It will then try to suggest how this growing component of education and training provision will develop further in a era of knowledge media. Focusing on large scale applications of distance learning this section of the paper will examine the recent (though limited) evidence on the use of particular knowledge media (eg, computer mediated conferencing) by students. The aim is to get behind the hype and suggest how the knowledge media might best be harnessed to increase opportunities for learning.
For the last twenty years distance education has made steady progress. Many of its practitioners must have wished that it would soon become an accepted and respected form of education.
Now, suddenly in the last few years, that wish has been granted with interest. Distance education is fashionable; it seems to be not just the educational flavour of the month but of the decade. Governments, industry and business tell us that it is the key to the future of education and training. Everyone is grasping the side of the bandwagon and trying to jump on.
It would be curmudgeonly and stupid, for those of us who have long laboured in this vineyard, to complain that our wine is suddenly the taste of the connoisseurs. However, popularity does have its downside. When an idea becomes fashionable it tends to get confused. People try to make the bandwagon big enough for everyone to board. The danger is that the bandwagon becomes too wide for the road that it has to travel. That matters, because the educational hopes of much of humankind in the next century depend on distance education retaining some key characteristics.
What are those characteristics? Bluntly, they are the ability to operate at high volume and low cost. The world wide demand for education and training will continue to grow strongly. Yet the unit costs of face to face teaching are inelastic and insensitive to volume. Dramatic technological developments have cut prices and increased volumes in most fields of endeavour in the 20th century but there are few instances where alternative approaches to education and training have had a noticeable impact on national education budgets.
This is a challenge for humankind in the twenty-first century. A scarcity of physical resources may limit the quality of the material environment in which many people live. However, the world's educators should aim to ensure that all people can develop their potential in the essentially unlimited domain of the intellect. Meeting this challenge will require more cost effective methods for education and training.
This imperative gives special significance to a successful use of alternative instructional technology that has yielded the economies of scale associated with mass production in industry. A number of distance education institutions have achieved this breakthrough. By 1995, among some fifty public institutions around the world dedicated to distance education, there were ten large tertiary level institutions with enrolments of over 100,000 students a year. Their combined enrolments exceeded two and a half million registered students (ICDL, 1995).
The lower unit costs of these mega-universities, compared to the conventional classroom based universities, have impressed policy makers. Many governments now encourage the development of distance education, especially within the existing conventional institutions since that is where most of public expenditure on education goes and where they see the largest potential for savings.
That trend is to be welcomed because distance education has virtues that go beyond low cost and large scale. In particular, it contributes to individual intellectual autonomy in an important way. In a crowded world that provides fertile ground for demagogues people who think for themselves are an essential safeguard.
By making distance education fashionable the wider world may muddy some of the concepts that specialists in the field have developed over the last twenty years. That may be a good thing. Attempts to define distance education as separate and special have been overdone. Being brought back into the mainstream will be helpful. It could help us get back to basics: to define what we really mean by distance education and to stick to a simple taxonomy of the different approaches that make it up. That is my purpose here. I shall look in turn at history, technology and pedagogy.
People say that St Paul invented correspondence education, but its more complex than that. Correspondence education provides for an instructional relationship with individuals at home. St Paul was not running a correspondence course. Since each copy had to be hand written and many church members were illiterate, there was little opportunity for individuals to study Paul's letters at home. Paul directed his approach to groups. The analogy is with the tutors and study groups of modern distance education. This was really a forerunner of the remote classroom approach to distance education. From Paul's standpoint communication was asynchronous because he was not present when his letters were studied. However, for the church groups communication was synchronous because they listened together to the reading of the letters.
Two technological developments, the invention of printing and the introduction of universal postal services, allowed distance education to reach individuals in their homes or places of work. Asynchronous communication between individuals for educational purposes became possible. These innovations came together in England in the mid-19th century and led quickly to the offering of courses by correspondence. The earliest offerings ranged from Shorthand (Britain) through English (Sweden) to Mining Safety (USA). Some universities in Australia, Canada and the USA made correspondence courses available alongside their conventional programs before the end of the 19th century.
The essence of remote classroom education is a synchronous relationship between an individual teacher and a number of groups of students. In contrast, the essence of correspondence education is a direct but asynchronous relationship between an institution and an individual student, who receives printed material in the mail and returns homework assignments, also by mail, for correction and comment by the institution. Because the focus is on teaching individuals, rather than groups, correspondence education does not require fixed study timetables. Students can usually begin courses when they choose and study at their own pace.
Correspondence education continued to develop steadily in the 20th century. School systems in Canada, Australia and New Zealand introduced correspondence tuition for children they could not serve by conventional methods. Representatives of these programs convened the first meeting of the International Council for Correspondence Education (ICCE) in Victoria, British Columbia in 1938. For the next three decades ICCE's constituency also included the commercial and military correspondence schools and the correspondence branches of university continuing education departments.
Public sector institutions used a variety of terms, including home study, external study, independent study and guided study instead of the expression 'correspondence study', probably because the dubious ethics and poor quality of some commercial correspondence schools gave the term a poor image.
Telecommunication with remote classrooms
The development of telecommunications produced a new interest in the remote classroom method of distance education, notably in the USA. The American land grant universities had a tradition of serving people in the rural areas. A leader among them was the University of Wisconsin whose president challenged his staff in 1907 to extend 'the boundaries of the campus to the boundaries of the state' (Parker, 1984:xiii). Until the 1960s, however, universities had to fulfil such ambitions through a combination of correspondence courses and travelling lecturers.
The arrival of effective audio teleconferencing technology allowed an instructor to offer a course at numerous sites simultaneously. The University of Wisconsin implemented such a system in the 1970s. Soon afterwards satellites could transmit video signals to remote classroom networks. Since then this form of distance education has developed steadily, especially in the USA and Australia. A good example is the National Technological University, a consortium of engineering schools which offers graduate level courses by satellite across the USA and internationally.
Diversification of media for correspondence tuition
Policies of widening access to tertiary education, combined with the availability of public TV and radio broadcasting networks, led to the modernisation of correspondence education. The primary locus for this development was the UK Open University. Helped by strong political support, the UKOU's founders created an institution that quickly earned a high reputation for quality and effectiveness.
Four broad groupings of technologies have influenced the development of distance education: 1) the combination of printing and the post in correspondence tuition; 2) the mass media of broadcasting; 3) personal media; 4) telecommunication systems. Some claim that new technological combinations, which Eisenstadt (1995) has labelled the 'knowledge media are potentially the most significant mutation that distance education has yet seen.
It is, however, neither practically possible nor pedagogically sound to rely on broadcasting as the principal or exclusive means of instruction in an operation designed to provide disciplined courses at university level... The only method of individual instruction capable of being made available everywhere, and capable of indefinite expansion as new needs arise, is correspondence tuition, which can readily incorporate these new techniques (ie. broadcasting).The longevity and reliability of correspondence tuition suggest that the new technologies which most closely match its characteristics merit particular attention.
The UKOU continues to broadcast programs, especially on television, for some 20 hours per week. The British public knows it best for this use of the mass media. The University consistently resists attempts by the BBC to reduce its airtime or move its programs to less popular viewing slots. Open Learning Australia broadcasts programs through the ABC network. When I surveyed the ten mega-universities I found that all of them wanted to increase their broadcasting on terrestrial and satellite channels (Daniel, 1995). Yet more than a decade ago, when Bates (1982) reviewed the use of educational media in twelve distance learning systems, he reported that there was a general movement away from broadcasting.
The key to this paradox is that the UKOU and other mega-universities use media with multiple objectives in mind. One of the charter obligations of the UKOU is to 'promote the educational well being of the community generally'. By transmitting its TV and radio programs to the general public through open circuit broadcasting the UKOU provides an informal educational service to a much larger audience than its registered student body. The highest annual enrolment on any single UKOU course is 9000 whereas, over a three week period, several million viewers watch UKOU TV for at least fifteen minutes (Acaster and McCron, 1994:7).
Its substantial presence on the broadcast media has helped the UKOU to recruit students and to acquire a high academic reputation. Annual Gallup surveys (Open University, 1995) show that 90% of British adults are aware of the UKOU, a very high figure for any institution. Broadcasting helped to create this level of awareness. Many viewers, finding they enjoyed and .understood the UKOU programs, decided to become students. Academics at other institutions, judging that the UKOU programs were professional and up to date treatments of their subjects, viewed the institution with respect.
It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the sole function of UKOU broadcasting is general education and publicity. Registered students, many of whom are otherwise isolated, say that viewing the programs makes them feel part of a learning community. This explains why many of the students who record the programs on VCRs also watch them at the time they are broadcast (Acaster and McCron, 1994: 6). Broadcasting also obliged the UKOU to create a paced study regime with identical start and finish dates for all students in a course. This was a break with the more liberal unpaced tradition of correspondence education that has helped the UKOU achieve high completion rates (Daniel and Shale, 1979).
Nevertheless, broadcasting requires institutions to be clear about the outcomes they wish to achieve. If the sole purpose of using audiovisual media is to enhance the learning of registered students it is better to make them available as audio cassettes or video cassettes. This partly explains why the development of personal media has been so helpful to distance education.
The growing use of the personal media also reinforced the view that simple media can be very effective in distance education. For example, Bates (1982:11) concluded that for the UKOU 'the greatest media development during its twelve years of existence has been the humble audio cassette'. Audio cassettes are popular with administrators because they are inexpensive. Academics feel they have more control over the making of audio cassettes than of broadcasts. Students find cassettes convenient and informal: 'like a personal tutorial with the course author'.
Since Bates conducted his study the most important development in personal media at the UKOU has been the personal computer. The introduction of the home computing policy (now called the personal computing policy) by the UKOU has been reviewed by Jones, Kirkup and Kirkwood (1992) who conclude that it has been remarkably successful even though British households did not acquire computers as fast as expected.
In the correspondence mode of distance education the main impact of telecommunications has been to enhance tutorial contact with students. For example, at Athabasca University, Alberta, which has enjoyed a rich telecommunications environment since its creation in the 1970s, the telephone has always been a primary means of communication between tutors and students. The University pays for the installation and rental of a second 'phone in the tutor's dwelling for this purpose (Daniel and Meech, 1978:95). Daniel and Turok (1975:133) noted that in the early 1970s the DeVry Institute, a large American commercial correspondence school, received some 2000 student calls per day on its toll free telephone line.
Countries like the UK, where telephone ownership and a telephone culture have developed more slowly, are only now beginning to use telecommunications intensively. UKOU students, for example, are steadily switching to the telephone, instead of the mail, for their administrative communications with the institution. This poses a challenge to the UKOU which finds that it is better organised for handling letters than telephone calls (Edwards et al., 1995).
Another important product of telecommunications development is the fax machine. This allows institutions to speed up the turnaround of student assignments, a core element of the effectiveness of any teaching system. The UKOU provides fax machines to its UK based tutors who teach students in continental Europe. In the Los Angeles Community College District more than one third of telecourse students submit their assignments by fax (McClatchey, 1995:124).
In addition to its use for one to one communication the telephone is now used regularly in conference mode to link students in tutorial groups. Again, such audio teleconference tutorials have been commonplace in Canada for years. Only in the last decade has the UKOU made systematic use of this technology, notably for its more dispersed students in Wales and Scotland (George, 1994).
Improved telecommunications have been helpful to institutions operating in the correspondence mode. For the remote classroom mode of distance education they have been essential. Indeed, until telecommunications promoted its renaissance, the theoreticians of distance education tended to ignore this component of the field in favour of the correspondence tradition. Keegan's (1980) definition of distance education included only 'the possibility of occasional meetings for didactic and socialisation purposes'.
Yet, for example, Taylor and Carter (1995), in a survey of the diverse distance education scene in Australia, report that institutions in several states now use audio conferencing and video conferencing regularly with remote groups of students.
These technologies are particularly attractive to conventional institutions seeking to develop distance education activity. Classroom instructors believe they can adapt relatively easily to the demands of teaching over audio or video links. As the costs of telecommunications decline, remote classroom teaching will be an increasingly viable option even where numbers are small. Furthermore, desktop publishing makes it easy to produce attractive instructional materials to supplement the teleconference sessions.
These technological changes contribute to an important trend documented by Jenkins (1995). Surveying the OECD countries she showed that there has been a 'rapid, recent and substantial change in numbers of universities providing distance education'. In Canada, where 42 of 69 universities are now providers, this represents a 50% increase in eight years. The proportions of universities offering distance courses in some other OECD countries are: France - 40%; Sweden - almost all; UK - 75%; USA - almost all (Jenkins, 1995:427). This trend may be a competitive threat to the mega-universities and to all distance universities.
The implications of the knowledge media will be examined later. What relevant conclusions can we draw from earlier applications of technology in distance education?
In reality, distance education no longer has a distinct pedagogy common to all its forms. The pedagogy of synchronous remote classroom teaching resembles the pedagogy of classroom teaching more than it resembles the pedagogy of asynchronous correspondence teaching.
A key strength of correspondence study is its flexibility for both student and institution. The course materials are portable and, because the student relates to the institution as an individual, communicating by mail and/or telephone, there are few constraints of time and place. For the institution the system is flexible in two related ways. It permits division of labour (eg. course authors and course tutors can be different people) and it can be expanded rapidly with economies of scale.
Economies of scale give correspondence education another strength. Operating with large numbers of students provides the resources needed to produce high quality learning materials. This should be one of key competitive advantages of the mega-universities.
The major perceived weakness of correspondence education is the extent and immediacy of interaction. In the context of the technologies of the 1970s Daniel and Marquis (1979) noted that attempts to increase the interactive component of correspondence teaching (eg. through face to face sessions) usually had two drawbacks: they reduced the possibilities of economies of scale and they placed extra constraints of time and place on the student. For this reason these authors considered that the key challenge in designing a correspondence study system was 'getting the mixture' of independent and interactive activities right.
Some years later Daniel (1983) returned to this theme to ask whether some of the home electronic systems of the 1980s could produce the advantages of effective interaction for the student whilst conserving the economic structure of independent activities for the institution. This question will be of even greater significance with the knowledge media. Interaction is a crucial but slippery concept in distance education. As Mason (1994:25) writes:
The word 'interactivity' is currently used in a wide variety of ways. The obvious meaning - communication between two or more people - is by no means the only one... Much of what passes for interactivity should really be called 'feedback' - to the organisation or the teacher. It would be useful if the word Interactivity' were reserved for educational situations in which human responses - either vocal or written - referred to previous human responses. The educational value of any specific interactive session could then be seen in terms of the degree to which each utterance built on previous ones.
In all of these configurations the role of the students more closely resembles their role in a single conventional classroom than their role in a correspondence study system. To achieve success and student satisfaction, however, remote classroom systems have found it necessary to modify conventional classroom practices. For the teacher this means special training in the use of the equipment and attention to instructional design, especially techniques for making remote oral interaction effective. For the student it means having access to more and better written study materials than would usually be provided for a classroom lecture on campus. Hence remote classroom distance education leads its practitioners to adopt, in a modest way, some of the approaches characteristic of correspondence teaching.
The strength of the remote classroom approach is its potential for interaction between student and teacher and between students. Whether this potential is achieved ' and whether the interaction is pedagogically effective when achieved, depends greatly on the skills of the instructor. Special techniques are required to make interaction effective in a face to face teaching session involving more than, say, 100 students in one classroom. They are even more necessary when such numbers are dispersed in multiple sites.
On the criterion of flexibility remote classroom systems have a strength and a weakness. The strength is that instructors can update content easily, as they would for a regular class. The weakness is that students are still constrained by obligations of attendance at a set time and place, even though their local remote classroom may be more convenient than the central campus.
Assuming that the cost effectiveness of higher education and training will be a vital issue in coming years the mega-universities will have an exemplary role. Can they use the knowledge media to enhance their cost effectiveness further?
The mega-universities in the developing world are still making the transition from their basis in correspondence education (or satellite broadcasting in the case of China) toward a multimedia distance teaching system. Few of their one million students have computers at home, fewer still have modems. However, these technologies are spreading fast and will become teaching tools in the 21st century.
For the mega-universities in industrialised countries the possibility of widespread networking of students from home is now within the planning horizon. The UKOU, for example, projects that over 90% of its students will have communicating computers by the year 2004. What can we say, on present evidence. about the role of the knowledge media in large scale distance education? But first, what are the knowledge media?
Knowledge media is a term that, as sometimes happens with scientific discoveries, seemed to emerge simultaneously in several places. The person with the strongest paternal claim is Marc Eisenstadt, who is now director the new Knowledge Media Institute at the UKOU. He invented the term to capture the convergence of computing, telecommunications and the cognitive sciences.
He believes that these new technologies have the potential to change in a qualitative manner the relationship between people and knowledge. This is because the ways in which we can now access information, combine it, transform it, share it and communicate it have been dramatically changed by the speed and capacity of the knowledge media. Furthermore, research in the cognitive sciences allows us to create much improved interfaces between humans and technologies.
Is this true? My response is a cautious, 'yes'. As Nikita Kruschev once said about nuclear weapons, 'quantity has a quality all of its own'. Developments in speed and capacity of information processing and transmission do change things. Our first experiences with the knowledge media in UK Open University teaching presage important breakthroughs.
We are still a long way from the information superhighway, if by that we mean home computers (with all the power ever required) linked by broad band networks to the whole world. But we do have a developing network of information country roads. Last year 30,000 OU students used personal computers at home for their courses and 6000 of them were networked. In January 1996 that has become 35,000 home computers of which 12,000 are networked. By 1997 we expect 40,000 students using computers with at least 20,000 online. That's still a minority of our 150,000 students but it's a high growth rate.
A fuller account of the UKOU's experience with using the knowledge media is given by my colleague Robin Mason in another paper to this conference (Mason, 1996).
Early indications are very encouraging. It is clear that students greatly value the easy communication with each other and with their tutors that computer mediated communication makes possible. The professional exchanges between the 1200 trainee teachers in our PGCE program were truly impressive, and they wanted to maintain the network once they qualified and became teachers.
So far we have less experience of the impact on students of easy communication with information resources through the Internet. We realise that the University will have to package the Internet to some extent if it is to be useful. Otherwise it's like turning on a firehose, giving the student a thimble, and telling them to fill it precisely to the top.
A third generation of distance education, supported open learning, now beckons. It will build on the sound traditions of correspondence tuition and multimedia materials by adding the communication and information processing facilities of networked home computers.
These systems of supported open learning will eliminate the two remaining weaknesses of distance education, which are lack of communication with fellow students and restricted access to libraries, museums and other intellectual resources. If the mega-universities can make this jump and retain their 50% cost advantage over conventional methods we shall have created a foundation for a global learning society in the 21st century.
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|Author: Sir John Daniel|
The Open University
Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA
Tel: (01908) 653 3214 Fax: (01008) 65 5093
Please cite as: Daniel, J. S. (1996). New kids on the box: Distance education enters its third generation. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 1-9. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ad/daniel1.html