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Online Learning: From a specialized distance education paradigm to a ubiquitous element of contemporary education



This paper provides a literature overview of the increasing importance of online learning across all modes of instruction, whether they take place in higher education, school-based or informal education. It then moves to discussing the current situation regarding the Australian university sector and then provides an example of the same subject offered in a School of Education across four different modes – two being face to face and two by distance. The modes are reviewed to examine the use of online learning with the common subject and assessment being the control.
Online Learning: From a specialized distance education
paradigm to a ubiquitous element of contemporary
Anderson Neil
James Cook University, Australia
James Cook University, Australia
Abstract- This paper provides a literature overview of the
increasing importance of online learning across all modes of
instruction, whether they take place in higher education, school-
based or informal education. It then moves to discussing the
current situation regarding the Australian university sector and
then provides an example of the same subject offered in a School
of Education across four different modes two being face to face
and two by distance. The modes are reviewed to examine the use
of online learning with the common subject and assessment being
the control.
Keywords: e-Learning, online learning, education, ICT,
information communication technology, higher education
As predicted by Anderson and Baskin [1], online learning
has shifted “from the domain of distance education to
encompass all modes of educational delivery.” Ten years ago,
online learning almost exclusively belonged in the province of
distance delivery of education but now pre-school children
engage in computer games that are not installed on their local
computer but delivered from the cloud. In 2002, some higher
education courses delivered on-campus were beginning to see
the benefits of blending face to face with online delivery, but
now all subjects at many universities and institutions of higher
education mandate the inclusion of an online component,
regardless of their mode. This is now not unusual in tertiary
education delivery and is just indicative of the current trend in
ensuring that elements of online learning are used in all modes
of delivery. In school-based education, the Queensland state
government provider of online resources has established
‘Polaris’, a data centre housing 1.5 petabytes of data, has 6000
square metres of rack space, 3 floors of server rooms and 2 x
20 tonne back-up generators. This is just to serve the
government primary and high school requirements for online
learning in one state of Australia and is a compelling
indication of the explosive growth in online learning. In
informal education, the Internet has become a primary source
for learning and this includes a blending of formal and
informal education through the availability of free and open
enrolment in courses through massive open online courses
(MOOCs). This paper will explore current trends in the
literature pertaining to online learning and then will explore a
case study of a university program delivered across four
different modes from two sites, that empowers undergraduate
students to create their own web-enhanced learning activities
using Google Sites and associated Google Apps. Two of the
modes are face-to face, one is blended and the other totally
The age of globalization and technological development
has changed the appearance and operation of modern society
and the world has become increasingly digital. Advances in
technology and the interrelation of Information
Communication Technology (ICT) with teaching and learning
settings have quickened the growth of distance learning and
fundamentally changed the way that we teach. Competing in
the world marketplace, students need to be equipped with 21st
century skills that are offered by the arrival of technology.
Researchers in the field argue that ICT has proven its potential
to fulfil the promising expectations of life-long learning by
assisting in the delivery of high-quality services [2].
This has attracted the attention of educational policy
makers who have worked to utilize the benefits of distance
learning or virtual education modes as alternatives to face-to-
face learning or as a means of offering blended modes of
delivery. McCoog[2] and Henry, et al. [3] also highlight the
importance of thoughtful and purposeful use of technology to
facilitate students’ achievements helping exploration of other
learning avenues in the process of differentiating instruction
with clear educational goals. Based on constructivism, recent
studies confirm the potential of the Internet and the Web to
enhance even the best classroom teaching [4] such as
engaging students in creative information gap activities and
real experiential learning [4].
According to Palloff and Pratt [1999; cited in 5], distance
education involves both distance teaching (focusing on the
instructor’s role) and distance learning (focusing on the
learner’s role). Such a mode, as asserted by them, requires
separation of teacher and learner in space and sometimes in
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e-Learning and e-Teaching, ICELET 2013
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time and the use of educational media to connect teacher and
learner [5]. Mshvidobadze and Gogoladze[6] also define the
term “distance learning” as the learning environment in which
most or all of the learning happens outside the traditional
classroom using paper resources, video, teleconferencing,
Computer Managed Learning, or on-line courses. Distance
education popularity relies not only on its convenient
approach for employees and parents to follow higher or
continuing education [7], but also on its flexible access to
learning resources regardless of space and occasional time
limits which are more responsive to students’ needs [5, 8, 9].
In summary, distance education creates an opportunity for
collaborative learning among a group of people irrespective of
their age, background, and geographical distance limitations.
Anderson and Baskin [1] also claim that “the value of the on-
line environment lies in its capacity to enable our
collaborative knowledge about teaching and learning to
interact so that each becomes a structuring, and constitutive
resource for the other” [1]. From a report published in 2003 by
the Illinois Network Online [cited in 8], independent learners
take advantage of online courses as the majority of students
taking such classes are attracted by the convenience,
availability, and flexibility of scheduling classes, not because
of the suitability of the classes to their learning styles. Ryan
[10] also states that most students attending online classes are
attracted by the convenience and flexibility of scheduling.
To ensure IT competency in the modern marketplace,
students need to be equipped with a high skill level to remain
abreast of technological advances. Online learning as an
emerging paradigm of modern education [11] works best for
people who are wellorganized, selfmotivated, and able to
manage their time well [12]. The focus of instruction should
be on students’ achieving an effective integration of
technology. For example, Sun, et al. [11] believe that “e-
learning’s characteristics fulfill the requirements for learning
in a modern society and have created great demand for e-
learning from businesses and institutes of higher education”
[11] with a growth rate of 35.6%. However failure exists as
some users stop their online learning after an initial experience
for unknown reasons [11]. Gansler[12] further states that the
teacher can easily recognize when students in the classroom
understand a lesson or not, by simply reading their facial
expressions, whilst in online learning the responsibility lies
with students to ask the teacher for help when they need more
clarification or explanation.
According to Mshvidobadze and Gogoladze[6], most of
the universities and colleges in the world are now developing
different types of distance education programs offering
courses from the most basic instruction through to the highest
levels of degree and doctoral programs. For example, the
majority of educational institutions use the Learning
Management System (LMS) to manage and monitor learners,
teachers and content of courses [13]. Learners can log in to
LMS and use online tools like email, chat, quizzes and forums
to communicate. Learners can also use LMS as a means of
social networking and knowledge sharing. Ramli et al, also
highlight a report released in 2011 by the U.S. Department of
Education, saying that “from 2000 to 2008, the percentage of
undergraduates enrolled in at least one distance education
class expanded from 8 percent to 20 percent, and the
percentage enrolled in a distance education degree program
increased from 2 percent to 4 percent “ [6].
Many professionals in the field agree about using
technology in classrooms, to accommodate the changing
nature of literacy and the new technologies [3, 14, 15]. There
is a need to integrate new literacies into the classroom to
prepare students for the 21st century. According to socio-
constructivists, learning happens via interaction between
learners and their environment, therefore, Mupinga, et al. [8]
recommend providing ample opportunities for student-to-
student and student-to-teacher interactions in online courses.
Mupinga, et al. have found that student interaction with online
instructors provides the most significant benefits in online
III. Online learning: Dominantparadigm or important partner
in all modes of learning?
Sun et al. [11] speculate, “e-Learning is emerging as the
paradigm of modern education”. Since 2008, e-Learning has
not proven to be ‘the paradigm’ of current educational
practices but has shown remarkable growth, not just in
distance education delivery but an infiltration across all modes
of education has become apparent. Undoubtedly, e-Learning
has become an important aspect of almost all forms and stages
of learning and the rate of growth and uptake of e-Learning
has not yet peaked.
A major report on Australian universities by consultants
Ernst and Young outlined in The Australian Newspaper
(2012, October, 24th, p.1) concluded that only the elite
universities will survive the next 25 years and they caution
that “exploding enrolments in massive open online courses, or
MOOCs, and increased demand for tertiary degrees globally
point to the need for Australian institutions to broaden their
scope in how and where they teach.” Australian universities
who are offering access to MOOCs are experiencing high
levels of uptake. Recently, Professor Gyln Davis, the Vice-
Chancellor of Australian Group of Eight University, Monash,
reported that his university had started offering some subjects
through the established MOOC, Coursera and that the uptake
was astonishing. Overall Coursera has 1.4 million enrolments
and 33 university partners, including elite institutions such as
Stanford and University of London (The Australian
Newspaper, October 17th, 2012, p.23). Despite this massive
change, Professor Hilmer of the University of New South
Wales expressed the view that universities would not need to
change as rapidly as the report recommended. He argued that
most students enrolling in universities were unlikely to want
to gain entry to higher education and then go upstairs in their
The 4th International Conference on
e-Learning and e-Teaching, ICELET 2013
residence and log on. He cited the importance of the face-to-
face university experience, including the social aspects of
university life as a key motivator for face-to-face attendance at
universities (The Australian Newspaper, October, 24th, p.4).
The current arguments are not about whether e-Learning is
important but about whether its influence will be dominant
and overwhelming.
IV. An example of current practice regarding the infiltration
of e-Learning across modes
One of the current authors (Anderson) coordinates and
teaches in the James Cook University (Australia) subject,
ED3441 (Technologies Across the Curriculum), which is an
undergraduate subject in the School of Education. This subject
is taught in four different modes to distinctly different groups
of students. In all four cohorts the students are
overwhelmingly female, since the teaching profession in
Australia has for a long time been a gendered profession,
dominated by women. The first group ‘Cairns Internal’
consists of 48 students, 5 of which are males. This group lives
in a regional city and is mainly school leavers who have
finished 12 years of schooling and have enrolled in the
Education degree in face-to-face mode. Group two
‘Townsville – Internal’ live in another regional city that has a
distinctly different culture and are also attending face to face.
This group of 91 students has 16 males. Group three has 5
female enrolments of students from an Aboriginal or Torres
Strait Islander background. In this mode, students are
supported by face-to-face tutors who are employed by the
state school education authority. The authority supports this
mode in order to encourage the graduation of more Australian
Indigenous graduates, which is also a priority of the
university. In addition to the face-to-face tutoring, these
students access the online resources.
This then provides an excellent scenario for examining the
use of e-Learning across three different modes, where the
common subject outline and assessment provides a ‘control’
for a brief review of the use of online learning. As mentioned
previously, all subject modes must have an online site for
students to access. The discussion will encompass online
resources; online discussion board; use of online tests and the
way students created online resources.
It was a common feature of all modes that the subject
readings for each weekly theme were posted online in weekly
folders. For face-to-face students, PowerPoint files were
loaded after the lecture but for the distance students,
PowerPoint files were uploaded at the beginning of the week
and were designed for individual viewing with hyperlinks to
information that would be discussed during lectures. Another
important resource was the use of video files for key lectures
and another use was as a substitute for technical lab
instruction related to the use of Google Sites. The subject
required students to design and create their own web-
supported learning activity in Google Sites. The websites that
they created needed to follow the Webquest model. As
distance students did not have access to the face-to-face
technical tutorials, these were reproduced using the software
‘Captivate’. These video tutorials were designed specifically
for the distance students but the face-to-face students
requested access to them, as they sometimes needed to miss
tutorials or wanted to revise the instructions.
Across all modes, students had access to the ‘Blackboard’
based discussion board on the weekly topics but only a
handful of the face-to-face students posted responses to the
questions whereas hundreds of posts were received from the
distance students. The policy implemented by the subject
coordinator was that all posts received a response from an
academic staff member, even if the post was a comment rather
than a question. This was the single change made from the
previous year’s offering and this strategy appeared to make a
very significant positive difference to the formal student
feedback from students in distance mode. Students were also
encouraged to interact with each other on the discussion
board. All students in all modes completed an online multiple
choice quiz after the third week as the first three weeks
involved the students in acquiring core knowledge prior to
moving to the more creative and higher order task of creating
their own web-based learning activity. This strategy was very
well regarded by the students as they received immediate
feedback on their acquisition of core knowledge and saved the
lecturers’ time in marking.
From this brief analysis, it is clear that e-Learning was an
important part of each mode and undoubtedly, the dominant
paradigm for the distance students. The students in each mode
not only participated in learning through online means but
they each created their own web-based and web-supported
learning activity to be used in their own teaching for students
at pre-school, primary school and secondary school levels. An
example of a web-supported learning activity created by one
of the students can be found at:
While e-Learning has become the most dominant means of
providing distance learning, it is evident that as time has gone
on, it has achieved higher levels of importance and uptake
across all modes of learning and the course outlined in this
paper is one example.
1. Anderson, N. and C. Baskin, Can we leave it to chance? New learning
technologies and the problem of professional competence. International
Education Journal, 2002. 3(3): p. 126-137.
2. McCoog, I.J., Integrated instruction: Multiple intelligences and
technology. The Clearing House, 2007. 81(1): p. 25-28.
3. Henry, L.A., J. Coiro, and J. Castek, The flickering mind: The false
promise of technology in the classroom and how learning can be saved.
Journal of Asolescent & Adult Literacy, 2005. 48(5): p. 442-445.
4. Felix, U., The web as a vehicle for constructivist approaches in
language teaching ReCALL, 2002. 14(1): p. 2-15.
The 4th International Conference on
e-Learning and e-Teaching, ICELET 2013
5. Zhang, X. and G. Cui, Learning beliefs of distance foreign language
learners in China: A survey study. System, 2010. 38: p. 30-40.
6. Mshvidobadze, T. and T. Gogoladze, About web-based distance
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(IJDPS), 2012. 3(3): p. 133-143.
7. Niu, J., et al., Exploring an integrated approach to web-based course
assessment. AAOU Journal 2005. 1: p. 38-44.
8. Mupinga, D.M., R.T. Nora, and D.C. Yaw (2006) The learning styles,
expectations and needs of Online students. College Teaching 54, 185-
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preferences of undergraduate nursing students on educational
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10. Ryan, S., Is online learning right for you? American Agent and Broker,
2001. 73(6): p. 54-58.
11. Sun, P.-C., et al., What drives a successful e-learning? An empirical
investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction.
Computers & Education, 2008. 50: p. 1183-1202.
12. Gansler, A., Is online learning right for you? Certain personal traits
predict success online. Distance Learning Today, 2007. 1(1).
13. Ramli, N.F.M., S. Darus, and N.A. Bakar, Metacognitive Online
Reading Strategies of Adult ESL Learners Using a Learning
Management System. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2011.
1(3): p. 195-204.
14. Leu, D.J., et al., The lessons that children teach us: Integrating
children's literature and the new literacies of the Internet. International
Reading Association, 2004: p. 496-503.
15. Coiro, J., Reading Comprehension on the Internet: Expanding Our
Understanding of Reading Comprehension to Encompass New
Literacies. the Reading Teacher, 2003. 56(5): p. 458-464.
Professor Neil Andersonholds the distinguished Pearl Logan Chair in Rural
Education at James Cook University and is a Senior Fellow in the Cairns
Institute. He has held the positions of Deputy Head of School for 5 years and
Acting Dean for 1 year and has received major research grants from the
Australian Research Council. He served on the national selection panel for
Australia's Future Fellow Scheme in 2011. He has been the recipient of
awards such as the Vice Chancellor's award for research supervision,
Emerald Journals Literati Award and an 'Outstanding contribution to
research award' from the Australian Computer Society.
KarimHajhashemi (corresponding author) is a PhD. student of Education at
James Cook University in Australia. He has completed his MA. in English
language at Universiti Putra Malaysia and holds a B.A. in English
Translation from Islamic Azad University, Central Tehran Branch, Iran. He
has published several books and articles on various topics in applied
linguistics in general and in multiple intelligences, in particular. His main
research interests are multiple intelligences, language learning strategies,
second language acquisition, reading comprehension, online learning, and
The 4th International Conference on
e-Learning and e-Teaching, ICELET 2013
... This change has encouraged research in this area and has led to advances in all areas of online education. In addition to the technological advances required for successful online education (Anderson, Hajhashemi, 2013), research has also been conducted on motivational strategies that can be used successfully in an online environment (Aras, Wulandari, 2021;Karsen et al., 2021). ...
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This paper describes two different university and school collaborations featuring teachers' and students' use of online environments. The first example involves a classroom application of a Learning Management System (LMS) to deliver a Year 8 Studies of Society Unit on 'Rainforests'. This example serves to capture, bracket and examine the ways in which teachers have begun to redefine teaching practice, and to document the ways in which students experience this change in teaching. The second example documents feedback from a formal hands-on professional development program for teachers where follow up support was offered on-line, using the same LMS. Data presented here suggest that the on-line environment is not a panacea for better teaching and learning outcomes. Example one identifies the means by which the on-line environment is able to stimulate effective learning exchange, yet signposts to the teacher the ways in which the emerging ICT classroom will challenge the technology, logistics, organisation and delivery competencies of many teachers. In example two, technology is painted as a catalyst to other elements of school reform. In both examples, the value of the on-line environment lies in its capacity to enable our collaborative knowledge about teaching and learning to interact so that each becomes a structuring, and constitutive resource for the other. ICT in the classroom, online teaching and learning, university-school collaboration