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Accessible Elements

We wish to express our gratitude and appreciation to those who have contributed to this book. The authors graciously gave of their time and expertise to make this book truly come alive, and were also very patient through the review and production process. Many reviewers and colleagues from around the world provided helpful comments and suggestions. The AU Press editors and designers — Erna Dominey, Peter Enman, Kathy Killoh and Natalie Olsen — demonstrated exceptional professionalism and creativity.

Dietmar Kennepohl thanks his loving wife, Roberta, for help with redesigning some chapter figures and for her patience in listening to innumerable discussions around delivering science courses at a distance.

Lawton Shaw thanks his wife, Tanya, for always being positive and encouraging about this project.






Interactions Affording Distance Science Education

Terry Anderson


Learning Science at a Distance: Instructional Dialogues and Resources

Paul Gorsky and Avner Caspi


Leadership Strategies for Coordinating Distance Education Instructional Development Teams

Gale Parchoma


Toward New Models of Flexible Education to Enhance Quality in Australian Higher Education

Stuart Palmer, Dale Holt, and Alan Farley



Taking the Chemistry Experience Home — Home Experiments or “Kitchen Chemistry”

Robert Lyall and Antonio (Tony) F. Patti


Acquisition of Laboratory Skills by On-Campus and Distance Education Students

Jenny Mosse and Wendy Wright


Low-Cost Physics Home Laboratory

Farook Al-Shamali and Martin Connors


Laboratories in the Earth Sciences

Edward Cloutis


Remote Control Teaching Laboratories and Practicals

Dietmar Kennepohl



Needs, Costs, and Accessibility of DE Science Lab Programs

Lawton Shaw and Robert Carmichael


Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching Laboratory Sciences at a Distance in a Developing Country

Md. Tofazzal Islam


Distance and Flexible Learning at University of the South Pacific

Anjeela Jokhan and Bibhya N. Sharma


Institutional Considerations: A Vision for Distance Education

Erwin Boschmann

Author Biographies



The Pennsylvania State University
Editor: The American Journal of Distance Education

I first became aware that there were special problems in teaching science at a distance some forty years ago when Charles Wedemeyer asked me to write (in those days on a typewriter to be delivered by surface mail) to a selection of distance teaching institutions around the world. What he wanted to know was what solutions, if any, they had found to the problem of enabling people who studied at home to undertake scientific experiments as part of a distance learning program. One of Wedemeyer’s core beliefs was that if teachers applied enough creative intellectual effort, any learning outcome that could be achieved in a classroom should be achievable outside also, and he would not accept the popular assumption that people who studied at home, usually in their spare time, could not study science simply because they should have to undertake experiments. The question was not if it could be done, but how best to do it, and particularly, how to accommodate the need for experiences that were usually undertaken in a laboratory. In his Articulated Media Project (Wedemeyer & Najem, 1969) he had already come up with one answer to this particular problem, in the form of mobile laboratories that traveled around his state, an idea based on what he had heard about a common practice in the Soviet Union, where laboratories for distance learners were shunted around the country on railway trains. Looking for a simpler and less costly solution, my assignment was related to his work on the concept of the home experiment kit. This would be a package of materials and equipment that could be loaned to the student, who would use it in conducting science experiments at home. It was one of many ideas that Wedemeyer had been discussing with friends in the United Kingdom who were in the process of setting up the Open University, where it became extremely successful as sophisticated and ingenious home experiment kits were developed on an industrial scale (see Chapter 10).

Forty years after those early initiatives — and in spite of the example of the Open University, which has not only shown that science can be taught at a distance, but has become a world center of high quality science — the prejudice that science can only be taught face-to-face is still widespread, especially in the United States. Indeed, innovative course and program proposals frequently fail to get off the ground because of very ill-informed assertions by classroom teachers that distance teaching of science is not possible.

It should be a matter of some surprise — now that we have Dietmar Kennepohl and Lawton Shaw’s book before us — to realize how long it has taken for someone to produce a book to challenge this prejudice, indeed to begin to describe the problem and to document some of the ways in which it has been tackled. Further evidence of the slowness of the educational community to deal with the challenge — and opportunity — of distance teaching in the sciences is provided by the number of articles that have appeared in the quality research journals. In more than twenty years, the American Journal of Distance Education has received only one publishable research-based article having “science” in its title; this was an article on the subject of science teaching in high schools (Martin & Rainey, 1993). Added to this, there have been descriptive, i.e., non-research based reports, in the Journal’s “Grassroots” section describing isolated experiences in science teacher education (Jaeger, 1995), and another about an attempt to deliver a biology laboratory (Naber & Leblanc, 1994). A recent research article (Abdel-Salam, Kauffmann & Crossman, 2007) reports an experiment to provide laboratory experiences in engineering courses.

Given this dearth of information, the arrival of a whole volume on the subject of science education at a distance is an extremely important event. The book is not a final answer to the challenge of science teaching, and of course none of its contributors would imagine it to be so. (Personally, I would have liked the editors to have found more evidence about the use, or potential use, of virtual reality as a powerful alternative to the real-world laboratory; it is presumably a topic that will follow as this book inspires others to experiment and report on their progress in this approach.) The book is, however, an excellent overview of the state of the art, revealing where we are today, and pointing to the problems and opportunities now opening up to us, especially the opportunities for using, as I have just indicated, Web 2.0 technologies. As such it provides an excellent foundation for teachers, researchers, and students who are preparing themselves to come to grips with the exciting opportunities in this field.

The book provides the global perspective, the editors having searched globally for their contributors — as indeed in such a neglected area they would have to. Thus, while the majority of contributions come from their own Athabasca University and Australia’s Monash University, these are complemented by experiences from other North American universities, from Israel, Bangladesh, the University of South Pacific, and the United Kingdom. Represented here are physicists, biologists, and chemists, an astronomer, a microbiologist, and a geographer, among others. All of course, are engaged in teaching their subjects, but — and this is the core strength of the book in my opinion — they have been well complemented with a team of educational scientists, people who I am fairly sure are like me in knowing little or nothing about biology, chemistry, or physics, but who know quite a lot about how people learn and how best to teach them. In this regard, I was very impressed by the editors’ forthright explanation of the reasons that teaching science at a distance has been such a neglected part of the field of distance education, particularly the fourth of their five points. But all five bear repeating; they are: first, that it is particularly challenging to construct an effective learning environment for the study of the sciences; second, that science teachers suffer as do others from lack of resources, combined with the expectation of their employing organizations that they teach at a distance in the same “lone-ranger style” they use in the classroom; third, that the literature that might inform innovators in this area is hard to find, being scattered in a variety of both scientific as well as educational journals; and fourth, and perhaps most difficult to cope with, the educators of science students at post-school levels invariably bring very strong disciplinary and research backgrounds to their teaching but have no training in teaching or in-depth study of the philosophies and methods of teaching and learning; finally, there is the problem of providing laboratory experiences that I have already referred to.

Based on this analysis, the editors have brought together a team of teaching and learning specialists to complement the experts in the disciplines. By so doing they have provided a series of responses to the problem of teaching science that is based on pedagogical theory and research, which helps move the quality of analysis and then the level of debate several steps beyond anything we have seen on this subject until now. I particularly enjoyed seeing the first chapter deal with the challenge of managing instructional development teams. What a revolution in the quality and efficiency of distance education there would be if we could move from rhetoric to reality in the application of the team concept in course design and delivery! The book goes forward then with leading experts on the subject of interaction and dialogue revisiting and developing this relatively well known part of the field, though here very interestingly approached through the lenses of the specialists in teaching subjects that have not always, until recently, been seen universally as lending themselves to a constructivist pedagogy. The big question, of providing laboratory experiences, is the subject of a full section, in my opinion one of the core questions in this book, and then a final section deals with some issues of the logistics and infrastructure of program delivery.

This book will, I hope, be read by everyone with an interest in education. This is not only for science educators or distance educators alone. Certainly one hopes that teachers of science in the classroom — most of whom are likely to be called on in the future to teach at a distance at least in blended learning conditions — as well as those who already do teach at a distance, and also the administrators and policy makers who have to allocate and manage the resources that are available for science education will study this book carefully and glean from it some of the valuable ideas it provides for the expansion and improvement of distance education in the sciences. Surely our students deserve better programs, the out-of-school population needs more opportunity of continuing education in the sciences, and society deserves and needs a better return on its education and training investment in the sciences than it has enjoyed until now.

If this book goes even a short way toward sensitizing these populations to the challenges of teaching science at a distance and also the enormous potential for society and the individual of upgrading our response to that challenge, it will indeed prove to be a most important work — besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read.


Abdel-Salam, T.M., Kauffmann, P.J., & Crossman, G.R. (2007). Are distance laboratories effective tools for technology education? The American Journal of Distance Education, 21(2), 77–92.

Jaeger, M. (1995). Science teacher education at a distance. The American Journal of Distance Education, 9(2), 61–75.

Martin, E.D., & Rainey, L. (1993). Student achievement and attitude in a satellite-delivered high school science course. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(1), 54–61.

Naber, D., & Leblanc G. (1994). Providing a human biology laboratory for distant learners. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 58–71.

Wedemeyer, C.A., & Najem, C. (1969). AIM: From concept to reality. The Articulated Instructional Media program at Wisconsin. Syracuse, NY: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults, Syracuse University.



We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.

• Carl Sagan

The importance of science education and science literacy is rising rapidly. As a society and as individuals, having access to it has become absolutely vital. Established educational routes of the past have served us well, but their limitations are becoming more apparent. There is very real and growing demand by students for more flexible approaches to learning science. Online and distance delivery offers practical alternatives to traditional on-campus education for students facing barriers such as classroom scheduling, physical location, and financial status, as well as job and family commitments. In short, it is becoming a viable and popular option for many on-and off-campus students in meeting their educational goals.

As educators in science and science-related disciplines, we recognize that pursuing online and distance delivery not only provides equal access for students, but also gives us several more teaching options that can lead to quality learning. This book embodies the experience of educators around the globe and presents approaches that have been successful in teaching science online and at a distance. We hope it will inspire a positive change in science and science-related education.

The challenge

Teaching science online and at a distance is more demanding than and certainly not as common as in many other disciplines. There are a variety of reasons why this might be the case. First of all, the concepts and skills that a student must master are numerous, complex, and often build on each other. Crafting an effective learning environment for a science student is not trivial for any mode of delivery. Secondly, science teachers do not necessarily always have sufficient technological savvy or logistical support to create their courses. The myth of free multimedia resources that can be created out of thin air is alive and well. To make matters worse, many teachers still want to go it alone with a sort of ‘lone ranger’ attitude. While this might be okay for a chalk talk in the classroom, many modern courses with multimedia resources really do require a team approach to develop. Thirdly, the literature available specific to online and distance delivery of science courses (especially the laboratory component) has appeared in widely scattered sources. There is frankly little organized pragmatic information readily available in the sciences for distance educators. The fourth reason is primarily found at the post-secondary level. Science educators, who bring with them very strong disciplinary and research backgrounds, often do not have any formal pedagogical training. To develop their teaching skills faculty rely on their own learning experiences, model colleagues, and research the literature. This self-taught and learning-on-the-job approach brings variable results at best. Finally, there is the very real problem surrounding the practical or laboratory component. A strong laboratory component is at the heart of many science courses, but it is also one of the more difficult components to deliver effectively at a distance.

The challenge of teaching science online and at a distance is very real. There are no simple answers or silver bullets for any of these concerns. However, as you go through this book you will quickly see you are not alone and many problems will sound familiar. You will also discover some interesting approaches and clever solutions that might be adapted to your own science courses.

Who is this for?

This book is aimed at teachers and administrators in the natural and physical sciences who are working with new teaching technologies, multimedia, delivering courses at a distance, or exploring blended and flexible learning to complement traditional lecture settings. This would include schoolteachers, college instructors, university professors, and senior administrators.

It was our intention to include elements of both theory and applied information in an effort to set context and be of practical use. This book is not meant to be either a rigorous distance education theory book or a step-by-step “how-to” guide of educational technology. However, it does present a survey of current practices and offers a solid foundation for anyone involved in teaching science online or at a distance. We feel it also provides some ideas and guidance for related disciplines in the health sciences, computing sciences, and engineering, which share many of the same challenges.

Opening the gate

We are taking an open approach in this book. What do we mean by open? We have certainly tried to be broad and representative in our approach in assembling the chapters. Our educational experts, the authors and reviewers of this book, are both scientist and non-scientist, they come from diverse parts of the world, and they are from various types of institutions (traditional, as well as open and distance learning). Although our selection is not exhaustive, we have also tried to find examples from different disciplines among the natural and physical sciences, and in some cases discussions within the chapters have touched slightly on other fields such as health sciences, computing sciences, and engineering. While this is arguably academically open in theory, there is also a very practical component to our interpretation of openness.

Consistent with promoting a collegial atmosphere and in the spirit of sharing knowledge, we also want to freely share our work. It is being published by an open university and we are delighted that it is an open-source licence format. We agree with many of the ideals and observations on open access set out in Athabasca University’s first open book Theory and Practice of Online Learning (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004). We have also seen the positive results of open publications in terms of access, catalyzing ideas, and dramatically advancing research. Our hope is that this book will not only disseminate the collective efforts of its authors, but will strongly encourage further discussions and other open works to help bring about a positive change in science and science-related education.

So, knowing that an open gate can let things in as well as out, we choose to open it wide — enjoy!

Major themes

We have organized this book into three major sections or themes, entitled simply Learning, Laboratories, and Logistics. They are the building blocks meant to address common interests and concerns in delivering science online and at a distance. It is important to remember that these three themes are not totally independent of each other. In fact, they are very much interrelated and often build on each other. However, each one represents and emphasizes an aspect worthy of serious consideration in most fundamental undergraduate science courses.


It is no accident that we start here. The aim of this section is to identify, introduce, and discuss key theoretical concepts that inform teaching online and at distance. Laying the foundation for discussions in later chapters, it takes a generalist approach and is aimed primarily at scientists who are now teaching. It is not meant to be an advanced theory course in education by any means. On the contrary, the chapters under the Learning theme, which are written in the context of current issues, are intended to give the reader an appreciation of the challenges involved and the pedagogical underpinnings of the approaches used to meet them.

Chapter 1: Interactions Affording Distance Science Education

The role of the various interactions students encounter in their learning process is analyzed and the challenges of enhancing this in the distributed and mediated learning environment are explored. A good understanding of interactions is vital to any distance educator and becomes even more important when considering the science laboratory. Epistemological assumptions usually place a high value on the role of human interaction. While this can and does lead to both formal and informal learning, other forms of interaction can also lead to learning. How those interactions are ultimately supported and encouraged through strategies offered by new technologies and application of social software is of great interest and importance.

Chapter 2: Learning Science at a Distance: Instructional Dialogues and Resources

The theme of interactions is continued in this chapter from the perspective of the role of instructional dialogues and resources. A theoretical framework is provided within which questions about the factors that influence amount of dialogue or the correlation of dialogue and learning outcomes can be explored. To this end, the authors summarize a series of their own studies on chemistry and physics students to illustrate and examine the framework. One key point, emphasized throughout the chapter, is that this is a universal approach to all modes of educational delivery, where online and distance education are included.

Chapter 3: Leadership Strategies for Coordinating Distance Education Instructional Development Teams

The elements of good instructional design are introduced through a brief historical review followed up by a case study discussion on leading a DE instructional team. The lone ranger myth of the teaching professor is quickly dispelled, as one recognizes how complex components of content, design, and technology are skilfully woven together by a group of experts. One also realizes that this parallels the world of scientific research, where the shift from the lone genius to a team approach has not only become preferred, but very necessary.

Chapter 4: Toward New Models of Flexible Education to Enhance Quality in Australian Higher Education

Although presented as a case study of teaching engineering and technology at a major Australian university, many of the goals, challenges, and applications of a flexible delivery model are universal. In addition to providing an excellent review of the considerations around flexible learning, this chapter raises two important points. First, the boundaries between the traditional silos of distance, open, online, and face-to-face education are being blurred. There is gravitation to a more blended approach. Secondly, driven by external considerations, the flexible delivery model is a student-centred approach that is not limited to open universities and their ilk, but is also seriously being contemplated at more traditional institutions worldwide.


Although this section is entitled ‘laboratories,’ the ideas presented are equally applicable to other forms of applied learning components such as clinical or field work. The design of any laboratory component is often undertaken to meet a variety of aims. The most general aim is the reinforcement of course concepts through illustration and making it real for the student. A number of different means have been employed by science educators to deliver an effective laboratory component at a distance. These include laboratory simulations (virtual laboratory), remote controlled laboratories, and home-study laboratory kits, as well as concentrated regional and on-campus supervised laboratory sessions or fieldwork. Without a doubt the most researched, discussed, and presented area of education among science teachers, in general, is the practical component. This is only amplified when that activity has to be delivered online or at a distance. Given the difficulty in providing effective and credible laboratory experiences, it is certainly no surprise. This section is meant to provide practical approaches used by educators around the globe.

Chapter 5: Taking the Chemistry Experience Home — Home Experiments or “Kitchen Chemistry”

The home-study laboratory enables students to carry out real experiments in the home environment offering them tremendous flexibility. However, considering (1) that there is a wide range in quality and sophistication of kits that have been employed by different institutions, (2) the popularity of science kits for children in the toy market, and (3) that the experiments carried out at home are done alone and unsupervised, there is the very real question of whether the home-study laboratory experience is equivalent to the traditional on-campus experience. This chapter summarizes the experiences of two institutions that have provided what could be best described as higher level home experiment kits for first year university chemistry. Experiences in the actual development of the higher level kit, including some student evaluation experiences, are described.

Chapter 6: Acquisition of Laboratory Skills by On-Campus and Distance Education Students

This chapter presents a study in which off-campus students in a biological sciences program complete some parts of their first year laboratory work using home-study kits. To investigate whether there is an equivalent experience between on- and off-campus cohorts, the students’ level of confidence in their laboratory skills was compared at various stages in the program. Student confidence levels have been linked to some aspects of student performance, such as grade point average and retention.

Chapter 7: Low-Cost Physics Home Laboratory

The availability of modern hand-held calculators that possess remarkable computing power has allowed the development of sophisticated, yet low-cost, home-study experiments for first year physics. The dramatic increase in student participation rates by using this more accessible mode of delivery are noted here (a more general home-study kit discussion follows later in the book in Chapter 10). The authors go on to describe the home-study kits through three concrete examples of experiments. It is important to note that while most introductory science experiments tend to be expository or recipe-style, the experiments illustrated use an Investigative Science Learning Environment, which is a more problem-based form of instruction. The authors also strongly argue that not only is this home-study kit a cost-effective way to flexibly deliver an entire first year physics laboratory experience, it also emphasizes to the student that experiments and natural phenomena can exist outside the campus laboratory.

Chapter 8: Laboratories in the Earth Sciences

Without a doubt, the earth sciences have the smallest amount of readily available literature on DE laboratory delivery amoung the natural and physical sciences. This is surprising because (1) laboratory and field work is vital in many earth science courses, and (2) there are a lot of active distance courses in this area. The author provides a broad overview of what is being done for the practical components in geology, soil science, and geomatics. The type of activity certainly varies greatly with the nature of a particular course, and there is no one correct solution in delivering laboratories for distance students.

Chapter 9: Remote Control Teaching Laboratories and Practicals

Although remote control has been with us for some time, remote control over the Internet for teaching experiments is relatively new. Remote laboratories are increasingly appearing in a variety of disciplines and quickly becoming a viable part of a science educator’s teaching arsenal. This chapter provides a review of how remote laboratories are employed, the connection to learning, design considerations, and an analysis of advantages and disadvantages.


This section addresses a very important and too often neglected aspect of teaching science online and at a distance. Most courses do not live up to their conceived potential or in some cases completely fail simply because the infrastructure is not in place to support the learning. Like the air around us, infrastructure is never given much thought unless it is taken away. We have adopted a dual approach here by providing both a big picture view and the nitty-gritty of the details that make it all work. Again, because of the challenges involved, it is no accident that substantial portions of the discussion focus on laboratory delivery.

Chapter 10: Needs, Costs, and Accessibility of DE Science Lab Programs

Most laboratory experiences require the effective and safe coordination of personnel, equipment, chemicals, samples, and biological specimens in space and time by skilled staff. It becomes an even more complex matter to offer students increased access and flexibility when the number of degrees of freedom is increased. The expression “the devil is in the details” can be all too true. The authors begin by outlining the fundamental structures that need to be in place to deliver DE science laboratories and go on to do a costing analysis in comparison with more traditional laboratory delivery. The chapter concludes with an examination of the impact on student participation of introducing home-study laboratory kits into a science course.

Chapter 11: Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching Laboratory Sciences at a Distance in a Developing Country

The wholesale importation of someone else’s solution is not always the right solution. This chapter explores how laboratory and field components are delivered to large numbers of students at a mega-university in a resource-poor environment. It is noteworthy that in a very short time frame this university (founded in 1992) has scaled up its operation to over 700,000 students. The author outlines what needs to be considered in this setting and provides an analysis of the current system, identifying problems and proposing solutions to mitigate them.

Chapter 12: Distance and Flexible Learning at University of the South Pacific

Working in a resource-poor environment is reminiscent of the discussion on delivering laboratories in a developing country that we saw in Chapter 11. However, here we do not have large numbers of students at a mega-university, but rather 20,000 students spread out across the 12 founding countries of USP in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. This case study provides both a general overview of distance and flexible delivery options within this environment and a focus on support needs for science courses. Issues of cost, lack of infrastructure, geographical isolation, technical considerations, language of instruction, and cultural differences are discussed in the context of trying to provide equal quality and service to students from all participating countries.

Chapter 13: Institutional Considerations: A Vision for Distance Education

In this final chapter we step back from the immediate particulars of delivering science online and at a distance to examine the bigger picture. The author gives us perspectives from the point of view of the institution, the academy, and even society. This chapter not only identifies larger organizational concerns, but also underscores why we are doing this in the first place. The assumption is that increased education and particularly science education, along with science literacy, are beneficial and necessary goals for the individual and society. Through a discussion of barriers and opportunities, we are ultimately taken to a vision of universal access to science education with a high level of freedom and individual choice. Along the way we see both what is already in place and what still needs to be put in place institutionally. The underlying and most pressing theme here is change — not just changes in the details of technology and teaching methodologies, but a more profound change in attitudes toward education itself.


Anderson, T., & Elloumni, F. (Eds.) (2004). Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca: Athabasca University Press. Available: https://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book


Chapter 1
Interactions Affording Distance Science Education

Athabasca University


Teaching and learning of science concepts and practice has traditionally been an interactive process. That interaction most often takes place in classrooms and includes the passive consumption of lectures, intermingled with hands-on work in laboratories or field locations. These activities are interspersed with student interaction with textbooks, computers and the completion of learning activities such as problem sets. Distance and distributed education affords new possibilities (especially related to increasing access) at the same time as it reduces capacity for traditional science instructional models and activities. In this chapter, I overview the value of interaction, briefly discuss the literature on definitions and types and conclude with implications and suggestions for creating interaction designs and mixes that together create exciting and engaging ways for science students who are distributed across time, space, and cultures.

Interaction has become synonymous with engagement, activity, and fun as illustrated by the deluge of advertising for everything from interactive toys to interactive clothing, books, music, and concerts. The adjective ‘interactive’ implies a degree of involvement. (National Institute for Education, 1984), mindfulness (Langer, 1997), and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Educational researchers have linked interaction with higher levels of persistence and perceptions of better learning (Picciano, 2002).

Though often associated with widespread and multifarious use, the term interaction is plagued with conceptual misunderstanding. Educators’ wide use of the term implies a need for sharper definition and meaningful qualification as to the effective use of interaction in their teaching and learning programs. Advertisements promoting “interactive toasters” make us realize that educators need to clarify and be more specific about the definition, nature, quality, and expectations of interaction in the educational process.

Defining interaction

The education literature contains a number of definitions of interaction which I have summarized in previous work (Anderson, 2003b). At debate in discussion about definitions is the exclusive-ness of the term such that it is reserved for exchanges and dialogue among people as opposed to people engaging with machines or learning objects. Perhaps the most well-known definition is that provided by Wagner (1994), who defined interaction as “reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another” (p. 8). Obviously, this definition includes engagement with non-humans and implies the capacity for both actors (or objects) to influence each other, thereby implying two-way control — a subject that has special interest as I discuss later in the interesting use of virtual labs.

Michael Hannafin (1989) itemized the functions that interaction purports to support in mediated educational contexts. These are:

1. Pacing: Interactive pacing of an educational experience operates from both a social perspective, as in keeping an educational group together, and an individual perspective, as in prescribing the speed with which content is presented and acted upon.

2. Elaboration: Cognitive science informs us that interaction develops and reinforces links between new content and existing mental schema, allowing learners to build more complex, memorable, and retrievable connections between existing and new information and skills (Eklund, 1995).

3. Confirmation: This most behavioural function of interaction serves both to reinforce and shape the acquisition of new skills. Conformational interaction traditionally takes place between student and teacher, but is also provided generally by feedback from the environment provided through experience, and while working through content presented in computer-assisted tutorials or as “answers in the back of the book” and from peers in collaborative and problem-based learning.

4. Navigation: This function prescribes and guides the way in which learners interact with each other and content. Its function becomes more important as we begin to appreciate and utilize the hundreds of thousands of learning objects and experiences provided on the Net. Interaction feedback provides data necessary to channel and selectively guide learners through this maze of learning possibilities to those that are individually appropriate, accessible, and meaningful (Koper, 2005).

5. Inquiry: Hannafin’s conception of inquiry in 1989 focused on inquiry to the computer system that was displaying content and monitoring student response. The interconnected and wildly more accessible context for inquiry now provided by the Net opens the door to much greater quantity and quality of inquiry. The interactive affordance for learners to follow individual interests and paths makes inquiry both a motivating and personalizing (though potentially distracting) function of learning.

To these I add the ‘study pleasure and motivation’ that Holmberg (1989, p. 43) describes as developing from interaction and relationship between teachers and students.

Thus, interaction fulfills many critical functions in the educational process. However, it is also apparent that there are many types of interaction and many actors (both human and inanimate) involved. As a result of this complexity a number of distance education theorists have broken the broad concept of interaction into component types, based largely on the roles of the human and inanimate actors involved.

Types of interaction

Moore (1989) differentiated three types of interaction which, since they focus on student behaviour, are the most important for educational applications. These are student-teacher, student-content, and student-student interactions.

Student-teacher interaction

Student-teacher interaction has been hailed by traditional educators and many students as the pinnacle and highest valued of interactive forms. This form of interaction is the basis upon which apprenticeship models of education and training are grounded (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). The American President James Garfield was reported to have defined the ideal university as “Mark Hopkins [then President of Williams College] at one end of a log and a student on the other.” Since then the ‘log’ has expanded into cyberspace and the conversation has extended talking options into multiple audio, text, and video formats. Yet there remains a sense that personal identification and other aspects of ‘teacher presence’ (Brady & Bedient, 2003) are important, if not critical, components of the educational process. The problem with teacher-student interaction is that there is only a limited amount of ‘room on the log.’ Further, the teacher often is not sitting on her ‘end of the log’ when their intervention is most advantageous for the learner, and finally, the student may find herself thousands of miles away from the log when instruction and support are needed. Simply put, student-teacher interaction is not scalable. Teacher-student interaction has been stretched — or perhaps stressed is a better term — to include 500-seat lecture theatres, but at a certain size interaction that does occur is mostly vicarious and certainly fails to produce the effects noted by Hannifin earlier.

Student-teacher interaction in distance education has traditionally been limited to occasional and usually student-initiated conversation mediated by the post, the telephone, or more commonly today, through Net-based interaction. The continuing increase in sophistication and complexity of computer-assisted instruction and the use of teacher agents (Yu, Brown & Ellen Billett, 2007; Feng, Shaw, Kim & Hovy, 2006; Moreno & Mayer, 2004) allow some of the student-teacher interaction to be replaced by student-content interaction, but the goal of building machine systems that can completely replace student-teacher interaction remains elusive and perhaps undesirable.

Student-teacher interaction is, however, valued by both students and teachers and has been found to be associated with positive perceptions of learning (Wu & Hiltz, 2004). Thus, provision is made for such interaction in almost all forms of formal education. Its costs, though, dictate that it must be used judicially. Interactions focused on affective concerns such as motivation, personal issues, and modelling represent perhaps the most effective use of teacher-learner interaction. Perhaps the most commonplace and effective way to “increase access to the log” has been through converting student-teacher interaction to student-content interaction, to which we next turn.

Student-content interaction

Student-content interaction first evolved through the transcription into text of oral stories and teachings. Historically, biblical scrolls and other sacred writings illustrate this type of interaction. Furthermore, student-content interaction still defines much learning activity today as students routinely part with hundreds of dollars annually in the university bookstore. In recent years, student-content interaction tools have become much more sophisticated and accessible. Learning games, simulations, immersive worlds, virtual labs, quizzes, podcasts and videocasts, blogs, and wikis are just a few of the new networked tools that allow students to interact with content in multiple formats enhanced by color, video, audio, animation, and the processing capabilities of powerful computers. The Net further makes this content available “anytime, anywhere.”

The easiest, least expensive way to gain economy of scale is to record student-teacher interaction and convert it to student-content interaction. As noted, this model has been used for millennia to allow vicarious student-teacher interaction through texts with seers long since passed away. More recently, audio and video clips (podcasts and videocasts) have been created to record, store, and deliver this type of interaction. A hybrid form of student-teacher interaction has been developed whereby teachers create presentations on the Net (often referred to as blog postings) and students may, though typically they do not, reply or ask additional questions of these teachers. A good example of this is the Science Blog https://scienceblogs.com/ site, at which over 60 professional scientists were selected “based on their originality, insight, talent, and dedication” to post science-related reflections that can be used and commented upon by students.

Formerly, student-content interaction was a consumptive activity in which students interacted with content created by teachers and other experts. More recently the practical and pedagogical value of learners creating and sharing their own content, as celebrated in so-called Web 2.0 applications (O’Reilly, 2005), has captured public and educational attention. The construction, by all levels of students, teachers, experts, and lay people, of digital resources such as Wikipedia or the more focused creation by sets of discipline experts such as Science Environment for Ecological Knowledge (SEEK) https://seek.ecoinformatcs.org/ demonstrate the utility and cost-effectiveness of user-generated content. Pedagogically, the value of content creation instead of or in addition to content consumption has been shown to deepen commitment and quality in learning outcomes (Anderson, 2007; Collis & Moonen, 2001).

Finally, we turn to the most cost-effective and arguably the most pedagogically effective form of learning interaction — that which occurs between student and student.

Student-student interaction

Student-student interaction is associated with academic accomplishment (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998), the development of social capital (West-Burnham & Otero, 2006), and enjoyment in the learning process (Johnson, 1981). However, most of the evidence for these claims comes from face-to-face interaction that begins in the campus classroom, but often is continued elsewhere. For example, in a meta-analysis of 383 studies over 20 years Springer, Stanne and Donovan (1999) found that “students who learn in small groups generally demonstrate greater academic achievement, express more favorable attitudes toward learning and persist through science, mathematics, engineering and technology courses to a greater extent than their more traditionally taught counterparts” (p. 21).

The support for student-student interaction reveals a great and as yet unresolved tension among distance educators. For many seminal distance education theorists, including Holmberg (1989), Peters (1988), and Keegan (1990), distance education was an individual activity defined by rich and highly developed student-content interaction (professionally designed and delivered in high-quality learning packages), supplemented by irregular one-on-one student-teacher interactions. Champions of this model argued that individualized learning is an inherently superior form of higher education, because of its ability to overcome time, place, and pacing constraints, its economic scalability, the support for individualized (one-on-one) interaction between a student and a teacher and the concomitant development of a learner’s capacity to be self-directed and self-motivated. The flexibility offered by this model is associated with the absence of scheduling, commuting, meetings, and other constraints and is a major reason why students choose to take courses at a distance (Poellhuber, 2005).

However, many authors have noted the lack of social interaction and the higher attrition rates associated with self-paced study and have linked this to a sense of student isolation (Morgan & McKenzie, 2003; Anderson, Annand, & Wark, 2005). One of the solutions envisioned to the lack of social interaction is to stimulate both synchronous and aysnchronous student-student interactions, thus creating a socialized form of distance education that Garrison and Shale (1990) defined as “education at a distance” rather than distance education. This distinction underscores the availability of rich (though mediated) student-student and student-teacher interaction that is celebrated (though, as noted, not always achieved) in campus-based forms of education.

To afford opportunity for student-student interaction, the majority of networked distance education or e-learning consists of groups of students, forged into cohorts, who progress through a series of learning activities while hopefully forming a supportive learning community. The Community of Inquiry (COI) model is the most widely cited theortical model for this type of paced and cohort-supported model of distance learning. This model and sus-bequent techniques to validate it were developed by myself and colleagues at the Univeristy of Alberta (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). The model describes the necessity of supporting three types of ‘presence’ if quality distance learning is to occur. These include teaching presence (largely, though not exclusively supplied through student-teacher interaction), cognitive presence (activities designed to instigate and support critical thinking skills), and social presence (the capcity to present oneself as a ‘real person’ and to engage in effective, integrative, and cohesive activities). This model brings the notions of social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1978; Lave, 1988; Jonassen & Carr, 2000) to distance education. Extensive applications of and studies using the COI model have shown that each of these three presences can be created at a distance. Further, the student-student interaction in paced and cohort-supported models of distance education can lead to the development of social support networks and social capital (West-Burnham & Otero, 2006; Daniel, Schwier & McCalla, 2003). In a 2004 meta-anlysis of distance programming, Bernard et al. (2004) found that distance education models that supported student-student interactions through paced and interactive activities had higher persistence rates than those based on individual study.

Unfortunately, group-paced models of distance education are associated with major restrictions of learner freedom (Paulsen, 1993), the two most critical being the time when learning can commence (enrolment dates) and the pacing or the length of time used to complete the course or program of studies. It is sometimes impossible for non-traditonal students and those with major work, family, or community obligations to synchronize their time with that of a cohort of students and the teacher. Thus, until recently they were forced to engage in educational models that required and supported only individualized learning with no student-student interaction. We are, however, seeing the dawn of a new paradigm of distance edcuation in which self-paced learners use “social software” to work co-operatively, for short time periods, in ‘study buddy’ or study groups, thereby gaining the benefits associated with rich student-student interaction. The key to this next generation of distance education is sophisticated social software that allows learners to find each other, schedule activities, and support the co-operative construction of learning artefacts (Anderson, 2006).

Many of the techniques developed for classroom groups have been successfully adapted to learning groups operating at a distance. However, discussions about the means, if any, to facilitate group collaboration in learner-paced education models is notably absent from the literature. While technologies exist to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous forms of group interaction, facilitating this collaboration among groups of learners — in a self-paced setting — is still problematic. This distinct divide between distance education theorists in regard to the value and means to support self-paced distance edcuation models appears to be essentially unresolved at present. Optimizing the flexibility of self-paced learning and the advantages of collaboration and social support remains an open and exciting challenge.


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