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Different Ways to Learn

Distance education--formal education completed off-site—is increasing and attracting professional research. McKay School professor Randall Davies and BYU colleagues Scott Howell and Jo Ann Petrie have co-written the article “A Review of Trends in Distance Education Scholarship at Research Universities in North America, 1998-2007,” examining the distance learning dissertations and thesis written in a ten year period by graduate students. “The goal was to learn what people are studying, and how they are studying it,” Davies said. “We looked at research methods, data analysis, and developing trends.”

This two-year study revealed several new factors in research concerning online education. “One criticism of distance learning studies is that they have been primarily descriptive,” said Davies. One of the questions that naturally arose in the study was whether or not this criticism was legitimate. “We looked at the research and compared it to what’s been said about it, and we found that yes, the criticisms have some merit. Almost half of student studies were descriptive. We need to go deeper,” said Davies.

"Our goal was to learn what people are studying and how they are studying it. We need to go deeper."

Distance learning is developing its own methodologies and its own identity. Though distance learning has been compared unfavorably to traditional learning in the past, as technology advances and opportunities become more accessible, public perceptions and interest are improving. Davies remarks, “It’s starting to be able to stand on its own now.” However, he does not expect complete separation: “I don’t believe siblings can ever truly be independent—comparisons will always exist.”

Many of the differences between distance and traditional learning are due to technology. In the past, slow-moving or underdeveloped technology made distance learning processes less efficient than they are today. Davies referred to this condition as “ kind of an accepted limitation.” “It was just a given that technology sometimes fails,” he explained. Despite some imperfections, technology has improved dramatically. Countless resources and applications are now available to students, giving them a far better experience than those students who pioneered distance learning.

7 February 2011