Newsletter #484 – Learning from a Distance

About twenty years ago I recorded an introductory psychology course. For thirty hours I faced a camera and gave lectures—same teacher, same setting, same camera angle, different topics. Students later paid to watch the videos, took multiple-choice exams and accumulated credit hours toward their degrees. I tried to make this interesting but even I was bored with my lectures. This wasn’t a high point of my teaching career but it was something new and we did the best we could.

Today distance learning is different and mostly better. Top universities, medical and business schools, organizations and professional associations all offer online courses, information and updates. Least effective are programs involving passive watching or listening to pre-recorded lectures like the ones I recorded. In contrast, evidence-based research shows that highly effective learning can come through interactive educational experiences where students and teachers connect face-to-face in virtual learning environments. “Putting information on line is not the same as educating,” says an article in Fast Company (June, 2012). Instead “we have to build communities… between teachers and students but also among students.” Monitor on Psychology (June, 2012) cites a US Department of Education finding that “students whose programs combined both online and face-to-face elements had better learning outcomes than those in purely online or purely face-to-face programs.” Like my colleagues I now lead online courses that involve live class meetings, small group interactions, frequent student-teacher contact, video clips. live demonstrations and sometimes stimulating discussions among people logging in from around the world. Here is more from the Monitor:

  • Effectiveness depends on the subject matter. Online learning of facts can be good; online skill learning is much less effective unless there is also ongoing,  face-to-face supervision and experience.
  • Frequently, online degree programs are not eligible for professional certification. “Most licensing boards won’t allow people to be licensed if their education has been conducted primarily or substantially online.”
  • Blended training (combining both online and face-to-face components) is not light-weight education. When done effectively this takes more faculty and student preparation and time than traditional learning.
  • Researchers, educators, universities and training organizations are developing partnerships and guidelines to insure high effectiveness in distance learning.

What are your observations or experiences with distance learning? Please comment.


  1. How do we overcome the bias against distance learning? How do we over come the need for those who have overspent on an education and out of guilt make sure there is a bias that the only way to learn has to be to overspend on egotistical organizations and professors. In an age where information is so free and abundant why is it that the only way society sees as a legitimate way to learn has to be going in so far in debt lives are ruined. I see debt as unbiblical in most cases which means as a Christian who wants to follow the Biblical principle of not going into debt many of those poorer Christians will not be able to pursue many career avenues. I am a product of distance learning and as a result have been trapped by this bias. As I recently did a teaching on a subject for group I was able to go back and review the lectures I had pertaining to the subject matter and refresh myself before going stage and making the presentation. That can not be done with institution setting learning, yet the classes I took are considered inferior because these same teachers who teach at institutions provided the lesson on a DVD instead of a lecture hall. If I had the same lectures in a lecture hall I could get licensed.and go before boards for certification, but as a distance learner the same information relegates me to joblessness in my field of study. Learning is not about where it is taught but rather by the heart that is learning. Your promotion of this study is one more example of such bias being brought forth by the education institution making sure they have a monopoly in education that makes sure they can blackmail society into destroying their financial futures to get accreditation controlled by the monopoly. This ensures their so called intellectual elite-ness. I too have spent hard earned dollars on eduction and I can tell I learned from the institution and learned from distance and for me one was not inferior to the other with the exception of one being accredited learning and the other having the benefit of being able to be reviewed in the future to ensure I still had the befit of the knowledge. There is a place for both but education snobs will make sure it is done in a way that they can control it, ensuring their system maintains prominence and profit. And it is easy for them now because those who fallen into the trap are desperate to know the excess of money they spent in this games not only was not wasted needlessly but helps them be in control as well. They can look down on the little people not as smart as them. More less than Biblical thinking being ingrained in Christians through the world of education. And they wonder why western Christianity is falling apart.


    1. Robert I think your lengthy response is more a comment on the education system in general and you raise good points. I find a lot of what we do is against what we know about learning and, I agree that much of what we do in education circles is around money. I’ve struggled with distance learning (even as I try to do it well) but along with its weaknesses it has a lot of strengths especially if it is done well. Sadly it often is done poorly.


      1. Or could it just be my attempt to make the small dollars I spent on an AACC light university diploma mean something. I think the quality of an education is not in the program but rather in the student. I knew a college grad in math arrested because he could not balance a check book. I have more examples but I am sure you do too. Thank you for your reply Bob

      2. Robert, I agree that many programs promise a lot but are not so great on the delivery. You are right, good distance education depends more on the involvement of people and learning communities more than passively watching some pre-recorded video tapes.

  2. Preliminary thoughts: I think one key in ANY learning situation is having students read or watch information BEFOREHAND, take notes and then later lead them in a good discussion so that the ideas become their own convictions. But who will lead the discussion, the instructor in a face-to-face classroom or live Skype setting, or students or other leaders apart from the course instructor? If the discussion is led by others, how can we guarantee good quality discussion? Focus on the Family’s “Truth Project” and “True U” project took the latter approach, but I was less than satisfied. The local discussion leaders were not really good. BTW, I thought that the “True U” lectures were more clearly constructed and thus easier to understand and remember.


    1. Duane I appreciate people like you who look at distance learning carefully and try to make it better. I think it CAN lead to better interaction if it is done well but when it just involves passively watching a talking head video it is the worst – especially if participants are led to believe that they are learning marketable skills. In part I think that is what has bothered Robert.


      1. Distance learning, perhaps like any kind of learning situation, depends on the teacher having very clear goals. What do I want the student to get from the session? If I simply want them to get information, then less interaction is perhaps necessary.

        However, if I want people to learn a skill, then I have found, in live teaching situations, that I will want to model the behavior IN the class session (often in a real life skit), discuss what I did,and then have the students practice it IN the class session and then receive feedback on how they did and to discuss it amongst themselves. Finally, I do a wrap-up summation. If I don’t have the students practice the skill IN class, it will NOT be used after class. I am guessing that this paradigm would also probably apply to distance learning situations.

        A short book that was very helpful to me, about 30 years ago, was “Preparing Instructional Objectives.” It stressed the need to know exactly what I wanted to accomplish during a teaching session.

  3. It seems that formal distance learning has, in most cases, emerged out of the 1960s-1970s cultural (youth) protests in Western countries. This was certainly the case for France: students were complaining about many things including traditional forms of teaching and education. As a result, distance learning was one of the unexpected outcome of France’s May ’68 cultural revolution. However, it did not take off. Today, though accredited junior and high school distance learning curriculum exist and though any household could opt for homeschooling (CNED), only a minority go that way. there are several reasons already previously mentioned. First, distance learning goes against an “established” educational model that has been and remain prevalent (especially true in France). Second, distance learning does not offer a sense of belonging to a learning community. Third, distance learning suffer from lac of board accreditations.

    I do not have an answer to this question but I am genuinely wondering what has motivated Ivy league universities to offer some classes online via iTunesU. Is is simply a marketing hook or a first attempt to move into a new era in distance learning?


    1. To the writer from France I respect your perspective and analysis but I respectfully challenge some of your conclusions. I think distance learning arose more from the research in learning theory as influenced by B.F. Skinner. I was around during the 1960’s revolutions and I don’t remember anything about distance learning – but I do remember the early teaching machines that came from behaviorism and learning research. I suspect distance learning had more to do with advances in technology. You mention that there is no community in distance learning. I teach doctoral students in on-line courses and I see more community and involvement than I saw in the traditional classroom (although I agree that this depends on the kind of classroom and the kind of distance learning). My students interact with each other every week, have discussions and work on projects even though they live in different parts of the world. The Fast Company article I mentioned stresses “communities of learning.” And some of the toughest accreditation demands and standards come from accrediting agencies who do not want distance learning to be second class learning. The result is tough standards.


      1. This current discussion on distance learning is an example of distance learning and what is possible. Again, I think it depends on what we want to accomplish. Cognitive learning, such as learning theology, can certainly be done online, while learning interpersonal skills would be tougher, just like they are tougher to develop in a regular classroom.

      2. Duane, I agree with you completely. Distance learning is very effective for some training but needs to be supplemented with other kinds of training for different goals. Of course this keeps changing as distance learning gets more sophisticated. I teach in Regent University’s fully accredited PhD program in Counselor Education and Supervision. It is a rigorous, highly interactive program. The students are very much in communities of learners. But we don’t try to teach counseling skills on line. For that there needs to be face-to-face interaction and in-person supervision. A lot can be done if distance learning is done well but you can’t become a counselor (coach or leader) if you don’t counsel (coach or lead) with live supervision and guidance. I understand why licensing boards do not give credentials to people who have all of their training on-line. I am distressed that some on line degree institutions do not let thir beginning students know this.

      3. Thank you for your perspective. What I shared – I was probably not clear enough – sorry – it was certainly not my own perspective but how French people, educational system perceived distance learning – in the French context.

        For those who want more about distance learning development in French culture see Jean Brun, A la recherche du paradis perdu (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France) particularly pp. 99+

        I enrolled in a distance learning class at a U.S seminary 15 years ago and, at that time, I discovered a new way of distance learning – efficient distance learning. Courses were on videos or audio tapes (yes – that was 15 years ago) What was mind-blowing to me was that the seminary allowed distance learning students to request and receive books from their libraries (they were actually shipping the books overseas – up to three books! – at the students’ expenses) The curriculum professor was available by phone on office hours and a tutor was available outside these office hours and by email. Though I was kilometers away – I felt part of a community within that seminary. It was a great, and a new distance learning experience for me, back then.

        At that time, distance learning methods were very different in the U.S and in France. Today, France has not invested into distance learning methods and curriculum. We have a long way to go in France – if French educational system ever want to go that way one day….

      4. I so appreciate your message and clarification. One of my closest friends was born and raised in La Defense and still lives in Paris. He and I have discussed education many times. He has degrees from French and American Universities and soon will have his PhD from a British University in London. It interests me to see how differently distance learning is done. The US school you describe was progressive (I hope they still are) but the French are not the only educators who sometimes ignore distance learning or who do it poorly. There are many of those people in North America as well. Are you in a position or are you motivated to try to bring improvements where you are?

  4. so what really is the difference between some prerecorded videotape and sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor.
    1. in the hall I was sometimes distracted by life’s issues
    2. I only got to hear the lecture once

    with the tapes I get to view them at my pleasure ensuring a time when I can pay attention.
    I also get the benefit of being able to view them again if I want to. I have been able to use this in preparing teachings.

    While I was at college I never got to speak to the professor, at best I got some advanced student who really wanted to prove they were advanced and not teach.

    I also had to learn at some pre-arranged pace that bored me to failure. with tapes I can learn at a pace that fits my ability to learn.

    I know some people can not learn well outside of a classroom where they are babysit, but some people have a life skill set that makes classroom settings a coarse for failure. Why can we not recognize that learning can be done both ways? I am self taught at the guitar. I have taught students to play the guitar. I have recorded songs and have a CD yet I can not get a job at a school teaching music, not because of what I know or don’t know but because of the lack of a piece of paper from a so called accredited school. I have studied Christian counseling because as a Pastor of a startup church I wanted to be a better servant. I have read many books magazines and followed websites of Christian counseling organizations. for around six years, and have recently received my advanced diploma from the distance learning school. I have led a support group for two years and been part of the supporting cast of another for three years. Yet people like you would tell me because I do not have a degree from an accredited school what I have learned is meaningless.

    I find it interesting that for someone who has been put in the situation he is in because of book sales which is a form of distance learning in itself, you can take the stance you do. Yes I have studied not just read the big yellow book. that is part of why I follow your blog. nI respect you tremendously. But as a person who has not the money to do learning the way the educationally elite would have me learn I really take offense to being told learning the way I have is useless and can not be of value. If that were really the case why would such learning be acceptable as continuing education credits. It just shows the hipocracy of the system. overpaid professors just want to keep being overpaid. They want to have the percieved power to control. Its politics not education. distance learning has been done and worked for years as correspondence courses and accepted in the armed forces as a befit to soldiers.

    I am upset because I see myself as a victim. I am upset because I am limited in using my gift to help more as a Christian. I am upset because as a workers I if I want to work as I feel led by the Lord can not seem to to so with wage. Why must I be nothing more than a volunteer simply because of the lack of a piece of paper signed by some greedy power hungry professor who in reality gives me less than the tapes and books I have learned from?

    For give me for making this so personal. I find that having a person of your stature respond to me as unusual. please do not feel my contempt directed at you but at the system. I am guilty of rebelling against the system which did not really work for me and I am paying the price. I am frustrated.



    1. Bib, I hear you. I had some courses where the prof was so boring, it was incredible that I learned anything. The one advantage of in-class learning was that the prof sometimes get feedback when they are not communicating clearly. I benefited from being able to listen to other students ask for clarification of a point, as well as being able to ask my questions.

      As to your other, and broader, point, I have encountered similar frustrations. Actually, I think most people have run into situations where people make a quick first impression and won’t consider what they have to offer. Many people quickly look for a credential. It is one of the quickest and easiest (laziest) ways of Quality Control. If we could instead present them with a portfolio of our work and accomplishments, we could maybe gain more credibility.

      So I don’t blame the educational system. They are often just reacting and taking advantage of what employers want. I blame employers who insist on a credential, even though that does not guarantee quality. Practical example: Calvary Chapel churches often grow quickly because their young pastors have NOT gone through a standard seminary, but instead have been trained in apprenticeship manner in pastoral internships. That then is what the new CC churches are looking for. Not a standard M.Div degree. Many people in the secular business world are calling for a system where people can be certified on their skill sets, irrespective of where they obtained those skills.


    2. Thank you Robert. I can appreciate your frustrations. I share some similar struggles with the academic and professional worlds. When you are a victim of course you feel anger and it is easy to lash out, especially when there seems to be nothing else to do.

      Of course there are different styles of learning and traditional ways are not always best. I taught in seminary settings for 25 years and I agree that sometimes (but not always) that kind of education destroys people in ministry and drains students of the spiritual dynamic that they brought to school.

      I would like to suggest however, that some of your responses are unfair to some of us who went another route. I don’t recall saying that what you learned is “useless and can not be of value.” I don’t believe that. You describe people like me as being “overpaid” and wanting to stay “overpaid.” You say people who sign diplomas are “greedy power hungry professors.” For some that may be true but I know a lot more who are underpaid and overworked. I think that is true, by the way, of most book authors. There are greedy, power-hungry people in many professions, including ministry and education, but I think it is unfair to describe all with these words. A lot of us are controlled by accrediting agencies and state licensing laws but we don’t get far by hurling charges at people.

      I applaud you for your courage in stating your feelings and I have no problem with people rebelling against the system (to use your terms). But sometimes this can turn into bitterness that does not help the situation and ultimately destroys the critic. You are competent enough to turn your frustration into something that makes things better.

      I struggled with how to respond to your memo. I appreciate Duane’s gracious response. I hope you perceive this in a positive way as well. You are right to feel victimized but please recognize that we who write books or are in education are not all victimizers and many of us share your attitudes. Thanks for being honest with me.




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