The Year Ahead: “Conceptual Confusion” in Distance Education

September 3, 2002

With the current issue of Daily News, starts its eighth academic year of publication. During this time, we have seen the field of distance education leaving its peripheral status in K-12 and higher education, as well as in business and industry, and assuming a position of prominence. Between 1995, the year commenced publication on the web, and 1997-98 academic year the number of distance learners in higher education grew from 754,000 to 1.6 million throughout the country. (U. S. Department of Education Today, we estimate that more than 3 million students in various colleges and universities are involved in some form of distance learning. In the previous academic year, we also witnessed a dramatic increase in establishing virtual high schools, as well as online charter schools. In corporate America, despite the demise of the dot-coms, companies involved in distance education are thriving and growing everyday.

These are impressive achievements for professionals who are involved in distance teaching and learning. Despite this dramatic success story, however, the field is suffering from what Dr. Michael Moore, Editor of the American Journal of Distance Education, and Professor of Education at the Pennsylvania State University calls a “conceptual confusion”. This confusion, in part, is the result of new terms, which have brought into discourse about distance education, and have received uncritical acceptance by us.

An example is the term “eLearning,” which we all, including this author, use regularly. The term, at the first glance, stands for electronic learning. But its connotation does not include learning from radio and television, which are both electronic instruments. It, to my knowledge, only connotes learning via the Internet.

Another example is “blended learning.” As I understand the phrase, it stands for courses in which learning takes place at a distance, as well as in a classroom. The term, however, has no basis in distance education theory, which posits that geographical togetherness or separation of teacher and learner does not necessarily account for “transactional distance.” The teacher and learner can be under the same roof. However, if the “structure” of the course does not allow for “dialog,” distance is maximized. Thus the “blendedness” of a course is purely based on a physical science explanation and leads to conceptual confusion.

Yet, a more disturbing example is “asynchronous” distance education. To my knowledge, we have asynchronous communication, which could be employed to maximize “dialog” in “transactional distance.” But “asynchronous distance education,” although supported by a foundation with the power of funding those who think are involved in its practice, is not a clear concept, and does not add to the conceptual lucidity that the field needs now.

We are in this difficult conceptual state of affairs, because of a lack of interest in the theoretical development of the field. In the past four decades a body of knowledge has emerged, which provides a map for understanding the field, and its future development. In the rush to collect the benefits of distance education, less attention has been given to the theories and key concepts of the field than it should have. Some, who have joined the field in recent years, when confronted by a phenomenon previously unfamiliar to them, have simply given it a new name, thus contributing to the conceptual confusion of the field.

For them it would have been useful to have consulted the literature of distance education and have studied the works of Wedemeyer, Holmberg, Peters, Keegan, Moore, and others -to name a few- before committing ill conceived terms, such as “eLearning,” “blended learning,” or “asynchronous distance education” to ink.

I hope in the year ahead, we would pay more attention to the classical works in distance education, and refrain from coining new terms, unless they are grounded in the literature of the field, and are clearly defined. Further, I hope we would refrain from using the terms that are ill defined, and call upon their creators and users to define them clearly in order to abate the current conceptual confusion in distance education.

Farhad Saba, Ph. D.