Lentis/Learning from a Distance


Education is frequently viewed as an activity that occurs in a classroom with both a student and teacher present. Distance education challenges this idea by allowing education to occur anywhere. Prior to the advent of the internet, distance education occurred through the distribution of educational materials through the mail. The advent of the internet has further enabled distance education. Between 2004 and 2007, the percentage of student taking a course online increased by 4 percent. [1]
The location and method of education can be viewed on a spectrum where each point on the spectrum represents a different level of technology integration. The spectrum ranges from the traditional classroom setting with students and professors meeting in a physical location to the opposite end of the spectrum where the entire education occurs on a computer without any interaction. In the middle is hybrid education. Hybrid courses are class that blend in-class learning with web-based learning. While there is no single, agreed upon definition for hybrid learning, it can be considered any combination of learning between the purely in class interaction to the purely online interaction. This includes courses that meet some of the time in person and some of the time online or where a portion of the students meet in person and a portion of the students interact only online. For this discussion, hybrid courses are further defined as classes where students and professors meet physically or virtually at a prearranged time. This chapter discusses the reactions of students, professors, universities, and other groups to hybrid and distance education.

The Current State of Online EducationEdit

The National Center for Education Statistics found in a survey that 20 percent of all undergraduate students took one distance education course in the 2007-2008 academic year and that 4 percent completed their entire degree program through distance education.[2] College tuition has increased by over 200 percent over the last 30 years, which may be one reason for the increasing number of students taking online courses.[3]
Several options exist for distance learning. One option that has experienced success and gained the support of major universities is Coursera. Coursera currently offers classes online from 35 universities and has over two million members.[4] One of the founders, Daphne Koller, hopes that Coursera will provide a free online education that will "Establish education as a fundamental human right...enable life long learning...[and] enable a wave of innovation."[5] Another online education venture similar to Coursera is Udacity, which currently focuses on offering computer science and other technical courses.[6] For profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix or Strayer University, offer a wide selection of online learning materials.[7][8]
These examples in online education have found that the level of interaction in the education experience makes a difference in the student's success.

Transactional Distance TheoryEdit

Transactional distance theory was developed by Michael G. Moore in 1980. This theory looks at the distance between a student and their professor in a distance education course not as a physical distance, but as a pedagogical distance. Moore believed that the real distance encountered by students and teachers engaged in distance learning was really a distance of understanding and perceptions that can be overcome and can be found in any course, but is exacerbated by the physical distance experienced in distance education.
This distance can be overcome by balancing two factors: dialogue and structure. Dialogue refers to the amount of communication that takes place between the professor and the student and is affected by the medium of dialogue, the size of the learning group, and language. Structure refers to the elements that make up the course, such as exercises, projects, and tests. A high structure course would have these elements and the professor would have careful control over the timing and progress of the student's learning. Low structure courses are those that leave the progress of learning up to the student more so than professor.
Structure and dialogue together determine the transactional distance a student and professor experience. Highly structured classes with no dialogue between the teacher and the student create high transactional distance, whereas courses with little structure and high levels of dialogue between the professor and the student create low transactional distance. The level of transactional distance experienced determines to what extent the learner must be autonomous and exercise responsibility for their learning. If the student is able to be a very autonomous worker, then they can handle high levels of transactional distance and still achieve success in their course. [9]


Proponents of online and hybrid learning include the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), some professors, and some students. These proponents support distance learning for various reasons. One reason proponents support hybrid learning is because students can enjoy the benefits of computer technology without sacrificing face-to-face interaction with the instructor. Proponents also support distance learning because class seat time is reduced by as much as 50 percent in hybrid courses, which generally meet every other class period, and as much as 100 percent in online courses. Additionally, student and faculty commute time is reduced[10]. Among the advantages of distance learning, the high level of interaction between the students and the professors appears to have the most significant effect on the social participant’s positive experience.


The USDLA, founded in 1987, was the first nonprofit distance learning association in the United States to support distance learning research, development, and practice. The USDLA defines distance learning as "the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction." Distance learning encompasses all technologies and supports the pursuit of lifelong learning for all. The USDLA highlights that programming for distance learning provides the receiver with many options both in technical configurations and content design. The USDLA also believes that the ability of the teacher and students to see each other is not necessary for effective distance learning, but instead the teaching strategy is crucial for interactivity of the course[11].

A ProfessorEdit

Jack Johnson, a professor who taught a hybrid course at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, is representative of professors who teach hybrid courses. Johnson previously taught a traditional, large enrollment course called Business and Professional Communication, where students attended three 50-minute lectures each week and the course content was delivered through the large lectures and textbook readings. His three main concerns of teaching in the traditional format were the students’ accessibility to course content, the effectiveness of large lecture instruction, and the connectivity with his students. In Fall 2001, Johnson re-engineered his course so that approximately half of the course material was delivered online while the other half was delivered through weekly face-to-face lectures. He found that the online technology increased students’ accessibility to course content and the effectiveness of large lecture instruction. The hybrid format allowed students to access learning materials 24/7 and allowed Johnson to deliver all of the course content in a timely manner. More importantly to Johnson, this format increased his connectivity with his students. At the beginning of the semester, Johnson provided a 15-minute online introduction of himself, which prompted students to email him with questions and comments about his background. The use of web-based learning also encouraged students to communicate with him. Ultimately, Johnson felt that his hybrid course was an improvement over his traditional course because he was able to increase the level of interaction between him and his students[12].

A StudentEdit

Josh Boldt is a writing teacher with English degrees from the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. While working on his master’s degree in English, Boldt completed a hybrid course that alternated in-person and online weekly meetings. During the online weeks, the students started an open thread on the discussion board, which they discussed the following week in person. Boldt believes that the structure of this hybrid course was effective because it provided autonomy and self-guided learning with a balance of face-to-face discussions. Boldt attributes his success in the class to the high level of interaction it provided. He and his classmates were able to reach this level of interaction because they used the discussion forums frequently each week[13].

The 2 Sigma ProblemEdit

The need for a certain level of interaction in distance learning raises Benjamin Bloom's2 Sigma Problem, which is that an individual tutor is better than a lecture-based education. That is, 98 percent of individually tutored students perform better academically than lectured students. The problem is finding a solution that will enable students under group instruction to attain levels of achievement that can at present be reached only under good tutoring conditions. One-on-one tutoring is too costly for most societies. Bloom determined that students who were tutored using mastery learning techniques, which involve exams and feedback-corrective procedures, improved in academic performance. If constructed well, hybrid courses could be a realistic solution to Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem[14].


Drawbacks to hybrid and online education fall into five major categories: technology, student, professor, university, and society.


For some students, access to a computer and high speed internet poses a significant barrier to education.[15] Also, students and professors must learn new software and adjust to new means of learning, teaching, and communicating. This often places the professor in a position of needing to educate his students on using the course technology.[16][17] Periodically, unforeseeable issues with the technology will impede class.[18][19]


Hybrid students commonly note that they lack interaction with their peers. This is both through in-class interactions and through the greater college community experience.[20][21] In one study, students reported highly valuing small and large group discussions and wishing they had asked the professor more questions.[22]
Distractions are prevalent when taking an online class, so students need self-discipline and maturity to remain attentive.[23] [24][25] Alexander Harrison, an on-campus student at the University of Central Florida, took a hybrid course that enrolled 1000 students, but only had classroom space for 60. Harrison decided to follow the class online, but quickly fell behind as he lacked the maturity and self discipline to keep up with the course material.[26]
Also, the completion rate of online classes is lower than that of hybrid or traditional classes. In both Virginia and Washington State Community Colleges, studies show that on average about 90 percent of traditional and hybrid students completed and passed their courses, while only about 80 percent of online students did the same. Additionally, students who took online classes were less likely to complete their degree.[27][28][29]


The professor must plan class structure and dialogue to maintain low transactional distance. [30] Particularly in hybrid and online classes, professors must assure there is little perceived distance between himself and the students. When transitioning from traditional lecture based courses to hybrid or online courses, professors need to expend considerable time and effort to tailor their class to an online-engaging format.[31][32][33]


Since professors have a lot to learn and adjust before teaching an online course, the university must support their endeavor. This includes providing the technology, training, funding, and appreciation for their work.[34] Also, current major universities can legitimize online courses by allotting credit for online classes. Particularly through Coursera, where courses are from elite institutions, these same elite institutions must decide how to assign credit to currently enrolled, degree-seeking students.


Not all class material can be learned in an online format. Classes such as public speaking, surgery, and sports require physical movement and practice to achieve the learning objectives.[35] Also, other institutions and employers may not look well upon online degrees. There are different types of accreditation that legitimize an online degree or course completion, but it can be difficult for a new student to determine the quality of their education.[36]


Even though technology enables interaction across physical distance, human interaction is still a vital factor. Specifically for hybrid courses, professors must plan wisely to minimize transactional distance and students must be self-motivated to succeed in their online courses. These principles can also be seen in distant work meetings, teletherapy, and long-distance relationships.


  1. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_dhe.asp
  2. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80
  3. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76
  4. https://www.coursera.org/
  5. http://www.ted.com/talks/daphne_koller_what_we_re_learning_from_online_education.html
  6. http://www.udacity.com/
  7. http://www.phoenix.edu/
  8. http://www.strayer.edu/
  9. Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: a systems view. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth.
  10. Gutierrez, D. (2011). A Comparative Study Between A Traditionally Taught Criminology Course And A Computer Hybrid Course: Does Technology In The Classroom Make A Difference? Journal of College Teaching & Learning (1.3), 59-64.
  11. United States Distance Learning Association. (2010). http://www.usdla.org/
  12. Johnson, J. (2002). Reflections on Teaching a Large Enrollment Course Using a Hybrid Format. Teaching with Technology Today, 8.6. http://www.uwsa.edu/ttt/articles/
  13. Copy & Paste. (n.d.). On Education and Economics in American Culture. http://www.copy--paste.com/
  14. Bloom, B. (1984). The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher (13.6), 4-16.
  15. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  16. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  17. http://www.ies.ncsu.edu/successes/research-and-white-papers/pros-and-cons-of-online-education
  18. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  19. http://degreecentral.com/top-5-pros-and-cons-of-online-education/
  20. http://www.ies.ncsu.edu/successes/research-and-white-papers/pros-and-cons-of-online-education
  21. http://degreecentral.com/top-5-pros-and-cons-of-online-education/
  22. Kirtman, L. (2009). Online Versus In-Class Courses: An Examination of Differences in Learning Outcomes. Issues in Teacher Education, 18:2, 103-116.
  23. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  24. http://www.ies.ncsu.edu/successes/research-and-white-papers/pros-and-cons-of-online-education
  25. http://degreecentral.com/top-5-pros-and-cons-of-online-education/
  26. http://chronicle.com/article/Tomorrows-College/125120/
  27. Zhou, Z. & Reed, R. (2008). A Comparison Of Internet And Classroom Students’ Performance In The Course “Information Society”. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 5:1, 15-22.
  28. Jaggars, S. S. & Xu, D. (2010). Online Learning in the Virginia Community College System. New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
  29. Jaggars, S. S. & Xu, D. (2011). Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges.New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
  30. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  31. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  32. http://www.ies.ncsu.edu/successes/research-and-white-papers/pros-and-cons-of-online-education
  33. Ocak, M.A. (2011). Why are faculty members not teaching blended courses? Insights from faculty members.Computers & Education, 56, 689-699.
  34. Ocak, M.A. (2011). Why are faculty members not teaching blended courses? Insights from faculty members.Computers & Education, 56, 689-699.
  35. http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp
  36. http://distancelearn.about.com/od/usingyourdegree/a/onlinedegreeuse.htm