Technology Enabled Distance Learning

Daniel R. Bidwell, Ph.D.

Andrews University


The purpose of this paper is to present an introduction to the terminology and options for distance learning. We will look at the different modes of distance learning, examining their advantages and disadvantages. We will also look at several distance learning programs and some distance learning tools.

Types of Distance Learning Delivery Systems

Synchronous learning requires the simultaineous involvement of the teacher and students. This type of delivery system is most frequently seen in traditional classrooms where the students interact directly with the teacher. Other examples of synchronous learning delivery systems include interactive television, audiographics, computer conferenceing, MUD's and MOO's.

Asynchronous learning involves the students learning at their own time (and maybe location). This type of delivery system is most frequently seen in correspondence courses where course materials are delivered to the student via the postal service, the student works on it at his or her convenience, and returns the work again by the postal service. Other forms of asynchronous learning include email, listservs, audiocassette courses, videocassette courses, and www based courses.

Distance Learning Modes

Teleconferencing is used to describe conferencing between two or more individuals or groups using a range of technologies including audio conferencing (a two way audio session), video conferencing with two way audio/video session, and computer conferencing. The computer conferencing can be range from a shared text screen to full audio/video conferencing with a whiteboard. The primary issues with computer teleconferencing are cost and bandwidth vs. quality of service.

Instructional television can be used to deliver class presentations over short distances. Satelite uplinking can be used for delivery over a much larger area but requires expensive uplink equipment and per hour operating costs. Lectures can be videotaped and made available at the loss of synchronous operation and student teacher interaction. These methods involve the distribution of lecture information, but do not provide any direct interaction. The instructional television frequently has the students telephone the studio classroom with questions or comments.

Compressed video uses a computer system at either end of the connection to compress and uncompress video and audio signals. The transmission medium between the two computers is usually an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) phone connection. The ISDN phone connection provides up to a 128KB data path between systems. This provides a medium quality video picture with an FM quality audio signal. Compressed video techniques can also be used over the internet to reach multiple sites simultaneously.

Audiographics is the combined use of voice transmission and some form of graphic display of iamges. The Nursing department at Andrews University utilizes this method for some of their graduate nursing courses. A voice only connection is made from the local classroom to one or more remote classrooms for two way communications with each remote site. Graphic images are prepared using PowerPoint and mailed to each site on floppy disks. There is one person at each remote site that is designated to keep the images in sync with the lecture.

IRC's, MUD's, and MOO's are different types of text based computer conferencing software. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, provides for discussion between two or more people. IRC interaction is usually done with a single sentance at a time between participants. MUD programs, or Multi-User Domain programs, were originally developed for multi user, interactive games, but can be used for educational environments as well. MOO's, or Multi-user Object Oriented environments, are a variation on the concept of the MUD that may allow individuals to create objects. The objects are programmed using the Object Oriented programming methodology which allows one to attempt to model different characteristics of an object. MOO's have been developed primarily for educational or group meeting use. IRC's, MUD's, and MOO's are primarliy used in a synchronous environment where all participants meet at the same time from different locations.

World Wide Web (WWW or web) can be used to deliver text, graphics, audio and video clips asynchronously. The web is increasingly being used to disseminate course materials. Some of the Computer Science faculty are putting Course syllabi and course materials on the web for many of their classes. Some of the Physics faculty are also putting course materials on the web for some of their classes, including the High School classes though there.

Email and listservs are a convenient way to communicate asynchronously. The listserv allows any messages that are sent to the ``list'' to be distributed to everyone on the list. Listservs can be moderated or unmoderated. In a moderated list the facilitator or moderator receives each message to review before sending it to the list. In unmoderated lists, any message sent will go immediately to everyone on the list without anyone reviewing it. Unmoderated lists work well for small groups of responsible participants. Unmoderated listesrvs are being used by the at Andrews University by the School of Education in their Leadership doctoral program. They have different lists for each group of students that go through a series of classes together.

The distance learning mode that most closely approximates our classroom is full audio/video teleconferencing which is also the most expensive. As we search for cheaper alternatives we give up quality of service. For example, instructional television (a one to many local broadcast) is cheaper then video teleconferencing (a two way audio/video connection) and doesn't have the student/teacher interaction. A two way (or more) audio conference is much cheaper than an audio/video conference. A web based set of course materials can be a very cost effective method of distributing information. Listserv capabilities may well come with your campus mail system at no extra cost at all.

When choosing Distance Learning Modes to use one needs to evaluate the course materials and intended student audience to determine what level of modes are needed to successfully meet the course objectives. Often more then one mode may be needed to meet the objectives. For example, the Andrews University Nursing department is starting to develop course materials for classes that will be using the web for the distribution of class materials and a listserv to facilitate a discussion environment between the instructor and the students.

Some Major Distance Learning Programs

Athabasca University has specializes in distance education for the last 26 years. They currently have 12,500 students and offer graduate degrees in Business Administration and Distance Education with Bachelor's degrees in Administration, Arts, Commerce, General Studies, Nursing (post RN), Professional Arts (Communications and Criminal Justice), General Science, and Computing and Information Systems. Most classes are offered with the correspondence program mode, but they are developing classes across diverse disciplines that are web based with group collaboration being done via a MOO and ViTAL a Lotus Notes client. Athabasca University can be found at

Open University, Milton Keynes, England, is Britain's largest training organization and leads the world in the large-scale application of technology to learning. The university was granted a Royal Charter in 1969 and opened admitted 24,000 students in 1971. Today they have a total enrollment of 160,000 students, with 120,000 in Bachelor's degree programs and 10,000 in graduate degree programs. More then 70% of their students are employed full time while taking classes part time. Open University examinations are held in 90 countries around the world. While most of their course work is done via the correspondence mode, internet access allows communication with fellow students and tutors via email and electronic conferencing, homework may be submitted via email, and students may participate in electronic tutorials. This is especially helpful for students that do not live near one of the study centers in the UK, Ireland, or Western Europe. With more e than 300 courses available, they are phasing in internet courses as they can be developed. They have received some press for their newest internet computing course, ``M206 - Computing: an object-oriented approach'', which will be taught using Smalltalk. They will start the course with the Smalltalk software available to them on CD-ROM, textbooks, and electronic conferencing and email. Graduate internet courses that are a part of the M.Sc. degree program include ``User Interface Design and Development'' and ``Intensive Prolog''. Open University can be found at

Reykjavik Institute of Education has its computers located in Austin, Texas and instructors from around the globe. They offer bachelors and masters degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration. All student/teacher interaction is done via email. Reykjavik Institute of Education can be found at

Nova Southeastern University is the largest private university in Florida and 47th largest independent academic institution in the United States with 15,500 students, at least 4,000 students engaged in distance learning from else where in Florida, 24 other states and several foreign countries. Courses are offered in a series of weekend ``clusters'' or two week intensives, in addition to email interaction. Nova Southeastern University can be found at

New York Institute of Technology has been involved in distance learning for over a decade. It offers access via modem based computer conferencing, as well as compressed two-way audio/video computer conferencing. They have attempted to match instructional and cost needs to create appropriate delivery systems. The computer based audio/video conferencing systems ranging from a $500 15-18 frames/sec 128k desktop unit using ISDN to a $40,000 30 frames/sec 384k system. Projects are currently underway to provide two-way audio/video facilities in Korea, Taiwan, and Chile. New York Institute of Technology can be found at

Virtual Learning Environments

Diversity University is not really a university. It is a virtual place where educational activities can occur. The map of the campus is fixed in that the view of the buildings does not change. Each building may have an infinite structure inside. New offices, classrooms, or hallways can be constructed easily. It is frequently used by teachers to bring classes for demonstrations of text based computer conferencing. It is also frequently used as a gathering place for student/teacher interaction or a place to hold help sessions for a class. Teachers may build (or get help from the volunteer programming staff) rooms and objects which emulate places and objects in the real world. I have seen many different kinds of object including a handheld personal notebook that was capable of acting like a web browser. More information about Diversity University can be found at and you can connect to the MOO by

Athena University is administered by Virtual Online University, Inc. and is attempting to become a real university. It is seeking accreditation from the ``North Central Association of Colleges and Universities''. As a liberal arts college, it currently has departments in arts, business, education, history, language, philosophy, and the sciences. Athena University also offers an International MBA program which is a joint effort between Virtual Online Service International and Egroupe Ecole Superieure de Commerce of Pau, France which is seeking full accreditation for the program.

Students may transfer credits from ``real'' colleges and universities, subject to the usual rules for transfer credit. To graduate from Athena University one must have taken at least 1/3 of their degree requirements at Athena University. More information about Athena University can be found at and you can connect to the MOO by

Where to Find Distance Education Programs

The World Lecture Hall is collection of pointers to university course materials that are available on the web. They have course syllabi, assignments, lecture notes, exams, class calendars, multimedia textbooks, and overhead slides for courses from nearly a hundred different academic disciplines. These course materials are generated by faculty from colleges and universities from around the world. Most of these entries point to materials that are used in addition to their regular lectures and are not intended to be used as stand alone courses but may be very useful for developing a new course or updating your existing courses. The World Lecture Hall can be found at

Distance Education Clearinghouse has pointers to information on different types of distance education delivery systems and technologies as well as information on how these are being used within the University of Wisconsin system. More information about the Distance Education Clearinghouse at

The Internet University has a very comprehensive collection of references to online course information. It has information on over 700 courses from over 30 different schools offering distance learning programs. More information about Internet University can be found at




Learning Resource Network.


York Institute of Technology.

Southeastern University.

Institute of Education.