Distance Learning on the Internet


Shuiping Gu
Electrical Engineering Department
Helsinki University of Technology


This paper presents an overview on distance learning, its history and importance. It then deals with the ways in which the Internet can enhance distance learning and discusses the possible services Internet provides in distance learning, including E-mail and MOO, vedeoconferencing, world wide web. It also gives the computer equipment requirement for distance learning classrooms.

1 Introduction

1.1 What's Distance Education?

The term Distance Learning is often interchanged with Distance Education ( and it will be use this way in this paper). However, this is inaccurate since Distance Education includes distance teaching--the instructor's role in the process--and distance learning --the students' role in the process.[6, 12]

Advances in telecommunication technologies, changing student demographics and the seemingly ever present need to increase and sustain enrollment has renewed interest in distance education. Distance education, however, differs from traditional classroom instruction in two significant respects:

These differences have significant implications for the design and delivery of instruction. A new distance education is not just an old class with new technology. Effective design and delivery requires considerable effort by a team of instructors, course designers, technicians, administrators, and students.[5]

1.2 What is the History of Distance Education?

Over the past century, distance education (DE) has evolved through several generations. In the mid to late 1800s, correspondence or home study became a legitimate form of education with the development of inexpensive postal services in Europe and across the United States. Instructors sent readings, study guides and other print materials by mail to students who gained credit for successfully completing specified assignments. The correspondence model became the 1st generations of DE, which is still the predominent method outside of the United States. The advent of Open Unversities and the use of boardcast and recorded media represent the 2nd generation of DE. In the late 1960's and early 1970's educators began to experiment with the use of radios, televisions, audiotapes, and telephones in combination with study guides and local library resources to provide educational opportunities to students who were isolated from instructors by geographic distance.

Advances in interactive and digital technologies form the basis for the 3rd generation of DE. Currently, educators are delivering instruction to students in remote locations via interactive television, electronic networks and computer-based multimedia systems. The primary difference between 2nd and 3rd generation DE is that 3rd generation DE allows educators and students to communicate through both synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous audio, video, text and/or graphics. We are now beginning to see the development of a 4th generation of distance education which combines the concepts associated with Electronic Performance Support Systems (i.e., tools, information, training, and advisement) with network based delivery systems. These programs provide users with just-in-time training, information and support through both synchronous and asynchronous audio, video, text or graphic communications provided by a computer or by actual people.

1.3 Why is Distance Education important right now?

Distance education is becoming important for several reasons. First, as we continue to move into the information age, the exponential accumulation of information and rapid changes in information and technology necessitates on-going education and professional development. Conservative estimates suggest that to remain competitive, individuals will require at least 30 credit hours of instruction every 7 years. That's almost equivalent to a master's degree every 7 years. Second, student demographics continue to change. A much higher percentage of university students are older, have children and work full-time. Convenience is of upmost importance. Third, to address the changing student demographics, many institutes of higher education must provide distance education if they are to sustain or increase enrollment.

2 Distance Education Delivery Systems

There are two categories of distance education delivery systems, synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction requires the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. The advantage of synchronous instruction is that interaction is done in "real time." Forms of synchronous delivery include Interactive TV, audiographics, computerconferencing, IRC, and MOO.

Asynchronous instruction does not require the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. Students do not need to be gathered together in the same location at the same time. Rather, students may choose their own instructional time frame and gather learning materials according to their schedules. Asynchronous instruction is more flexible than synchronous instruction. Moreover, in the case of telecommunications such as email, asynchronous instruction allows and even may encourage community development. Forms of asynchronous delivery include email, listservs, audiocassette courses, videotaped courses, correspondence courses, and WWW-based courses (though WWW will probably offer synchronous formats in the near future).

The advantages of asynchronous delivery include student choice of location and time, and (in the case of telecommunications such as email) interaction opportunities for all students. A disadvantage to consider with email-based interaction is the considerable written exchange, which could really pile up.

3 The use of the Internet in distance education

Distance education and education in general have profited from the increasing popularity of and access to the Internet. Services that have been found to be of use for distance learners and instructors include the World Wide Web, MOOs (MUD Object Oriented), e-mail and videoconferencing.[11,9]

3.1 E-mail and MOO

Since distance learners are physically isolated both from the instructor and other learners, they also run the risk of getting "lost" with possible problems whether they be related to the technology used or to other issues. Regular and frequent communication should, therefore, be made an essential part of distance education so that all parties can efficiently use the options offered and feel comfortable using them.[7]

Though e-mail is perhaps the most widely used service on the Internet, many educators feel it is under-utilized in education. In addition to simple communication, it is also used for distributing course material; in fact, some distance education courses rely entirely on e-mail. 'Normal' e-mail can be enhanced by using newsgroups or bulletin boards organized by topic. Not only learners, but also instructors can profit from such discussion forums, which provide teachers with the opportunity to interact with other teachers around the world, exchanging lesson plans and discussing tried and tested methods.

As mentioned above, MOOs offer a type of communication that resembles 'natural' communication to some extent. Obviously, synchronous communication also presents problems that are not felt in asynchronous communication: scheduling meetings so that everyone can take part may prove to be difficult if participants live in time zones wide apart. Practical matters apart, MOOs have been found to offer a good forum for 'class' discussion and learner-learner communication in a variety of settings, such as 'class' rooms, student cafés and online parties. MOOs make it possible for students - and teachers - to interact with people from other countries and cultures and thus also provide a way of practicing foreign languages. This will be discussed in more detail below.

Basic learning styles vary considerably. Text-based MOOs are not the ideal learning environment for learners who rely heavily on audio and graphical material. Improvements to this are, however, on their way. For example, the Intel Distributed MOO - formerly known as Moondo, Chaco Communications' 'Pueblo' and 'The Palace' from Palace Inc. all offer graphics (2D and 3D) as well as audio chat in addition to the traditional text chat. Pueblo also displays music and hypertext.

3.2 Videoconferencing - CU-SeeMe

One problem with communicating via e-mail or a MOO is the fact that participants are unable to see each others gestures and expressions. Both of these are elements of communication that people rely on heavily when interpreting other speakers' utterances in face-to-face situations. If videoconferencing can be made low-cost and easy to use, it may become a viable option for distance learning purposes as well. One attempt to give users a chance to try videoconferencing without a lot of hassle is Cornell University's CU-SeeMe software that, together with a digitizer camera, provides inexpensive videoconferencing.[4,10]

CU-SeeMe is available at no cost for Macintosh and PC Windows platforms. For example, a Windows setup requires 1) a 386 or 486 processor depending on user needs to send video and include audio 2) a video capture board that supports Microsoft Video for Windows and a video camera to be plugged into the board for sending and receiving video 3) a sound board that conforms to Windows MultiMedia Specification along with speakers and a microphone for sending and receiving audio. The basic setup provides connections between only two CU-SeeMe users. Though such point-to-point connections may be sufficient for many tasks, group discussion, seminars, etc. obviously call for additional devices. If multiparty conferencing is required, users need a reflector with which they can connect to different locations. Reflectors - servers running the Cu-SeeMe Reflector program - accept up to 24 clients.

CU-SeeMe has been used for online courses and seminars, office hours at a distance, and real-time communication between students, teachers and professionals. The 'Scientist on Tap' experiment at the Global Schoolhouse offered 12 to 13-year-olds and their teachers the chance to meet live scientists, who presented their field and answered questions posed by the 'audience'. Though the experiments in scientist-learner interaction were conducted in connection with in-class courses, they could be equally well suited for distance learning.

Some CU-SeeMe users have reported difficulties in connecting Macintosh and DOS-based systems. Other sources of potential problems are modem speeds and Internet connections: though CU-SeeMe software requirements call for 28.8 modems, T1 and ISDN connections have been found to be highly recommendable. In addition to technical problems, usability problems have also made using CU-SeeMe difficult. Users have found instructions difficult to understand and have actually preferred to communicate with the phone, instead. This may partly be due to the fact that users feel talking to a computer is unnatural.

3.3 World Wide Web

The WWW offers a wide variety of activities for all types of learning. One of the major advantages of the Web is the ability of hypertext to cater to various learning styles and needs. As long as the Web material used is well constructed, it offers learners the possibility of proceeding in a non-linear manner, looking up additional information from various sources with the help of links when needed. Different types of examples for learners with a different level of knowledge can be easily incorporated in the material making it easier for individual learners to construct the material so as to best suit their particular needs and level. With all the information available on the Web, instructors can guide learners to a number of easily-accessible sources with, perhaps, different approaches to a given subject. Also related to the attempts to serve all learner types equally well is the possibility of integrating audio and visual material into the more traditional text.

Due to the nature of the WWW, instructors are not compelled to write huge amounts of new material themselves if they decide to begin using the web for educational purposes. Good, ready-made material already exists on the WWW. In addition, it is well documented in various lists catering to instructors, and thus easily accessible. Due to the fact that publications on the Web do not undergo rigorous filtering or editing, great care must, however, be taken to ensure that the material to be used is reliable. Several good points to consider have been listed in Thinking critically about World Wide Web Resources. Obviously, if a teacher wants to use the WWW to its full advantage, some extra work will be called for. Looking for new, relevant links and constructing extensive material expressly designed to meet specific needs is likely to be a time-consuming task. At least in theory, it should be a lot easier to add and update web material than rewrite and reprint books, for example. In real life, however, one constantly runs into problems, such as one's favorite pages disappearing or changing location.

MendelWeb - an introduction to basic genetics - is often mentioned in connection with exemplary Web material that efficiently exploits the possibilities offered by hypertext. The site contains background material, Mendel's original paper in German and its translation with links to a dictionary and other essays related to the subject. There is also the MendelRoom, an educational MOO aimed at providing learners using MendelWeb with a chance to interact with other learners working on or interested in the same topic. Ideas for discussion topics and homework assignments are also given.

4 Equipment for Distance Learning Classrooms

The following table gives the computer equipment requirement for distance learning classrooms.[2,3,8]


Absolute minimum configuration

Average configuration

Best configuration

Minimal Performance Acceptable performance Good performance
No future Limited future Good future prospects
If you have a machine like this, you will be able to use it until you obtain funding for a new system. Internet (World Wide Web) software runs poorly (if at all) with less than this minimum configuration. Video conferencing and other advanced features are not available with this configuration. If you have a system with this configuration, you shouldn't need to purchase a new system. If you lack any of the listed features, you should upgrade your system. This upgrade should offer significant savings compared to a new system. If you need a new system, use this as a minimum specification for the purchase.
CPU Configuration 486 DX2/66 MHz or higher Pentium 133 MHz or higher Pentium II 233 MHz or higher
Operating System Windows `95 Windows `95 or higher Windows `95 or higher
Memory 8 MB RAM 16 MB RAM 32 MB RAM or more
Hard drive 50 MB free hard drive space 200 MB free hard drive space 400 MB free hard drive space
Monitor 14" or larger SVGA monitor 15" or larger SVGA monitor 17" or larger SVGA monitor
Modem 28.8 or higher modem 33.6 or higher modem, ISDN or Internet via Ethernet 56K modem, ISDN or Internet via Ethernet
Sound Windows '95 compatible sound card and speakers Windows '95 compatible sound card and speakers Windows '95 compatible sound card and speakers
Microphone Handheld or desktop model Handheld or desktop model Conferencing multi-person table top model
CD ROM Drive double speed quad speed or higher 12/24x speed or higher
Printer Color ink jet Color ink jet and access to laser Color ink jet and access to laser
Video Camera
none Video Blaster WebCam II Video Blaster WebCam II

5 Conclusions

Compared to a traditional distance education system, here are the points we have found avdantageous for the use of Internet.[1]

  1. The training centers can distribute the knowledge on a large scale (to the entire world)
  2. The reduction of mailing costs: Internet allows distribution of pages without the overhead associated to printing costs and transport.
  3. All information can be corrected and updated in one go for all users from only one server site.
  4. Interactivity allows several teaching technics such as text, images, communication between teachers and learners and between learners.
  5. Internet allows for collaborative writing.
  6. It allows for students to give feedback more easily.


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< http://www.wested.org/tie/dlrn/distance.html>