Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Teaching and learning with distance education technologies: A tertiary perspective

Ron Oliver and Murray Lake
Department of Library and Information Science
Edith Cowan University


Students enrol in the unit EDU 3282 at Edith Cowan University to learn about rural education. The aim of the unit is to provide students with a good knowledge and understanding of the processes associated with teaching and learning in remote and rural schools. There is much to be taught and much to be learned in this Unit. Rural education differs significantly from the forms of education to which many of the tertiary students are accustomed. Rural education often involves isolation. It frequently requires the use of telecommunications technology as a delivery medium. Regularly participants are required to work independently on individual courses of study. Direct interaction with instructors can be minimal or non-existent particularly if the participants are studying through a correspondence mode.

In past years this course had used conventional teaching methods in its program delivery. Students were exposed to the procedures and practices within rural education settings through such activities as formal lectures, site visits, observation of classroom activities as well as reading and reviewing relevant literature. This form of delivery provided the students with a broad view of the nature of teaching and learning in rural education and with elementary skills of a practical nature. Unfortunately the knowledge and skills tended to be general and peripheral to actual applications, a factor that has been found to limit the development of a full understanding of the technology and its applications (eg., Robinson, 1993; Downes, 1993; Byrum & Cashman, 1993).

Theoretical Framework

The intention of this project was to develop a curriculum to more effectively instruct teacher-education students in the use of telecommunications technologies and teaching and learning in rural settings. The design of the curriculum was based on contemporary learning theories that espouse the value of knowledge construction rather than knowledge transmission. The relationship between teaching and learning is based very much on the types and levels of activity that the teaching engenders in the learners. Cognitive psychology has told us many things about the nature of knowledge and learning. We know that learners receive knowledge from environmental stimuli and that learning depends on how that knowledge is used. Piaget (1954 ) argues that information is coded and learned according to the meaning ascribed by the learner. Bruner (1960) showed that developing and establishing relationships between items of knowledge are critical to learning. He used the term 'meaningful learning' to describe that which accompanied the construction of links to existing knowledge. Ausubel (1960) went further to describe the need for instruction to build networks and frameworks into which new knowledge could be placed with meaningful links and connections. From this early work, it has long been accepted that learning is enhanced by active environments in which students have cause to be engaged and reflective in learning process. Contemporary educational thought supports the notion that students learn through a process of constructing knowledge. Constructivists believe that knowledge is gained by learners through a process of knowledge building. When a learner is confronted with new knowledge, the learner's intentions, previous experiences and metacognitive strategies are all essential elements in determining what becomes of the knowledge. The learner is regarded not as an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured, but more as an individual replete with pre-existing knowledge, aptitudes and motivations (Reeves, 1993).

Generative Learning

It was our intention in framing this project to create a curriculum that could support a Constructivist learning environment. We wished the students to become active learners who would process lesson content through generative activities. Wittrock (1974) describes generative processing as deep processing that emerges from activities that cause students to interpret and assimilate new information into existing mental structures and to reorganise existing structures in the light of newly interpreted information. Another aim of the project was to create an environment that facilitated higher levels of learner control than might normally be evident in conventional teaching.

Learner Control

Traditionally, the role of the teacher in most university environments is didactic. In settings where the teacher assumes a more facilitative role, students are observed to be more active in the learning process. Rather than attending to a teacher-student dialogue, the students can be working in a more autonomous role either individually or among themselves. When teachers facilitate learning, the level of student control is raised. Learner control has been a heavily researched dimension of learning environments in recent years (Steinberg, 1989).

Contextual Learning

The earliest type of systematic learning activity probably involved some sort of apprenticeship whereby a novice worked side by side with a master. Apprenticeships have high concrete and experiential value. More abstract learning activities, for example, classroom lectures, were developed much later in history. A major criticism of much of our current dominant pedagogical schemes is that they are too abstract, removed as they are from 'real world' experience (cf., Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).

An important concern for educators and trainers alike is the degree to which classroom learning transfers to external situations in which the application of knowledge, skills, and attitudes is appropriate. The cognitive theories of Newell and Simon (1972), Anderson (1983), Brown (1985), and others support the fundamental principle that the way in which knowledge, skills, and attitudes are initially learned plays an important role in the degree to which these abilities can be used in other contexts. To put it simply, if knowledge, skills, and attitudes are learned in a context of use, they will be used in that and similar contexts. This principle is especially important in vocational education.


To provide students with a learning environment that involved all these elements of constructive learning, it was proposed to integrate the content of the teaching and the delivery medium. A course was proposed that incorporated a rural education medium, telematics, to teach about rural education. Telematics is the technology that enables simultaneous interactive communication between teacher and students using telecommunications. It is used widely in local schools for the delivery of educational programmes to rural schools. Applying the technology in this fashion seemed to provide a learning environment that would be meaningful and effective (eg., Haywood & Norman, 1988; Diem, 1989: Novak & Knowles, 1991). The full range of issues and subject content relating to rural education could be treated in a manner that was likely to increase the likelihood of transfer and generalisibilty of the skills and knowledge (Brown, 1985).

The Telematics Course

A curriculum was developed for implementation in an external mode to enable the students to experience first-hand the advantages, difficulties and disadvantages associated with teaching and learning with this medium. The curriculum was developed for telematics implementation around a series of 5 one hour lessons with support materials for independent student use. The curriculum was planned to be implemented in a virtual classroom among groups of students using telematics in various locations across campuses. It was intended that students would receive instruction through attendance in telematics lessons and would then independently complete a series of prescribed tasks and activities.

Through this form of delivery, it was intended that students would learn:

Figure 1 Figure 1: Telematics Teaching and Learning
Telematics is a technology that enables simultaneous interactive communication between a teacher and students at remote locations. The technology integrates telephony and interactive computer conferencing.

Course Materials

Because this course was to be delivered in an external form, a range of learning materials was developed to form the basis of the independent student activity. It was planned that students would attend the telematics sessions to establish a learning program but the bulk of the learning would be undertaken independently and collaboratively in the students' own time. The materials that were prepared included:
Figure 2Figure 2: Sample Operating Instructions for DUCT

Connecting the DUCT System

  1. All cables connected and the power supply on,
  2. lift the telephone and dial,
  3. when the caller responds, click the line switch down, the light shows,
  4. replace the handset , the microphone and loudspeaker can now be used.

Figure 2 shows a sample section from an instruction manual. Independent activities were prepared that required students to use these instructions to become competent and self-sufficient users of the various technologies.

Course Delivery

The program of instruction was delivered as planned in the form of a series of 5 half hour telematics lessons supported by many independent learning activities. The telematics lessons were delivered by the lecturer from a remote campus. Another lecturer acted in a support capacity to the students in much the same way as local teachers coordinate school-based telematics programs. Across the 5 week period, students were expected to complete all the assigned tasks leading to the final act of personally planning and delivering a practice telematics lesson.

Throughout the course, communication with the distant lecturer was limited to the telematics technology and telephone, a restriction that was used to make students fully aware of the conditions and limitations of learning through such technologies. Throughout the course, records were kept of the students' progress in the different activities and three months after the course, the students were asked to complete a questionnaire to gather more specific details of their attitudes and responses to learning through these means.


Student responses provided strong feedback to suggest that the course was both effective and efficient in achieving its objectives. The project was conducted among 23 students in the third year of their pre-service teaching degree. Most had minimal computing experience. Previous computer experience in the group ranged from very limited use of computer-assisted learning packages to having used a word processor for assignment preparation. The technology emphasis in this course required students to significantly extend their practical computing skills and knowledge.

The questionnaire completed by the students sought responses to the following questions:

Course Strengths

The aspect of the course that most students regarded as its prime strength was its practical and hands-on format. Most students commented in very favourable terms on value they saw being gained from practical activities. Other aspects that were seen to be strengths included the collaborative nature of the learning environment, the capacity to work in groups and the high levels of participation. The students enjoyed working with the technology and felt that the independent nature of the learning led to confidence building in the use of the various pieces of hardware and software. It was interesting to note that many of the attributes of distance learning that often are seen as impediments to successful teaching and learning, for example, independent learning, were seen by these students as strengths.

Course Weaknesses

Students noted a number of weaknesses in the way in which the course was delivered. Interestingly these weaknesses were all brought about by the remote learning environment and the incapacity of the technology to fully mimic face-to-face teaching. In a normal course students would have been told what the weaknesses were. In this course, they learned about them first-hand. The students would have preferred to have met the distant instructor. They felt that this limited the knowledge they could draw from his experience. In fact, the knowledge they drew from being distant probably significantly outweighed that which would have been gained from direct contact.

The students felt that the course itself was of too short a duration and would have preferred more time to work with the technology and prepare their teaching sequences. This can be quite easily remedied in future implementations by breaking this component of the course into non-contiguous blocks.

Comparison With Conventional Instruction

All students saw strong comparisons between the new format and conventional modes of teaching. Students were asked to comment on what aspects they saw as superior and inferior. There were many more examples of superiority given. The superior elements tended to be those associated with active and constructive learning. The students recognised the value of the approach through the experience and learning that was achieved. Those aspects listed as inferior tended to relate to restrictions caused by teaching with telematics and as such were strong and contributory components of the teaching program.


The students were very positive in their descriptions of what they learned and retained. The questionnaire was completed many months after the end of the course to provide some time for the course content to wane. Most students considered that they retained a strong level of knowledge of the principles and practices covered in the course. Many considered that they needed more experience with the technology but at the same time knew the areas where their weaknesses lay and had the means to overcome these in the form of self-paced instructional materials.

Most Effective Components

There was little agreement in student responses about those components of the course that each judged to be most effective. Some considered the planning and delivery of their own telematics lesson to be the most useful component while others considered the class telematics sessions to be the most effective. It was expected that the students would rate the practical and technology-based activities as those through which most was learned. Many students rated the reading and video viewing as activities of high educational value. It was apparent that among the group there was a range of preferred learning styles and the availability of a wide range of activities and learning opportunities provided an environment that appeared to cater well for all students.


The purpose of this project was to create and implement a learning environment based on contemporary learning theories to seek enhanced learning outcomes in a pre-service teacher education course. The module that was created provided a setting where students were able to construct their own meaning and understanding of issues and outcomes arising from the use of telecommunications technologies as a delivery medium for distance and rural education. The outcomes and initial findings from an implementation of these ideas has provided very positive results. The project has demonstrated a powerful alternative to the conventional teaching format, one which is both efficient as a delivery medium and effective in the outcomes that are achieved.


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Please cite as: Oliver, R. and Lake, M. (1996). Teaching and learning with distance education technologies: A tertiary perspective. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p111-117. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/oliver.html

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