Distance Education and Distributed Learning
Reviewer: Brent Muirhead
Distance education has become a popular topic among contemporary educators who observe the rapid growth in student enrollments in online classes and degree programs. Traditional and for-profit colleges and universities are investing more resources into developing relevant and academically credible programs. The editors recognize resistance to distance education within the educational community. Today’s policy makers and teachers are sometimes reluctant to change their educational philosophies and teaching practices. Distance education institutions represent a major change from the traditional emphasis on face-to-face learning. College teachers and administrators are sometimes skeptical about the quality of the instruction within the computer-mediated classes. Additionally, Vrasidas and Glass (2002) note “distance education is not accorded the same credit, worth, prestige, and legitimacy that traditional face-to-face education receives” (p. xii).
The book is divided into ten chapters and explores how technology can enhance the educational process by discussing major challenges, problems and the need for further research. A talented group of writers share valuable information that skillfully integrates educational theories and practices. In the first chapter, a Harvard Graduate School of Education research project on blended or distributed learning is highlighted. Researchers discovered students appreciate having both synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences. In fact, less than half of the students considered face-to-face as their first learning choice. Research results suggest the need for both traditional and nontraditional institutions to provide learning experiences which affirm a variety of student learning styles.
Chapter two investigates interaction assumptions from the symbolic perspective of interactivity between two or more individuals in a specific setting. The authors observe the need to study interaction within a rich conceptual context and avoid the tendency to study it as an isolated online event. A second area of concern involves the building a case to study technology and how it impacts online education. Vrasidas and Glass (2002) contend, “…there is an ironic absence in distance education research of attention to technology and how it shapes learners, teachers, content, interaction, collaboration, and knowledge construction” (p. 48).
The third chapter examines online assessment and the role of teachers who evaluate student work. Unfortunately, student cheating is becoming a major problem. Students are freely using information from the web in their assignments without adhering to basic academic procedures for citing reference material. Benson (2002) provides excellent advice for teachers to create assignments which are more difficult to plagiarize by requiring students to:
Online problem solving is the focus of the fourth chapter. Jonassen (2002) argues for creating more life oriented instructional strategies with an emphasis on genuine and complicated problems. Distance educators and instructional designers are challenged to develop more problem-based learning assignments. Ultimately, it will require universities to invest money and personnel into developing and testing software architectures prototypes.
Chapter five stresses the role of human dimension and
social interaction within virtual classrooms.
The sixth chapter examines the need to reveal and examine the hidden curriculum in distance education. E-learning has made education more accessible for a diversity of students. In the seventh chapter, the discussion focuses on the complex issue of faculty productivity which is difficult to accurately measure. Research literature highlights studies on teachers spending time on teaching, research and service activities. Recent studies reveal that traditional university teachers will devote twice as much time to their committee duties than to teaching classes. Reeves (2002) “the irony of the productivity agenda is that most of the existing research and evaluation indicates that teaching online via the Internet requires more, not less, faculty time and effort” (p. 143). Distance educator productivity issues require more developmental research studies to help foster relevant data for planning; designing and supporting university based online classes.
Distance education research has been criticized for lacking a strong theoretical base. The eighth chapter discusses the need for theory building and experimenting with different educational models to create a knowledge base to affirm best practices and guide future research. Distance education research trends are analyzed within three major categories: basic, applied and evaluation.
The ninth chapter provides relevant insights into developing vibrant online communities that promote social and intellectual growth. Distant educators play a key facilitator role in forming and sustaining positive online learning communities. The final chapter discusses the international dimensions of online instruction and explores how to effectively communicate in today’s global environment. Teachers are encouraged to use reflective dialogs in their online classes and raise vital social and ethical issues such as technology equity.
Constructive reflections upon the book reveal a need to engage in a more detailed discussion in several areas. It would be helpful to devote more attention to distance education faculty issues such as tenure, financial compensation and professional development. Additionally, the current distance education paradigm often fails to support serious research efforts because schools rely heavily upon part-time faculty members. These are important issues which need to be addressed by today’s writers.
The book is very readable and has excellent references for each chapter. It would be a superb book for educators and individuals who are studying computer-mediated education. The author appreciated how the diversity of writers offered readers a valuable blend of theoretical and practical technological narratives which can spark creative ideas for future research projects.
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