Exclusive Interview with Dr. Charlotte N. (Lani) Gunawardena, Professor of Distance Education and Instructional Technology, University of New Mexico

November 4, 2003

Dr. Saba: How did you become interested in distance education?

Dr. Gunawardena:
My career in distance education evolved because of my interest in making alternative educational opportunities available for those who cannot attend a traditional university. This interest began from the time I entered the University in Sri Lanka to do my undergraduate degree. Developing countries like Sri Lanka have few universities and higher educational opportunities, and because of the very competitive nature of university entrance criteria and examinations, few students have the opportunity to enter a university and complete a degree. When I entered the university, many of my friends who were equally qualified did not get in. Therefore, I was very keen to find ways to provide higher educational opportunities for those who got left behind. A source of inspiration to enter this field was my father who completed his BA as an external student from the University of London while he worked as a principal in Sri Lanka. I earnestly began to study distance education as a discipline when I did my doctorate at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. The new communications media was making distance education a more viable form of education. Television and video based distance education was beginning to make an impact in this country. My dissertation was titled: “New Communications Technologies and Distance Education: A Paradigm for the Integration of Video-based Instruction” which I am happy to note won the Charles A. Wedemeyer award for excellence in book length manuscripts in distance education, an award made by the National University Continuing Education Association in 1988. From then on, I have been teaching and researching in this field.

Dr. Saba: How did your interest evolve, and lead you to becoming involved in evaluation of Star Schools?

Dr. Gunawardena:
The Star Schools program is the largest federally funded program for distance education opportunities for K-12 schools in the United States. The Bill was sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy and has been funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education. I became interested in evaluating Star Schools projects when my colleague Dr. Connie Dillon, Professor of Distance Education at the University of Oklahoma asked me to write a paper with her on evaluating Star Schools programs. We were looking for new methods and models to evaluate these technology-based projects. Our collaboration led to an article on evaluation research in distance education that was published by the British Journal of Educational Technology. Then, Oklahoma State University and Northern Arizona University asked me to serve as the external evaluator for the Star Schools grant proposal they were submitting to the US department of Education for the 1994-1997 grant competition. The project was funded, and I became a Star Schools evaluator in 1994 for a predominantly satellite TV based nationally distributed distance education program in science, math, and foreign languages as well as teacher professional development. Subsequently, Oklahoma State University asked me to serve as an external evaluator for the next Star Schools grant proposal they submitted to develop an inter-disciplinary web-based teacher professional development program in science, math and language arts using Hypothesis-based learning as a teaching methodology. My team at the University of New Mexico and I have been evaluating this program since 2000 and will end our evaluation efforts in 2005. This has been a great opportunity for us to develop new models for evaluating web-based distance education programs.

Dr. Saba: You have made valuable contributions to contemporary research in distance education. How did your research agenda develop and evolve?

Dr. Gunawardena:
My research agenda in distance education evolved as I began to come across questions and issues that needed to be addressed in the field as I taught the discipline of distance education as a graduate level emphasis area in the Organizational Learning and Instructional Technology program at the University of New Mexico, and as I practiced teaching at a distance. From the initial evaluation of statewide distance education programs, I moved on to research issues in the distance education environment such as learning styles, group dynamics, and learner support. I increasingly became interested in addressing the socio-cultural context of online learning and the social construction of knowledge in collaborative learning communities. Two studies that have made valuable contributions to the field have included my research on social presence as a significant predictor of learner satisfaction in online learning environments published in the American Journal of Distance Education, and the interaction analysis model that my colleagues and I developed to examine the social construction of knowledge in online collaborative learning contexts published in the Journal of Educational Computing Research. The model we developed has been used by other researchers in this country and other parts of the world who have noted its strengths and weaknesses in relation to their own contexts. Since conversation analysis of computer discussions is becoming a major line of research in distance education, we are happy to have made this initial contribution to the field.

Dr. Saba: Your current research has partially resulted in a new
instructional design model for distance education. Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Gunawardena:
Traditional instructional design models based on the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) framework offer little guidance for designing interactive technology-based instruction. Therefore, in the advanced instructional design doctoral level seminar that I teach, we engaged in a group project to develop a design model based on the concepts of communities of practice and transformational learning. After the semester was over, a few of us worked on adapting this model to the distance education context. In a forthcoming article: “Building an Online Wisdom Community: A Transformational Design Model” to be published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education, in Spring 2004, We discuss the development of this new instructional design model based on socio-constructivist learning theories and distance education principles for the design of online wisdom communities, and its efficacy by drawing on evaluation results from its implementation in Fall 2002. The model, Final Outcome Centered Around Learner (FOCAL), aims to facilitate transformational learning by fostering three dimensions: the development of a Wisdom Community, Knowledge Innovation, Mentoring and Learner Support, in an online learning environment. The theoretical framework for the FOCAL model is grounded in socioconstructivist learning theories that focus on the link between cognitive and social processes in understanding learning.

Dr. Saba: What are some of the subjects you will be investigating in the future?

Dr. Gunawardena:
I think the direction of my future research will increasingly blend my interests in cross-cultural communication and distance education, to investigate cultural and gender issues in the online environment. I recently published a chapter with my co-authors on Culture and Online Education in the Handbook of Distance Learning edited by Michael Moore and Bill Anderson that was published by Lawrence Erlbaum in 2003. I have also conducted a cross-cultural study with the Monterrey Virtual University in Mexico examining cultural issues that influence group process and group development in online learning and have also examined the negotiation of “face” in online learning environments from a cultural perspective. With the current trend towards globalization of education and the increasing diverse learners we find in our distance education settings, I think examining cultural issues that influence online learning will become increasingly important. This is the direction I see for my future research.

Dr. Charlotte N. (Lani) Gunawardena is Professor of Distance Education and Instructional Technology in the Organizational Learning and Instructional Technology Program in the College of Education, at the University of New Mexico. As Principal Investigator she is currently researching and evaluating a federally funded web-based math and science teacher professional development project. Her recent research examines the socio-cultural context of online learning, knowledge construction in online learning communities, and the design and evaluation of distance education systems. Lani enjoys her work as an international consultant. She has worked as a World Bank Consultant in Sri Lanka, and consulted in Brazil, Mexico, Norway, and Turkey.