Learners and Learning: The Need
Chère C. Gibson
University of Wisconsin-Madison
It goes without saying that learners and learning are at the heart of the distance education enterprise. Thus, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Koble and Bunker (1997) determined that only 17% of the 117 articles published in the American Journal of Distance Education in its first 8 years of publication had a focus on learners, learning, and learner support. Further, almost half of these articles focused on the application of media for learning. Scriven's (1991) analysis of the articles in the first 10 years of Distance Education (Australia) found 21% of articles focused on learners and learner support. Coldeway's (1995) examination of Canada's Journal of Distance Education found only 19.5% of the articles focused on learners and learning.
The analyses of research foci in three of the major distance education journals illustrate several concerns. One relates to the limited focus on learners and learning in the research of distance education. If we are concerned with providing both access to education and training AND success in this endeavor, it would appear that increased research in the areas of learners and learning is warranted.
A second concern, and the major focus of this chapter, relates to the nature of the research on learners and learning. Many of the articles on learners and learning appear to be without theoretical or conceptual foundation raising an interesting set of issues and questions. A related issue concerns theory in general. Should the field of distance education generate new theories related to learners and learning or should the field build on existing theories in the literature of elementary, secondary and adult education? And, if researchers borrow theory from other educational disciplines, should these theories be used ‘as is’ or modified in any way? If they are to be modified, how should they be modified? And if we are to generate theory in distance education, which areas are in greatest need?