Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Are There Limits to Distributed Learning?

My online wanderings brought me to two interestingly connected “places” yesterday. The first was the homepage of IRRODL (a journal I frequently read, and highly recommend). The second was a set of comments posted to one of my UOIT MEd student’s blog sites. I’ve been debating what these two places mean. And I want to invite the participants in #EDUC5101G and #EDUC5103G (and anyone else) into that conversation.

First, I read about how IRRODL has updated its name from the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning to the International Journal of Open and Distributed Learning – a change prompted by the evolving landscape of educational technology, and a shift away from the negative, “exclusive” connotations of the term “distance” learning towards the more “inclusive” connotations of “distributed” learning. “Distance” learning implies (rightly or wrongly) that there is are transactional distances imposed upon the learner – it implies that somehow they are being disadvantaged, and that efforts are required to remediate those distances. “Distributed” learning implies that educational technologies are being leveraged to the advantage of the learner. A small change in word choice, with huge implications for educational technology discourse and public perception. A change that echoes my observations in my doctoral dissertation (2015, pp. 14-15) that

As technologies available for the mediation of teaching and learning evolve, the distinctions between traditional face-to-face education, distance education, and mobile learning are beginning to disappear. This trend is described as ubiquitous learning, where learning “anywhere, anytime” is supported through advances in one-to-one computing technologies, including mobile devices (Education-2025, 2013). Wheeler (2014) advised that if educational institutions such as universities are to continue to meet the needs of changing learner demographics, they should place more emphasis on the use of technology to facilitate blended and distributed approaches to teaching and learning… Ally (2014) also noted that teachers need to be better prepared to integrate new technologies into teaching and learning practices.

Second, I read conversations in comments on a student blog site about the limits of distributed learning (I’ve chosen to follow my colleagues at IRRODL and adopt that term). James Elsdon remarked on Kenneth Van Dewark’s blog that there are some professional training areas where “online education [can be] difficult to carry out effectively.” He noted how some professions (such as law) may even impose bans on accreditation of online training programs. James also remarked that STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are difficult to deliver through online avenues. What I’d like for participants in #EDUC5101G and #EDUC5103G to consider it whether or not these limitations to the effective scope of distributed learning or real, or just perceptions. Having spent 10 years in the Middle East, I saw that these perceptions were widely held. But they were misinformed perceptions. They were based on beliefs that:
  • “distance” learning meant no meaningful learning activity (just readings packages and essays);
  • it was easy for learners to cheat, and difficult to ascertain the veracity of a graduate’s credentials; and
  • that online learning was wholly inferior to, and a poor substitute for face-to-face training.

I even heard anecdotal reports that some major post-secondary institutions in the region refused to acknowledge any credentials (for faculty) that were awarded by (even reputable, government regulated and independently accredited) online institutions. But over the course of 10 years I watched as those perceptions changed. I began to see institutions and government ministries welcome online credentials, and start looking to them as viable training alternatives in their increasingly knowledge-based economies. I’ve seen the volume of literature on investigations into the efficacy (and perceptions) of distributed learning increase dramatically in recent years.

I’m still wondering about comments that law societies oppose online learning because they feel that “the ‘Socratic methods of teaching and learning’… cannot be achieved through the delivery of online classes.” Do traditional lecture halls also impose transactional distances upon learners (because they are historically rooted in passive reception of content transmitted by an expert)? Do modern educational technologies empower learners by facilitating (not guaranteeing) increased Socratic engagement? Does the assertion that a particular field cannot be studied through distributed methods come from sound educational theory and practice? Or does it come from misperception and fear of the unknown or, worse, elitist protectionism?

I’m also still wondering about comments about STEM degrees and medical training. In particular, I’m curious what my students think about the perception that some areas of study, such as education, are better suited to distributed learning. Do educators not also deal with ‘real people?’ Are we not also required to interact with (even if mediated via technology) learners? And do our professional actions not also have profound consequences? Yes – there are some things that require one-on-one guidance during training and credentialing, simply because they involve real and immediate danger. But, are educational technologies evolving to the point that such danger can be mitigated, and one-on-one guidance effectively distributed? Look at the example of using Google Cardboard and virtual reality (VR) to figure out, in advance, how best to approach a unique and difficult surgical procedure. What about the possibilities of using Google Glass (or other augmented reality (AR)) platforms to establish a remote expert presence?

My task now for participants in #EDUC5101G and #EDUC5103G is this – Join this conversation. Respond to these observations, musings, and concerns. #EDUC5101G students should consider this a ‘challenge’ for their Week 2 blog posts:
  1. What does the change in discourse from “distance” learning to open and “distributed” learning mean?
  2. Are some areas better suited to distributed learning than others?
  3. Are there examples (in Canada, or internationally) of successful use of distributed teaching and learning methods to facilitate more challenging (i.e. Law, Medicine, STEM) subject areas?
  4. What technologies and methods are emerging that could break down barriers that might still exist to distributed learning in some subject areas?

I’m looking forward to seeing where this conversation takes us.


Ally, M. & Prieto-Blázquez, J. (2014). What is the future of mobile learning in education? Mobile Learning Applications in Higher Education [Special Section]. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), 11(1), 142-151. doi http://doi.dx.org/10.7238/rusc.v11i1.2033

Education-2025 (2013, November 26). Ubiquitous learning [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://education-2025.wikispaces.com/Ubiquitous+Learning

Elsdon, J. (2016, January 19). Untitled comment. Digital Medical Education [Web log]. Available from http://virtualer.org/blog/index.php?post/2016/01/17/About-the-author#post-comments

IRRODL (2016). The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Available from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl

McGreal, R. and Conrad, D. (2016, January 1). Name change of IRRODL journal. Available from http://www.irrodl.org/home/announcements/irrodlnamechange.pdf

Power, R. (2015). A framework for promoting teacher self-efficacy with mobile reusable learning objects (Doctoral dissertation, Athabasca University). Available from http://hdl.handle.net/10791/63

Power, R. (2016). Student blogs. EDUC 5101 G: Digital Tools for Knowledge Construction. Available from http://educ5101g.weebly.com/student-blogs.html

Wheeler, S. (2014, February 7). The survival of higher education (1): Changing roles [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-survival-of-higher-education-1.html#!/2014/02/the-survival-of-higher-education-1.html


  1. Hey Rob,

    I am in no way saying that online learning is inferior-- actually I have read many articles and studies that actually argue the opposite. “Today, it’s estimated that about 46% of college students are taking at least one course online; however, by 2019, roughly half of all college classes will be eLearning-based” (eLearning Industry, 2014). Also-- Research suggests that students who complete online courses learn as much as those in face-to-face classes. Students who complete online courses also earn equivalent grades and are equally as satisfied with their learning experience as students in face-to-face classes (Jahng, Krug, & Zhang, 2007). I must agree with this-- I believe I am learning as much in this online degree program as I have in other programs. I think when it becomes difficult to host an online class is when the content of the class needs to be taught in the psychomotor domain. The psychomotor domain (Simpson, 1972) includes physical movement, coordination, and use of the motor-skill areas. Development of these skills requires practice and is measured in terms of speed, precision, distance, procedures, or techniques in execution. If I look at a program like electrical engineering where student may need to physically assemble something in a lab, or a program like mechanical engineering where teaching and learning usually entails assembly of sorts, etc I find it hard to see how it can be taught online. I have thought of some solutions-- mail out kits to students' homes and have them watch a video, but the more I think about it the more difficult I see it coming to fruition with the technologies we are currently using in online teaching and learning. I think in order for there to be a major breakthrough in teaching STEM online we will need new technologies.

    Ending note-- I searched for the webpage that talks about why law schools cannot be offered online and can no longer find it. Perhaps the board that accredits law schools is reconsidering? or perhaps my google skills are not up to snuff today. If anyone finds that link it would be appreciated.


    elearning Industry (2014). Top 10 e-Learning Statistics for 2014 You Need To Know. Retrieved From: http://elearningindustry.com/top-10-e-learning-statistics-for- 2014-you-need-to-know

    Jahng, Z. Krug. D, & Zhang, Z. (2007). Student Achievement in Online Distance Education. Retrieved from: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2007/Jahng_Krug_Zhang.htm

    Simpson E. J. (1972). The Classification of Educational Objectives in the Psychomotor Domain. Washington, DC: Gryphon House.

  2. Thanks for the comments, and resources. I agree (as noted in my post), there are some skills that require one-to-one instruction (and perhaps F2F). What shapes the arguments on either side here is how we define "online learning" or "distance learning." Is "distance learning" even an appropriate term anymore? If we are approaching distributed learning from a "distance mediation" perspective instead of from a technology-mediated learner empowerment perspective, are we doing our instructional design (and our learners) a disservice? Are there emerging technologies that could be used to help learn (and assess) psychomotor skills? In my previous role as an Instructional Developer at CNA-Q, we had just begun to explore the use of augmented reality to support training for engineering technology students (i.e. correct procedures for disassembling and reassembling petrochemical pumps). Huge potential -- but is the technology quite there yet? And how do we leverage it?


  3. Do you think there will ever be a way to teach the vast majority of programs online? e.g, Medical school, engineering I honestly think a law program could be taught online, but apparently the law society does not agree with me. I think one day everything will be online but it will be using a technology that does not exist today. Maybe something VR (like you mentioned) Holograms? I find it interesting (and it may seem kind of weird) to look as past trends in technology and look at how they have progressed throughout history and use that as a starting point to hypothesize what may be coming in the future. It may be a bit nerdy, but it can actually get you thinking quite a bit (sorry off topic). Have a great weekend.


  4. Yes, it is interesting to look at past trends in educational technologies to see what impacts they've had, and whether or not they have actually been truly 'disruptive.' Education systems are notoriously resistant to change, and most heralded technologies have failed to live up to their hype (in the education sector). Look at radio, educational television, and laser-discs (the precursors to CDs and DVDs) as examples. It's not until recently, with the emergence of truly interactive technologies, that they hype of 'disruption' of teaching and learning processes has started to be realized (to some extent). As you say, James, it'll be interesting to see what new technologies are on the horizon, and what impact they'll have on increasing the scope of distributed learning.


  5. Hi Rob,

    I find your insights around the changes (trends) in education over the last 10 years really interesting. My job has changed so much, it’s unbelievable, truly. Looking back to look forward, very thought-provoking. The first thing that came to mind was a lecture in one of my other UOIT classes – a discussion about tipping points. It’s funny how some things you learn stick with you…for some reason, the concept of a tipping point is absolutely fascinating to me (I still want to develop a General Education subject about significant tipping points in history, after I develop my next course, which is about Futurity).

    So to define a tipping point: "the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change." You can always read Malcolm Gladwell’s book "The Tipping Point" (http://gladwell.com/the-tipping-point/the-tipping-point-q-and-a/) for his take on “understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does” and his stimulating ideas on the epidemic nature of change in our society. We are all experiencing tremendous technological advances right now, we may be in the middle of many tipping points that we aren’t even aware of, in the moment.

    In the UOIT lecture I remember we were presented with visuals of different tools, one image depicted advanced tools in medicine (thankfully we’ve come a long way since bloodletting). The lecture theorized that tipping points begin with the introduction of new innovative tools (example: an invention of an advanced medical tool). As the use of the new innovative tool spreads and catches on throughout the discipline, voila, suddenly there’s your tipping point! A whole new level has been reached!

    Of course this theory is especially applicable to education, right now. We have these advanced tools, software, capabilities, and their use and application is spreading. As our best efforts and practices spread and evolve, we are all a part of this tipping point in education. It’s about time too – how long has the chalkboard been around? :)

    Michelle Rivers

  6. In regards to the first comment about psychomotor skills, I definitely agree it is difficult to teach kinesthetics techniques online. I took a course last semester called Don’t Just Sit There about dynamic work stations. She has videos of rehabilitative exercises, and diagrams of proper alignment, and I still couldn’t figure out simple things like how to stand or sit properly, so I Skyped in a restorative exercise teacher to look at my alignment and work station. I still didn’t get it. I finally found a teacher close to my house, and when she explained everything to me again with a plastic pelvis and foot model, adjusting me, and getting me to change my position in real time with a mirror, I finally understood simple things like aligning my feet and untucking my pelvis. She had to mark my bony prominences on my feet with markers and I had to use a string with a weight to see lines from hip to ankle, but once I felt it, it clicked. I would imagine this could be done in VR in the future, but it would be very expensive and difficult to build. Simple psychomotor skills could be transferrable via video or simulation, but I think the real life instructor takes it to the next level. Skyping or 2D video just doesn’t have the view you need to see properly, so we have ways to go. Yes, some things do translate more easily into online courses such as theoretical ideas, but other things, although improved by doing activities to help learn them, still need some one-on-one instruction.

    In regards to subjects like law and medical studies, I think that there is resistance to teach it online because something like law degree holds so much power, has a high market price, and is so expensive to obtain. Lawyers don’t want to lose their power or high salaries. Tests such as the LSATS and MCATS are terribly expensive, and lawyers charge tremendous amounts of money, so I think they want to control the supply and demand, so that they can maintain power. Medicine is more difficult to maintain power, and thus more open to online teaching and learning because there is already so much information online, and patients are so much more knowledgeable, that they are further into a paradigm shift. However, many people still do not question their doctor, read the ingredients on their medications, or double check the doctor’s prescriptions on the internet, which allows them to hold some of their prestige, but definitely less than was given before the internet became so widely available. Law is in a different category because it’s so boring and long that no wants to double check it, so the lawyers are given more control.

    Shannon B.

  7. week 2 -sharon sonnilal
    When I think of “distance” learning, I think of a course where students don’t have to leave their places to attend. Hence it’s offered at a “distance”. I remember in the college system when distance education was first introduced. It was deemed as a course that involved learning packages and working at your own pace, meeting with the teacher online to discuss issues or to clarify expectations. Accompanying the introduction of distance education comes myths, of cheating and having someone else complete their work or writing their tests and papers. These actions that deem true, introduced turnitin and other sites to check for plagiarism and works done by other people. “Distributed” learning means that the course is offered via multiple methods. “Distributed” amongst variations of learning modalities, utilizing various technological influences. There is much more technological devices, than when distance education was first introduced. Phones can allow people to attend classes from anywhere in the world. They have screen that support apps. Hence distributed learning - in various ways.
    Most subject areas do benefit from distributed learning especially when learning of diverse way to do something. India can connect to England to see how to remove a tumor. Consultations can be done via webcams. Theories can be learnt via distributed education but application would still need to be in person. I do know that Athabasca allows for distributed education but requires students to come to the campus for several week to perform the application portion of the course. Hence it is considered blended technology. Most healthcare related programs do offer distributed education but does have a “hands on” component. It is very difficult to know how to navigate through an artery without actually seeing it in real life. Only those that have mastered the art of arterial ablation could try to perform the task from their living room couch, via robotic arms and there is a lot of new science aiming to support this innovation.

  8. Hi Dr. Power,

    I wanted to touch upon one-on-one advancements regarding computer technologies. I agree there is a trend towards ubiquitous learning primarily due to the exponential advancements in technology. For example, you mentioned Virtual Reality (VR) as a means of mitigating danger and improving one-on-one guidance. I would identify myself as a proponent of VR and have done some research which indicates emergent technologies could potentially replace centralized education practices. Consider the experience of live virtual classrooms in VR. The number of environmental modifications available to both learners and educators is extensive and not mutually exclusive. For instance, if a learner is behaving poorly, the educator can mute, disconnect, and place them in a virtual breakout room amongst other functions (Herbelin, Vexo & Thalmann, 2015). Learning could be enhanced by having the ability of switching to new immersive environments at the touch of a button. Imagine a history lesson in virtual Paris taught by an educator who swaps out their traditional 3D avatar to a Napoleon likeness. This immersion factor is made possible by computational graphical power that has constantly been exponentially increasing. VR headsets by Oculus Rift and other companies are scheduled to release this year.

    Herbelin, B., Vexo, F., & Thalmann, D. (2015). Sense of Presence in Virtual Reality Exposures Therapy. Virtual Reality Laboratory, Federal Institute Of Technology (EPFL), 1-5.

    Nelson, F. (2014). The Timeline Of Virtual Reality - The Past, Present, And Future Of VR And AR: The Pioneers Speak. Tom's Hardware. Retrieved 18 October 2015, fromhttp://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/ar-vr-technology-discussion,3811-2.html

    1. 1. What does the change in discourse from “distance” learning to open and “distributed” learning mean?

      The implication that distance learning is a negative is understandable when historically distance learning was not equipped with the same technological capabilities that are present today. Therefore, the move to distributed learning is favorable because it is ultimately a better description for our modern era.

      2. Are some areas better suited to distributed learning than others?

      Yes, but this could quickly change. Some stem degrees are suited for disturbed learning in my opinion. I.T would possibly be the best candidate since coding is a huge part of their curriculum. Additionally, in order to stay up-to-date on an industry that is always quickly evolving and changing, a steady flow of certifications are required to stay competitive in the current job market.

      3. Are there examples (in Canada, or internationally) of successful use of distributed teaching and learning methods to facilitate more challenging (i.e. Law, Medicine, STEM) subject areas?

      One that immediately comes to mind is Virtual Reality in Medicine. Surgical training, intra-operative augmentation, and rehabilitation are already in use as (Medicine Meets Virtual Reaility, 2005). These virtual simulators provide us with the perfect examples of mitigating dangerous situations through gamification simulation.

      4. What technologies and methods are emerging that could break down barriers that might still exist to distributed learning in some subject areas?

      Again, VR is a great example of an emergent technology that could fit the bill for breaking down barriers. Impaired learners may have fantastic options when it comes to assistive technologies in the near future. By modifying VR headsets via hardware and software a greater amount of inclusion for all learners will be granted. For instance, a visually impaired learner can adjust contrast settings. Additionally, physically impaired learners can reconfigure input layouts to fully participate in all virtual classroom activates Salleh, N., & Ali, M. (2010).

      Dimitropoulos,, K., Manitsaris, A., & Mavridis, I. (2008). Building virtual reality environments for distance education on the web a case study in medical education. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, 2(1), 1-2.

      Herbelin, B., Vexo, F., & Thalmann, D. (2015). Sense of presence in virtual reality exposures therapy. Virtual Reality Laboratory, Federal Institute Of Technology (EPFL), 1-5.

      Medicine Meets Virtual Reality 14. (2005). Computers & Graphics, 29(6), 1007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cag.2005.09.016

      Salleh, N., & Ali, M. (2010). Students with Visual Impairments and Additional Disabilities.Procedia - Social And Behavioral Sciences, 7, 714-719. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.10.097