Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings


The Impact of Distance and Net-Based Learning on Higher Education,
November 1, 2000

This analysis was prepared in conjunction with OMDE 601, the Foundations of Distance Education, during the first semester of the MDE program. It is this author's first attempt to summarize, in concise fashion, the growing importance of new technologies on teaching and learning at a distance.


The impact of digitized learning environments on distance education, and on higher education institutions in particular, has been termed revolutionary. The advent of the personal computer and the growth of the Internet have given institutions a new range of technological options for delivering education. We have seen an enormous growth in the use of telecommunications and multimedia technologies as methods for enhancing communications among teachers and learners. More significantly, the new distance and net-based technologies bring with them major ramifications for the learning process, changing the essential approaches to teaching and learning utilized by higher education institutions.


The primary effect of distance and net-based learning on higher education comes not from the technological advances or organizational aspects, but rather from the their impact on the educational process and on pedagogy. The components of teaching and learning are structurally altered in a number of ways.

1. Distance and net-based learning will drastically alter the nature of teaching in higher education:

The focus of teaching changes from presentation, the exposition of facts, drill, and practice, to counseling, tutorial support, establishing relationships, and the development of non-linear teaching systems (Peters, 1999). The latter is demonstrated in the importance of hypertext links on the Internet. While presentation in the form of carefully prepared (and repeated) classroom lectures led to the development of highly structured programmed learning approaches using PCs and computer-based training techniques, these too are quickly becoming a thing of the past (Bates, 1995).

2. Distance and net-based learning will drastically alter the nature of learning in higher education:

A new and exciting form of autonomous learning becomes possible – what Peters terms “self-controlled learning” (1999). The learner is no longer the “recipient” of programmed, highly structured traditional classroom teaching, but is actively involved. She or he focuses on discovering, experiencing, exploring, searching, communicating, and collaborating. Instead of memorizing facts, learners browse, locate resources and paths, acquire the ability to search and tease out connections and relationships (Peters, 1998). They utilize computer memory and storage capabilities to store information, rather than relying on their own personal memories.

3. Institutions must be prepared to support the new requirements of “virtual proximity.”

As learning by discovering and problem solving in communication with other learners becomes the norm, virtual proximity, enabled through technology, replaces the physical proximity of the traditional classroom. Virtual communication and the formation of virtual learning groups replace the traditional classroom communication. Ideally, learners form a “knowledge community,” where group and partnership learning take place (Peters, 1998, p. 135).

4. Institutions must provide distance education programs as well as traditional classroom programs with appropriate tools for teaching and learning.

As the result of changes in teaching and learning, both teachers and learners will need a new set of behaviors and characteristics, and the technical equipment to support the new pedagogy. To support self-determination and independently planned and organized learning, institutions must be prepared to provide tools – e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, Internet mailing lists, computer conferences, and alternative methods for social interaction (for example, chat applications) – to both distance education and to traditional classroom teaching and learning (Peters, 1998, 1999). Institutions must be prepared to provide “learning on demand” (Peters, 1999).


Digitalized learning environments (specifically the Internet) change the very nature of knowledge and thinking. In a virtual learning environment, learners are given choices they never had before. They play a critical role in the way in which learning occurs. Students become accustomed to having information, resources, and sophisticated communications methods available to them 24 hours a day, anytime anywhere. As more learners become technologically enabled and accustomed to functioning in complex fields of knowledge and interaction, the pressure on institutions to alter their approaches to teaching and learning will be extreme. Institutions that fail to enter the digitized world and to use the new learning tools available to them will no longer play a significant role in higher education.


Bates, A. W. (1995). Technology, open learning and distance education. New York: Routledge.

Peters, O. (1998). Learning and teaching in distance education. London: Kogan Page.

Peters, O. (1999). A pedagogical model for virtual learning space. Retrieved October 16, 2000 on the World Wide Web at http://www.uni-oldenburg.de/zef/cde/found/peters99.htm.