This paper describes the research of psychosocial learning environments in post-secondary distance education using a recently validated survey instrument--the Distance Education Learning Environment Survey (DELES). The instrument validation data and study results are presented.
Distance education has become a firmly embedded component of the higher education landscape in the last decade. Networked digital communication has facilitated an explosive growth in this relatively new method of reaching learning populations to the point that the higher education trend to produce distance education courses and programs has been referred to as a "land rush" (Molenda and Harris 2001, 6) to get online. However, at the same time many distance education classes and seminars are modelled after a traditional face-to-face, instructor-centred, deductive perspective of teaching (Diaz 2000; Palloff and Pratt, 1999). In light of the fissure between how education is classically delivered and what we know about how people learn (Palloff and Pratt, 1999) the question at hand becomes; "what leads to successful teaching and learning in distance education?" When teaching and learning leave the classroom and enter an electronic environment a new education paradigm must be adopted to facilitate successful distance education students. These successful students lend credence to that which makes higher education unique. "In this new e-learning environment there is no viable option for the university to do as it has always done. To do so will be to become more and more marginalised" (Spender 2001, 25). Given that, if we consider the human factor as a critical component of distance education, then the role of people in the distance education environment is essential to the development of a high functioning distance education class (Palloff and Pratt 1999).
Computer-mediated distance education classes have a distinctive social structure unlike those found in a face-to-face class. For example, there are idiosyncratic differences in how students interact and collaborate online and how one maintains "presence" in online classroom environments (Hughes et al. 2002; Picciano 2002). This social structure has a strong impact on students' learning and the method by which the class should be presented in the digital world (Swan 2001). Distance and social class play a limited role in student interaction, which is advantageous to asynchronous distance education. Social interaction is limited only by time and access. In the asynchronous distance education setting, participants can become a part of a social milieu with anyone who has access to a computer. "Connections are made through sharing of ideas and thoughts" (Pallof and Pratt 1999, 15). It is through presence, personal relationships, and interactions between participants that learning is developed.
The environment of the asynchronous distance education classroom is quite different than that of a face-to-face class and must be cultivated in order for it to be effective. In more familiar face-to-face classrooms the environment's press--the directional influence that the environment has on one's behaviour--can be established through visual cues, tone of voice, volume of voice, one's attractiveness, or ethnic/racial diversity. Factors such as these do not typically exist in asynchronous distance education. An area of study distinctively missing from the body of research related to distance education involves learning environments and what types of environments are successful. This investigation was designed to consider the character of the post-secondary distance education environment in terms of what researchers and practitioners find influential. This is an introduction to a larger body of work.
Background and Theory
Learning Environments Research
The term learning environment carries with it a variety of meanings. It has been used to indicate a type of learning task (Tynjala 1999) and to denote virtual spaces found in computer applications and on the Internet (Gibbs 1999). …