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Essay 2
Susan Connell
Fall 2004

A Systems Theory View of Distance Education

Because distance education has developed as a discipline largely from adult education and correspondence classes, its evolution has often been driven by practical needs and immediate considerations with surprisingly little theoretical foundation. In a sense, the field has developed a life of its own with "best practices" often determined by what seems to be expedient and available rather than what research has shown to be effective. One result of this haphazard approach has been a pervasive view in some circles that distance education is somehow inferior to traditional counterparts in spite of the fact that the research which has been done shows no significant difference in learning outcomes (Saba 2003). [This is also partly due to the existence of educational charlatans offering online and mail order degrees that require little more than the exchange of money.] Using a theoretical approach to distance education, not only diminishes arguments against it, but also establishes true differentiation, meaningful standards, and serves to solidify genuinely effective best practices while improving results, student satisfaction and student retention.

One of the shortcomings of existing research in the field of distance education is that it has tended to take a piecemeal approach: studying this delivery system or that program. Clearly, the complexity of distance education - including factors such as social and economic developments, organizational structures, available media, learner traits, formation of learning communities, cognitive and affective learning states, and others (Saba 2003) - warrants a more systematic approach. Using a dynamic systems theory that includes complex variables that evolve continuously and are mutually interdependent (Eliasmith 2004) that is often applied in organizational studies, researchers and practitioners gain a more holistic view of the field that will have broader and more long-lasting implications for future development and enhancement. Although Wedemeyer (cited in Saba 2003) sees a distinct difference between distance and "traditional" education, I suspect that, as the field evolves, we will find that many findings in each discipline will demonstrate opportunities for improvement in both areas - especially as they relate to adult education - even though traditional education is neither mediated nor non-contiguous, key distinctions identified by Saba (1988).

Moore's concept of transactional distance (cited by Saba 1994) identifies the structure and dialogue between learner and educator as primary elements in the distance education environment. Saba later elaborated on this with the system dynamics model to show the causal relationship between the two as an inverse loop, the dynamics of which are controlled by the learner and the teacher. Viewed in this context, distance education actually becomes a more personal educational model tailored to the individuality of the learner based on a personal relationship with the educator as noted by Holmberg (cited by Saba 2000). Interestingly, this is quite contrary to the impression that many outside of the field have of distance education as a highly impersonal, one-size-fits-all form of learning.

As Wedemeyer (cited by Saba 2000) observed, distance education requires that with increased control, the learner take more responsibility for educational outcomes. This is not wholly unlike more general adult education models in which students assume more responsibility as they move beyond compulsory education. In this respect, distance education may not be suited for every individual or every learning opportunity. For example, required courses or mandatory training without immediate or obvious benefits to the student - making motivation difficult - may not result in the most desirable outcomes. Conversely, the learner-centered approach discussed by Holmberg and Wedemeyer (cited by Saba 2000), presents an opportunity for distance education to address types of students or course material not served well by "traditional" education that in many ways is moving towards a more standardized approach to instruction and outcomes.

While distance education may not be suited for everyone, the causal loop of the system dynamics theory illustrates that it holds the possibility of adapting to a wider range of student needs (thus a wider range of potential students) because individuality is essentially built into the system - so long as that individualized approach is allowed to flourish. As with any educational endeavor, this requires active and motivated participation by both student and teacher. Even in traditional educational settings, students do better if the teacher has the time and resources to facilitate individualized instruction.

This brings up an important question for distance education: Will budgets and implementations enable the individual responsiveness that is so desirable in distance education? The fear is that the same public, private and even corporate educational bureaucracies that appear to expend more effort on standardized testing than on instructor support or quality educational materials will find a way to circumvent this vital aspect of distance education.

Cost has often been cited as a concern when moving curricula to a distance implementation. This concern brings up a different, but related, question: If distance programs fully incorporate the more individual approach described by Holmberg, Wedemeyer, Moore and Saba as being a key ingredient of distance education, will administrators view it as too expensive for broader or increased use? Alternatively, will distance curricula end up being designed for the lowest common denominator as with many traditional educational venues?

One aspect of distance education variables that does not seem to be specifically addressed in this models relates to the availability of communication media (as differentiated from "available media"). These discussions all seem to assume a reliable medium for communication between learner and instructor, the lack of which can significantly interfere with the dynamic feedback loop. Clearly distance education cannot take place without some communication vehicle. However, if I have learned nothing else this semester, it has become all too clear that some technologies (broadband Internet and wireless phone coverage to name a few) that we take for granted in our normal environment are not as well developed elsewhere. Not surprisingly, this can cause frustration for both student and instructor. While this problem is an obvious issue for the remote or less developed areas where I have been for much of this semester, everything from technical glitches to network availability can also have significant impact on any study of distance education.

In many ways, these questions support the need for more research based on a systematic paradigm. By proving empirically the importance of key elements to success in a distance model, it will be easier to establish successful programs. Further, by viewing distance education in light of Keegan's (cited by Saba 2003) perspective of industrialization, it can be hoped that rationalization will become easier as methodological study increases efficiency of the process to the point where costs are optimized so as not to be an impediment implementation.


Eliasmith, C. (2004, May 11, 2004). Dynamical Systems Theory. Retrieved 11/12/04, from www.artsci.wustl.edu/~philos/MindDict/d ... stems.html

Saba, F. (1988). Integrated Telecommunications Systems and Instructional Transaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 2(3), 17-24.

Saba, F., & Shearer, R. L. (1994). Verifying Key Concepts in a Dynamic Model of Distance Education. American Journal of Distance Education, 8(1).

Saba, F. (2003). Distance Education, Theory, Methodology, and Epistemology: A Pragmatic Paradigm. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 3-20). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.


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© 2003, 2004 Susan Connell, Educational Technology Student at San Diego State University