Computing Technology for Math Excellence Logo









Black line


Cite any reference to the article below as:

Deubel, P. (2000). Book review: Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes. Journal of Instruction Delivery Systems, 14(4), 34-36.

Black line



Gibson, C., editor. (1998). Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes. Madison WI: Atwood Publishing, ISBN: 1-891859-22-6. (paperback), 156 pp.

by Patricia Deubel, April 1999.

Distance education and training are growing rapidly in higher education and are predicted to converge with campus modes of learning. Compounding the issues of institutional concerns for cost effectiveness, the demand for bridging a distance, and a technology that is not fully fit to meet the goals and needs of distance education (Laurillard, Preece, Shneiderman, Neal, & Waern, 1998; Turoff, 1998), there is the more important question, will the distance learner succeed? This is the key question posed by Chère Campbell Gibson in her opening editorial notes for Distance Learners in Higher Education, the first book in the Atwood Publishing Diversity Series.

Gibson has gathered eight thought-provoking articles on current research and practices regarding what is known about distance learners in higher education and what is known about helping those persons to learn. All contributing authors are engaged in conceptualizing and shaping North American distance education, according to Michael Moore, founder and editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. All hold doctoral degrees and include: Terry Anderson, Meg Benke, Elizabeth Burge, Randy Garrison, Chère Campbell Gibson, Daniel Granger, Charlotte Gunawardena, Christine Olgren, Irene Sanchez, and Melody Thompson. Moore, who wrote the introduction, provided the rationale for a book of this nature. He asks why post secondary educators have so generally failed to study learners with the same devotion in which they have studied the information they expect their students to study. Distance Learners in Higher Education is an outgrowth of that concern to study learners.

Each article addresses a specific facet of distance learners. Much of what is written also pertains to learners in traditional settings. The nature of distance learners in higher education, gender, understanding and supporting culturally diverse distance learners, distance learners' academic self-concept, and the effects of learning strategies and motivation for improving learning outcomes are discussed. Also included are discussions of the changing roles and responsibilities for learning in a networked world and the need for supporting learners at a distance from inquiry to completion. From beginning to end, the authors seem to convey the message that distance educators need to be learner-centered reflective practitioners.

The articles do not have to be read in any particular order. Recognizing that a single text cannot provide all the answers, Gibson has included a list of some of her favorite books, journals, newsletters, and web sites for readers who would like to know more. The most recent book is dated 1996.

The content of Distance Learners in Higher Education has the potential to significantly impact an audience far wider than that suggested by the title. For example, the authors put forth several best practices: distance educators need to know learners; provide orientations at several levels; design for differences in learning styles with variety, active engagement, and choice; evaluate authentically; and provide an integrated system of support. These themes echo concerns of educators in any setting at all levels, not just those who are presently involved or preparing to enter the area of distance learning in higher education. Sherry (1996), who addresses many of the issues presented in this book, says that traditionally distance learners have been thought of as being adults, but the adult learner tradition is now changing. New programs, such as the U.S. Federal government's Star Schools Program, have come into existence to serve the K-12 population. As distance education becomes commercialized (Turoff, 1998), learners themselves will need to be intelligent consumers regarding the issues involved with learning via a different medium. Three chapters deserve further comment regarding the perspectives taken by the authors.

Olgren writes of the importance for distance educators to understand how learning occurs and to know the factors which influence the learning process. This best practice suggests that distance educators need to look more closely at their use of behavioral and cognitive approaches to instructional design. The content in her article does not specifically address distance learning, rather all learning. Readers might be concerned, however, about the appropriateness of the content presented in Olgren's discussion because 30 of the 42 references used to write the article are dated prior to 1990. The latest date is 1993.

The discussion presented is relevant, however, and supported by more recent literature. Olgren's perspective is drawn from learning strategy research in cognitive psychology, but she does acknowledge the role that behaviorism has played in instructional design. For example, Hannafin, Hannafin, Hooper, Rieber, and Kini (1996) agree that contemporary approaches to computer-based learning are more often rooted in cognitive learning theories. Phillips and Soltis (1998) discuss a variety of learning theories from classical to contemporary and believe that each is useful depending on context. Like Olgren, their treatment includes a discussion of psychological constructivism, the social aspects of learning, situated cognition, and cognitive structures. They conclude that the cognitive science approach is the emerging theory of learning from the technology revolution, which also supports Olgren's perspective.

Olgren states that most learning strategy theory is based on a constructivist perspective, but the literature leads practitioners to reflect on that statement. For example, Sfard (1998) says that there is danger in choosing just one metaphor for learning because dictatorship of a single metaphor, like a dictatorship of a single ideology, may lead to theories that serve the interests of certain groups to the disadvantage of others. She has identified two metaphors for learning: acquisition and participation. Constructivism relies on the participation metaphor; skill building, for example, requires an acquisition metaphor. Current research on learning seems to be in a conceptual upheaval with no prospects for equilibrium in sight. The idea that new knowledge germinates in old knowledge has been promoted by all the theoreticians of intellectual development, from Piaget to Vygotsky to contemporary cognitive scientists.

The chapter on gender issues in distance education by Burge leaves readers with a distinct impression of a feminist viewpoint because the chapter stresses concerns of women involved with technology. About half of the references used to write this well-documented article refer to women in some way. Not one specifically addresses the male perspective. There is a bias against men that comes forth as Burge expresses alienation when discussion agendas and applications of new technologies are set by others. She says that what is considered to be good, usually expressed by men, is assumed to be good for her.

Readers might speculate that Burge's perspective has much to do with statistics that she presents, which indicate that more women than men are distance learners and gendering of course choices is evident. More importantly, Burge indicates that she and many of her female students have experienced the pressures of new technology and assumptions about its use. Burge's message is that women must work harder to overcome psychological and participation barriers to their education, often stereotyped assumptions about their capabilities to deal with technology, and curriculum designs that may not fit their needs. Constructivist, women-friendly, and technology guidelines for effective practice are presented.

This chapter is particularly relevant for distance educators and learners because distance education has the potential to link learners from both developed and developing countries, where oftentimes there are different cultural viewpoints regarding the appropriate roles and expectations of women (Evans, 1995). Evans (1995), who is referenced in this article, believes that distance education failure is likely to occur when western models are adopted without adaptation to acculturized behaviors of teachers and learners. If educators are not able to design instruction to accommodate different perspectives on gender, women might be excluded from participation in the technical and industrial development of some parts of the world. This chapter lacks that balanced perspective regarding gender.

Granger and Benke wrote the closing chapter, Supporting Learners at a Distance from Inquiry to Completion, from a business and marketing perspective. Martin (1998) also addresses the implementation issues of readiness, which are introduced in this chapter: the competency of incoming learners, technological system readiness, institutional support readiness, and faculty support readiness. However, Granger and Benke's discussion is limited and does not reveal the darkside of the forces involved in an implementation of distance learning (Turoff, 1998).

The chapter is the least referenced (four sources), but the authors do point readers to the University of Wisconsin's module Learner Support Services for additional information. Strategies and support mechanisms of great value that institutions could consider to ensure success for learners, educators, and institutions are included. Granger and Benke emphasize that assumptions and inclinations of faculty and staff and the institutional infrastructure must be reckoned with, but do not expand upon what those views might be.

Their highly relevant concern was addressed in a recent interview with Educom Review (Rickard, 1999), at which William Graves, president of the Collegis Research Institute and founder of the Institute for Academic Technology, spoke about the nature of faculty resistance toward technology use in education. Graves indicated that faculty resistance is changing from fear to a lack of faith that institutions are supporting faculty in their efforts to transform learning through information technology. At that same interview, Diana Eck of Harvard University expressed concern that technology is changing so fast that institutions fear it will be outdated by the time it is installed.

In concluding remarks about distance learning Gibson poses the question, "Does it mean we can no longer do business as usual?" She answers, "Maybe and maybe not." Martin (1997) believes each institution must answer for itself, but by failing to join the distance education game, institutions may well feel the financial ramifications in the not too distant future. Visionaries as Don Tapscott and Peter Drucker firmly believe that many universities and colleges are doomed if they do not reinvent themselves in regard to their delivery system and relationship with the private sector. It is guaranteed that the status quo will not survive (Tapscott, 1998). With those thoughts in mind, this book becomes a must read. In fact, the situational, philosophical, psychological, pedagogical, technical, social and cultural issues introduced in this book may influence reflective practitioners to read Distance Learners in Higher Education more than once.


Evans, K. (1995). Barriers to participation of women in technological education and the role of distance education. Vancouver, BC: The Commonwealth of Learning.  Last accessed July 7, 2015. [Note: URL updated since publication of the article.]

Hannafin, M., Hannafin, K., Hooper, S., Rieber, L., & Kini, A. (1996). Research and research with emerging technologies. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook for Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 378-402). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Laurillard, D., Preece, J., Shneiderman, B., Neal, L., & Waern, Y. (1998). Distance learning: Is it the end of education as most of us know it? In Proceedings of the CHI '98 Summary Conference on CHI '98 Summary: Human Factors in Computing Systems, 86-87.

Martin, J. (1997). Are we ready for distance education? In SIGUCCS '97 Proceedings of the 25th SIGUCCS Conference on User Services: Are You Ready?, 229-232.

Martin, R. R. (1998). Key issues in transitioning from distance education to distributed learning. Online Chronicle of Distance Education, 12(1), Spring.  Accessed March 9, 1999. [Link is no longer available.]

Phillips, D. C., & Soltis, J. F. (1998). Perspectives on Learning, 3rd Ed. New York: Teachers College Press. ISBN: 0-8077-3703-8.

Rikard, W. (1999). Technology, education, and the changing nature of resistance. Educom Review, 34(1), 42-45.   Accessed March 12, 1999. [URL updated on Dec. 30, 2016.]

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13.

Sherry, L. (1996). Issues in distance learning. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(4), 337-365.  [URL updated on November 23, 2015.]

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 0-07-063361-4.

Turoff, M. (1998). Alternative futures for distance learning: The force and the darkside. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration.  Accessed March 11, 1999. Email: [Note: November 23, 2015 URL no longer active.  See]

Patricia Deubel has a Ph. D. in Computing Technology in Education from the School of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University. She has over 25 years teaching experience in mathematics and computer education.  Email:


Back to top