technology, we must facilitate communication between educators and technical professionals. Only then can we develop a broad understanding of what methods are most effective for imparting particular skills or knowledge bases and move closer to the goal of using technology to truly enhance the educational experience.