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Distance Learning in Literacy Instruction: What’s Happening Now? What’s Projected for the Next Millennium?

Eunice N. Askov, Jane M. Hager, Regina G. Chatel


      Distance education is a reality for many teacher preparation programs, while for others, the potential is still being explored. Distance learning programs can range from a simple televised course to complete degree programs using interactive videoconferencing or the World Wide Web in an asynchronous format (Hager & Eanet, 1996). Literacy education courses, as part of teacher preparation at various levels, are also being delivered via distance education.

Distance education is growing rapidly as a means of delivering instruction primarily in higher education. In a recent study issued by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center on Education Statistics (1999), the percentage of higher education institutions offering education courses outside the traditional classroom has increased from 33% in 1995 to 44% in 1998. Of the four-year public institutions, 79% were offering distance education classes in 1997-98. Distance education course offerings and enrollments have nearly doubled between 1994-95 and 1997-98. So have the number of degree and certificate programs offered. Most institutions are using the Internet, increasing from 28% of the institutions in 1995 to 60% in 1998.

Some universities are joining the distance education initiative because they see it as part of their land-grant mission. The Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities (1999), for example, issued “An Open Letter to the Presidents and Chancellors of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges” in which 24 presidents and chancellors stated that public research universities must become leaders in creating the “learning society” through delivering lifelong learning. The letter recognizes that information technologies are tools for “tailoring instruction to societal, organizational, and individual needs.” It also recognizes that the learning society must be inclusive and ensure access for all members of society.

A smaller number of private higher education institutions are also beginning to explore delivery of instruction by distance education but usually within their own geographic area. Some are developing distance education components within resident instruction to give their students more flexibility in taking classes. Distance education offers access to students who may be fully employed during the day, who are home-bound with small children, who are place-bound and cannot leave the geographic area to study, or who are otherwise unable to attend traditional classes.

Some for-profit organizations entered the market of delivering distance education as a business before public and private higher education institutions broadened their missions to encompass distance education. These organizations frequently use professors from public and private colleges and universities without incurring the overhead costs associated with buildings, faculty and staff support, benefits, and so forth. In fact, distance education has become a big business in the private sector as employers are realizing the importance of lifelong learning for their employees.

Similarly, public and private higher education institutions are competing for students globally in all sorts of programs including teacher education. The purpose of this Problems Court was to explore three different approaches to distance education in teacher education, including literacy education, by three different types of higher education institutions.

Conceptual Framework

The growing popularity of distance education raises the issue about what is learning. Different forms of distance education presume different definitions of distance education. Burge (1988) asserts that most distance education courses are built on the transmission model of learning since distance education has its origins in correspondence study. Correspondence courses were the earliest form of distance education in which knowledge is delivered from the university professor via written materials to the student (Sherry, 1996). With the advent of two-way distance technologies, such as audio- and video-conferencing, a constructivist learning environment became possible. Internet technology now makes possible learning in a social environment since learners can be linked in a “virtual” classroom with a professor. The World Wide Web has opened up opportunities for social learning leading to the development of higher order thinking and learning.

In the constructivist view learning is socially constructed and situated in a specific context. One of the tenets of what has become known as situated learning theory is that learning occurs in collaboration with others, in the particular social world in which they find themselves (Bruner, 1990). Learners construct new knowledge and skills through interacting with others and the environment and then reflecting upon these experiences. Learning that closely resembles the real world of the participants occurs as a social process involving others.

Constructivist learning, including the concept of situated learning, has great relevance to distance education programs. Instructional activities become meaningful to the extent that they are needed in interactions with others and with the content to be learned. Brown (1998) explores how constructivism can offer a philosophical base for learning in distance education programs. Her premise is that interactivity and social learning must be built into the course design. Her monograph is a good resource for faculty newly involved in distance education.

If the philosophy that learning is a social process – in which individuals learn through interaction with others – is accepted, then interactivity is essential. Lauzon (1992) faults most distance education programs for failing to include dialogue and integration of personal experiences into instruction. Since learner engagement is crucial, Lauzon argues for a balance between “objective knowledge and subjective experience” in recognizing the criticality of learner engagement in learning (p. 34).

Moore & Kearsley (1996) have argued that distance education requires new skills on the part of teachers. Likewise, the faculty who teach future and current teachers also need to learn new skills, especially how to incorporate contructivist learning strategies as the philosophical base for distance education courses. Other issues that must be resolved in undertaking distance education include new methods of assessment and evaluation (Shaeffer & Farr, 1993), curriculum development, instructional methodology, and other factors such as teacher versus student control, faculty satisfaction, infrastructure, accreditation, and assurances of quality and rigor (Kember, 1995).

Three Case Studies of Distance Education

The Problems Court explored three models of distance education being delivered by three different institutions of higher education – a large, Research I public university (Penn State), a Doctoral II state university (Old Dominion), and a private college (Saint Joseph). While the institutions are very different, with different models for delivering distance education, many of the concerns were the same as those identified in the literature. Each model is presented in this section followed by a discussion of the conclusions reached in the Problems Court.

The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

Penn State has created an infrastructure for distance education called the World Campus. Designated as Penn State’s 25th campus in January 1998, and partially underwritten by the Sloan Foundation (and other foundations and corporations), the World Campus offers all the structural advantages of face-to-face instruction to its distance education students, including learner support (advising, registration, bursar), technical support (18 hours per day), financial aid, and access to the online university libraries. (Because Penn State is a CIC institution, students also have access to the libraries of the other “Big Ten” universities.) The WebCT system was selected as the common platform for all courses.

Courses are offered on the web to students all over the world. Students, no matter where they live, pay in-state (Pennsylvania) tuition. Faculty teach on-load; their departments are reimbursed for 25% of their salary for teaching for the World Campus. Faculty are also bought out at the same rate for course development for two semesters preceding their first course. Revenue sharing (after costs are deducted) is provided to the colleges with the expectation that the programs offering the courses will benefit. The copyright belongs to Penn State because all course development is a team effort, involving instructional design, programming, market research, communications, publicity, and client development. To support the program development, the World Campus has developed online training, including separate courses for faculty and student development.

Enrollment is growing rapidly, from serving 32 students in four programs in 1998, to over 1,000 students in 13 programs in 1999. While most of the programs offered are certificate or undergraduate programs, the first graduate degree program (M.Ed. in Adult Education) began in January 2000. The World Campus offers only programs, not isolated courses. Some courses, however, are currently being developed through a special incentive fund offered by the university; these courses will be taught both in resident instruction and through the World Campus if they complement the existing programs.

Penn State’s vision is linked to the outreach mission of the land-grant university. Instruction can be offered to non-traditional students at any time and place. Distance education, ironically, is also seen as a means of reducing class size on campus while providing greater individualization and interactivity to students both on and off campus. The courses rely heavily on the knowledge and skill of the faculty in using web-based instruction.

Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA

Old Dominion University’s TELETECHNET program is an interactive distance education partnership with the community colleges, military installations and corporations throughout Virginia and other states. Synchronous, one-and-two-way video and audio and the Internet make it possible for students to interact with their instructors and other students. Integration of fully-streamed video enables student to receive live high-quality broadcasts at home or the office on a microcomputer. TELETECHNET offers more than 30 degree programs and had nearly 17,000 registrations in 1998-99.

The Darden College of Education offers two baccalaureate degrees and three Master of Science degrees (in Middle School Education, Occupational and Technical Studies and Special Education). Faculty are given a course release the semester before the class is offered. Teaching assistants are provided for each faculty member during instruction to aid in grading and other logistical support. In some cases, a regular faculty member and an adjunct faculty member co-teach in a given discipline. The adjunct provides needed expertise in instructional design and integration of technology. In addition, supervisors for practicum, internship, and student teaching are identified. All clinical faculty at distance sites are supervised by a designated faculty member on the home campus.

Old Dominion University has been fortunate in that the legislature funded this initiative over six years ago and an infrastructure was put in place. Distance learning has systemically changed teaching and learning both on campus and at distance sites. The majority of those changes have been positive.

A “virtual classroom” has been implemented for local centers (they now tally four). These are two way audio-two way video, and the faculty can move from site to site as all the centers have origination capabilities. Every four weeks the professor teaches live from a center. The Reading Education M.S.Ed. is a program delivered in this fashion.

The “second generation” questions to be answered are different from those asked as part of the development of courses and programs.

Examples of those questions include:

1.      Have the content and pedagogy of classes offered through satellite been significantly altered?

2.      How effective is the partnership of instructional design specialists and faculty with discipline-specific expertise?

3.      What new methods of evaluation and assessment need to be designed?

4.      What infrastructure is necessary for accreditation and assurances of quality and rigor?

If, indeed, exemplary teacher preparation can occur through distance learning, then regional, national, and international barriers can be removed. With the movement toward national teacher licensure, the faculty of Old Dominion University and the College of Education anticipate an active voice in distance learning initiatives.

Saint Joseph College, West Hartford, CT

This case study documents the experiences of one professor with one distance learning course at a small private women's college. The course came about as a result of a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued in Spring, 1998, to develop and teach an online course as part of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. She was awarded a $2,500 faculty grant to develop the course. Funds were used for technical support (registration) from the college, a canner, a digital camera, a color printer, and a CD burner and ancillary hardware.

ENGL 340 Literature for Children is an existing undergraduate English course that has been modified for distance education. The major modifications reflect the electronic communication nature of the course. Unlike in a traditional course, communication in an online course is not restricted to a specific time and place. Therefore, communication is visual and textual. Class discussion or participation is electronically mediated. These differences have enormous implications for student learning and course design. The online nature of the course affects course design, instruction and assessment in terms of:

·        The accessibility of course content.

·        The diversity of course content.

·        The structure of assignments.

·        The nature of student participation.

·        Student interaction in and outside class.

·        The evaluation of student learning.

·        The availability of and access to students' work.

Although the role of distance education within the Saint Joseph Community has not been defined, this course is consistent with Saint Joseph College's mission, purpose and other programs. Much like the Weekend College which was designed to meet the needs of a select population, distance education seems to be meeting the needs of some of our undergraduate students. However, the institutional commitment to distance education has yet to be made.

When asked why they were taking this course, student responses indicate that changes in the workplace, student demographics, and the economic trends are the reasons students chose to take online courses. For example, students indicated that they took this course for the following reasons: convenience (less conflict with work and sports schedules, less conflict with major requirements, less travel to campus and more time home with family), a search for new learning experiences, a desire to improve computer skills and a desire to develop self discipline.

This very informal survey and student retention in the course support the need for distance education as an alternative method of course delivery on our campus. Originally, 22 students registered for the course. Two students dropped the course due to unidentified technical difficulties within the first week of classes and two students dropped the course after midterm grades were issued. Therefore, 18 of the original students finished the course. In addition, registration for next semester shows that 25 students (the maximum allowed) have registered for the course, with three of the students being from other institutions in the consortium!

In terms of assessment and documentation of student learning, both the college and the consortium are deeply committed to maintaining the academic integrity of its academic programs. Evaluation of the course and student learning has been formative and summative. During the semester, formative evaluation included student feedback on course objectives, student self-evaluations, and student evaluation of professor effectiveness. An anonymous, final course evaluation is built into the course by the consortium as a summative evaluation. In addition, student evaluation was on-going in terms of evaluation of their work on an individual, small group, and whole class basis.

Information specific to this course is disclosed in the syllabus at the start of the course. However, it must be noted that students did not fully understand the level of their commitment in terms of amount of time required for successful participation in an online course (This aspect of "disclosure" must be addressed.). In addition, the existing Saint Joseph College statement of academic integrity applies to this course.

      In summary, the course was perceived to be a success despite the technical problems that arose during the semester. As a novice online, the instructor learned much about her strengths and weaknesses as a teacher while her students discovered much about themselves as independent learners.


      Discussion in the Problems Court focused on similarities and differences in the three models for distance education. The importance of institutional support, such as found at Penn State and Old Dominion, arose as a critical factor in successfully delivering courses and programs by distance education. The individual faculty member should not be expected to engage in distance education without a university support network. The institution also needs to recognize and compensate faculty members for the greater expenditure of time required in interacting with distance education students.

      The discussion also affirmed the importance of adopting a constructivist learning philosophical base. While this approach to instruction is also appropriate for resident instruction, it is critical for distance education. Students who are geographically dispersed must be encouraged to form work groups to promote social learning. They must be encouraged to apply what they are learning to their own contexts and situations. Interactivity, on the part of the instructor with students and students with each other, is essential for learning to occur in distance education.

The discussion also focused on research questions for future exploration. For example, how much individualization, group work, and interactivity are necessary to achieve a constructivist learning environment? What factors are related to a student’s success? How much time is required for an online course both on the part of the instructor and student? Is it significantly different from the time required for resident instruction?

What kinds of infrastructure and support are necessary? We envision a much greater emphasis on building partnerships among various types of institutions, such as state universities and community colleges, as Old Dominion has done, to assist in this infrastructure development. Due to the expense of offering distance education, it is possible that partnerships will develop among the offering institutions so that students can take their degree work from more than one institution (Penn State already has one such baccalaureate degree program with the University of Iowa called the Lion-Hawk Program.). Participants concluded that distance education is here to stay – that many institutions will begin to offer distance education courses. Research is needed to help individuals and institutions design successful programs and courses in teacher literacy education.


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Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burge, L. (1988). Beyond andragogy: Some explorations for distance learning design. Journal of Distance Education, 3(1), 5 – 23.

Hager, J. M., & M. G. Eanet (1996). Learning from a distance: Triumphs and challenges. In K. Camperell and B. Hayes. (Eds.), Literacy: The Information Superhighway to Success, 16th Yearbook of the American Reading Forum, 79-84.

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities (1999, September). Returning to our roots; A learning society. Lansing, MI: Author.

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Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. New York: Wadsworth.

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