Cleveland-Innes, M. and Garrison, R. (eds.) 2010 An Introduction to Distance Education: Understanding Teaching and Learning in a New Era New York/Abingdon UK: Routledge

This book is essentially a collection of essays by mainly Canadian authors, although there are also authors from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.


The book is organized as follows:

Foreword: Alan Tait (UK Open University)

1. ‘Teaching and learning in distance education: enter a new era’: Marti Cleveland-Innes (Athabasca University, Canada), which is a short introduction to the chapters in the book.

Part I: The Industrial Era

2. ‘Foundations of Distance Education’: Randy Garrison (University of Calgary) and Marti Cleveland-Innes (Athabasca University). They argue that the foundations of distance education were established in an industrial era, but we are now entering a post-industrial era that ‘is not fully understood or adequately addressed by scholars in the field.’

3. ‘Organization and technology of distance education’: Gary Miller (Penn State University.) He summarises the main developments in organization and technology from the early correspondence schools through to television and teleconferencing consortia.

4. ‘Teaching and learning before the digital age’: Margaret Haughey (Athabasca University.) This chapter focuses primarily on the way that the British Open University changed the basis of teaching and learning in distance education through a systems approach.

Part II: A New Era

5. ‘Distance education in a post-Fordist time’: Heather Kanuka and Charmaine Brooks (University of Alberta). In this chapter, the authors relate constructivist teaching and learning to the concepts and philosophy of post-Fordism, and argue that in a post-Fordist era, distance education cannot achieve flexible access, quality learning, and cost-effectiveness, but only any two of the three.

6. ‘Beyond boundaries; the evolution of distance education’: Doug Shale (University of Calgary). This chapter is another spin on the same themes in Chapter 3.

7. ‘Teaching and learning in post-industrial distance education’: Karen Swan (University of Illinois Springfield). This chapter argues that the new technologies associated with online learning lead to pedagogical approaches, such as constructivism and communities of inquiry, that are fundamentally different from those associated with industrial-age distance education.

Part III: A Unified Approach

8. ‘The future of learning technologies’: Phil Ice (American Public University System).’Paralleling a review of where we have been and where we are going is a discussion of the underlying pedagogical possibilities of technologies that increasingly tie together physical worlds.’

9. ‘Blended learning’: Norman Vaughan (Mount Royal University, Alberta). This chapter discusses the opportunities and challenges associated with blended learning environments in higher education.

10. ‘The future of distance education: reformed, scrapped or recycled’: Terry Evans (Deakin University, Australia) and Brian Pauling (New Zealand). This chapter looks to the future possibilities for distance education and argues that distance education does have a future so long as ‘it adapts creatively to the changing technology, and the diversity and capacities of digital learners.’

Part IV: Summary and conclusion

11. ‘Leadership in a new era of higher distance education’: Marti Cleveland-Innes (Athabasca University) and Albert Sangra (Open University of Catalonia, Spain). This chapter ‘outlines the challenges in the current situation of higher education, the leadership issues and requirements for a new era in higher education, and the strategic planning that will support this process of transformation’.

12. ‘Conclusion’: Randy Garrison (University of Calgary) and Marti Cleveland-Innes (Athabasca University).

Other features

There are two other interesting features of this book. Each chapter includes a recognition a ‘significant contributor’ to distance education related to the topic of each chapter, with a photo and short bio, presumably chosen by the chapter author. The significant ‘contributors to distance education’ include:

  • Sarah Guri-Rosenblit
  • Desmond Keegan
  • Otto Peters
  • Diana Laurillard
  • Michael G. Moore
  • Sir John Daniel
  • Robbie McClintock
  • Terry Anderson
  • Randy Garrison
  • Ron Oliver
  • Andrew Feenberg

Each chapter also contains a glossary of terms and definitions; and questions for review and discussion.

Preliminary Review

The cover of the book states that this is ‘A perfect textbook for Educational Technology doctorate, Masters and certificate programs’. The book is certainly timely and useful, because there have been major developments in online learning and distance education in the last ten years, and this book does cover the main developments. It should certainly provoke a lot of discussion – indeed it needs to, because as I will demonstrate in later posts, some of the content is highly contentious.

Secondly, as is bound to be the case where most chapters are thoughtful essays on the historical development of distance education, there is a heavy focus on theory rather than practice. Now I have to say that I have always been uninterested to the point of hostility at attempts to create grand theories around distance education. For me, distance education is nothing more than a delivery method. It can be very good or very bad, objectivist or constructivist, open or closed, democratic or elite, and it can and does accommodate a very wide range of teaching methods and technologies. None of these dimensions (except perhaps the technological and organizational ones, and they keep shifting) are ‘intrinsic’ to or defining characteristics of distance education.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not hostile to theories of teaching and learning, to social and political theories, to epistemological and ethical issues in teaching and learning, and all these can be found in the way distance education has been applied, it’s just I struggle with the idea of distance education becoming (or needing to become) ‘post-Fordist’ in nature for example. I’d like to see some widespread evidence for this, rather than just a few examples. In other words, there is a lot of rhetoric in this book.

What’s been scratching away under my skin as I’ve been reading this book is that so much of what is written here doesn’t quite fit my experience of the development of distance education; it’s too neat and over-simplified, and yes, too theoretical, whereas distance education as it is practiced is rough, often very pragmatic to the point of being totally unreflecting, very diverse, and at the same time has been very much embedded in millions of students’ personal life experiences. None of this comes through very strongly in the book.

I also have to say that much of the writing in this book is not just Canadian, not even Western Canadian, but specifically from Alberta. There is nothing wrong with that per se, and indeed, I am pleased to see Canadian writers featured so prominently, but I would prefer in an introduction to distance education a much wider range of views and experience in distance education. What about distance education in developing countries, for instance, which is totally ignored in this book?

Yet despite my initial reactions, this is still a book well worth reading by anyone interested in distance education. There are many excellent chapters, as well as some exasperating ones. For this reason, I feel I need more space to discuss individual chapters, which I will do in subsequent postings.

I guess then in summary that it’s the title I’m bothered by. I would much prefer this to have been called: ‘Some interesting and provocative ideas about the nature of distance education and its development’, which is what the book is really about. By all means read it if you are studying distance education – but make sure you have some other books on the topic, as well.


  1. Tony,
    I also had a look the book and have to say that I like theory.
    The distinction which is made between fordism and postfordism
    is one with some remarks to O. Peters. So they take a German approach.
    From my point of view technology enhanced teaching and learning will not automatically lead to postfordism. Quite the opposite is true: One strong sense of technology is automating.
    We can observe that in many cases. Are we sure that we avoid this?

  2. Yes, it seems more a book about “online learning in higher education,” and the title and subtitle might be better transposed. If one doesn’t agree that “the creation of collaborative learning communities” (p. 255) should be the destiny of DE, then the overall thrust probably won’t convince, but read from the midst of an effort to formulate a strategy for DE, it’s a most welcome and helpful introduction. Looking forward to your further remarks!

  3. Lalita Rajasingham
    April 21st

    I do enjoy your postings—particularly today’s…I have read the text and couldn’t agree more with you as to the mis-alignment between rhetoric and reality in multi cultural settings-the title itself is anachronistic!


    Dr Lalita Rajasingham BA(MELB) MA (CAMB) PhD, AFNZIM
    Associate Professor (Communications Studies)
    School of Information Management
    Room 215 Easterfield Building
    Victoria University of Wellington


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