The Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO publishing (2005), in their paper Perspectives on Distance Education: Lifelong Learning & Distance Higher Education, charts the evolution and success of DE through research. Distance education can “bring increased access, support innovation in teaching and be used to organize higher education more effectively” (p.145).
Research on distance education is mostly by individuals working in the field or doctoral students, thus the reason for many studies that are low quality with a few creating high quality such as within small research groups or academic departments. As well, many research studies are single case, descriptive, qualitative and do not contribute to theory. Also, the effectiveness of distance education has been studied but caution is given on comparing it to classroom teaching due to their different contexts. However, conditions for success in DE is about students, course design and course delivery. More research is needed on the softer issues of distance education such as policy, cost-benefit analysis, instructional design and student support. Research on distance education can support innovation, practice, and inform policy. As well, educational leaders are often unaware of research before they make decisions.
The following is research that might aid DE initiatives.
Demographics: in economically advantaged countries the demographics of DE students have been stable such as they are over most 21 with 40% being 25-34. They are women, socially mobile, work and entered postsecondary with minimal qualifications. However, at UBC in Canada students required high academic qualifications to be admitted. 83% of DE students at UBC lived within one hour of the campus with 6% from outside the province. Thus, for DE students distance was about flexibility and/or open admissions, not geography.
Retention: There seems to be a higher dropout rate distance education students. There is high skepticism among campus-based faculty. Evans (1994) identified a number of reasons: finances, learning difficulties, conditions at home/study, work pressures, family sickness, and misunderstanding the time commitment. However, at UBC the completion rate is 85%. Attrition in DE programs might be due to good course design and quality personal support.
Student Characteristics: little has been found on the particular or common characteristics associate with distance learners. However, they have found DE students are independent learners and must be supported by the instructor. Those students with experience with using technology, who have higher knowledge of the subject (such as graduate students) and are already have independent learning skills tend to be more interactive and independent in distance education.
Skills needed: Developed countries find they need to create highly productive and knowledge-based industries to compete with low cost labour in developing countries. Creating high skilled workers is now a priority for many governments. As well, people will need skills in evolving fields such as health, technology and management, and will need to retrain 5 times in their working lifetime. Skills needed today that online learning can develop are findings and using information, independent learners, problem-solving and team work. Government sees online learning as an educational product and service to be marketed and a way to produce tech-savvy graduates.
There are 5 generations of distance education: correspondence, one-way media, two-way media, flexible learning, and a less developed intelligent flexible learning that “adds a high degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online learning and interactive multimedia” (p.138).
Flexible learning, such as online learning, is based on asynchronous learning through the Internet and is influenced by constructivist approaches to learning and teaching. This is the most common mode of delivery in North American. It gives students some control over their learning pace and timing and encourages reflection and collaboration. It is not the same as teaching in a face to face class. As well, to enable online students to construct meaning and increase their depth of understanding, and apply ideas to new context, it is very important to carefully design courses. It is also important to moderate online discussions to ensure students are, in their discussions, meeting academic standards, use conceptual frameworks, and relate to course concepts. Computer conferences lend to critical thinking and reflection and archive the discussions for later evaluation. Students also acquire the skills for learning online and collaborating with an array of people and perspectives, essential for the workplace. However, collaboration needs to be guided by the instructor by ensuring students are clear and have the resources they need including procedures to deal with conflicts.
Technology selection: Institutions use a variety of technology and methods to deliver distance education. However, regardless of the medium well designed teaching is most effective. Bates (1995, 2005) suggests a strategy ACTION to help institutions select the appropriate technology and stands for: Access, Costs, Teaching function, Interactivity, Organizational issues, Novelty and Speed). A student portal is recommended so students can access through one place self enrolment, fee payment, course registration, grades, course materials and the instructor. Tools so students can create communities of learners and their own learning materials is important, such as blogs, wikis, and online discussion forums. However, beware that synchronous technology, like Web-conferencing or Internet telephone services, require high-speed Internet services and costly technology.