Use learning theory as a basis for developing interactive distance education programs.

By: Stacy Phelps

Fall 2002

Principals of Learning Theories for Instructional Technology

LT 712

Instructor: Dr. Larry Tentinger



One of the driving decisions in establishing institutions of higher learning is geography. Traditionally, universities were created and depend on a stable enrollment pattern of students that reside nearby to continue to operate (Burnett, 1999).  Continual change and near universal access to the Internet and technology is forcing higher education to drastically change. The advances and accessibility to the Internet and technology that will permit students to obtain part or all of their education via the web-based instruction and this will have very little to do with geography. Institutions, old and new, are being created or re-created as virtual universities, which have no physical campus and operate totally over the Internet. Institutions are entering the realm of e-institutions in an attempt to meet potential financial rewards offered by the growing number of online learners as well as keep up with their peer institutions (Gibbons, 2001).

The United States Distance Learning Association defines distance education as "the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance."  In order to effectively develop distance education courses and degree programs an institution must proceed ahead with a structured plan for implementing comprehensive distance education programs.  Initial stages of the plan should use learning theory as a basis for developing interactive distance education programs.  Current findings indicate that in order to effectively serve a majority of the distance learners, which are typically nontraditional students, distance faculty training programs should be centered around developing asynchronous courses that are anchored in Andragogy and is constructivist in nature and emphasizes collaborative student interaction using technology.

Pedagogical learning theories that are currently applied in the traditional educational setting by faculty do not suit the majority of the distance-learning students.  Pedagogy is described as the traditional instructional approach based on teacher-directed learning theory.  Based on the type of learner that we are targeting in our distance education programs a theory based on Andragogy is more appropriate. The composition of the word Androgagy is derived from the greek words aner meaning adult and agogus meaning guide or leader, to describe the art and science of helping adults learn.  Andragogy is described as the approach based on self-directed learning theory (Gibbons, 2001). Defining the theory that is best suited to our learners helps to determine what is needed to implement an effective distance education program that focuses on students using technology to acquire knowledge.

The next step in developing the interactive distance-learning program is to address the needs and desires of the learner and the faculty member.  Distance education students expect unconstrained access to learning regardless of time and place, but faculty still value face-to-face interaction. An approach that meets both stakeholdersŐ needs is to create use a course design that develop asynchronous collaborative, problem-based courses in which structure and dialog are balanced are called Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALN) (Crumpacker, 2001). ALNs exist as a compromise.  ALNs provide students with the flexibility they desire while collaborative, problem-based instructional techniques fulfill the instructor-favored framework.

Research suggested that student performance is contingent upon faculty memberŐs motivation as defined by their skill and level of effort.  The faculty memberŐs instructional approach was a key underlying influence on whether the ALN based instructional approach previously mentioned is effective.  Designing distance education courses based on objectivist or constructivist approaches affects the actual delivery of distance courses. 

In an objectivist environment the faculty members role is to use presentation and explanation to transfer knowledge to the students.  While the students role is on that is passive and where students work independently of each other.  In the constructivist approach the faculty member works to facilitate the knowledge to students under an environment that fosters active and interactive participation from students.  A constructivist environment for student is an active one that uses techniques such as discovery, constructing, practicing, and validating knowledge through active exploration and interactive social collaborations with their fellow students (Crumpacker, 2001). 

Another area that impacts the effectiveness of distance-learning program is whether faculty feels they have some perceived incentives, which generally increase their motivation, and that obstacles, which decrease motivation, are negligible (Crumpacker, 2001).  The faculty must be made aware that asynchronous distance courses take considerably more time to develop and administer.  And that as technology and new methods of distance instruction evolved, that faculty must continue to have the opportunity and support to upgrade their skills, hence the need for an overall institutional plan with administrative support is required. 

A comprehensive faulty training program in distance learning instruction is a must for developing distance education programs.  One key to implementing the distance learning training is to have the program, either in whole or a component of the program, offered to faculty in an online mode.  The faculty participants will learn experientially under the same conditions as their future students and through this hands-on training approach faculty can experience first hand the differences of the online learner, online course delivery, and appropriate learning strategies in action.  As a student in an online course faculty will begin to develop sympathy for the online learner's needs and challenges. The online component will facilitate the modeling of online instruction with the faculty who are nontraditional students participating in constructivist based training course. Through this experience faculty will learn to draw on their own instructional experiences and incorporate them into courses that they are developing. The structure of this type of online training program and the development of the new online course will be direct applications of the androgagical approach to education (Gibbons, 2001).

Research has determined that a studentŐs perception of the degree of interaction in a course has a significant impact on determining course quality. (O-Reilly, 2002).  These findings can be substantiated by amount of research literature that verifies the successful implementation of collaborative learning models as the most effective method instruction in distance education courses.  A distance-learning course must be designed with the intent of using the technology to stimulate and encourage interaction or interactivity amongst faculty and students and amongst the students.  With this in mind it is critical to design effective distance interaction into a course.

Evidence from studies indicates that there is a direct correlation between increased student learning and increased students involvement.  The continued need to translate the interactive environment that exists in face-to-face classrooms to the online or virtual environment can somewhat be addressed through quality interaction. 

Research has proven that there are no significant differences in the level of interaction that occurs in face-to-face courses when compared to distance learning courses.  In fact there is some research finding that indicate that using proper instructional design that distance learning courses can provide more personal and timely feedback to students that is not available to students in large face-to-face courses, and hence can be more interactive (Roblyer, 2001). 

In the distance-learning environment the role of faculty and students grow to include more responsibilities.  To ensure full advantage of the technology available for interaction and maximize interaction, the method in which faculty design their courses and teach must be adjusted.  Students in a distance-learning course must take more ownership in their learning by asking for more feedback and clarification for ideas or questions.  Typically in a face-to-face class an instructor can gage body language and blank looks from students to assist them and determining if students are understanding material or concepts. 

The teacher education program at the State University of West GeorgiaŐs One institution has developed a rubric that they are providing to their faculty to assess the level of interaction.  The rubric is based on a point scale and applied to four elements that are identified to determine the level of an individual courses interactivity and interaction. 

Element 1 entitled Social Goals of Interaction was used to gage interaction in the sense of supporting both the social and instructional goal.  The faculty would observe interactions of the course that are used to establish rapport and collaboration amongst the class members and between the class members and the faculty member.  Within element 2 entitled Instructional Goals of Interaction, the observations of the faculty members would be to determine the level of reflection and discussion related to course topics and content that occurred. 

Element 3, Types and Uses of Technology, focuses on the how the faculty member would use technology to encourage and facilitate interaction. Specifically what techniques, designs, and methods are used by the faculty member maximize the use of technology.  The final element entitled, Impact of Interactivity-Changes in Learner Behavior, is often the most neglected, and is used to assess the impact of the interaction on the learner.  In more detailed terms the faculty member should attempt to look for positive or negative students behaviors is distance education courses.  Some of the students activities would be based on whether there is a level of willingness to use various technology resources to collaborate with other students, initiate requests to the faculty member for information and their participation in class activities has increase or decreased. 

Using this scale the faculty member would then rate four elements on a scale of 1 through five.  Each of the elements had examples or descriptions of activities or occurrences that a faculty member would rate.  The total score would be compiled and a level of interactive quality would be assigned as follows: Low interactive qualities are rated on a scale of 1-7 points, moderate interactive qualities are rate on a scale of 8-14 points, and high interactive qualities are rated on a scale of 15-20 points.

Interaction in the online environment is typically asynchronous discussion boards or synchronous chats.  Past review of reference materials states that learning occurs in students but especially in distant students because they are motivated to learn.  The authors of this article acknowledged that many source of research indicate that students engage in learning and participate in learning for the sake of knowledge, but that the students are genuinely interested in achieving the highest possible academic marks. Based on this the authors pointed out that students will be inclined to complete work and assignments based on the pending assessment of the coursework.  In most cases students view assignments from the courses as a grade and will complete the assignments that are graded and that will count the most towards final grades of students.

The authors of a paper presented a study that examined interaction as a component of the course and the significance of that interaction. There was an attempt to assess the quality of the interaction that occurs in chat or discussion boards sessions.  The authors of the research developed a survey to gage the level of interaction and the studentŐs response to that interaction.  The intent of the survey was to determine if it is actually necessary to assess the quality of the interactive mediums.  Data was collected over two semesters from online students to judge whether the students viewed interactive chats and discussion boards as a valuable asset to their learning process. 

The survey indicated students appreciated the students-lecturer interaction, but that the students valued the use of the chat and discussion board and felt that the use of interactive mediums for collaborative student-student work advanced their level of knowledge of course content (OŐReilly, 2002). Based on these findings the authors determined that there was not need to assess the interaction of the students in chat and discussion boards.  Rather chat and discussion boards were seen as tools for learning that would positively influence the studentŐs grades, hence the interaction tools would not need to be individually assessed as it would be assessed through course projects and final course grades.

In conclusion there is much supporting evidence that supports the use of collaborative and interactive methods of instruction and the effectiveness of these teaching strategies via the web.  A key to implement this type of program is to ensure that faculty have access to technology and to comprehensive training that will enlighten them on adult learning theory and constructivist based learning theory that will maximize the achievement of students.  One key to helping expedite the faculty training process is to have some of all of the training for the faculty occur in an online format so that models of instruction are put into practice and faculty and understand what the students that are enrolled in a course are experiencing.  This realistic test will significantly impact on the faculty members impression and appreciation that will be accounted for while they are developing online courses.


Burnett, D. (1999). Pedagogical Alternatives for Web-Based. Retrieved December 3, 2002 from


Crumpacker, N. (2001). Faculty Pedagogical Approach, Skill, and Motivation in TodayŐs Distance Education Milieu. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Winter 2001, Volume IV, Number IV: State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center.  Retrieved December 4, 2002 from


Gibbons, H.S., Wentworth, G.P. (2001). Andrological and Pedagogical Training Differences for Online Instructors. Retrieved December 4, 2002 from


O'Reilly, M. and Newton, D. (2002). Interaction online: Above and beyond requirements of assessment. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 18(1), 57-70. Retrieved December 3, 2002 from


Roblyer, M.D., Ekhaml, L. (2000). How Interactive are YOUR Distance Courses? A Rubric  for Assessing Interaction in Distance Learning. Retrieved December 3, 2002 from