Is online distance education about to collapse like the Tower of Babel? So asks Jon Baggaley

Distance Education, Vol. 32, No. 1, May 2011

The academic papers in this edition deal with factors that influence success and completion in online distance education courses, focused on stimulating student interest, social presence and engagement with the learning experience.

Note that this NOT an open access journal but requires a subscription, which is a pity because many of the articles are excellent.

Editorial, Som Naidu


Role of social presence and cognitive absorption in online learning environments,  Peter Leong, University of Hawaii

Developing an instrument to assess student readiness for online learning: a validation study, Barbara Dray et al., University of Colorado, Buffalo State College

How do students define their roles and responsibilities in online learning group projects? Karen C. Williams et al, University of Wyoming

Synchronous collaboration competencies in web-conferencing environments – their impact on the learning process, Matt Bower, Macquarie University

Digitally distanced learning: a study of international distance learners’ (non-use) of technology, Neil Selwyn, University of London

The making of an exemplary online educator, Margaret Edwards et al, Athabasca University

Designing the professional development of staff for teaching online: an OU (UK) case study, Janet Macdonald and Barbara Poniatowska


A giant structure, Jon Baggaley, Athabasca University

Book review

Changing cultures in higher education, by U.-D. Ehlers and D. Schneckenberg (eds.), reviewed by Tony Bates

My comments

There is a lot of solid research into critical success factors for online learning in this edition, which requires careful and thorough reading. I have focused my comments on articles that are specific to my interests, but I encourage anyone taking a program on teaching online or doing research for a masters of Ph.D. on online learning to make the effort to get a copy of this edition.

Peter Leong’s study of the role of social presence comes up with an unexpected result:

‘Contrary to expectations, the study determined that social presence does not impact [student] satisfaction directly. However, the study concludes that while social presence is related to student satisfaction, its impact is not direct but mediated by cognitive absorption.’

He defines cognitive absorption as: a state of deep involvement or a holistic experience that an individual has with information technology. Social presence is a factor that enhances cognitive absorption, so Leong argues that creating social presence is important. What is not discussed or investigated is what other factors (besides intrinsic interest in the subject matter) leads to cognitive absorption. This study is a good example of the difficulties of interpreting multi-factor statistical analysis.

The University of Wyoming research into online group roles is a fascinating study of group dynamics and also raises some excellent questions about the role of the instructor in online group work.

Neil Selwyn’s article on the restricted use of digital technology by international distance education students throws some light on the realities of distance learning for many students. Many of the students were more focused on credentialling than learning for its own sake, and hence tended to use digital materials as little as possible in what appeared to be print-heavy courses. What I wanted to see in this study was more on the basic design of the online courses and the extent to which inter-personal interaction and learner-centered teaching were built into (or not built into) the design. In other words, as with other forms of teaching, course design is critical. There are aeons of research going back to the UK OU’s use of television and radio to show that students are highly instrumental, and if they perceive that it is the texts that will get them through the exams, they won’t use other media. This comes down to what kind of learning outcomes the courses are aiming for, and how different media are used to facilitate such outcomes.

Margaret Edwards and her colleagues at Athabasca University conducted an interesting study, comparing the attributes of ‘exemplary’ online instructors with those of exemplary classroom instructors. Surprise, surprise, they had a lot in common. However, there is more to this study than just the results. The study highlights the practices that are more likely to lead to success, and ties them to pedagogy.

Lastly, Jon Baggaley is surely one of the most amusing and interesting commentators on distance education. In this tongue-in-cheek yet at the same time deadly serious article with some historical research behind it, he compares the Internet to the Tower of Babel. To get a little flavour of the article I quote:

So is the field of online distance education condemned to disintegrate, Babel-like? As the Internet and the Tower of Babel are frequently compared, it is cautionary to consider this possibility. Each of these giant structures has been described as facilitating the best and worst of human goals; as the outcome of cyclic success and failure; as an idea developed in one part of the world without regard for others; as a technology that began with diverse languages and ended without unifying them; and as a project that barrels onward without paying attention to warning signals. Will the online education tower fall because its users failed to discipline it?

Even the articles not discussed here are worth reading, but I can’t do your reading for you!

Overall, this is an excellent edition – just a pity that it’s not more accessible.


  1. Tony…

    Thank you for your review and commentary on this issue of Distance Education.

    I am sure the contributors to this issue will find your comments very encouraging. It is with the support of expert reviewers such as yourself…that it is possible to produce a high quality journal. And even though this is not an open access journal…it is very widely distributed through many libraries and other distributiuoin channels…so readers should not find it too hard to accces.


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