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Virtual Education: Student Perspectives on the Distance Learning

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May 20, 2006   #1

"Virtually Educated: Student Perspectives on the Distance Learning Experience" (McGettigan, 1999) offers an interesting perspective on the addition of distance learning opportunities to the curricula of institutions of higher learning. The author presents a rather scathing critique of the distance learning experience of students enrolled at the "Big State University - Branch Campus" using transcripts of interviews with many of these students. Although McGettigan points to many positive aspects of BSU's distance learning curricula [most notably, the wide variety of both undergraduate and graduate course offerings due to the fact that BSU is a receiving and transmission station for the Distant Education Technology System (DETS)], he also notes three main areas of dissatisfaction of students with their distance learning experiences: angry, unsympathetic instructors; the feeling of being treated as second-class students; and a lack of adequate education and/or training for DETS instructors.

These negative responses were gathered through interviews with distance learning students. McGettigan (1999) notes that they run counter to generally-accepted, positive feedback within the area of distance learning, but posits that such data are skewed due to the fact that most dissatisfied students either drop out before evaluations are filled out; are afraid to voice their real opinions lest their instructors become even more cantankerous; or simply feel their efforts to express negative criticism either won't be worth it or won't be appreciated. In short, McGettigan feels that the cons outweigh the pros. He concludes that "while they (students) may be very appreciative of the opportunities that distance education offers,... they often have significant concerns about the quality of such an education," (p. 70). Moreover, he cites other studies which support this assertion, including Schoellhorn (1994), who found that students consistently maintained that there could never be a substitute for a flesh-and-blood instructor.

My Impressions

Overall, I found the article interesting, if a bit light on its perusal of relevant literature. I was impressed with the teacher-researcher perspective of the author. McGettigan was employed as a temporary sociology instructor for two semesters at "BSU" (not the real name of the institution), and it was as a result of anecdotal evidence brought to him by distance-learning students that he began interviewing them in a more structured way to come to his conclusions.

I also appreciated an alternative perspective on distance learning. In my limited reading, I have noted two main perspectives on distance learning curricula: either a whole-hearted approval of it, or a whole-hearted condemnation of it. It was interesting to find an article, especially in a journal which publishes radical views on education, which found a middle-ground.

Validity of the Author's Perspective and Evidence Supporting It

First of all, considering the fact that this study came from unsolicited student commentaries to him during his office hours, I tend to trust the validity of his findings. Because McGettigan was a "flesh and blood" professor who had made himself available to students who were otherwise distance learners; and because he apparently posed no threat to them (insofar as they confided information to him which they consistently refused to share with others); I tend to trust that what the students told him during the course of their interviews was truthful.

also appreciated the fact that he offered several different theories about why his interviews were turning up data which varied considerably from that gathered from traditional course evaluation sources. This led me to trust him more than I would have otherwise (had he, for example, insisted upon one analysis of the data).

Finally, McGettigan does not represent a technological firm; he is not himself a distance-learning instructor; and he does not appear to be an advocate for a return to the strict traditions of Oxford. For these reasons, which lead him to be rather less biased than others who are publishing in this area, I tend to trust his perspective.

Meeting/Resolving Issues Raised by the Author

I will address this topic by using McGettigan's (1999) three areas of student concern. The first area was, as he worded it, "grumpy, unsympathetic instructors." The concerns in this area were basically what one would imagine given the title. For example, students noted that one instructor himself hated distance learning so much that they were afraid to add their own criticisms to his. I might suggest that a simple random-monitoring system could provide quite useful; deans could sporadically observe instructors' overall tones of presentation, and thus provide constructive feedback. Of course, given current tenure practices, the actual effects of such monitoring might prove to be quite small; but it would be a first step.

The second area was the feeling of distance learners that they were second class students. Specific concerns included the fact that professors required certain things of all students (such as the purchase of materials available only at the school bookstore, or the accessing of certain books available only in the school library) which were inherently much more possible for on-campus students to fulfill than for distance learners. Another concern was the fact that instructors, if they feel that their distance learners are being too disruptive to the class, can actually "mute" them from the overall discussion; this is obviously not an option for real-time, in the flesh students. I might first of all suggest that, in the formation of curricula for distance learning classes, care is taken to ensure an equitable burden for all students in terms of fulfilling requirements. I might also suggest that certain technological "assets" which grant professors options regarding some students and not others be blocked from their use.

A final area of student concern was a lack of adequate training for DETS instructors. For example, one student noted, certain professors had no idea that fax machines were available for their use. As a result, the opportunity for immediate feedback, which was to be a part of the course, was not an option. A simple remedy might be that all DETS instructors be specifically trained in the use and location of all possible technological aids to distance teaching. Student feedback could be solicited in a realistic way to ensure that all such aids were being used (as appropriate).

Author Critique of Education/Educators and its Validity

This entire article is a critique of both distance learning in general and certain distance learning instructors in particular. In a general way, McGettitan (1999) questions whether distance learning can ever compete, in terms of quality, with face-to-face instruction. In a specific way, he critiques the styles of two professors at BSU, one of whom was so generally angry as to alienate distance-learners, and the other who refused (until pressured by her dean) to accommodate the authentically different level of access to certain materials that distance learners had.

Again, as noted above, I find the overall critique of distance learning to be valid given the relatively unbiased positioning of the author. I also feel that it can be appropriate to critique colleagues in a specific manner, in certain venues. We all can learn from concrete examples. However, the author's attempt to hide the identity of the professors so critiqued by simply changing their names is ultimately ineffective. Indeed, his attempt to hide the identity of the university by changing the name is similarly ineffective. By searching under his name alone, I could find (with some effort) the real identities of both the distance-learning institution and the two professors specifically indicted. McGettitan would have had to change his name for true anonymity to be preserved.

Meeting/Resolving Criticisms Leveled by the Author

I would suggest, possibly irreverently but nevertheless truthfully, that until the current system of tenure is radically altered, there really isn't too much to be done about ineffective, even harmful professors. This is nothing new in the world of academia; everyone knows this. So, I have no idea how to, in actuality, deal with ineffective, damaging professors such as those described in this article.

However, in terms of distance learning itself, I can think of ways to alter the curricula such that it at least offers enough of a quality education to be considered worth it by adequate numbers of students in order to make it worthwhile to continue it. For example, as noted above, certain training and technological alterations could be made to solve at least a few of the problems; more frequent student feedback could be enlisted; and, perhaps most hopefully, students could participate in the curricular planning process itself. If distance learners themselves were asked to help plan courses of study which they would deem helpful to them - and especially if they were also asked to help solve the many logistical problems involved in distance learning - this might go a long way in solving future dilemmas.


McGettigan, T. (1999). Virtually Eeducated: Student Perspectives on the Distance Learning Experience. Radical Pedagogy,1(2), 53-70.


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