Distance Education Applications and Technologies

The use of telecommunications technologies for distance education will continue to increase as educators grapple with decreasing dollars. It will become even more apparent that the ability to share resources through technology is a viable alternative to building more buildings.

The need to retrain 50 million American workers will be a driving factor in the continued adoption of distance education. Distance education will be used to bring credit and continuing education programming into the workplace and into the home.

Just as the nation's workers have moved to telecommuting two or more days a week, it has become an accepted practice to telecommute for their education as well.

The impact of the new technologies has been felt in all areas of education. Distance education has moved to a different level of use and importance. No longer an alternative delivery system, distance learning has become a mainstream method which provides education to tens of thousands of students each day. As predicted, desktop video conferencing systems lead students into more involvement with one another as do courses offered via the Internet. It has helped students develop a better sense of the world. As the new technologies have stabilized, technology costs have dropped and made distance learning accessible to a growing group of learners .

Communication technology in use or on the shelf today can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of education and the learning process in and out of the classroom. Intelligently applied communications capabilities, including hardware, software and network services, can be integrated to address the needs of the education community. Awareness of how communications technology can benefit education is increasing. Communications technology linked with computers can improve communication between parents and teachers, boost home learning and generate excitement in the classroom.

In large quantities, equipment may seem out of reach for schools operating with tight budgets. Yet scaled-down applications are affordable and becoming increasingly popular because educators are starting to look for ways to share resources. That is crucial for urban and rural students because they often do not have access to the educational resources they need. By utilizing distance-learning applications, educators can ensure greater equity in the way resources are distributed.

New technologies and applications are developing even as we gain acceptance for older technologies and applications.


One category of computer software is called groupware. It allows a number of people to work on the same document at the same time. They are also called electronic-meeting systems, group-support systems, computer-supported collaboration, and collaborative technology. In 1986 with a $2 million grant from IBM, the University of Arizona developed the electronic meeting technology. By 1992 IBM had 64 rooms equipped with the technology and the University had a Collaborative Management Room which has been used by more than 30,000 people for demonstration and research (Watkins, 1992). Computer-meeting rooms usually have a workstation for each team member and the facilitator, a large screen video at the front of the room and other audio visual equipment.

The GroupSystems software is a package of two dozen tools for group activity, such as generating and organizing ideas, establishing priorities and voting on options (also called Team Focus by IBM). Team members sit at their workstations which display two windows; one displays the question; one provides space for typing in the solutions. Responses are sent to the facilitator by pressing a function key. Using key words, the facilitator organizes the solutions so that team members can read the solutions written by others. If the project is a ranking process, each member ranks the topics. In a one hour meeting, when everyone participates simultaneously, everyone gets 60 minutes to present their solution.

Jay F. Nunamaker, Jr., developer of the electronic-meeting technology, calls the process "human parallel process" because everyone talks simultaneously. It is anonymous and allows everyone to honestly record their feelings without fear of reprisal or without the meeting being dominated by several people. Studies conducted by the University of Arizona and IBM have shown that electronic meetings take 55 percent less time than traditional meetings (Watkins, 1992). The process is efficient and team members leave the room with a transcript of the meeting in hand. Nunamaker said that in complex global organizations, no one person has all of the information. "Groups have to have a shared vision if you are going to accomplish anything. People have to challenge each other's ideas and build consensus" (Watkins, 1992).

Educational uses of electronic meeting technology has increased. It allows group brainstorming sessions. One English professor at Gallaudet has used the technology for several years in his freshman composition courses to brainstorm topics for papers. As we move toward an increasingly interactive model, groupware use will increase as well as the innovative use of it. Nunamaker is also working on the Mirror Project which will have teams seated at one-quarter of a round table in each of four locations and make other teams visible on large screen for distance meetings so that they all appear to be seated at the same table.

New software is constantly being developed to take advantage of expanding telecommunications conduits. ILINC, Convene, and ICHAT are representative of the new software that enables students to take courses and participate in classes when it is convenient for them. Audio conferencing will also become an important part of national distance learning as it is enables through the Internet through software.

Electronic mail and desktop videoconferencing is part of the group solution.


To date, it has been suggested that multimedia will become a market only when the telephone companies provide us with a national fiber optic infrastructure capable of handling the massive bandwidth that each of us will need. On the other hand, we may not have to wait years for multimedia to become a telecommunications reality.

AT&T Paradyne has devised a system that uses standard existing telephone copper wire to deliver interactive multimedia applications into the home. The new system - carrierless, amplitude-phase modulation - can transmit data at a bandwidth suitable for meeting huge data capacity video images demand.

Bell Atlantic's prototype Project Edison uses a digital technology called ADSL - asynchronous digital subscriber loop. Through Project Edison, Bell Atlantic is creating a technology that will enable multimedia - voice, data and video - to be available over the traditional copper cable (or twisted pair) that is already in place. Pacific Bell is also working with a new housing developing in the San Francisco Bay Region to make it one of the first communities with this type of access for homes, business and education.

The promise of multimedia is to move more information more easily by doing it electronically and to provide more resources to everyone. The enabling technologies are not all in place, but it is becoming clear that the true multimedia platform is more likely to be something different. It will house a microprocessor, but we probably won't think of it so much as a computer as we will think of it as a telecommunications instrument.

Computer Simulations

Computer simulations will continue to increase in use as multimedia improves. Computer simulations give students a hands-on experience in working with the content. It has the advantage of helping students learn the content as well as apply it. Simulations are already used extensively in chemistry and physics computer labs which has been a major change in the last ten years. Computer simulations can act as a bridge between the theoretical world of simplified equations and actual experiments. They characterize the complexity of the real world. Using a simulation, the complexity of any system can be maintained and it is transformed into graphic display. They are a valuable way of learning about many types of subjects and can open a completely new way of looking at things with all of the variables in place.

Cable Systems

Cable systems have a major advantage over broadcast television; the audience has a larger choice of programs to watch at any given time. This advantage is gained because a single cable can carry more than one-hundred channels. This is achieved by selecting a portion of the possible spectrum available on the cable and dividing it into frequency bands each of which can carry a full video program. In order to receive the desired channel, a converter is used. A cable company can send digitally coded signals to the converter and program them to disable or enable the reception of any channel (Rahimi, 1992).

Digital cable systems are part of the new buildouts that are in process now. Cable companies have led the telcos a wild chase to become the telephone systems of the future. @Home, an Internet access provider has been in pilot form for over a year in Fremont, CA. It provides Internet access through the cable. Oceanic Cable in Hawaii is working on a similar system.

Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS)

The instructional television fixed service (ITFS) frequencies are located in the microwave region of the spectrum at six megahertz spacing. They work almost exactly the same as broadcast television. In order to receive these frequencies, special inexpensive antennas are required that are three feet across, lightweight and easy to install. The signal requires line-of-sight access between the transmission antenna and the receiving antenna. In flat terrain this could translate to between thirty to fifty miles or more with a reasonably tall transmission tower. The transmission power is much lower than broadcast television and usually varies between ten and one hundred watts. In a typical situation, where ITFS frequencies are assigned to different institutions in a given area, care is taken not to assign adjacent frequencies so as to avoid interference. Interference often occurs when the transmission sites of these frequencies are different and the strength of the signals received at a receive antenna from each transmission site, is different. In such a case, the more powerful signal will interfere with the weaker signal. Broadcasting all signals from the same antenna and at the same power eliminates this problem, allowing the assignment and operation of adjacent frequencies. Even for non-adjacent frequencies, transmission from separate towers will create problems with the positioning of the receive antenna that can only be solved by substantial increases in cost at the receive sites.

Wireless Cable

Wireless cable systems work exactly the same as a cable system, except that the wire is replaced by a portion of the airwaves spectrum. The portion of the spectrum that lends itself to this application is in the microwave region. The frequency range in this region, dedicated to educational and other public uses is the ITFS. A portion of ITFS channels were reallocated by the FCC for commercial use in the early 1980s as Multi-channel Multi-point Distributed Services (MMDS). MMDS-based wireless cable systems for entertainment do exist, but for the most part they have not proven to be financially successful. To build a wireless analog cable system, one needs to acquire a large number of ITFS frequencies, which no single institution can do. FCC rules prohibit the allocation of more than four frequencies to any one institution. Thus, multi-institutional cooperation is necessary both to acquire the frequencies and to operate from the same transmission antenna. In nearly all other respects, creating and operating a wireless system is the same as with a cable system. The one major difference is working with the FCC instead of local governments (Rahimi, 1992).

Interactive Networks

New interactive devices will allow viewers to play along with their favorite game show, sporting event, or murder mystery. Interactive Network of Mountain View, CA, has tested a product in Northern California. The heart of the system is a $200 portable control unit. GTE InfoTrak has a similar product in development for educational use. While TV shows are being broadcast, Interactive Network employees sit at computers and program the information that is sent to the control unit. For example, during a show when an answer is shown on the TV screen, the Interactive Network technicians send four possible questions over an FM radio signal that is picked up by the handset. The questions are shown on a small liquid crystal display screen and one answer is chosen by pressing a button on the control unit. When the correct answer is given on the show, the Interactive Network technicians immediately send the information over the radio waves to the handset. The handset adds points to the score. When the games are finished, the control unit adds up the points. By connecting the telephone cord that comes with the unit to the phone outlet and calling the score to Interactive Network, a player can compete with other interactive players for prizes....or in our case, for grades. The applications for education are exciting.

The company loaned units at Giants and Athletics games in an effort to get people familiar with the technology. To play, you first predict the outcome of the batter's trip to the plate. If you guess an out, you then predict how that will happen. If you guess a fly out but the batter grounds, you'll receive points for being half right. Throughout the game the control unit displays the latest scores from other baseball games, much like the scoreboard at the ballpark. You can also get information on a particular player's batting statistics - number of hits, strikeouts, etc. - and team statistics at any time during the game.

How it works: Interactive Network producers watch the telecast and enter game calls and statistical information. From the central computer of the Network, game control data is shipped to FM stations and Interactive Network game data is simulcast along with the television broadcast. The control unit uses a telescoping antenna to receive the FM radio signal that carries the information (it may be necessary to use an FM booster). At the conclusion of an event, subscribers connect the handset to their phone cord for a 20-second call which is transmitted over a telephone digital switching network. All participants' scores are collected, results and standings tabulated, and then broadcast back to each subscriber in four minutes. The control unit has a long-lasting rechargeable battery.

Desktop Videoconferencing

Many desktop videoconferencing products have been introduced which have the ability to project an image of the person who was called in a small window on the computer screen. The software programs allow users see one another and to share and work on documents at the same time. Common components include a software program and tiny cameras that set on top of the computer screen. Each product enables the user to see another user with the same equipment. These products enable one to leave video mail messages, answers to students questions, and provide another way to increase interaction.

Desktop video will transform the video post production industry, and computers are already having a huge impact on producers of video programming. The recession forced people to take a look at alternatives to produce video. The traditional video production studio with several rooms and $2 million in equipment may be history in five years. Break throughs in digital storage technology and better video compression techniques will continually advance desktop video.

Computer Conferencing

Computer conferencing software is improving. Computer conferencing software can run over the Internet or off of regular dial-up phone lines. Off-line processing is an important feature for students who do not want to run up big long distance bills. Most institutions provide an 800 number for faculty so reducing faculty on-line time is also important. As a result, read and respond off-line features are important as well as automatic filing features. When the student or faculty member uploads messages, the best programs automatically dial the service, upload the new messages to the appropriate mailboxes and download new messages automatically to the appropriate files on the student's or faculty member's hard disk, then disconnect from the service. The new products are easy to use because all of the telecommunications settings are preformatted on a disk which the student transfers to his or her hard disk. Older programs required students and faculty to spend a minimum of seven hours learning the system. Training on the new programs take 30 minutes or less. An easy user-interface is quite important as we continue to move into lifelong learning and provide continuing education in technology based synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (not in real-time) program applications. It becomes ineffective to offer the equivalent of a one day seminar via technology if it takes two days to learn how to run the telecommunication/groupware program. Ease in acquiring the program is mandatory as it should be small enough for users to download it. It should install easily, and it should be easy to use so that the technology becomes seamless or transparent to the user.

Personal Digital Assistants

Apple Computer wants you to call its Newton product a personal digital assistant - or PDA, rather than a computer. It weights about a pound, uses a special, unattached pen for data entry and runs on standard penlight batteries. The core of the Newton is a powerful microprocessor, an advanced (object oriented) operating system, a liquid crystal display and the ability to process data and electronic mail. While it can't run conventional business software, it can capture handwritten notes and sketches, sort them and organize them using artificial intelligence techniques, then send the information to facsimile machines, electronic mailboxes or other computers using wireless communications. The operating system is constructed so that it can be trained to recognize what the user is trying to accomplish and complete much of it.

The runaway best seller in this field is US Robotics Palm Pilot. It will synchronize with programs on a computer , hook up with a modem and generally do most things that people wanted from the early PDA devices. Instead of trying to get it to recognize your handwriting, you have to learn how to write so that it recognizes letters or figures.


Perhaps the greatest impact on civilization since the creation of the printing press will come from the ability to digitize information regardless of format. Digitization allows for the transformation of information from one form to another (e.g., print to sound) and for a range of retrieval options (Stahl, 1992). Technological advances have resulted in many changes in the library and is both a cause and cure for the information explosion. Digital technology has enabled us to generate information at faster rates and 90 percent of all information produced since 1979 has been produced in digital format. Digital retrieval systems offer the only hope of managing the information. All libraries will have to adopt new information technologies to survive; the transition rate will vary by library based on resources, need for the most current information and understanding of the paradigm shift in information technologies (Stahl, 1992). The focus has shifted from acquisition, to access through telecommunications. Rather than every library in a system buying a periodical or book, only one will buy it in electronic form and make it available to others on the system. Libraries will be able to build virtual collections and reference works specifically tailored to their users. As the ability to build comprehensive collections declines, the importance of building virtual collections using relative strengths of several libraries will grow.

Great strides have been made by the library community in sharing descriptive cataloging through systems such as OCLC and Research Library Information Network (RLIN). New electronic access software programs make it easier for patrons to do their own reference searches, then download the abstracts or full text articles from CD-ROMS attached to telephone lines. Electronic access means that libraries can remain "open" 24 hours a day. More journals and magazines are becoming available for electronic access because of the move to electronic desktop publishing. Once the publication's content has been digitized, it can be easily accessed if the publisher makes it available, or the material can be scanned into a digitized format. To get copies of visual materials, many libraries will provide fax or mail service for specific pages if necessary. Students studying at a distance from an institution need electronic access. The University of Phoenix Online Division provides an Academic Information Service (AIS) through which students request searches. Results are sent to them through the ALEX computer E-mail system.

Until now, most data could only be moved as text (ASCII) files. The future for moving print electronically is in moving text as images. A page treated as an image preserves the layout. Table 9.1.4 shows the amount of time to transmit a 25 page article with ten color images (960 megabits) over networks of different speeds (Blatecky, 1991).

While access to materials in electronic format via networks will likely become a viable substitute to ownership of materials, convincing various campus constituencies is not always easy. Both libraries and academic program-accrediting bodies will need to find measures other than volume counts to determine library quality. The degree of access a library provides to needed materials will be much more meaningful than the number of volumes on the shelves (Stahl, 1992).

Research and discussion is underway to determine how charges for access to digitized materials can be handled to ensure that authors and publishers receive appropriate compensation. Software can be adapted to keep track of fees due to authors and publishers. The creation of wide area networks (such as Internet and NREN) are vitally important to libraries if they are to provide access to the growing array of electronic resources that are available (Stahl,1992).

Compressed Video - Digital Satellite Transmission

One of the solutions to the high price of satellite time is a group of products which compresses and digitizes NTSC video, transmits to a fraction (usually 3-6 MHz) of a satellite transponder. Depending on a system's configuration 12-18 channels of educational programming can be carried on one satellite transponder.

Compressed Cellular Computer Networks

Cellular computer networks will provide new options to educators as they rebuild campus infrastructures to access new telecommunications services. The national networks that are planned will extend the outreach of distance learning and continuing education so that education truly becomes an anytime, any place service. As more adults enroll, they will expect to use the technologies that are available to them every day in their workplace.

Major computer marketers, regional Bell operating companies and other technology vendors have targeted wireless, mobile data communications as the next hot growth area. For educators it is expected to spawn a new class of consumer product; the personal digital assistant that provides computer and communications capabilities. The market potential for cellular-based data services is huge; the field is attracted 2.6 million customers through 1997.

Five factors are driving cellular growth: increased use of laptop computers; availability of small notebook and palm-top machines; introduction of personal digital assistants for the mass market; reduced prices for wireless modems; and expansion of wireless data services. Wireless modems are capable of the same speeds as other modems.

Richochet is a system that has had great success in the San Francisco Bay Area. Once the signal repeaters are up and close to you, the system is flawless and operates without attention. It should be noted that the farther the wireless modem is from the signal repeater, the slower the signal.

Direct Broadcast Systems (DBS)

Direct broadcast systems (DBS) broadcast television programming to high powered satellites. The satellite's strong signal gives it the capacity to be received by a small satellite receive dish that is unobtrusive and easily mounted on most homes. There are even portable models for recreational vehicles. To date, DBS has not been heavily used by educational institutions, but corporate training systems are taking advantage of the inexpensive dishes.

Fiber Optic Networks

Fiber optic networks permit the flawless transmission of a course to many locations at once as well as permitting the instructor to send different kinds of materials - including multimedia presentations - to receive sites.

Recommendations for Further Research

The review of literature suggested that there is very little research done in distance education. Because the area continues to expand and is perceived as a viable way to offer educational programming to the masses of Americans that must be educated or retrained, it is imperative that more research be conducted in the following areas.

The literature suggests that distance education is in an expansion phase with many new postsecondary institutions, early childhood, kindergarten through twelfth grade, and businesses joining the ranks of those which offer courses through distance education technologies. Because many telecourses and internet courses are now available, adopters must make decisions about the quality of the programming and related components. As a form of media, distance learning materials have an equal need for effective evaluation. Research is needed to determine the ratio of hours required to have equivalency between telecourse hours and traditional classroom hours. Research should determine whether 30-minutes of telecourse programming is equivalent to one hour in a traditional classroom. Traditionally, student classroom contact is set at 45 hours for three hours of credit. The telecourse norm for student contact is 15 video hours.

There is little understanding of adult education principles as they relate to distance education. Research should determine if adult education principles do work in distance education. Specifically the areas of interaction, self-directed learning and the use of learning contracts need to be researched.

Research should be done with telecourse students. About 25 percent of distance education program administrators conduct post-course evaluation with telecourse students. A number of post-course evaluation studies have been conducted with students taking telecourses produced by the Annenberg/CPB Project. However, no other studies of this magnitude have been conducted by other telecourse producers and made available for public use.

There is minimal understanding about how learning styles apply to distance education. Educators perceive that visual and auditory styles can be addressed through telecourses. They do not perceive that interactive, tactile or kinesthetic styles can be addressed through all components even though this is becoming apparent through simple observation. Research in this area should ascertain if all learning styles can be addressed through telecourses.

Some research has shown that student attrition rates are reduced if local instructors write the study guide. Research should ascertain if this is a factor in attrition as well as what type of information a student needs in the study guide to motivate the student to course completion.

Some research has shown that the student's sense of isolation contributes to high attrition. Research should ascertain what the specific factors are that contribute to isolation and how they can be effectively addressed by a distance education program. Some research has shown that telephone meetings with the instructor, letters from the instructor and other contacts can reduce the sense of isolation as well as lower attrition.

Further research is needed to determine whether the textbook must be specifically written to accompany the telecourse or whether other texts are as effective for the student. There is a perception that the text should be written specifically for the telecourse which was not substantiated by this study. In light of the extensive resources that are available on the Internet, some instructors are questioning the usefulness of textbooks for some content. Content that needs to be regularly updated to be useful is certainly not best relegated to a textbook. This leads to textbooks that might contain stable materials enhanced by a web site which contains the most recent information and pointers to other related web sites. Certainly, this is an intriguing idea that may bring alive the content for many students and instructors.

Another component that makes textbooks more interesting is a web site that provides direct content to the author(s). Setting up students with students in other areas of the country (or outside the country) is also compelling for students. It begins to integrate the content with technology, the use of telecommunications, geography, and even world politics.

As there is confusion over who should produce portions of the faculty guide dealing with distance education, self-directed learning, student isolation and distance teaching strategies, further research is needed.

Further clarification is also needed for the optimal size of assignments, frequency of assignments and time frames in which assignments should be filed. There is some research which suggests that if students turn in assignments from two to ten days from the beginning of the course, they will complete the telecourse. This research needs to be replicated and the acceptable filing dates of the first assignment should be narrowed. Smaller assignments that can be easily accomplished are used well at the beginning of a course. They help the student establish a track record of success with the distance learning course. The University of Phoenix Online requires graduate students to produce a business research project which is the equivalent of a graduate thesis in all respects. Students complete all work online for the thesis. The number of successful graduates from the University of Phoenix Graduate Program shows that it is possible for students to work with massive quantities of pages. UOP Online students give one another feedback and work together in ways in which other thesis or dissertation students never have the opportunity. Stdents enjoy the collaboration as well as the collegial support.

The realm of student motivation to complete distance education courses needs research. There is a perception that only motivated students will complete the course. There is some research which suggests that instructor contact is the motivating factor.

In the area of production, further research needs to be done on effective education strategies where only video is used. Producers need to know when graphics intrude or contribute to instruction, when music is effective in setting the pace or motivating the student to continue to pay attention, whether instructors should be paid actors or instructors, when certain treatments work, if learning from television is different form other types of learning and finally, if a "talking head" is effective and if so what makes him or her effective.

Evaluation of software is critical to ensure that quality materials are purchased which meet course objectives. This media selection model and its evaluating instrument should be an aid in the adoption process and ensure that standards of quality and excellence are considered.

The media selection model evaluating instrument (Lane 1989) contains nine sections so that evaluators using it will be required to apply specific evaluating criteria to the telecourse to determine the suitability of its use in the video instructional program (Teague, 1981). The model and the evaluating instrument consider the combination of media and factors related to the general organization of the instructional program, factors relating to the video programs and factors related to the learner (Bates,1980).

from "A Technical Guide to Teleconferencing and Distance Learning," 3rd edition