Distributed Learning Environments

Deborah Lynn Stirling
Emerging Technology Paper for EMC 701
December 8, 1997

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"We must utilize the flexibilities inherent in technology to discover models of instruction more appropriate to the emerging knowledge economy than to the receding industrial age with its assembly-line model of instruction. This can happen with the assistance of computer and video networks and technologies" (Graves, 1994).

     Since the time William Graves spoke the above words at the Canadian Multimedia Conference in Calgary, the concept of distributed learning has sparked research projects and consortiums devoted to investigating and creating this instructional innovation from coast to coast. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, George Mason University, Columbia University, Mississippi State University, University of Missouri, and California State University's Direct Enhancement of Learning through Technology Assistance and Alternatives are all directly involved in various distributed learning projects. These projects address the constraints of time, distance, and scarce resources on teaching and learning.

     Emerging network technologies allow for the enhancement of learning experiences at any place and at any time. The investigations into creating and prototyping these technology-rich learning environments primarily use the Internet and a variety of telecommunications technologies like Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), and Synchronous Optical Network (SONet) to deliver information and create distributed learning environments. Even at the public school level 75 percent of the public schools can access some kind of computer network like a local area network (LAN) or a wide area network (WAN); however, only 30 percent of the elementary schools and 49 percent of the secondary schools have Internet access according to Heaviside, Farris, Malitz and Carpenter (1995).

     The federal government supports improving learning environments with technology. The Office of Technology Assessment's publication, Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection, makes the statement that helping teachers effectively integrate technology into the teaching/learning process is "one of the most important steps the nation can take to make the most of past and continuing investments in educational technology" (1995). One of the goals of the University of North Carolina's distributed learning project is the commitment to the professional development of our nation's classroom teachers. Resources on how to utilize the available distributed resources for instructional purposes and on-demand professional development courses are available on the world wide web (see metasite at http://stirlinglaw.com/deborah/Distlearn.htm for examples). Most of the distributed learning websites include "how to" information for teachers.

What is a Distributed Learning Environment?

     A distributed learning environment is a virtual space where students, instructor(s), and information interact from different locations and at different times (although it can happen in real time as well) through the power of a digital network (i.e., the Internet is the most frequently used digital network). Distributed learning is frequently used interchangeably with distance learning, but the concept differs in terms of community and the purpose for the communicative connection. In a distributed learning environment the purpose for the communication is not just prompted by a formal course offering as is the case in distance learning. Similarly, the sense of community is not just created for the short time span of one course. Learning communities and collaborative environments exist and evolve independent of the time parameters of a course offering. A distributed learning environment also decentralizes instruction, frees learning from time and place constraints, is responsive to on-demand needs, adjusts to individual needs (adaptive), integrates interactivity, and is learner-centered.

     These shared technology solutions provided by implementing distributed learning environments (DLE) can be used in conventional classrooms, distance learning courses, or, as it is evolving to, in virtual classrooms.


     DLE has the potential to address many current educational problems, for instance, the problem of access to informational resources in rural areas as well as diversity of course offerings. Réginald Grégoire, Robert Bracewell, and Thérèse Laferrière in a paper entitled The Contribution Of New Technologies To Learning And Teaching In Elementary and Secondary Schools made the following 14 observations of benefits:

     In addition, a DLE has the potential to (a) help teachers recover time and enhance their professional growth, (b) support professional development, (c) support collaboration, (d) streamline teachers' work, (e) reduce continuous attention from a teacher, (f) increase availability of instructional materials, (g) assist in assessing students' progress, and (h) provide access to diverse forms of information resources.

     The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology: Panel on Educational Technology was organized in 1995 "to provide independent advice to the President on matters related to the application of various technologies (and in particular, interactive computer- and network-based technologies) to K-12 education in the United States" (1997). This committee believes that the constructivist approach will play a major role in improving the quality of education. Distributed learning embraces the spirit of this approach. In addition, their report to the president focused on six main recommendations: (a) focus on learning with technology, (b) emphasize content and pedagogy, (c) give special attention to professional development, (d) engage in realistic budgeting, (e) ensure equitable, universal access, and (f) initiate a major program of experimental research.

Obstacles to Using Network Resources

     Although networking is a growing and emerging technology obstacles exist. Monetary obstacles include affordable telecommunications services of adequate bandwidth to support the interactive use of network-based applications and multimedia, inadequate software budgets (1995 school expenditures $470 million to $724 million, represents between $10 and $16 per student-year less than one-third of 1% of all educational expenditures), lack of modern hardware in schools, and procurement-related problems (state-level gatekeepers). The last issue, state-level gatekeepers, overlaps another obstacle, the existing resistance to change from the community including district and school-level personnel, parents, taxpayers, and political agents. Lack of teacher preparation in technology compounded with the fact that teachers work, on an average, an additional 47 hours per week outside the classroom makes it hard to reshape teaching style to include new technologies. Finally, the lack of high quality computer software, partly due to market fragmentation (not as robust as edutainment), also contributes to the resistance of investing in new teaching and learning innovations.

Technologies for Distributed Learning

     Steve Griffin (1995) identified the following as the key enabling technologies: (a) Internet, (b) compelling content, (c) collaborative software, and (d) management software. Within the first category, the Internet, the issue of increasing bandwidth is at the forefront. ISDN dominated during 1996; ATM was the choice for 1997; and 1998 will see ATM and SONet telecommunications technology used to meet business, government, education, scientific, and personal information needs. Griffin's second category, compelling content, includes tools for distributing: video on the Internet with Xing Streamworks, IP Multicast (MBONE), and TCP/IP reservation protocols; and audio across networks with Progressive Networks, DSP Group, Inc., VocalTec, and Xing Technology. His website at http://www.iat.unc.edu/publications/technotes/teknote8.thml provides links to these tools as well as examples of web-based instruction.

     A comprehensive website, maintained by Merit Networks, for information on the new networking architecture is available [Online] at http://www.merit.edu/nsf.architecture/ This site identifies three basic components in this emerging architecture: (a) vBNS (very high speed Backbone Network Services), (b) Network Access Points (NAPs), and (c) the Routing Arbiter project, which coordinates routing.

Transforming the Teaching/Learning Process

     The role of DLE, and its enabling network technologies, in education is to foster learning and communication in an environment extending beyond the insulated four-wall classroom. The role of the DLE teacher, aligned with the constructivist perspective, includes the following actions: (a) monitors activities of individual students, (b) assists in debugging emerging mental models, and (c) provides encouragement, direction, and assistance. The role of the student involves the following actions: (a) participates in collaborative and cooperative activities, (b) creates self-directed projects, and (c) conducts self-assessments to monitor progress. Finally, the DLE environment includes the surrounding community of parents and citizens, which implies a more active role from this community; links schools to research universities, public libraries, private companies, and the global community; includes "real-world" projects, which may be initiated by outside organizations; provides opportunities for tele-apprenticeship or tele-mentoring learning experiences; and provides computing and networking facilities available to local residents after school hours. The use of distributed learning resources has the potential to provide a more efficient, effective, and cost-effective approach to education and training as well. A DLE infused with the latest networking and information technology as well as multimedia materials transforms the teaching/learning process, thereby, redefines the role of the learner, the teacher, and the environment.

Distributed Learning Research

     However, the inclusion of technology does not by and of itself transform teaching or learning. The salient and critical factor is how the technology is used for instruction (Office of Technology Assessment, 1995, p. 57). The role of computer-based technologies during the 1980s showed signs of significant changes. In the early 1980s, computers were seen as the agents of change. Computer-based technology was anticipated to directly impact student achievement. However, by 1989, due to inconclusive research results, computers were seen as a tool. A tool that could effect learning, but only if the tool was used effectively. The 1990s research efforts concentrate on the relationships between practices, purposes, and situations of computer-based learning technologies.

     Learning within these research contexts shifts attention from solely viewing learning as an internal, individual process to include learning from a teacher's perspective of preparation, communication and assessment, with student support activities, and with the environment that provides a process of discovery and assimilation (Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology: Panel on Educational Technology categorized educational technology research efforts of importance into three areas: (a) basic research in learning-related disciplines and educationally relevant technologies, (b) early-stage research in development of innovative educational software, content, and technology-enabled pedagogy, and (c) empirical studies designed to determine effective uses of technology (1997). The last category, aimed at assessing the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of innovative approaches and techniques that use technology, is directly supported by distributed learning environments. DLEs provide access to ideas and research reports on how effective technology practices impact classroom environments.

     Heeren and Lewis wrote an article entitled Selecting Communication Media for Distributed Communities, which provides a look into relationships between selected media and related activities. Their research provides a framework for designing distributed learning tasks. For instance, a group task must address the leadership/organizational structure by recognizing at what point a "democratic structure" must be replaced by designating a group leader. Their framework draws upon Media-richness Theory and Activity Theory.


     The process of wiring classrooms and creating technology-rich classrooms has not been heralded in without controversy (go to http://www.mcrel.org/connect/tech/impact.html for links exploring this debate). Within the context of systemic reform, distributed learning networks will play a major role in assisting teachers with resources and creative approaches to integrate multimedia and network technologies into the classrooms of today and tomorrow. Dr. José R. Llanes and his students at the University of Texas Pan American maintain a web site at http://llanes.panam.edu/reform/srn/intro , which is devoted to providing resources about school reform efforts in the United States. The monetary and resistance to change obstacles may be eased by the continuance of current research efforts investigating effective instructional use of technology, especially in the area of distributed learning. Distributed Learning Environments is an exciting research area and emerging technology, which supports innovative and creative approaches to education.

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     Grégoire, R., Bracewell, R., & Laferrière, T. (1996). The contribution of new technologies to learning and teaching in elementary and secondary schools. [Online]. Available: http://www.fse.ulaval.ca/fac/tact/fr/html/impactnt.html

     Griffin, S. (1995). Distributed learning environment technology update. [Online]. Available: http://www.iat.unc.edu/publications/technotes/teknote8.html

     Heaviside, S., Farris, E., Malitz, G., & Carpenter J. (1995). Advanced telecommunications in U.S. public schools, K-12 (Report No. NCES95-731). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, (ED 378 959)

     Heeren, E., Lewis, R. (1997). Selecting communication media for distributed communities. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 13 (2), 85-98.

     President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology: Panel on Educational Technology (1997). Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States. [Online]. Available: http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OSTP/NSTC/PCAST/k-12ed.html

     U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1995). Teachers and technology: making the connection (OTA-EHR-616). Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office.

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© 1998 Deborah Lynn Stirling
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