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Current Editor: Dr. Robert T. Howell  bhowell@fhsu.edu
Volume 40, Number 4
Summer 2003


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UNDER REVIEW


Handbook of Distance Education

By Michael G. Moore, William Anderson, and William G. Anderson
Format: Hardcover, 896 pp. ISBN: 0805839240
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Reviewed by
Jim Flowers
Ball State University

It is a special joy to be able to review the Handbook of Distance Education for the Journal. For months I had anticipated its release with high hopes, and I am not disappointed. Unlike other book reviews, I have had the opportunity to use the Handbook of Distance Education in a workshop for faculty, to purchase it for selected online faculty, and to refer university administrators to it. The list price of $185 has been discounted by the publisher to a level more in the price range of the distance teacher and administrator, which is fortunate because this is a valuable desk reference for those involved in designing, delivering, or evaluating postsecondary distance education.

Distance Education

Distance education, and online education in particular, is growing. A September 2003 survey report from the Sloan-C Consortium (Allen & Seaman, 2003) provided the following snapshot of online education in the U.S. in the fall of 2002.

Over 1.6 million students took at least one online course during fall 2002. Over one third of these students (578,000) took all of their courses online. Among all U.S. higher education students in fall 2002, 11 % took at least one online course. Among public institutions … 97% [offer] at least one online or blended course and 49 % [offer] an online degree program (pp. 1-2).

Industrial teacher education, with a history of hands-on learning at the undergraduate level, seems slow to arrive on the field of distance education, though inroads are being forged. An upcoming yearbook from the Council on Technology Teacher Education is being developed around a theme of distance education. Several universities now offer blended courses in industrial teacher education, where some aspects are online, but other aspects are face-to-face. It is not uncommon to find a number of graduate courses offered online, appealing to the working professional who does not wish to leave his/her home, family, or job to enroll as a full-time student at a distant university; but the numbers of complete programs, especially those with initial teacher certification, are few.

Many university faculty and staff members involved in industrial teacher education seem to be finding themselves more involved with distance education than they may have predicted a decade ago. It is these professionals who have studied fields other than distance education who may stand to gain the most from the Handbook of Distance Education, though it is not written as a primer. Not surprisingly, there is little, if any, mention of industrial teacher education in the Handbook of Distance Education; but that should not be a reason for the readership of the Journal to dismiss this work.

Development

The Handbook of Distance Education, edited by Moore, Anderson, and Anderson, is a massive collection of 55 chapters on the subject of distance education. The work is authored by well-published researchers who have previously published in the American Journal of Distance Education.

The editors asked each author to review the research as well as practice in the part of the field in which he or she was most knowledgeable and to comment on the research, including giving ideas for further research. Selecting only authors from this journal may have limited the pool of expertise for this work, and quite a few key authors on distance education are not included. A bias toward U.S. distance education is evident in this practice, since "America" appears in the title of the journal; but the rigorous review system used for the American Journal of Distance Education and its years of prestige in this field seem to have provided an adequate list of top authors of academic articles. Had the list of authors been shorter, this methodology may have led to the narrow inbreeding of ideas, which does not seem to have been much of a problem with the breadth of the current volume. The chapter authors were clearly well prepared to present thorough analyses.

Chapter authors were asked to use a bibliographic essay style to give an overview and synthesis of the research and scholarly literature of the subject, answering these three questions.

  1. What is the current state of your special research area in contemporary distance education in America?
  2. What knowledge about this is based on empirical research evidence?
  3. What further research is needed in light of the changes that are occurring? (Moore, Anderson, & Anderson, 2003, p. xiii)
Contents

As noted, the Handbook of Distance Education is a collection of 55 chapters covering a wealth of areas associated with distance education. These chapters are well organized under these seven sections in this anthology.

I. Historical and Conceptual Foundations
II. Learning and Learners
III. Design and Instruction
IV. Policies, Administration, and Management
V. Different Audiences in Distance Education
VI. The Economics of Distance Education
VII. International Perspectives

Section I contains analyses of literature on the theoretical underpinnings of distance education, with chapters such as Farhad Saba's "Chapter 1, Distance Education Theory, Methodology, and Epistemology: A Pragmatic Paradigm" and Donald E. Hanna's "Chapter 5, Organizational Models in Higher Education, Past and Future." The nine chapters in this section can serve as a basis for thinking about distance education and may provide necessary background for those writing articles, books, or research proposals in the field.

Sections II and III each have nine chapters that take narrower approaches than taken in Section I, looking at research on distance students, and then at the design and instruction involved in distance education. They include chapters such as Daniel Granger and Maureen Bownam's "Chapter 12, Constructing Knowledge at a Distance: The Learner in Context", and Susan McKnight's "Chapter 26, Distance Education and the Role of Academic Libraries." These sections will likely be more attractive to typical distance instructors; and while the emphasis is still on distance learning (e.g., "Chapter 17, Cognitive and Learning Factors in Web-Based Distance Learning Environments"), there is greater mention of technologies than is found elsewhere in the text.

Section IV, looking at "Policies, Administration, and Management", will likely be of interest to administrators as they plan and manage distance education initiatives. It includes chapters such as Amy Kirle Lezberg's "Chapter 30, Accreditation: Quality Control in Higher Distance Education", and Ryan Watkins and Roger Kaufman's "Chapter 34, Strategic Planning for Distance Education."

Section V looks at selected audiences for distance education, with nine chapters that each center on one of these audiences, including the corporate sector, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Army, and community colleges. Although it is not evident in the title, the final chapter deals with distance education at the K-12 level: Tom Clark's "Chapter 46, Virtual and Distance Education in American Schools." Economics is discussed in three chapters in the smallest section of the book, although this might have been better positioned under Section IV, which deals with management.

The final section is an attempt to break out of the U.S. framework by looking at "International Perspectives." It includes chapters such as Jan Visser's "Chapter 53, Distance Education in the Perspective of Global Issues and Concerns", concluding with Michael Foley's "Chapter 55, The Global Development Learning Network: A World Bank Initiative in Distance Learning for Development." This section is a distinct benefit to a book that is mostly written from a U.S. perspective.

The text is well organized and written in a clear though very academic style. There is noticeable variation in minor stylistic elements among the 55 chapters, but this is to be expected where authors are given this level of freedom. One might expect there to be disagreement among authors, but this is not evident in the text because the chapters do not appear to be based on authors' beliefs and opinions but on the literature in the field. Unfortunately, the authors do not make a habit of referring to other chapters in this handbook, which would have provided greater value to the reader, though it might have required additional coordination from the editors. Also, the chapters are disjointed from one another; and the reader should not look for an idea to be explored more deeply in future chapters, though this happens to some extent by the placement of material that forms a conceptual foundation earlier in the book.

Although distance education takes many forms, the field of online education seems to dominate the discussion of distance education; this seems justifiable, given its recent growth and the new literature generated about online education. Some might expect instructional technology to dominate, but here the editors were careful to be clear about their vision for this anthology. As Moore, Anderson, and Anderson (2003) state in the Overview: "If anything threatens the potential success of distance education more than the rejection and neglect it has received in the past, it is the danger of over enthusiasm about technology leading to under funded, undermanned [sic], poorly designed, and poorly managed programs" (p. xxiii).

Value

From the title, a reader might expect the Handbook of Distance Education to be full of tips for teaching online, as is the case with a how-to volume that has a similar name (Petty & Johnston, 2002). This is not the case with the Handbook of Distance Education. Instead, the chapter authors seemed to take care to provide thorough and well-researched literature reviews. The chapters do not seem to be written for the novice, however; and they certainly do not simplify the issues involved in distance education. Yet, among the chapters are a few gems that will likely attract the interest of those who are new to teaching at a distance, mostly among the nine chapters in "Section III, Design and Instruction." Foremost among these, and most accessible to a typical online instructor, is "Chapter 23, Frameworks for Research, Design, Benchmarks, Training, and Pedagogy in Web-Based Distance Education" by Curtis J. Bonk and Venessa Dennen. Though not evident in the chapter title, the authors mention over 100 pedagogical ideas that can be implemented in an online class, such as starter-wrapper with roles, research article jigsaw, and E-mail pals or Web buddies.

As with other content in this volume, these were not originally developed for this chapter; but their inclusion here, though with little explanation, broadens the online instructor's awareness about what online education can be and how it is far less limited than they may have imagined. Ample references provide avenues through which particular techniques may be explored. New online teachers are advised to begin reading this book with Chapter 23. Still, the messages of this chapter and this book go beyond the listing of tips for teachers; and those who are looking for a book on this topic will likely be disappointed.

This text is not intended to be an introduction to distance education, nor is it intended to inform the distance education student. In fact, it is likely that only those involved in teaching, designing, supporting, or administering distance education will have an interest in this text. Furthermore, it centers on distance education at the postsecondary level, though other areas are mentioned. Even those with an interest in the field will likely find only a few chapters that are of immediate use and interest, with many others that do not seem to apply to their situation. Here is where the book serves as an invaluable desk reference, however.

For example, I am not an official advisor for distance students; but another faculty member in my department is. The chapter on academic advising provided each of us a common footing for discussion of how to solve some of his distance advising needs. This chapter, like much of the book, does not contain recipes for solving problems; but it does include a review of the literature on distance advising. The practitioner in me wanted more advice, though as a desk reference this chapter served its purpose. Similarly, in discussing the future of distance education at my university with an appropriate dean, I was able to turn to this handbook first and read the chapter on the cost-effectiveness of online education, along with a few other chapters that had not captured my interest from the standpoint of an online instructor.

Those who expect a chapter to have a definitive answer to a question on the topic may be disappointed. "Chapter 38, Evaluating Distance Education Programs" by Melody M. Thompson and Modupe E. Irele is an example. The reader will find a number of models presented, yet still not know how to perform such an evaluation after reading the chapter. This is because readers are treated as critical and knowledgeable professionals who want to make their own decisions. Those who prefer prescriptive rather than descriptive assistance may find this text lacking a simplified and clear solution to their distance education problems. Instead, they may find it more fruitful to read this handbook as they would a literature review, rather than as they would an instructor's guide, and take further actions themselves to review additional literature and develop their own plans. A more appropriate title than the Handbook of Distance Education may well have been A Review of U.S. Distance Education Literature.

This leads to a final point about the value of this text. Each chapter is brimming with references to other works that span decades, curricular areas, and philosophies. The reference lists, though separated by chapter rather than subject and not annotated, represent a significant contribution made by the Handbook of Distance Education to the field.

Shortcomings

Unfortunately, a number of topics were not adequately covered in these 896 pages. For example, informal distance education, a projection for the future, and an analysis of distance education technologies seem to have been given little attention. While the author selection and assignment process used by the editors is bound to lead to some omissions, the case of de-emphasizing discussion about technological issues seems to have been deliberate, as noted by the editorial position of Moore, Anderson, and Anderson. As a result, there is little mention of course management software, reusable-learning objects, or the vast amount of literature on technological teaching and learning tools used in distance education. The result is a text that serves less as a definitive handbook of distance education as a whole. Readers will likely have the need for literature summaries and reviews on the topics covered and also for information on the technologies involved in their distance education efforts. The editors may have been right to de-emphasize technology, creating a work that does not tie distance education to any particular fleeting technology; but this forces the reader to look elsewhere for discussion of these topics.

Other anthologies on distance education have taken a narrow focus; but this is typically evident in the title, such as in Instructional and Cognitive Impacts of Web-Based Education (Abbey, 2000), which has 16 chapters that share a common focus and some of the same authors appearing in the Handbook of Distance Education. This type of unified focus occurs within each of the seven sections of the handbook; but as a whole, the handbook seems to insufficiently cover the spectrum of distance education, with adequate discussion of relevant technology as the most obvious omission.

Surprisingly, the subject index contains many misprints, as if it corresponded to an older draft of the text. There are numerous instances in which the reader is sent to a page, only to find that the information is not on the page, or that the page is a blank chapter separator. Conversely, some pages contain specific information, even under headings that are not properly listed in the subject index. Likewise, an author index is included; but it has similar errors and is therefore of little use to the reader. After hunting down a few of these, it seems that sometimes the page numbers in the index are about 10 pages off near the end of the book. These are serious flaws with this handbook, and they decrease its value. Fortunately, however, the section headings and clear chapter titles provide some facility for finding information rather easily.

Conclusion

Along with the cost, shortcomings of this book include some biases: an American bias, an emphasis on online education, and a look that may be so narrow as to exclude many key technological issues. A number of key topics have been omitted or given only cursory coverage. The errors in the indices are inexcusable.

Among the advantages are the variety of topics covered, the depth of literature review and analysis, and, for a while at least, the timeliness of this work. The advantages clearly outweigh the drawbacks. The Handbook of Distance Education has quickly become the closest thing to a definitive book on the subject of distance education. It will likely be of interest to university professionals in any field as they become more involved in distance education. It can serve as an excellent reference volume that allows the reader to gain a quick overview in many key areas of the field, though the reader will have to read the source material referenced in the chapters for a full treatment of any of these subjects. It will likely be particularly useful to researchers in the field, including graduate students involved in distance education studies and those involved in writing grant proposals and manuscripts dealing with distance education. Academics in industrial teacher education, or in any field, who face problems and issues associated with distance education are advised to obtain a copy.

References

Abbey, B. (Ed.). (2000). Instructional and cognitive impacts of Web-based education. Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2003). Sizing the opportunity: The quality and extent of online education in the United States, 2002 and 2003. Retrieved October 27, 2003, from http://www.sloan-c.org/resources/sizing_opportunity.pdf.

Moore, M. G., Anderson, W., & Anderson, W. G. (2003). Handbook of distance education. Portland, OR: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Petty, L. I., & Johnston, J. (2002). Handbook of distance education for adult learners. Project IDEAL, University of Michigan. Retrieved October 27, 2003, from http://www.ncccs.cc.nc.us/Basic_Skills/docs/pdf_documents/DEHandbook1stComplete.pdf.


Flowers is Professor in the Department of Industry and Technology at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Flowers can be reached at jflowers@bsu.edu.


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