What is Driving Web-Based Distance Learning Environments?

Kay Wijekumar
Indiana University of Pennsylvania


Web-based course development and management systems provide access to a variety of tools to facilitate the development of web-based learning environments and distance learning courses. However, this paper argues that the tools are driving the learning environments instead of the learning environment driving the selection and application of appropriate tools. Research on constructive learning environments and examples of applications are presented.

Background This paper was inspired after I attended three conferences and four workshops with presentation titles related to distance learning/asynchronous learning/web-based learning. The discussions and presentations were so medium centered and technology-driven that my level of frustrations were at an all time high. I hope that within ITFORUM I am preaching to the choir and this community will add to this analysis by sharing related issues concerns and thoughts. Of course you may disagree with the opinions expressed here as well!.


Paper, Chalkboards, Projectors, and other devices that have been staples of classrooms for hundreds of years have always been secondary to the content delivered through the mediums. So what is it about the Internet and the WWW that makes it more than a medium that is secondary to the content delivered? This paper discusses two viewpoints to answer the question.

The first, from the manufacturers and developers of web-based course development and management systems (WCDMS). They suggest that web-based learning using their tools (bulletin boards, chat rooms, linked web pages, timed quizzes, etc.) allow the efficient and effective creation of "Constructive Learning" environments, "Collaborative Learning" environments, and access to vast repositories of information. Their products also allow modularity, flexibility, and scalability which in lay terms means you can re-use modules and duplicate faster.

The second, is that the creation of web-based learning environments must start with the subject matter and be grounded in the theory and research on cognition. Here the role technology can play in learning is secondary to the content and based on research findings showing how it can enable multiple perspectives to problems, provide different organizations of information, provide scaffolds to learning, provide feedback, and engage learners in higher order thinking and problem solving (Jonassen, 2000; Pea, 1985, 1993; Salomon, 1993; Spiro et al., 1987).

These two views today are further apart than ever before and this discussion contends that they are being pushed in divergent paths with the marketing and discussions going on in higher education today. To explicate these points this paper first presents the current state of web-based course development and management systems followed by a discussion on the research and possible uses of web-based and computer technologies to facilitate Constructive Learning. The areas of Collaborative Learning and Information Seeking will be reviewed in another publication (Wijekumar, In Press). Finally, there is a discussion on why the two are on divergent paths.


Web-based course development and management systems describe currently marketed software that claim to aid in course development, management, delivery, and administration. Examples of these products include Blackboard, E-College, JonesKnowledge, Prometheus, and WebCT. These systems provide an array of functionality including uploading course notes, syllabi, images, Powerpoint slides, timed quizzes, audio, video, CD, on-line gradebooks, communications tools like bulletin boards, chat rooms, whiteboards, email, and logging of activities as well as password protection. The advertising and training materials for some of these products promote each product as helping in the efficient creation of web-based distance learning courses, ease of use for the designers, teachers, and learners.

The exponential increase in web-based distance learning programs and courses goes hand-in-hand with the development of these products (Dearing report, 1997). The WCDMS have increased access to the functionality of the WWW with the use of their interfaces (Khan, 2001). This increased use has also resulted in web-based distance learning courses being developed at a faster pace. The perceived need for web-based distance learning programs from non-traditional students, re-training of the workforce, a computer literate audience, etc. has also increased demand for web-based courses. Given this picture of student/employer demands, improvement in Internet technologies, bandwidth, speed, etc. the WCDMSs are thriving and developing at a fast pace.

As with any tool computer or otherwise, there is an expectation that the tool should make life easier, improve performance, and/or help shift emphasis to other more complicated issues while allowing the tool to help with some portions of the activities (Buchanan, 1992; Grantham, 2000). With the invention of the motorized engine cars moved faster and were more dependable making access easy. With the invention of the computer and related software tools there has been automation of many tasks like bookkeeping, data analysis, and report generation. When a large amount of data is analyzed in three steps producing statistical tests, graphics, and summaries the expectation for productivity and efficiency also increase. Course development and management tools have contributed to easier conversion of documents to web-templates, creation of communication, assessment, and dissemination mechanisms in web-based distance learning programs. For example, in any of the current tools you can create a template for a course, up-load notes and syllabi, create or up-load a quiz or exam, and insert a link for bulletin boards and chat rooms.

Reviewing the advertising and training literature from 3 major WCDMSs shows an emphasis on their products facilitating "Constructive Learning", "Collaborative Learning", "Interaction", "Assessment", and providing access to a vast repository of information on the Internet. Additional features commonly advertised include modularity, flexibility, scalability of the WCDMSs to allow faster development.

The advertising, marketing, and training literature leads one to believe that if the right product was chosen for your institution the development of web-based distance learning courses will follow. The research cited frequently involves the "No Significant Difference" kind (Clark, 1983; Lockee et al., 1999; Saba, 2000). So the audience is busily comparing the pros and cons of the existing WCDMSs (Comparison, 2000) when in fact none of the products support most of the fundamental research findings related to Constructive Learning, Collaborative Learning, and Information Seeking. This statement is justified by first presenting some basic questions followed by a presentation of research on Constructive Learning and examples of implementing them in three web-based distance learning courses. The questions are:

  1. Does providing web-pages, links, tests, assignments, and communication tools make a "Constructive Learning" or "Active Learning" environment?
  2. Do Bulletin boards and chat rooms mixed with course materials constitute "Collaborative Learning"?
  3. Does access to large amounts of internet-based data improve learning?
  4. Does the use of WCDMSs translate to improved learning, improved attention by the designers to existing research on learning, attention to the effects of the environments on the learners and the teachers?
The answers to these questions in simple terms are maybe, maybe, maybe, and maybe, IF the environments are crafted carefully. The next section describes the research in the area of Constructive Learning.


The definitions of Constructive Learning are as diverse as the numbers of learning theories in existence today (Duffy & Cunningham, 1997). In order to narrow the options I am using a constructivist lens focusing on four of the six major characteristics of constructive learning environments (Jonassen, 1999). First, constructive learning environments require a realistic task. Problem-based learning (Cognition & Technology Group, 1990,1991,1992), Case-based reasoning (Schank, 1998), cognitive flexibility cases (Spiro et al. 1987, 1988, 1998), case studies (Williams, 1992) are all examples of constructive learning environments. Second, solving real-life tasks requires the tools necessary to solve the problems (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999; Oliver & Hannafin, 2000; Wertsch, 1998). To solve a medical diagnosis case the practitioner/learner must have access to the x-rays and other test data, as well as other instruments. Third, constructive learning environments require scaffolds to facilitate the acquisition of skills, organization and abstraction of the knowledge gained (Crews et al. 1997). Fourth, constructive learning environments require feedback to the learners to guide the knowledge construction process (Duffy & Cunningham, 1997). Similar ideas have also been expressed by other researchers (Laurillard, 1999).

Finally, constructive learning requires the engagement of the learners who will ideally possess the prior knowledge, self-regulation (Zimmerman, 1990), metacognition (Hill & Hannafin, 1997), and epistemic cognition skills (Bendixen & Schraw, 2001; Hofer, 2001) to successfully interact with the learning environment. Communication and collaboration skills are also critical to these environments (Jonassen, 1999; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1999). In broad terms, "learning how to learn and communicate" will play a large role in constructive learning environments.

Research Review on Constructive Learning Environments

This section reviews some research on constructive learning environments and their tasks, scaffolds, feedback, and tools.  The learner's skills are beyond the scope of the current paper but some issues are identified at the end of the paper.

Constructive Tasks

Realistic tasks have improved the construction of knowledge and addressed the inertness (Crews et al. 2000, Cognitive & Technology Group at Vanderbilt CTGV 1990, 1991,1992), oversimplification, and compartmentalization of knowledge (Spiro et al. 1987). These studies have used computer-based video, animation, graphics, and simulations to create story like settings (CTGV, 1990) use real life cases with all the complexities presented either in simple text or within hypertext environments (Jacobson & Spiro 1995). These studies also show some additional findings relevant to this discussion. Jacobson & Spiro (1995) reported that students reviewing their cognitive flexibility hypertext performed better on higher order outcomes only when they visited each linked section. Spiro et al. (1987) and Jacobson et al. (1995) also suggest that multiple cases are necessary for learners to integrate their knowledge and apply their skills.

Non Case Learning Tasks

Tasks can also take the form of readings, writing reports, summarizing, seeking, evaluating, synthesizing, and reporting information. Research related to these types of tasks suggest that argumentation is a powerful learning tool and is superior to writing essays (Wiley & Voss, 1999). Since argumentation is a skill that helps build higher order skills and allows the learner to be engaged in the activity it can be useful in constructive learning environments.

Scaffolds for Constructive Learning

Scaffolds are also integral to the constructive learning environment and modifies the tasks to support the learner in their knowledge construction (Jonassen, 1999). Research has found that most of constructive learning environments require scaffolds to aid in the problem solving process. For example, Crews et al. (1997) use a planning notebook and timeline planner to encourage learners to concentrate on following the story line and identifying the problems and the necessary information to solve them. The tools "help students initially cover gaps in their detailed knowledge while not loosing sight of the big picture or the overall problem they are attempting to solve. This is valuable as anchoring contexts are, by design, quite complex and may require problem solving skills that are initially beyond the student's current skill level" (Crews et al. 1997).

Self-explanations using a computational framework also support meta-cognitive skill development (Conati & VanLehn, 2000). This system allows the students to modify the tasks by assessing their own understanding from readings. Examples include different levels of scaffolds provided by the coaching interface. Students can view all the forces affecting the free body diagram by moving over different parts of the screen. They also have access to a rule-browser and have the options of checking the validity of their understanding of the concepts. Monitoring tools prompting learners to reflect on their writings has also shown improvement in writing performance of high school students (Salomon, 1993).

Feedback for Constructive Learning

Feedback is another important component of constructive learning environments as seen in the research on the Jasper series (CTGV), self-regulated learning (Zimmerman, 1989), and other types of learning environments (Bangert-Drowns, 1991; Hogarth, 1991). Clariana (1998) showed that in comparing immediate and delayed feedback within paper-based and computer based learning environments immediate feedback improved retention test scores for computer-based environments. Azevedo & Bernard (1995) conducted a meta analysis of effects of feedback and concluded that achievement outcomes in feedback conditions had effect sizes in the range of .80.

Tools for Real-Life Problem Solving

The research on tools in the workplace and activity theory suggests that most real-life tasks require the use of tools (Hutchins, 1995; Hutchins & Klausen, 1998; Wertsch, 1998). Computer tools like spreadsheets, databases, wordprocessors are integral to the modern workplace. If one were trying to help a learner analyze data it follows that usually a statistical analysis package or some computer tool is available.

Tools have also been shown to have lasting effects on their users and may be used to foster the development of higher-order skills (Jonassen, 2000; Pea, 1985; Salomon, 1993; Wijekumar, 2000)

Summarizing the research findings shows that solving real-life problems with the aid of scaffolds, feedback, and tools allows learners to construct knowledge. How these findings can be applied in web-based learning environments is described next.

Implementation of Constructive Learning Environments on the WWW

The author in collaboration with subject matter experts (professors and practitioners) in the field of Occupational Safety created three complete graduate level courses. Four examples of modules designed to address the research findings are presented here.

Background on Course Development

The background on these courses may be relevant to some readers and described here. The creation of these courses took approximately 3 months each. Each course had approximately 10 to 15 modules. The author worked on these full-time and the subject-matter experts spent approximately 15 hours a week on the project as well. The metaphor used to describe the role of the author was "Ghost Writer". The complete process of creating the course included review of all existing materials for the course (notes, tests, assignments, cases, discussions), interviews with other practitioners from the field as well as former students, and identifying the preferences and style of the professor in their classrooms. A dialogue ensued between the SME and author on the cases, activities, and assessments. Tools necessary to implement the chosen activities were then selected. At this stage the WCDMSs was reviewed for best fit within the course and external tools were purchased to supplement the WCDMS. Finally the layout of the course was designed including the selection of graphics, colors etc. The final product/course was placed on a CD with links to all external sites including the WCDMS. The courses were tested by a group of volunteers for 3 weeks and have been offered twice. The university where these courses are implemented subscribes to one WCDMS that is used as a resource for all the courses. However, it must be noted that the creation of the course was never driven by or constrained by the tools available. For example, when we found that there was no interactive feedback mechanism for problem solving, we created a tool to structure the activities and give immediate feedback to the learners. A second example is that we felt the tools required to solve real-life problems were critical for the whole experience, therefore we installed a database product on the web-server and allows the students to interact with the tool.

Example 1 - An Orienting Case

The first case in the Occupational Safety course was designed to give learners an appreciation of the complexities of workplace injuries and their consequences to the organization and the people. Figure 1 shows an image of the manager who has not reported a recent injury and now must face an inspector from the Occupational Safety and Health Association. By clicking on the image, the learners will see pop-up windows presenting detail information and perspectives about the case, the regulations, the rights of the manager. The learner then must answer a set of questions on how they would react if placed in the role of the manager.

The environment also gives learners access to definitions, access to the OSHA site with specific instructions on how to search for the types of injuries involved in this case, and an injury cost calculator (scaffold).

Figure 1. Scope of the Safety Function

Example 2 - Creating an Accident Investigation Report (with scaffold & tools)

The goal of the second module in the Occupational Safety course was to give the learners skills in conducting an analysis of workplace accidents in an organization and prepare a report detailing the types, sources, and causes of accidents as well as suggestions of methods to prevent future accidents. To give the students a scaffolded environment simulating real-world problems, they were mailed 100 real accident reports from one organization (names and other identifying materials were withheld) and given a flowchart with templates to proceed. Tools were critical to this activity and therefore the learners were linked to an on-line database where they could enter the information from the accident reports, sort data, create queries, and prepare analysis. They were also given an outline (format) for the presentation of their report. Figure 2 shows the presentation of the problem with a step-by-step approach to solving it.

Figure 2. Analyzing Accidents in the Workplace

Example 3 - Designing a Local Exhaust Ventilation System (with immediate feedback during
problem solving)

The goal of Module 6 in an Occupational Health course was to give learners the experience of designing a ventilation system. In order to accomplish this they were given the plan of the office as well as the ductwork, layout, and other related information. The process was long and had many sub steps in calculating pressure, speed of fans, length of ductwork etc. In order to give immediate feedback and avoid learners propagating errors through their design steps an interactive feedback environment was created using PERL. Figure 3 shows the sample of the interactions.


Example 4 - An On-Line Argument

A course on pollution control was designed an offered. Since the topic naturally lent itself to the complexities and emotions of human activity. The activity required the students (assigned to two groups) to prepare and present a "case brief" to the professor to ensure that the discussion was substantive. After the briefs were approved, learners were asked to post their thoughts in a structured format with tags on the bulletin board. These tags included, "Personal Opinion", "Source, ..", "Solution", "Argument in favor", "Argument Against" etc. Timelines were set to make sure that students have time to read and reflect on other postings before responding to the issues.

Cases, Tools, Scaffolds, & Feedback on WCDMS

The environments described above could not be created in any of the existing WCDMSs but do use many of the functions provided by them. For example, the learners are linked to the bulletin board when they need to post information, they are linked to email when turning in their projects, and linked to chat rooms whenever there are scheduled discussions. While cases may be presented within the WCDMS it must be noted that clickable image maps were not supported on our version. Many of the WCDMSs provide a linear structure to the presentation. This defeats the purpose of conveying complexity and interconnectedness.

Scaffolds in the form of external tools and resources may be incorporated within some WCDMSs however not easily accomplished. Ideally, these tools (ex. spreadsheets, databases) should be part of the tool set available within these environments. For example, most WCDMSs provide a grade management tool. If that could be extended and used as part of the course presentation, then it may be substituted for graphing, data entry, and analysis similar to the activity reported in Example 2.

Feedback in the WCDMSs are limited to those provided by the learners and professors and within the testing features. While this may be suitable to some environments, when working through a large design problem and learners need guidance to proceed to the next step there was no utility that provided this in our WCDMS. Again, the WCDMSs provide testing functions that can be easily modified to provide immediate feedback and allow the learners to construct a lengthy design and proof.

The debate would have been easier to facilitate if the WCDMS had structured communication tools like gated bulletin boards and ability to create/annotate postings with tags (Products like QuestMap & Knowledge Forum contain some of these features). For example, in order to ensure that all students posted original thoughts to the bulletin board we would have liked to make sure nobody saw other's postings until they completed their own posting. At this time this was implemented by creating a private forum where all students posted their thoughts (no one else could see the postings other than the professor) and then moved all the postings to a public forum after the deadline.

Limitations of WCDMSs

In my experiences with creating constructive learning environments on the web shown above, the WCDMS supported some functions but did not provide a complete solution or even a partial solution. However, it must be noted that there are some possibilities in extending the functionality to accommodate some of the major concerns addressed here.

Preliminary Findings from the Environment

We have begun analyzing data gathered from the student's expectations, participation in the chat rooms, bulletin board interactions, completion of problem solving tasks, and assessments. There are four major areas of concentration in the analysis: retention, engagement, learning outcomes, and reflections of the designer.

Student Retention

Retention for the three courses was 100% with no dropouts during two offerings of the courses. The students were given a course calendar and interacted regularly with the professor during weekly scheduled chat rooms and by completing cases and problem solving activities.

Student Engagement

Engagement was measured in the frequency of activity, experiences reported in postings and quality of postings. Since the students had to review all information presented on the web pages (CD) to solve the cases and problems a review of the logs for the files showed that all students opened each section of the pages at least once (we cannot prove they read the pages but they visited them). The completed assignments ranged from the students following the sample format and answering the question minimally to complex sets of answers bridging their prior knowledge with the new information, citing examples from their experiences, and identifying the complexities of the situations.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes are being analyzed using chat transcripts, case solutions, as well as self-reported data from evaluation instruments administered during the middle and end of term. The most notable (qualitative) finding so far includes student's progression from following the templates to create answers to presenting very complex answers showing understanding of the multiple perspectives and possible solutions to real-life problems.

Reflections of the Designer

The process of developing a complete course from the initial analysis to the implementation was very rewarding especially when the interactions with students was observed. However, there were many learning experiences in the process that maybe useful to others embarking on this journey. These experiences are described briefly here.

1. The success of the interaction between the designer and SME/professors was influenced by the willingness of the designer to incorporate strategies already used by the professor of the course. These ranged from the cases used in the traditional classroom to the video clips, discussion questions, and activities.

2. The SME/professor was always given samples and prototypes for each module. These allowed the professor to see the variety of possibilities in implementing the activities.

3. The creation of the modules was kept very simple with the use of Dreamweaver and allowed the professor to also dabble in modifying and editing the course.

4. The course calendar was designed very carefully to make sure that all the students progressed steadily through the term. Whenever there were any late submissions the professor followed up with chat room discussions resolving issues.

5. A weekly scheduled chat room was created and offered but this was done with a previously posted agenda and discussion questions. This method was a great success especially with the students. They commented that many of the other classes they took on the WWW had social chat rooms in which they gained very little.

6. During the initial offering of the course it was observed that learners were not skilled in navigating the system effectively. In order to facilitate this, a complete orientation guidebook was created for the second offering of the course. This orientation guidebook was also tied into an on-line orientation. This orientation included the tools available on the WWW for information seeking and analysis, time management, concept mapping and other techniques for learning.

7. The professors of the courses also required training and adjustments to their teaching methods and schedules. It was noted by the professors that their classroom teaching practices appeared to improve with the new understanding of learning gained in the experience of creating the web-based courses.

8. The CD's of course materials allowed the students additional flexibility and they were also not constrained by any bandwidth problems. Specifically video taped demonstrations and introductions were much faster on the CD.

9. The textbook used with the course was not available on the WWW but a review of other texts available on CD shows that they are also very heavily weighted on the presentation of information. Careful thought is required to incorporate these CD books into courses.

10. Animation and Powerpoint were kept at a minimum in these environments because of the biases of the designer (with some justification from the research, Harp & Mayer, 1998).

11. The layout of the course included frames because of the research on text processing in hypertext showing that organization of text is critical to recall (McKeague, 1996). In many cases the linear text requiring learners to read all the screens improved recall better than any linked versions. In these applications learners had to read all the pages because answers to questions and activities were embedded within the text.

12. Learners were given specific internet searching tasks to help them learn those skills in real-life tasks. For example, learners were asked to find the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) number specific to the types of workplace injuries they were aware of and report that to the bulletin board. This allowed them to learn the skills of doing searches on the WWW but with a focused task.

13. The modules never included lists of web sites to review because that would serve no purpose in this learning environment. Information seeking, evaluation, synthesis, and reporting are complex activities requiring their own set of specialized skills and environments. There is a suggestion that allowing browsing of many sites with no particular goal can cause a "Butterfly Defect" in the knowledge organization of learners (Salomon, 1998).


Discussions on the evaluations of WCDMSs and their functionality and advertising literature are filled with comparisons of bulletin boards, chat rooms, short tests, long tests, essay tests, video, audio, and security. The advances in the tools are also justified by the "No Significant Difference" research in the field of media research. The much larger issue of what content is being created using what tasks and tools as well as what functions of the WCDMSs are useful in supporting these areas is taking a back seat. Evaluating and choosing a WCDMS is only the tip of the iceberg in web-based distance learning environments. Scalability allows one to duplicate bad practices just as fast as it does the good.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there are collections of essays on best practices in web-based environments (Khan, 2001). These papers do report on some of the research cited here as well as many others not reported here. However, they do not emphasize the lack of depth in the WCDMSs.

As the WCDMSs are sold internationally and the numbers of users grow, I do not believe that users are getting the message that creating a web-based course is far more than putting notes on a WCDMS. The crafting of an on-line course takes time and effort from personnel with a range of skills from subject matter experts, instructional designers with knowledge about the research and theories, graphic designers, and programmers to a series of computer tools currently not integrated into any one package (and likely never to be integrated). The courses should also be designed using the theories and research in all fields related to learning. The good news is that there are pockets of courses being crafted with emphasis on learning. However, those courses and processes are not getting the attention they should. My greatest fear is that we are serving the WCDMS gods, and instead hope we find "another god to serve" (apologies to Neil Postman!). I hope it is not another tool driven one!


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ITFORUM Paper #52 What is Driving Web-Based Distance Learning Environments? by Kay Wijekumar Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  Posted on ITFORUM April 23, 2001.  Used by permission of the author. The author retains all copyrights.  Visit the ITFORUM Home Page http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/