Case Study: Distance Learning

Definition and Context

Distance learning is a form of education in which the instructors and students are separated in space and/or time. It has a rich history as the instructional media evolved from print, to instructional television, to real-time multimedia. Compared to conventional education, distance education is more flexible because it decentralizes the learning relationship. It also reverses the social dynamics by bringing school to students, rather than students to school. The first generation of distance education started with correspondence courses in Europe. However, since the communication between the instructors and students relies on printed materials, the long delivery time limits the effectiveness of this method of teaching. The second generation of distance education came with the introduction of instructional television in the early 1960's. Although delivery time is no longer a factor, instructional television only works in one direction, from the instructor to the students. This makes it suitable for lectures, but not for interactive sessions. The above limitations will eventually disappear with the adoption of real-time collaborative technologies for distance education.

The Case For Real-time Interactive Distance Education

Distance learning has many benefits both socially and economically. As in the case of corporate training, economics is the main driving force since it is easy to identify the cost savings and make a strong business case. Distance education also has many benefits to the society, although they are harder to quantify. In this section, we look at the factors that contribute to our case for real-time interactive distance learning.

Economic Factors

Since the introduction of instructional television, distance learning has enabled students and instructors to reduce their expense and time in attending classes. Real-time collaborative technologies take it further by allowing students to form discussion groups without ever meeting one another. The Interactive Video Network (IVN) at the Ohio Aerospace Institute's (OAI) is one such system that bridges the distances between Ohio centers of academic excellence in engineering and aerospace education and the engineering professionals at NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Local universities participating in the On-Site Graduate Engineering Program often specify a minimum enrollment to send a visiting faculty member to OAI to teach a course. This minimum enrollment is hard to meet for highly specialized courses. IVN solves this by allowing students at different sites to attend the class without additional effort on the instructor's part. NASA students gain the benefits of live classroom instruction without incurring the time and expense of traveling to campus. From the university's point of view, IVN maximizes the instructor's time and abilities.

While the Ohio Aerospace Institute has identified the benefits of distance learning, another study attempted to quantify the cost of developing the Virtual Classroom system at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Based on earlier works on Virtual Classroom and Learning Networks, NJIT tried to setup the first academic program that is made up of about 2000 students and faculty scattered around the world. Professor Murray Turoff of NJIT has analyzed the non-faculty costs that are different between a virtual and a physical university. For comparison, he estimated that the cost of building a single classroom building on a physical campus is approximately $15 million plus maintenance and administration. The numbers below are quoted from his paper,

Type of cost Yearly Total
Non Faculty Personnel $1,500,000
Physical Campus Costs $150,000
Computer Equipment & Software $150,000
Cost per student per year (2000 students) $900

Non-faculty Cost of a Virtual University

The cost saving is substantial when we compared the equipment and facility cost of a virtual university to a physical one. When we look at the technology trends, the computer equipment and software will cost less over time while the other costs increase or remain constant. This provides even more incentives for building virtual universities.

Human and Societal Factors

Bridging the distance between instructors and students through technology allows for greater flexibility in education. At the Ohio Aerospace Institute, the Interactive Video Network enables NASA engineers to receive the same quality education as on-campus students. Conversely, university students also benefit from interacting with the NASA engineers, gaining insights that can only come from hands-on experience. The synergy that results from blending the intellectual stimulation of the university environment with the real-life experiences of working engineers is a tangible benefit of distance education.

In addition to bringing people together, real-time multimedia technology also enhances the teaching effectiveness of distance learning. The key is to improve the interaction between instructors and students both inside and outside of class. With symmetric audio and video capabilities, students can quickly communicate their ideas with the instructor and other students. In addition, media-rich lessons have been shown to enhance student learning.

The Case Against Real-time Interactive Distance Education

While the benefits of distance education can be enormous, there are still many impediments to fully utilizing collaborative technologies in the classroom. These impediments exist in technology, economics, and human and societal factor.

Technology Factors

One key technology that enables real-time interaction is the high-speed network. Because of its ubiquity, the Internet is a good choice for implementing distance education. However, the Internet cannot guarantee the quality of service requried to properly handle high-quality audio and video. Residential Internet access has even bigger problems because of its severely limited bandwidth. Several high-speed networking technologies are being developed for high-speed residential access, including asymmetric digital subscriber loop (ADSL), cable modems, and satellite. While these technologies are adequate for programs such as the Asynchronous Distance Education Project (ADEPT) at Stanford, they need major improvement to support two-way multimedia interaction, which is essential for higher quality distance education.

The second technological impediment is the lack of video capture capability in most personal computers. Because of this issue, the Ohio Aerospace Institution has experienced some limitations in its one-way video, two-way audio design; namely, the instructor's inability to see his or her students at the remote classroom site. While this constraint might be acceptable for simple distance education programs, the teaching and learning potential is significantly reduced.

Economic Factors

Implementing real-time multimedia distance learning requires a big initial investment. Currently, high-speed network infrastructure is too costly, complex, and time consuming to deploy. In addition, there are many other costs to build and maintain the facilities. Under these financial constraints, the Ohio Aerospace Institute has experienced limitations in its Interactive Video Network:

Human and Societal Factors

Instructional designers are often more concerned with using the latest technologies without sufficent regard for their impact on the instructional process. This approach ignores the importance of teacher - learner interactions and other human factors. In this section, we list some of the human factor impediments of distnace learning and present up what some institutions have learned from implementing distance education programs.

At OAI, Dr. Hajek has noticed that students were initially reluctant to participate in the video instructional format, in large part due to the dual-site classroom format and the experience of interacting with unfamiliar people at a distant location. He believes this will change with students' increased exposure to, and comfort with, the distance learning format. Network scheduling also becomes more challenging with the additions of new sites to the instructional network. The scheduling problem is particularly acute at OAI, with the On-Site Graduate Engineering Program attempting to schedule courses from six member universities, all with varying class schedules, into its two video classrooms.

Determinants of Success

Although the technology is an integral part of distance learning, any successful program must focus on the instructors and students by taking into account their ages, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, educational levels, interests and experiences with distance learning methods. An investment in video technology is not merely monetary. Investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in state-of-the-art video technology is futile if the organization is anything less than totally committed to supporting its investment. Most important to any distance learning program is a caring instructor, who is confidence and experience with the technology, uses the media creatively, and maintains a high level of interactivity with the students. In additions, many other factors listed below will contribute to the success of real-time collaborative technology in distance education.

Technology Factors

Current technology is adequate to support simple form of distance education. As the demand for higher quality education grows, technology must keep up with the demands. The current technology trends, listed below, are favorable to the expansion and enhancement of distance education:

Economic Factors

Since economic factors are the driving forces behind distance learning, educational institutions and industry must:

Human and Societal Factors

The logistics and ergonomics are also important to the overall effectiveness of video-based instruction. The instructional video format requires instructors and trainers to take a fresh look at the instructional process and to adapt or replace traditional educational approaches, methods, and materials. Good instructors will use their skill and creativity to take advantage of all the system has to offer. Training and practice will improve the instructors' ability to use the technology. Instructors must push distance education further through experimentation and innovation in their teaching methods. Additional goals that need to be accomplished are:

Organization and Management

The organization's commitment to this form of instruction must be unwavering and should be widely and continually reinforced. It is critical to bring in users early in the design and implementation of the system so that any discomfort or dissatisfaction will be communicated and can be addressed. Instructors should be well trained in the use of the video equipment; in addtion they should receive special training to adapt their presentation skills to this new instructional paradigm. To ease the instructional task, the organization should also establish and maintain staff to support remote sites, assist instructors with technical problems, and ensure quality.

Distance education enterprises are partnerships characterized by the integration of many parts working toward a common goal. Each institution has its own goals, objectives, culture, and evaluation of student learning. These might lead to problems that must be dealt with to make distance education a success. To cope with the differences, we need to have nationally accepted institutional accreditation standards to insure the quality of distance education, certify teachers, and institute common assessment and evaluation methods.

As with many technologies, the initial cost of implementing real-time interactive distance education is very high, especially the network infrastructure. This makes it very important for business, government, and education sectors to cooperate. With the Telecommunication Act of 1996, the FCC has set the wheel in motion by requiring phone companies to pay for connecting schools to high-speed networks. Companies and universities should coordinate their efforts in corporate training and distance education.


Distance learning has long been recognized as an important form of education. The advances in real-time multimedia technologies have made it even more attractive, by enhancing the interaction and learning process. While it is still costly to deploy the infrastructure to support distance learning, the economic benefits will outweigh the cost in the long run.


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