Introduction to Distance Education: Theories and Theorists: Ramifications of the Theory of Transactional Distance

April 13, 2014

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba

By Farhad Saba

Offering adaptive learning based on the needs of the learner for independence and the requirement of the discipline for structure can be implemented in educational organizations with a management system that is conducive to learners starting and completing courses of studies based on their needs as compared to administrative needs and policy requirements of the institution. The current management system of institutions of higher education developed and matured in the industrial era. Particularly, during the second half of the 20th century when enrollments sharply increased the higher education’s industrial system of management was effective to provide a standard administrative experience to students who converged on campuses in mass nationwide. Since then, students studying in colleges and universities have been exposed to what sociologist Alvin Toffler (1980) referred to as the “hidden curriculum.” skills that students learn through the hidden curriculum are as important as the subjects they learn in each course. Industrial organizations, such as, factories need blue collar, as well as office workers who are punctual, understand the basic concept of standardization and the need for creating and marketing products and services branded with the emblem “one size fits all.” This industrial model of learning and working was effective throughout the 20th century.

In the current century, as the United Sates is increasingly becoming a post-industrial economy, the industrial “hidden curriculum” is becoming an impediment for university alumni who have to compete in a 7/24 world of work, when the proverbial non-functional clock on the wall is always correct. An anecdote illustrates the point. Several years ago, I had a deadline to deliver a report to a colleague in a university in Japan on a set Monday morning. I was enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon in California when the phone rang. My research partner in Japan was demanding the paper. I said: “but it is not due until Monday.” She said firmly, but nicely “it is Monday in Tokyo!”  The post-industrial global economy has dramatically changed the environment in which institutions of higher education operate. Higher education has become under pressure to modify its organizational structure or become increasingly irrelevant. Currently, educational institutions that were organized during the industrial era are primarily in charge of implementing distance education. The tension between the practitioners of distance education and the organizational structure of colleges and universities is palpable in most institutions, because distance education even in its earlier incarnations, such as, correspondence education, has been a post-industrial idea. It has never been bound by the industrial imperatives of time and space.

In most institutions, regardless of the pacing required by the individual learner most courses (on the Internet or on campus) move at a pre-determined speed reflecting the uniformity of the factory assembly line that perhaps was desirable in the 20th century but is very much outdated now. This also illustrates the fact that not all courses on the Internet are “distance education” courses. If they have an industrial standard design and do not adapt to the learner dynamically, theoretically and practically they do not fit the idea of distance education.  When courses are offered on the Internet under policies set in the era of industrialization capabilities of distance education in meeting the needs of students academically, as well as financially are neutered. This shortcoming cost students, parents, and the taxpayer thousands of dollars. As a result, the aggregate amount of outstanding student loans has reached an unsustainable level. A simple example of outdated industrial policies is the customary semester that in most institutions is 16 weeks long. Regardless of the performance of a learner in completing a course of study, educational institutions are funded based on students’ attendance and seat- time in a classroom or in a course offered on the Internet. Therefore, institutions compel students to endure a 16-week semester to move to the next level of learning experience regardless of their performance. In the current system if a course is designed based on the theoretical principles of distance education, and some students complete a course of study, for example, in 7 or 8 weeks instead of the usual 16 weeks, the institution is incapable of moving them to the next level of instruction, as registration in new courses take place two or three times a year. Thus the agrarian and industrial calendar precludes offering of distance education courses or programs, regardless of the fact if they are on the Internet or not. On campus or on the Internet the distance between the instructor and learner is maximized for most students who sit silently at home or in a lecture hall for 45 minutes as there is very little or no autonomy or dialog in a lecture hall or on the Internet to decrease the level of transactional distance. A major opportunity that is missed here is to save time, thus money, by offering differential learning programs and learning schedules to learners.

Similar to a cell that has become inefficient today’s university either must go through a division (in this case offering personalized and individualized programs of study to different learners) or become so costly that it would no longer be sustainable. The current trend is toward an unsustainable future, as institutions seem to have chosen to increase the cost of education for parents, students, and taxpayers in general instead of becoming more responsive to them.