Distance learning is such a popular topic because the term means so many different things to different people that it results in mystification which some mistake for insight. My first goal is to demythologize the technology. My second goal is to take an initial look at the impact of computer mediated communication on teaching and learning. While the medium isn't quite identical with the message, it does have both an affect and effect.
Contemporary distance learning is usually synonymous with the use of electronic delivery for the content. This may include video, audio, computer assisted learning and computer communications or some mix of several of these systems. Some may be primarily one- way content delivery, and others may facilitate two-way or group interaction. Some view these technologies as a way to greatly expand class size at little extra cost while others want to use them to increase personal contact and interaction. Still others dream of doing both of these at once. Sometimes the distance may be connecting two nearby classrooms into a larger lecture hall. With asynchronous technologies, on-campus students may take the courses because of scheduling conflicts that prevent their registering for the regular classroom section of the same course. In these cases, the term, 'distance', is a misnomer.
Computer mediated communication includes both e-mail and computer conferencing or some kind of groupware system. E-mail functions best in one-to-one settings, and many teachers use it to increase contact with students. One advantage over the phone or an office visit is the teacher can interact with the student at a convenient time and give as much or little time as he or she wishes. The teacher can become more accessible without losing control of his or her time. While a listserver can provide group discussions, computer conferencing does a better job of organizing group discussions on differing topics. Frequently, shy students participate more where they don't fear being looked at. Sensitive topics are discussed more openly including those dealing with racial, ethnic and social issues. These technologies frequently facilitate mainstreaming of students with disabilities when they are connected with adapted computer technology. Computer discussion tends to flatten relationships and decentralize power and reduce status barriers. the teacher becomes more of a facilitator and less of an authority.
The most important factor in the use of technology is the human factor. An interactive technology does not automatically make a teacher more interactive. Faculty need to be sympathetic to the use of technology and open to experimentation and innovation. The administration must create an atmosphere of support and trust. Fear and intimidation may force faculty to use new technology, but they will not make them use it well. Teaching and learning occur best in a encouraging and nurturing context both for students and for faculty.