Educational Technology & Society 2(3) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Distance Learning as "Learning by Doing"

Mary E. Lee, Ph.D.
President, Texas Distance Learning Association
COO and Senior Consultant, GSO & Associates
2702 Belaire Lane West
Granite Shoals, TX 78654 U.S.A.
Tel: +1-830-598-1554
Fax: +1-830-596-8114


The papers in this Special Issue of Educational Technology and Society are extensions of presentations given at the 1999 Texas Distance Learning Association (TxDLA) Annual Conference held April 5-8, 1999, in Waco, Texas, U.S.A. TxDLA is pleased that our collaboration with IFETS has afforded the opportunity to present these papers for publication in their official Journal. The eight extended papers presented here were selected as representative of the issues, topics, and challenges presented and discussed at the 1999 TxDLA Annual Conference. They are also representative examples of the "learning by doing" state of distance education and training in today's society. Overall, the papers depict a movement in distance education and training toward practices that reflect "learning organization" principles.

Keywords: Texas Distance Learning Association, education, chaos, learning by doing, learning organizations


The papers in this Special Issue of Educational Technology and Society are extensions of presentations given at the 1999 Texas Distance Learning Association (TxDLA) Annual Conference held April 5-8, 1999, in Waco, Texas, U.S.A. The authors of these extended papers as well as the TxDLA Board of Directors, Officers, and Members extend our thanks to the International Forum for Educational Technology and Society (IFETS). We are pleased that our collaboration with IFETS has afforded this opportunity to present these papers for publication.

Key leaders in Texas from primary and secondary public schools, community colleges, higher education institutions, state government, major corporations, the military, and the telecommunications industry worked towards formation of the TxDLA, which was established in 1996 as a not-for-profit association of professionals interested in the field of distance learning.

The impetus for forming the organization, as our Founding President, Mr. Don Foshee observed, was to "…provide an accessible clearinghouse of useful information that can be shared by all distance learning practitioners and planners, and which is non-biased, timely, and transcends the special interests, which today provide only fragmented pieces of the big picture" (TxDLA, 1996). Today, the TxDLA mission is established as promoting the implementation of effective distance learning for the benefit of all Texans (TxDLA, 1997).

TxDLA members choose to represent their organization as an association of "distance learning" professionals in order to invite broad participation in the networking and exchange of information demanded by our mission. Thus, we use the broad term "distance learning" to encompass all of the persons and tools employed today in bringing about effective distance learning. This includes the learners themselves as well as the administrators, educators, instructors, corporate trainers, content, equipment, software producers/publishers/providers, telecommunications providers, and others involved in the typical distance learning situation. Distance learning is recognized as taking place whenever a learner is either distant in space or asynchronous in time from the bulk of their learning resources.

The theme of the 1999 TxDLA Annual Conference, "Connected Texas¾ Celebrating Our Progress", was chosen to remind us that we in the distance learning community needed to look at our current progress as we move toward the millennium. While our assessment of the current state of distance learning needed to be an honest one that identified the remaining tasks ahead, we also needed to give each other a deserved round of applause for jobs well done. This 1999 Annual Conference was intended to showcase our accomplishments in Texas so that we could celebrate our progress and ready ourselves for the continuing challenge ahead.

Of the 26 presentations given at the 1999 TxDLA Annual Conference (TxDLA, 1999), the eight extended papers presented here were selected as representative of the issues, topics, and challenges presented and discussed at the 1999 TxDLA Annual Conference.

The Learning by Doing State of Distance Learning

The development and implementation of new technologies - including new distance learning and other educational technologies - often involves an institutional or organizational decision to embark upon projects that can only take on precise definition along the way.

Today, distance education and training are an undertaking that fits economist Kenneth Arrow's (1969) classic concept of a "learning by doing" process. Learning by doing takes place when new productive procedures or technologies are implemented in the absence of significant theory and research that can help to predict the outcome - yet, unlike the "research" process, the outcomes to be produced in a learning by doing process are still expected to have direct value and benefit.

Why should distance learning be a learning by doing process? Why don't schools, colleges, universities, and corporations simply table distance learning proposals? After all, schools, colleges, universities, and other large organizations are not known for their tendency to jump quickly into change situations. Why don't they wait until significant theory has been developed and the researches performed that can help predict the possible outcomes?

The simplest, most direct answer is that education and training are social processes, and social processes do not occur in an orderly, linear fashion. On the one hand, rapid development of new information and productive technologies at the level of society demands that, to fully participate in today's society, individuals must continually learn at an astonishing rate. On the other hand, new communication technologies make it possible for individuals to innovate - pursuing alternative courses of action to learn at the rates demanded by social structure.

Does this mean that schools, colleges, universities, and corporations are letting technology "drive" education and training in today's society? No, because there is no single, simple "cause" of the state of relationships in society at any given time. Technology and society co-evolve in a complex, nonlinear process that produces a continual state of flux between order and disorder (Lee, 1994; 1997). In the same manner, the theory and practice of distance education and training are co-evolving. Neither drives the other. Just as human behavior is affected by structure, structure is affected by human behavior. Behavior feeds forward in time to affect the structure of relationships at the next point in time; social organization balances on the edge of order and chaos (Lee, 1997).

Let's return to the discussion of learning by doing. Organizational decision-making policies can have an inordinate impact on behavior, and therefore learning by doing processes. Implementing new technologies in a learning by doing situation involves uncertainties as to cost and demand at each stage. Decisions to proceed are necessarily made on the basis of incomplete information. At each step along the way, adjustments must be made to the overall plan. While something may be learned with regard to the probability distribution of productive relationships (e.g., "efficiency") for future repetitions of the process (Arrow, 1969), probability distributions cannot be determined for the final outcome until the later stages of the project implementation. This means that learning by doing projects are generally a risky business.

When making decisions about implementing new technologies, those involved in decision-making in a "rational organization" (Scott, 1987) focus attention primarily upon the outcome of the decision. Where efficiency (i.e., increase in output with no increase in input) is the only expected outcome, the search for optimal solutions often deteriorates to a search for the first solution that satisfies the minimum requirements (March and Simon, 1958). Since there are no criteria sets that permit comparison across all alternative actions, it cannot be surprising when decision-making bodies in this situation pursue solutions that are merely "satisfactory" among all the possible actions.

In the typical rational organization, early stage decision-making about new technologies is made quite difficult by decision-makers' belief that increased efficiency is the only expected (and only acceptable) outcome of any organizational project. In the learning by doing situation, decision-making is difficult to "routinize," and the idea of a choice between various alternative actions that have more or less known outcomes becomes meaningless (Amendola and Gaffard, 1988). The risk associated with the uncertain outcomes becomes quite high, and decision-makers have a difficult time maintaining belief that their actions will actually lead to the expected outcome. Learning by doing does not tend to work well in this context.

Learning by doing works best in a "learning organization" - one that is "…continually expanding its capacity to create its future" (Senge, 1990: 14). Two central principles of a learning organization are "structure influences behavior" (as discussed above), and "policy resistance", the tendency of complex systems to resist changes in behavior. Understanding these principles in essence is critical to learning organizations, but application of that understanding in practice is imperative (Senge, 1990: 374-375).

Imagine that the expected and most highly valued result of a project is an increase in the range of viable future outcomes, rather than some discrete future outcome such as the "maximum efficiency" of a particular process or program. The range of actions available to decision-makers is not restricted by a narrow range of expected outcomes. Thus, learning by doing presents less risk to decision makers and project participants, who can pursue the extraordinary among all the possible alternative actions.

In a learning organization, decision makers can direct their attention to a wide range of signals in their environment, and give feedback to participants to modify learning by doing projects so that they become "…more basic fulcra for accomplishing longer-run adaptiveness" (March and Simon, 1958:171). In this situation: 1) the expected outcome is extension of the existing range of problems and solutions; 2) variability in the outcome is acceptable; and 3) decision-makers can operate with more confidence that their actions will actually produce the expected outcome of increasing future alternatives. More flexibility is allowed in decision-making, since action is bounded only by the viability of possible outcomes.

Thus, as schools, higher education institutions, and corporations pursue distance learning activities, they commit their organizations to a learning by doing process, which can best succeed if the organization itself becomes a learning organization.

The Papers

The issues, topics, and challenges presented and discussed at the Conference and in the present set of extended papers illustrate the learning by doing state of contemporary distance education and training. In general, the papers are also illustrative of the varying degrees to which learning organization principles are applied when undertaking distance education and training.

Re-Creating and Re-Inventing Higher Education

In implementing distance education and training programs, a learning organization commits to re-creating and re-inventing itself as it moves through the learning by doing process. This is most evident in the four papers that provide case studies of implementing distance education projects or programs in higher education: Those by Frieden, Martine, Vasquez, and Nolan.

Sandy Frieden's Support Services for Distance Education presents an excellent case study of learning by doing at the level of an entire system of universities implementing distance education and the attendant services necessary to support it. The case she presents is that of The University of Houston System, which has multiple campuses across this large Texas city. This paper opens with a description of their implementation process that Kenneth Arrow would immediately recognize as learning by doing, "We are planning for a future that is not quite clear, budgeting for unknown and frightening technological contingencies…reading the research that can be contradictory for reasons that are not all that clear—and all the while trying to figure out how to market a product that hasn’t quite taken shape yet." Here, too, is explicit evidence that education institutions can understand and appreciate learning organization practices, "…the benefits of making some mistakes along the way bring important perspectives for ongoing planning".

TWUMOO: The Female Collected, and, The Female Collective, by Patricia Nolan at Texas Woman's University (TWU), describes a case of double innovation. First, TWU is implementing a Multi-User Domain, Object Oriented (MOO) technology that allows multiple online users to manipulate objects, as well as to converse and conduct research, in real-time. MOOs are very new in the higher education arena. Second, TWU is employing this technology in an unorthodox field of application in today's distance learning environment: Women's studies. New distance learning technologies seem to be implemented first in technical fields (usually dominated by men), rather than the arts and humanities. This humanities oriented MOO has not only been very effective in promoting open discussion of gender issues, it also has cultivated student development of new technology applications across other fields. This is a lesson in the learning organization law of "Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants" (Senge, 1990: 66). The world does not come tidily wrapped in neat little boxes, and treating it as such does not always make our task easier. Discipline thinking can be useful; but can also keep educators and trainers from seeing and teaching about real world interactions that are important to learning.

In From International Reciprocal Education to Multinational Reciprocal Education, Guillermo Vasquez de Velasco presents a case study of extending the traditional Study Abroad program through distance learning at Texas A&M University (TAMU). Recognizing the benefits of learning through exposure to many cultures, the TAMU College of Architecture has extended opportunities to gain multicultural experience to students who otherwise might never have been able to participate in a traditional ‘Study Abroad’ program. First developed as a project to use telecommunications technologies to "barter" instructional content and cross-cultural exposure with Mexico, TAMU is now taking this international distance learning program multinational, adding countries in South America to the virtual cultural exchange. The program has been popular with university administration, faculty, and students - proving to be an excellent program recruitment tool as well as a teaching and learning tool. This illustrates yet another law of learning organizations, "Small changes can produce big results - but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious" (Senge, 1990:63).

Combining Technologies to Deliver Distance Education, from Cynthia Martine and Viki Freeman at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, describes what most will recognize as a classic case of implementing a distance learning project in a large higher education institution. A successful Health Resources and Services Administration federal grant provided the impetus and the funds for an experimental project targeting associate degree laboratory practitioners in rural and medically underserved areas of Texas for delivery of a baccalaureate course of study in clinical laboratory science via distance education. This project involved overcoming many obstacles, including fears about the adequacy of distance learning for laboratory intensive programs, faculty reluctance to teach at a distance, and cultivating necessary partnerships for delivery in rural areas. Recognizing the increased difficulty of overcoming these obstacles if they had sought to deliver coursework entirely via distance instruction, the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program implemented a hybrid multi-technology delivery mechanism as an intermediate step. The success of this move demonstrates the efficacy of the learning organization law "Faster is slower" (Senge, 1990: 62-63). Had UTMB initially leaped entirely to Web-based delivery, for example, it is likely that resistance to the radical changes necessary would have slowed or even halted their move to distance learning. Sometimes, the tortoise does indeed finish before the hare.


Three papers in this special issue concentrate on receiving and interpreting feedback during the learning by doing process, and transforming feedback to feedfoward changes in behavior: Those by Cissel et al., Jolly et al., and Awalt and Jolly.

In Evaluating the Texas Woman's University [TWU] Distance Education Program: A Case Study, William Cissel et al. briefly recount a demand for and subsequent implementation of distance learning and teaching at their institution that corresponds to the familiar learning by doing pattern we have come to recognize. The authors go on to describe TWU's struggle with a difficult problem of control: How to maintain an organizational balance critical to sustainable development of their distance education program. TWU seeks to maintain that balance through initiating an internal evaluation procedure. The initial program evaluation matrix they have designed, includes feedback from student performance data, student evaluations, course assessments, exit exams, standards performance, credentialing success, and enrollment and retention data. This feedback must be transformed to feedforward to changes in student, faculty, and administrative support services in order to maintain the necessary balance for sustaining program growth and improvement. The procedure described, still in development, reflects elements of the learning organization principle of "control without controlling" (Senge 1990: 292). Applying this principle will require that they create a common identity to connect all the participants, build team learning, and promote personal mastery of the necessary skills (Senge, 1990: 292-294).

Deborah Jolly et al., in Issues Related to Technology in Teacher Education Programs and K-12 Public Schools in Texas, analyze data from several sources to examine the need for changes in teacher preparation programs. The changes they examine are those that will create leadership in higher education for infusing technology into K-12 schools and for modeling the appropriate use of technology in K-12 teaching situations. The data analyzed point to: 1) a deficit in technology mastery and utilization among K-12 teachers; 2) a need for increased emphasis on educational technology utilization in K-12 teacher preparation programs; and 3) a deficit in technology mastery and utilization on the part of higher education faculty in those programs. They conclude that colleges of education themselves are still coping with issues related to training their own faculty and staff, accessing equipment, and incorporating technology into their own teaching situations. As a state, Texas must confront the task of transforming this feedback to feedforward changes in K-12 teacher preparation programs in Texas' higher education institutions. In addition to applying learning organization principles to implement new technologies on their own campuses, higher education institutions must begin to apply learning organization principles to advance the state of technology preparation in their college of education curricula.

Texas and U.S. colleges of education and government programs of education are faced with a similar task of preparing K-12 school administrators for mastery of, utilization of, and leadership in the implementation of technology within K-12 schools. This issue is addressed in An Inch Deep and a Mile Wide: Electronic Tools for Savvy Administrators, by Carolyn Awalt and Deborah Jolly. U.S. public school systems in general, and Texas Independent School Districts in particular, are steeped in authoritarian hierarchy. However, many times, U.S. K-12 technology or distance learning projects have resulted from grant proposals authored and locally implemented by teachers or lower-level administrators, who are likely to have limited or no budgetary, long range planning, or other decision-making authority. Responsibility for technology implementation and maintenance may have been assigned to "technology coordinators", who are also likely to have limited authority. Often, too little forethought had been given to the problem of ongoing maintenance for technical systems. Public school systems are now confronted with the effects of one of the basic laws of learning organizations: "Today's problems come from yesterday's solutions" (Senge, 1990: 57-58). As technology and distance learning projects become enduring innovations in public education, decision-makers are finding that technology planning and budgeting are becoming ongoing necessities in school administration. This paper discusses levels of technology competency needed by school administrators and examines the resources being made available for attaining the necessary competencies.

The Co-Evolution of Theory and Practice

Susan and Kenneth Miller, in Using Instructional Theory to Facilitate Communication in Web-based Courses, provide a glimpse into the co-evolution of theory and practice in distance education. They note that widespread availability of and access to the Internet, an increasingly non-traditional age student population, and occupational changes that require continual worker re-education have fueled rapid growth of Web-based instruction. As the demand for and use of new educational telecommunications technology grows, learning and education theory must accommodate emerging patterns of instructional communication. Miller and Miller show how two of today's predominate theoretical perspectives, Cognitive Processing Theory and Cognitive Constructivist Theory, can make that accommodation; concluding that cognitive and pedagogical theories can be used to guide further development of Web-based instruction. This paper offers a good example of behavior (practice) feeding forward in time to affect structure (theory) at the next point in time. Of course, structure (theory) then goes on to affect behavior (practice) at the next point in time, ad infinitum.


In a recent article critical of distance learning, Wendy M. Grossman reviews some of the new research on distance learning, concluding, "… we're racing headlong into a new set of educational techniques we don't really understand" (1999: 1). This statement is intended to be critical of distance learning - as a criticism, it falls short of the mark. Human history is long compendium of accounts about racing headlong into things we don't really understand. If we waited until such time as we might fully understand the universe before we took action, the entire human race would be sitting in its corner of that universe contemplating its collective navel. Actually, Ms. Grossman's statement is an astute observation about the learning by doing state of distance education and training.

Elsewhere in this issue, Zygmunt Scheidlinger (1999) gives a good overview of some of the forces feeding the demand for distance education and training at the post-secondary level. We should not be surprised to learn that many of the same forces are driving demand at the primary and secondary levels of education and vocational training. In attempting to meet this demand, schools, educational institutions, and corporate training organizations are necessarily thrown into a learning by doing situation. Higher education does this despite the obvious threat to its nearly 700-year-old organizational model, as discussed in a recent forum hosted by IFETS, summarized elsewhere in this issue (Abeles and Pita, 1999). In the U.S., public schools likewise are changing to meet new demands, despite a 200-year-old organizational model based in a now defunct agricultural economy. Change is inevitable, history marches forward, and organizations evolve.

As a society, we should be less concerned with criticisms of distance learning that are based on fears about the demise of "traditional" education organizations and practices (e.g., Phipps et al., 1999) than we are with those based on concerns about inequity in access to the necessary technological tools (e.g., Gladieux and Swail, 1999). When these technologies proliferate under disparate economic conditions - as they are currently - they will perpetuate existing inequities. However, while this is a matter for attention, concern, policy change, and intervention, it is not a matter that will obviate the current demand for distance learning any more than our ever-present economic inequities have restrained the demand for traditional education and training. When applied with a concern for inequity, new educational telecommunications technologies offer more opportunities to address equity problems than have traditional education and training (Lee, 1998).

Thus, society changes and schools, education institutions, and training organizations muddle through the learning by doing process. To do so successfully, despite their long histories and their organizational tendency to resist change, they must take on the characteristics of learning organizations. Overall, the papers presented here give evidence to a growing movement in distance education and training to meet tomorrow's challenges by adopting practices that reflect learning organization principles.


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