Sunday, February 23, 2014

Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy

In "Three generations of distance education pedagogy", Anderson and Dron (2010) claim an analysis of distance education (DE) based on the pedagogy used, rather than the technology. They criticise past theorists for being technologically deterministic, by categorising DE by the technology used: paper post, broadcast and interactive. However, by limiting their analysis to DE only, Anderson and Dron are technologically deterministic by categorising all education into two types: DE and non-DE. A better approach would be to look at learning in general and then see if some techniques are applicable to DE.

Three Generations of Pedagogy

  1. Cognitive Behaviourist (CB): Anderson and Dron (2010) identify CB as an approach from the second half of the 20th Century  focusing on changed behaviour of the learner in response to stimuli. As they point out this has been more popular for vocational training, than university education, when technology was limited to many-to-one (that is broadcast) communication. In making this last point, Anderson and Dron seem to be slipping back into a technologically deterministic analysis. They go to discuss Cognitive Presence, Social Presence and Teaching Presence. Anderson and Dron note that a lack of Social Presence (that is a sense of the presence of fellow students) does not adversely effect learning outcomes. But as a distance education student, I find the lack of student interaction very lonely and stressful. As a teacher I find peer pressure a strong motivator of students. Anderson and Dron note that Teaching Presence is reduced with the use of packaged learning materials for DE. However, this does not not appear to be a consequence of DE itself, but a business model used by DE (there are also very impersonal pre-packaged face-to-face classes). Anderson and Dron attribute resentment with this impersonal approach to "traditional educators". However, I teach on-line and don't like the impersonal approach.  As an on-line learner I find the lack of presence of the teacher very stressful. So in my own classes I provide feedback to the class and to individual students, at least weekly (this obviously can only be done where the institutions funds this). As a studnet if I don;t hear personally from the teacher occasionaly, then I wonder what I am paying thousands of doallrs for (I might was well read a $100 textbook). Anderson and Dron summarise the benefits of CB being the scaling of DE to  large numbers of students at lower cost, but with obvious limitations of inflexibility.
  2. Social-Constructivist: Social-constructivist pedagogy sees the learner constructing their own metal model to integrate new knowledge. Anderson and Dron (2010) point out that this approach coincided with the availability of two-way communication technologies (which further undermines their supposed non-technologically deterministic approach). They see social interaction as key to constructivist pedagogy. Anderson and Dron state that "At a distance, this interaction
    is always mediated ...". This appears to be intended to say that some form of communications technology is required. However, all communication requires some media: even when speaking in a face-to-face classroom, there are limitations of the media (everyone can't speak at once, for example). Anderson and Dron describe constructivist distance education as an advance "through to the use of synchronous and asynchronous, human communications-based learning". However, here they seem to be stuck back in technological determinism and it is not clear what is meant by "human communications".
  3. Connectivist Pedagogy: The  Connectivist approach emphasises the ability to  find and apply knowledge, rather memorise facts. Showing their technological determinism  again, Anderson and Dron (2010) assert that "connectivist models ... would have been inconceivable as forms of distance learning were the World Wide Web not available to mediate the process". This shows a limited knowledge of information technology, as forms of rich networked communications existed before the World Wide Web. The description of connectivist learners who are literate and can use information sources would seem to be able to describe a student in a conventional paper library just as well as a DE student on the web. I suggest that the traditional university, with its cross-referecned library, informal and formal meeting places could be seen as a physical precursor of the Internet and connectivist DE is doing no more than crudely reproducing this online.

Future Distance Education Pedagogy

Anderson and Dron (2010)look to Web 2.0 and object-based approaches for possible future forms of pedagogy, but again this technological determinism. Instead I suggest that we need to look at what is central to teaching and learning, which is people. The forms of traditional education which have evolved should be examined to see what they can teach us about the essence of learning. Technology allows us to record every interaction between students, teachers and learning materials. I suggest that in the rush to DE, researchers have assumed there is nothing to learn from prior forms of education. However, the most important ingredients in education: the students and teachers have not changed. As a result it is likely that new forms of DE will look much like old forms of education.


Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2010). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(3), 80-97. Retrieved from

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