Online learning has quickly emerged and consumed much of the research and discussion regarding distance education. But what is it about online learning that makes it different from other forms of distance education (i.e., print-, audio/radio-, or video/televisionbased)? Will it still be the “star of the show” in the next ten years? In the course of a discussion relating to the evolution of online learning through the lens of prominent learning theories, we will assert that online education has challenged pedagogical norms. By emphasizing the strong points of online learning as they relate to particular learning theories, we will illustrate how online education has solidified its place as a major force in enhancing the learning experience.
Distance education can be traced back to the 1700’s with print-based correspondence. During the 20th century, instructional radio and television became prominent. Combining both print and non-print delivery formats, the United Kingdom established Open University in 1969 (Mehrota, Hollister & McGahey, 2001). One of the first online courses offered was in 1981 at Western Behavioral Sciences in La Jolla, California.
Currently, with the increasing popularity of online courses, a significant number of university administrators have begun to look past the traditional perspective of brick buildings and are considering how to become major contributors to the virtual campus. James and Gardner (1995) describe (as depicted in Figure 1) the evolution of distance learning as: (a) Generation One: Correspondence study, (b) Generation Two: Audio/video-conference, (c) Generation Three: Computers and the Internet and (d) Generation Four: The future.
Evolution of Distance Learning
As we make the transition to Generation Four, understanding distance education and the role of technology in the learning process establishes an appreciation of how the online environment can not only be utilized; but, can enhance the learning experience. Viewing the development of learning through theoretical lenses provides a unique perspective regarding online education and pedagogical frameworks (Kilburn, 2005).
According to Forsyth (1998), “alternative methods of delivery address the changing paradigm of education and training” (p. 15). These new methods have the potential to transform learning from an old paradigm of “teaching as telling” to a new paradigm of “life-long learning.” This shift in thinking will place greater emphasis on the learner.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Online Learning/Course: A context for learning in which students interact using technology and do not meet in a physical classroom with the instructor.
Distance Education: “Any formal approach to learning in which a majority of the instruction occurs while educator and learner are at a distance from one another” (Clark, 1983, p.8).
Pedagogy: The art, science or profession of teaching (Retrieved October 25, 2007 http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/pedagogy).
Foundational Perspective: A theory which asserts that knowledge is made up of stable and tangible artifacts that exist in correspondence to a tangible environment (Bruffee, 1993).
Distance Learning: Learning that occurs when the instructor and students are separated by physical distance and technology is used to bridge the instructional gap (Boaz, Elliott, Foshee, Hardy, Jarmon, & Olcott, 1999).
Guided Didactic Conversation: A theory postulated by Holmberg (1988) who views distance education as the “conversation-like interaction between the student on the one hand and the tutor/counselor of the supporting organization administering the study on the other” (pg. 115).
Theoretical Framework for Distance Education Theory: Keegan’s (1986) theory that the separation of student and teacher, typically evident in distance education, removes the vital link of communication between two individuals.