Distance Education: Synchronous Communication and Its Assessing Benefits
Asherian, Vartouhi, Distance Learning
Distance leaning is the process by which students learn course material from a location that is remote or away from the instructor. The technology for delivering distance education evolved over time. As changes in technology took place, the way distance learning is conceptualized has also changed. The literature identifies four stages in the evolution of distance education that are linked to technologies as methods of delivering instruction (Lauzon & Moore, 1989; Moore & Kearsley, 1996). They include the delivery of course material using: correspondence/independent study (first generation), radio/audio study (second generation), broadcast television, videotape, with interaction by telephone, or both delivery and interaction by telephone, satellite, cable or ISDN lines (third generation), and computer networks and computer-based multimedia workstations (fourth generation).
The four stages reflect not only changes in technologies but correspond to differences in the way instructors and learners approach distance education. The first stage interaction is a multistep process that takes a long time to occur and the learner is essentially engaging in self-study In this stage, the instructor is an absent figure who creates the learning materials and the learner is fairly passive. The second and third stage makes the instructor more personal and the level of control exerted by the learner increases. Depending on the venue, the learner can make menu choices (Pavlik, 1998, as cited in McMillan, 2006). In the final step, technology provides some unique opportunities to enhance the entire process in a way that distinguishes this approach from all previous instructional technologies (Maddux, Johnson, & Willis, 1987). The fourth generation delivery system is referred to by many names such as "Web-based" or "online" education, and for some it has become simply "distance education." This form of instructional delivery facilitates not only the potential of providing instruction using different modalities, but also providing the potential for truly interactive communication; specifically, communication between instructor and learner can be facilitated to include real time feedback, collaboration between learners, and rapid access to information. The learner has the ability to exert more control over the learning process and work with the instructor to cocreate the learning experience.
Using McMillan's model of user-to-document interactivity the evolution in distance education changed in two significant ways. The level of learner-perceived control increased and the learner became more of a contributor in the learning process (McMillan, 2006, p. 213). Again, using McMillan's model, the first stage in the evolution of distance education was the providing of a packaged content in which communication essentially was unidirectional, from the instructor to the learner. In the second and third stage, content became more on-demand as learners could exert more control over when, where, and what content to focus on. Finally, the fourth stage allows the instructor and learner to cocreate the content and learning experience. It is this unique combination of elements that makes the fourth stage of distance education truly interactive.
Even though advances in technology have enhanced interaction, the positive effects of technology are still debatable. As researchers explore this ever-changing topic, there is a need to clarify the effectiveness and appropriateness of techniques. The importance of doing this is not only to facilitate research in distance education but, as technological advances take place, the use of these technologies to facilitate distance education will increase and penetrate schools. One line of debate focuses upon the impact of instructional media. Clark (1983) has noted that instructional media are just vehicles used to deliver instruction and do not affect the learning process. However, Cobb (1997) argues that different media have an impact on learning but do not produce different learning outcomes. …