Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: Cases from Higher Education

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Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: Cases from Higher Education, by Thomas M. Duffy and Jamie R. Kirkley (Eds.). (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2004, 453 pages, $45.00)

This book is a result of the U.S. Department of Education-sponsored "Learning Anytime, Anywhere" symposium. The symposium hosted 20 professionals from the learning sciences, education, administration, and the corporate sector who met to discuss issues in the design of learning environment in higher education. The purposes behind the symposium and this volume that follows are twofold, as the editors suggest. The first concern is the lack of discussion of constructivist learning theory guiding the design and development of online learning programs in higher education. The second concern is that model programs in distance education are not sufficiently described in the literature to the point of clarifying theory-to-practice linkages.

To fill that void, Learner-Centered Theory and Practice describes eight distance education programs, two in each of the following sections: "Community Building, ProblemCentered Learning, Innovative Uses of Technology," and "Scaling Up." Each chapter describing a program is followed by a reaction that puts an analytical lens on the methods and pedagogy of the program's distance learning. Included is an edited transcript of the group discussion about the program by members of the symposium.

The programs presented in the "Community Building" section include a master's degree program in educational technology at Pepperdine University and a master's in library science at the University of Illinois. The section describes both programs in rich detail, including the synchronous and asynchronous tools that support participant interactions. Central to these interactions is learner dialogue, which both programs frame as relational knowledge that links what students are learning and understanding about themselves and their social and technological environment to other conditions that impact their professional practice. These programs demonstrate that, by engaging in conversations about professional practices, students learn to be reflective and critical of their own work.

The discussant chapters that follow reveal how the pedagogy within these programs is abundantly constructivist. Scott Grabinger, who provides a reaction to the Pepperdine program, does a thorough job of contrasting traditionally behaviorist instructional design with sociocultural instructional design. The exercise shows the importance of authentic online interactions between people, objects, and culture. I regret that Grabinger did not use more adaptive, flexible, and contemporary models of instructional design as contrasts to sociocultural instructional design, which would have helped knowledgeable readers understand the subtle differences between these design approaches. Still, Grabinger increases our appreciation for the role of discourse in the online learning environment.

This segment of the book is unique in its emphasis on dialogue. Yet, there is a lack of explanation of how the discourse itself is an agent of professional change. Perhaps the key is the collaborative reflection process referenced by the authors. Unfortunately, reflection is a concept the authors fail to unpack. It would be helpful to show how reflection is an element of collaboration, an affiliate of dialogue, and a critical step in the process of social learning. Because the give-and-take of dialogue helps discussants frame and reframe problems and their solutions (collegial reflection), it would be helpful to see how the kind of discourse described in these chapters truly relates to the critical theories of their fields. Without these links, we are left to assume the dialogue has more socially- than theoretically-applied content.

A related concern about the "Community Building" segment is that terminal learning outcomes used in practice are really never explored. …