Distance Learning is Older Than Multiple Choice Tests, the Carnegie Unit, & Learning Objectives

If a tree falls in the the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a century of practice and research on distance learning is around and no one reads it, does it exist? I’ll confess that this is a persistent challenge and personal frustration when discussing distance learning and the 25-year-old sub-category of online learning. There continue to be people thinking that the MOOC developments of the last five years represent the birth of online learning, when it is a field that goes back to the early 1990s. Even prior to that we have a century-old field of study dedicated to research on the effectiveness of distance learning as a whole. Yet, people new the field frequently critique online learning without taking the time to review the rich, growing, and long-standing body of literature in a field that is older than some academic disciplines or sub-disciplines taught by some of the critics. Consider the following select facts (far from exhaustive, leaving out many other significant developments between each of these items).

My point is simply that distance learning (and online learning) is not new. There is a longstanding tradition of philosophy, theory, empirical research, and codifying of best practices.  We have a solid base of research that is as or more robust than many unquestioned and widespread practices in traditional classroom education. Yet, there continues to be a level of scrutiny and critique that far exceeds untested and largely unquestioned practices in face-to-face instruction.

I welcome the challenge and strong critiques. Yet, it seems to me that these critiques are best accompanied with a willingness to study the large body of existing literature. After all, distance learning practices are older than many standard educational practices in schools throughout the United States and beyond. Distance learning is older than the use of multiple choice tests, the Carnegie Unit, the use of behavioral learning objectives, or the widespread use of academic standards. Of course, just because something has been around for a hundred years doesn’t necessarily mean that it works, but it probably calls for us to approach the subject with a recognition that we are exploring a 100-year-old practice informed by a formal body of research that goes back decades.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.