October 1997 // Case Studies
Incorporating Electronic Technology into a Distance Learning Course
by Phyllis B. Oakes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Phyllis B. Oakes "Incorporating Electronic Technology into a Distance Learning Course" The Technology Source, October 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

When my course in early childhood education was converted to a distance learning course, it was transmitted to seven sites. As instructor, I required my students, most of whom were elementary school teachers with little prior experience in using computers, to take advantage of the software and technology available to them in the distance learning classroom. They accessed the World Wide Web (WWW), used search engines, joined listservs, read and posted messages to the class newsgroup, prepared and presented multimedia reports, and took quizzes via e-mail. The students, many of whom were nontraditional, quickly became quite interested in communicating with other education professionals. By the end of the course, geographically-separated individuals had become a community of practitioners seeking and sharing knowledge that spoke to their common interests.

Early Childhood Education is a Morehead State University (MSU) master's degree course for persons certified to teach K-4. A distance education course, it is transmitted by means of interactive compressed video to three sites (Ashland, Jackson, and Prestonsburg) across Eastern Kentucky. The majority of my students were teachers in primary school (a K-3 nongraded, continuous progress program); several others were special education teachers in upper grade levels (4-6) in the state's program for 4-year-olds; some were unemployed. For the most part, the students were not acquainted with electronic technology nor with distance learning, which is a new development at Morehead State University.

Well-trained facilitators were present at all sites to negotiate the document camera, focus on different views of the classroom, forward questions to me, and assist students in learning new technology. As instructor, I traveled to the off-campus sites and transmitted the class from those sites during the visit.

We taped class sessions so they could be viewed by absentees or students with disabilities who might be unable to attend class sessions in person. We used e-mail to send the majority of the assignments to the class newsgroup, thereby allowing students with special needs, less aggressive individuals, and nontraditional students to take part fully in class discussions on an equal footing. Several members of the class e-mailed their assignments from home, using private service providers such as AOL, East Kentucky Cooperative, and Mikrotec. MSU provided a free copy of "kermit" for local students to access the university academic on-line system. All quizzes were e-mailed and returned directly to me for grading. I was then able to give students immediate feedback on quiz grades and responses to assignments. I was available 15-30 minutes before and after each class session for office hours and to answer any questions, but after the students became familiar with e-mail, many preferred to communicate with me that way.

Guiding Philosophies

A professor may conduct conventional lectures to passive students in a classroom, "frontal learning" (Goodlad, 1994), but in distance learning there is the obstacle of the learners being far removed from the teacher (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995). Because I wished to maintain a constructivist approach to teaching in the distance learning classroom (Crotty, 1995), I designed class experiences requiring students to be active learners (Piaget, 1936/1952). I required students to formulate questions on a topic, post those questions on the class newsgroup, research information on the topic on the Internet, collect data from classmates regarding the questions they posted on the newsgroup, analyze the data, and present the results. Students' final responsibility was to reflect on the total assignment and submit a summary.

I was not personally present at each site to guide students through class activities and assignments, and even though site facilitators were well-prepared and competent, the demand for help from them might have been too great, except for a remarkable happening. Less proficient students began to pair with more proficient peers to learn the new skills. Students who were more advanced in the use of technology became mentors to others (Vygotsky, 1930-1935/1978).The result was that eventually everyone in the class was successful in navigating the required technology. One student wrote, "When the (multimedia) assignment was made, I felt I might be in trouble. However, by asking for help and not being afraid to try what I was asked to do, I sailed through. I became so excited when I realized all the computer could do!"


One of the purposes of utilizing electronic technology was to make the students aware of the opportunities for discussion with other early childhood professionals across the state, nation, and world. The individuals at our four different sites came from different geographic areas and sizes of communities. One site is an urban area constituting the third largest city in the state. The other three are located in a mountainous rural area, a small city, and a university town. One student commented, "The wonderful ideas given by fellow teachers around the state were so helpful and fun! I will definitely begin to use them in my classroom immediately."

The Process

Required assignments via technology included e-mailing messages to me and to class peers, contributing URLs of interesting websites, posting to the class newsgroup the student's own survey questions on a topic of importance to early childhood educators, responding to peers' survey questions on the class newsgroup, telnetting to other sites, and subscribing to electronic discussion groups (listservs). Four computers equipped with e-mail and Internet capacity were available in the distance learning classroom. Computer labs were also available at all sites.

In addition to a basic text, Introduction to Early Childhood Education: Preschool through Primary Grades (Brewer, 1995), the students purchased Early Childhood Annual Editions (Dushkin Press, 1996), and a packet of auxiliary materials that were Kentucky-specific.

The students chose an article from Early Childhood Annual Editions and prepared five survey questions on the topic to post on the class newsgroup. Students were required to respond to the survey questions of the other class members and collate the responses to their own questions. We then incorporated these responses into a multimedia-media presentation that was delivered later in the course. One student labeled the newsgroup a "fascinating way" to collect survey results. Another wrote that she was surprised and concerned by the responses to her questions. She commented, "Of the 25 responses on each question concerning violence, an overwhelming percentage said that violence is present in their life. Living in a small community does not remove us from the violence."

In preparation for their presentation, students checked WWW sites such as the Kentucky Department of Education and ERIC, for more data on their topic, and received an introduction to search engines such as Yahoo and Altavista to look for information. During the semester the students discovered a wide variety of interesting websites and eagerly shared these on the class newsgroup. They were dismayed to find that on a site that invited children to create and post Lite Brite creations, someone had contributed a lewd picture accompanied by a vulgar phrase. The class discussed this incident in relationship to school use of the Internet.

Students' final task was to write a reflective summary, analyzing and assessing the learning experiences involved in the research assignment. Some of the responses included:

This course has opened my eyes to a whole new world of "high-tech" learning.

I have become aware of how useful Internet can be in the classroom.

My self-esteem has improved because of the computer knowledge I have gained.

My worst fear was using computers but this class made my fears disappear.

I accessed the Internet to download artwork and photographic clips for use in the presentation.

I feel so comfortable with the computer age. Also, I get such satisfaction from being on the same level as my husband when it comes to the computer. I think I even taught him a thing or two.


After I communicated with the listserv owner about my plans to have the class subscribe, I required my students to join a listserv. Because they were mainly teachers of children aged 5-8, I suggested ECENET-L. Teachers of older students subscribed to MIDDLE-L--both sponsored by ERIC. The students were required to read from the archives of the lists for several days prior to their posting a message in order to gain an understanding of the flavor and type of the discourse.

I also required the students to "lurk" on their chosen listserv for a period of time before responding to or post a message. During this time we held class discussions on Netiquette.

Responses to my students' queries on the listservs were swift. The comments of the writers were in most cases a valuable reinforcement to the texts and my lectures. One student received a response from a health specialist at the National Institute of Health in Washington, DC, concerning diaper-changing in the classroom.

Responders pounced on the naivet?ɬ© of some of the messages of my class, forcing writers to rethink their comments. One of my students wrote, "I have a concern about the starting age for school children. I have a child entering school this year. Am I the only mother not wanting to let go? Am I reasonable in believing that most children are not ready to start school at age five? From experience I know that most kindergarten classes do not really involve all the play and social interaction that is believed to be part of the curriculum. It is most often put in the plan but is never implemented."

In response, a subscriber wrote, "[What] disturbs me is her reference to ....these young children .... [R]egardless of their readiness for school, [they] can and should be expected to start being responsible for their actions and their needs. To treat them as if they are younger and less capable than they are is to do them a disservice."

Student Response

There was exposure for the class to fresh, enlightening approaches to the care and education of young children in other regions of the country. One student commented: "Since I have taken this course, I have plowed through 500 messages on listserv, lurking on some fascinating conversations, learning valuable information that has helped to improve my skills as a teacher, develop resourcefulness and strengthen my patience." From a group of multi-age, multi-ability, geographically-separated individuals, the class had become a community of practitioners seeking and sharing knowledge in common interests.

Recommendations for the Future

In the future, I will require my students to make two multimedia presentations. In the first, students will briefly introduce themselves. This should dispel fear, which resulted from the serious tone students read into this year's first assignment of producing and presenting a multimedia project. As one student remarked: "When I saw myself on screen, what I saw was how flat my hair looked. I learned that with my next presentation, I must practice in exactly the manner the information will be presented."

I will incorporate listservs earlier and require more class interaction on the class newsgroup. As one student expressed the general satisfaction with listservs, "I now know how to successfully communicate with other education professionals."

I will again seek well-prepared, willing-to-help facilitators. Using technology in a distance learning class requires the aid of trained, efficient facilitators.

And last, but most certainly not least, I will keep forefront in my mind that instructors must be flexible and highly organized.

Learning how to telnet to various sites for information expanded the horizon of my students to the vast resources available to them on the Internet. Electronic technology acquainted the students with accessing knowledge around the world instead of being limited to their university campus materials (Ehrmann, 1995). I look forward to an "educated" replay of this class.


Brewer, J. (1995). Introduction to early childhood education: Preschool through primary grades. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Crotty, T. (April, 1995). Constructivist theory unites distance learning and teacher education, Ed Journal, 9(4), j12-j16.

Ehrmann, S. (April, 1995). Distance learning technologies: Choosing between the good and the bad, ed journal, 9(4), j1-j3.

Goodlad, J. (1994). Educational renewal: Better teachers, better schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J, & Haag, B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education, The American Journal of Distance Education, 9(2), 7-26.

Piaget, J. (1936/1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1930-1935/1960). Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, eds. & trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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