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