Online learning can be seen as a form of distance education. Though online education is relatively new, distance education is not. According to Rumble (1986), the term distance education may have first been used as early as 1892 in a catalog of the University of Wisconsin. Distance education is, according to Verduin and Clark (1991): “...any formal approach to learning in which a majority of the instruction occurs while educator and learner are at a distance from one another” (p. 8). This emphasis on distance between learner and instructor or teacher is common, for instance, Berge and Collins (1995) define distance education as “the delivery of the educational process to receivers who are not in proximity to the person or persons managing or conducting the process” (p. 14). These definitions cause one to envision learners working alone with their materials and completing assignments that are ultimately evaluated by a teacher also working alone, connected to their students by only the most tenuous of lines inscribed on the papers that they share. Indeed, prior to online learning, many forms of distance education were largely text based and relied on postal delivery of course materials to students, and to carry completed assignments to the instructor. This correspondence model, which primarily used mail as the primary delivery system, has been adapted to exploit perceived advantages of new media such as radio and televised systems for distance learning in both the United States and Australia (Lewis, Whitaker & Julian, 1995). However, while these models of distance learning used new media to transmit information to the learner, many still relied on postal delivery of materials from the student to the instructor. New communications technologies have changed this by making possible greater and more rapid interaction between participants in the online learning experience.
Indeed, one of the main issues with which those who design and use online learning environments must deal is that of facilitating interaction and contact between instructor and student. Hall (1996) notes that one of three problems with which distance education has had to deal is “how to maintain sufficient student contact and ongoing interaction with those who provide intellectual guidance, timely assistance when needed, and adequate performance feedback” (p. 11). Clearly, interaction is a crucial part of learning, including online learning.
Moore (1989) discussed three types of interaction that should be understood in distance education. These are learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner interaction. Learner-content interaction has long been a staple of distance learning. Online learning environments are very adept at replicating the capabilities of other distance learning systems to present information in the form of text. Indeed, online learning technologies even offer additional means for presenting information in ways that support learner-content interaction such as streaming audio and video.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Lean Media: Media with reduced capacity to carry information, with face-to-face communication being the standard by which others are judged. Asynchronous text communication for example is considered to be lean media, while full motion video/audio is considered to be rich.
Asynchronous: Occurring at different times. In the context of communications technologies, asynchronous technologies allow communicators to interact with the conversation at different times; for example, e-mail or threaded discussions.
Social Presence: Theoretical construct created to help understand the effects of media on communications experiences. Social presence has been used to understand interactions between people in online communications experiences.
Rich Media: Media with greater capacity to carry information, with face-to-face communication being considered the standard by which others are judged. The more closely a media can replicate face-to-face communication, the richer it is considered to be.
Emoticons: Graphic-like icons that are created using characters available on the standard keyboard. Examples include the smiley face, which is created by using the colon and the right parenthesis. Emoticons are used to convey emotion, or states of being which are often communicated through facial expressions such as smiling, frowning, looking puzzled, and so forth.
Synchronous: Occurring at the same time. In the context of communications technologies, synchronous technologies have communicators engaging in the communication experience or event at the same time or in real time. For example instant messaging or chat rooms.