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The distance education learner and educational technology

Ernst Hintz
University of South Australia
The use of educational technology, particularly, in distance education, requires a theoretical underpinning to define its role in reducing power asymmetries and fostering deep learning. This paper explores the reciprocal nature of learning and teaching as a basis for interpersonal interaction in technology media. Hence, to promote an interactive learning environment, the concept of the educational feedback loop advances equity of communication and mutually empowers both learners and teachers to exchange and explore ideas as partners.

The emergence of the learner in distance education is bound to one of the earliest forms of educational technology - the letter as a medium of communication. Applying this new technology to involve learners at a distance in an ongoing discourse about their faith, the apostle Paul conducted educational correspondence throughout the Roman Empire of the first century (Ortner, 1991). This historical precedent and its contemporary counterpart in email, computer based tutorials, and teleconferencing underscores the strong links between distance education learning and educational technology. With respect to these collaborative links this paper considers the importance of involving the distance education 'learner' in an educational feedback loop whose medium is educational technology and whose aim is the empowerment of the learner as a reflective practitioner (Boles and Davenport, 1975; Garrison, 1989; Verduin and Clark, 1991). The paper first considers the basis of this empowerment - the reciprocal nature of learning and teaching, especially in distance education.

The reciprocal nature of learning and teaching

In teaching, the transfer of knowledge between 'teacher' and 'learner' is not unilateral. Traditionally, whenever education has valued dialogue, learning and teaching have been chiefly reciprocal activities; the learner taught and disseminated what he or she had learned, and the teacher learned from the discourse with those whom he or she taught (Eble, 1988; Ramsden, 1992). This mode of information transfer and knowledge acquisition forms an integral part of learning and teaching interaction. Hence the fluid alternation of roles, whereby the learner teaches and the teacher learns, provides an historical precedent - be it through letters of correspondence or discourse engendered by the printed word - for the development of a circuit of educational feedback in concert with educational technology. Yet the use of current and future technology requires a theoretical underpinning in the reciprocal nature of learning and teaching if high technology media are not to become a means merely of facilitating the speed and volume of communication while neglecting the striving towards equality of communication.

The reduction of asymmetry

The reciprocality of learning and teaching is also a constituent factor in reducing the asymmetries of power between the conventional authority of the teacher as lecturer or tutor and the dependence of the learner as student. Although varying degrees of asymmetry will persist in the authority to assess students' comprehension and application of instructional materials, the process of fostering greater symmetry in educational discourse is also a process of mutual empowerment. The empowerment of the learner and teacher challenges the hegemony of the status quo and the conventionally distinct roles of those who teach and those who are to learn. If the dialogue model of distance education (Holmberg, 1991), with its asymmetries of power between instructor and student, is to complement the industrialised model (Peters, 1991) and its emphasis on access and equity, then the issue of social justice needs to be addressed in the interplay of distance learning and teaching with educational technology. For this purpose, the educational feedback loop as a theoretical construct and practical nexus between learner and teacher offers a means to heighten the symmetry of "Instructional transfer" (Brooks and Dansereau, 1987). This circuit of ongoing feedback also generates a momentum designed to reduce traditional power relationships that rest upon the clinical distinction between the 'learner' and the 'teacher.' Crucial to the deconstruction of this distinction - to mutual empowerment of 'learning' teachers and 'teaching' learners - is the degree of purposeful involvement of all parties in the circuit.

The meaning of involvement in educational technology

What makes an educational interest in new technologies more than an infatuation - a romance lacking often a sound theoretical base in learning and teaching? Or posing the question differently, how can the distortion of educational technology as chiefly a facilitator of speed and volume be overcome? The answer lies not only in maintaining a focus on the reciprocality of learning and teaching, but also in maintaining a sense of involvement in technologically based activities as a medium of human interaction, discourse, and self realisation. It is this sense of involvement in technology that contributes to its humanisation and educational usefulness. The application of computer based learning, for example, allows participants in a feedback loop to highlight different aspects of the learning process. Gennaro Pellone, looking at learning theories and computers in TAFE education, comments (Pellone, 1991, p.45):
Many theories exist which try to explain the process of learning. Each, more than others, tends to emphasise certain aspects of the teaching learning process. The flexible facilities of the computer enable us to focus on selected aspects of learning theories and implement teaching strategies that would be difficult to realise by other means.
Irrespective of the learning theories involved - whether they are the "Approach to Learning" concept (Ramsden, 1992), behavioural, cognitive, cybernetic, or developmental theories - all can advance interaction (Pellone, 1991). The learner/teacher can also choose to highlight more than one aspect simultaneously. She or he may, for example, achieve a mix by combining a cybernetic view, cybernetics being "the science of control and communication" (Simons, 1985), with the "approach to learning" concept to affect a 'self controlling' system for deep, holistic learning. Hence the levels of involvement may be many and varied. A 'self controlling' system of learning can enable participants within an educational feedback loop to attain more symmetrical interaction and equity in communication, as well as a deeper involvement with the subject area through personalisation by relating the area and learning materials to their own lives, experiences and goals.

Deep and surface learning /interaction vs lack of interaction

On the one hand, the student in deep learning "maintains structure of task ... has intention to understand (and) focuses on what the task is about ... relating theoretical ideas to everyday experience" (Ramsden, 1992). On the other, the student in surface learning "distorts structure of task ... (and has) intention only to complete task requirements" (Ramsden, 1992). Yet there are both group and individual factors which can determine how a student approaches learning, ie, whether she or he prefers deep or surface learning. N.J. Entwistle comments on students' perceptions: " is students' perceptions of the learning environment that influence how a student learns, not necessarily the context in itself" (Entwistle, 1987). These perceptions create patterns of inter-relationships among students - "study orchestrations" (Meyer and Muller, 1990; Entwistle, 1991) which serve either to encourage or undermine deep learning. Accordingly, as educational technology involves the learner/teacher more and more in mutually beneficial inter-relationships with others and in interactions with the subject area and content, it promotes a positive perception of computer mediated learning as a means of deep learning.


This paper has considered the distance learner with regard to the reciprocal nature of learning and teaching in educational technology. In the transfer of knowledge via email, particularly within computer based tutorials, or by way of audio teleconferencing, educational technology can enable the distance learner to establish and take part in an educational feedback loop - a circuit designed to advance equity of communication and mutually empower both the learning teacher and the teaching learner to exchange and explore ideas as partners. This paper further considered the crucial issue of educational technology as a means of involving the distance education learner in supportive inter-relationships within a given feedback loop. Hence the perception of the 'learning environment' as conducive to interaction "between student and context" promotes deep learning.

It is likely that educational technology in its current and future manifestations can continue to act as a humanising agent in distance education, whereby as reflective practitioners learners will remain free to teach and teachers willing to learn.


Boles, H. W., and Davenport, J. A. (1975). Introduction to Educational Leadership. New York: Harper and Row.

Eble, K. E. (2nd Ed., 1988). The Craft of Teaching. San Francisco and Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Entwistle, N. J. (1987). A model of the teaching-learning process. In Richardson, J. T. E., Eysenck, M. W., and Warren Piper, D. (Eds.), Student Learning: Research in Education and Cognitive Psychology, (pp 13-28). Open University Press.

Entwistle, N. J. (1991). Approaches to learning and perceptions of the learning environment. Higher Education, 22, 201-204.

Garrison, D. R. (1989). Understanding Distance Education: A Framework for the Future. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Holmberg, B. (1991). Distance Education as Communication: The Impact of Research and the Requirements of practitioners. In Holmberg, B., Ortner, G. E. (Eds.), Research in Distance Education/Fernlehre und Fernlehrforschung, 12-13. Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang.

Meyer, J. H. F., and Muller, M. W. (1990). Evaluating the quality of student learning - An unfolding analysis of the association between perceptions of learning context and approaches to studying at an individual level. Studies in Higher Education, 15, 131-154.

Pellone, G. (1991). Learning theories and computers in TAFE Education. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 7(1), 39-47.

Peters, O. (1991). Towards a Better Understanding of Distance Education: Analysing Designations and Catchwords. In Holmberg, B., Ortner, G. E. (Eds.), Research in Distance Education/Fernlehre und Fernlehrforschung,48-57.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning To Teach in Higher Education. London and New York: Routledge.

Simons, G. (1985). The Biology of Computer Life: Survival, Emotion and Free Will. Sussex: The Harvester Press Publishing Group.

Verduin, J. R, and Clark, T. A. (1991). Distance Education: The Foundations of Effective Practice. San Francisco and Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Author: Ernst Hintz, PhD, is Lecturer in Distance Education at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. He coordinates the Graduate Diploma and Masters of (Distance) Education programs and is currently involved in research in learning theory for print based and electronic print based modes, and in the area of communications and control as a social justice issue in education. His address is: University of South Australia, Underdale Campus, Holbrooks Road, Underdale, SA 5032, or electronically:

Please cite as: Hintz, E. (1992). The distance education learner and educational technology. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 255-258. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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