October 1998 // Commentary
Integrating Principles of Progressive Education Into Technology-based Distance Learning
by James L. Spira
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: James L. Spira "Integrating Principles of Progressive Education Into Technology-based Distance Learning" The Technology Source, October 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Distance learning, from the Internet to teleconferencing, needs to adapt the technology to best meet the needs of the student, rather than forcing the student to adjust to convenient and economical teaching methods. This philosophy has been nowhere as fully developed as in the progressive education movement. The antithesis of this approach, most common in current-day classrooms, is epitomized by an essentialist philosophy. Contrasting these two approaches will help to show how better to use technology to optimize student learning. Examining the underlying principles of educational approaches helps in selecting the optimal approach for one's educational goals. Toward that end, this column will examine and contrast the principles of progressive education with those of essentialist education.

Both approaches lend themselves to technology-based distance learning, but in very different ways and with equally different results. Students learning within a progressive education environment are better able to gain basic skills and creatively extend these skills into a social context. Those learning under an essentialist format add to a well-established knowledge base. While both have their place, the ease of information transfer possible through technology lends itself to an essentialist bias in learning. However, although progressive principles are less clearly identified with technology-based learning, this approach has the potential to greatly facilitate the learning process.

The progressive education movement stems directly from 19th century Pragmatist philosophy, which views meaningful knowledge as possible only through interaction with one's environment (James, 1907; Morris, 1970; Pierce, 1931-58). Educators such as Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Montessori (Montessori, 1964; Cremin 1961) in Europe and Col. Parker (Cremin, 1961), John Dewey (Dewey & Dewey, 1915), and Marrietta Johnson (Johnson, 1939) in the U.S. developed these principles of progressive education, which can be seamlessly integrated into technology-based education, but only if the bias toward essentialist methods is kept in check and progressive principles are kept in mind when developing a curriculum.

Principles of Essentialist Education

Progressive education stands in stark contrast to the essentialist teaching based on standardization in education (Strain, 1971). Essentialist education is epitomized by the paradigm:

  • Student as passive: The student is originally considered a "tabula rasa" and is expected to absorb information as it is presented by the instructor.
  • Acontextual learning: Individual facts are taught, with knowledge in one area rarely integrated with knowledge in another area.
  • Delayed feedback: Students often receive feedback of their learning days to weeks after being tested for their learning. Testing is seen as assessment of learning, rather than an integral part of the learning process.
  • Education as memorization: Knowledge is assumed to be acquired only when specific facts can be repeated back.

Principles of Progressive Education

In stark contrast to these principles, a progressive paradigm can be characterized by the following:

  • Natural active learning process: the student has a natural desire to learn, and given the opportunity, willingly engages in the learning process. This can be promoted by allowing the student to select specific topics to explore (Pierce, 1931-58).
  • Contextual learning: learning, like life, has little meaning in isolation. Rather, understanding best occurs within a rich environmental context (Addams, 1939).
  • Immediate and continual feedback: learning occurs most rapidly and with greatest generalizability when the student receives immediate feedback from interaction with their environment. This environment is the immediate sensory or informational response which can derived from either the instructor or the task itself (Dewey, 1910).
  • Knowledge as adaptability: A student is said to have "knowledge" when he or she has the ability to utilize fundamental skills creatively in novel situations. Toward this end, progressive education follows the philosophical school of pragmatism, which emphasizes knowing through doing (Dewey, 1938).

Goals of Technology-based Instruction

Several goals should be kept in mind so that the medium does not become the message:

  1. Students should be allowed access to the best instructors in an area.
  2. Technology should result in a cost-efficient method of instruction. (For example, a state-wide system can have one course with numerous teaching assistants at each site, rather than numerous instructors and teaching assistants at each site.)
  3. Students should be able to schedule their learning at opportune times (e.g. those who must also work or who cannot get into a required course in order to graduate should have the ability to schedule classes around their own needs).
  4. Students should have an increased range of information access (e.g., via the Internet) and sensory-based learning (via audio-video instruction).
  5. Students should be encouraged to place information learned into a world-wide context (e.g., publishing on the Internet in order to seek wide-ranging feedback) or into the context of their specific concern (e.g., developing a project proposal in a post video-conference session).

Examples of How Technology-based Education Can be Used Effectively

Two common areas of technology-based distance-instruction, Internet-mediated learning and teleconferencing, can serve as examples of how educational principles of progressive education can best be integrated into the curriculum.

Internet-Mediated Learning

Through the medium of Internet-mediated learning, students can access relevant information, post and share information on a Web page, and receive feedback via e-mail. While apparently essentialist in nature, this mode of learning actually promotes progressive principles of ongoing feedback, group cooperation, and contextual relevance by helping students, for example, in a project. To do this,

  1. determine a group project that is of community importance, and which can be developed and distributed online to the community;
  2. search the Internet for information helpful to the project;
  3. write a paper or create a Web page using existing technology, with each student taking a part of the project, continually monitoring the other students' contributions, and offering them rapid feedback;
  4. publish the result on the World Wide Web. This approach can be highly effective if the students receive continual feedback from others with whom they frequently conference via e-mail or Web page review, as well as from an instructor who oversees each phase of the project. Upon final Internet posting, the students can also then receive feedback from others or from the larger Internet community.


"Virtual" distance learning can occur when an instructor in one area lectures to students at various locations via live or recorded audiovisual media. TeleVideo therapy is one example of learning that can occur at a distance through the use of technology. Optimally, this format allows questions from the audience/patient, which are immediately responded to by the instructor/therapist, ideally with a local instructor on the premises who can facilitate feedback, individualized learning, and integration following the distant presentation. In many instances, when progressive principles are followed, education can be enhanced relative to usual lecture-style courses.

In place of a typical weekly lecture by a faculty member whose expertise lies in research or some other topic area, video-conferencing technology allows for weekly lectures from an expert in both topic and educational process. While cost-effective to the institution, this is only of value to the students if the lecture is immediately followed with a question/answer period within each site, and uses on-site instructors who can address questions from students in a more personalized fashion following the lecture. Separate regular conferencing between lecturer and on-site instructors allows the "distant" lecturer to receive continual feedback about what students are or are not understanding from the lectures, and permits on-site instructors to help students integrate the lectured information into a relevant project that allows active learning and immediate feedback to occur.

Classes such as rehabilitation exercises for patients with multiple sclerosis can be presented over a distance through audiovisual presentation of exercises followed by a period at the end of each exercise allowing questions from each site. On-site therapists who can address the needs of patients in a more personalized fashion during and after the presentation should also be available at each local site, and can facilitate practice sessions in between weekly teleconference lessons. Communicating with on-site instructors on a regular basis can allow the main instructors to receive continual feedback about student progress at satellite sites.

Cautions Regarding Technology-based Instruction

While any educational structure can operate by either progressive or essentialist principles, technology-based instruction runs a greater risk of succumbing to essentialist influences. Given this medium, it is a temptation for instruction to become excessively

  • didactic, with a minimum of instructor feedback or student interaction.
  • informational, with learning viewed as receiving the important information, without demonstrating an ability to utilize it experientially and creatively in novel situations.
  • disjointed, with feedback delayed for extended periods.
  • unresponsive, instructors simply lecturing and students taking a test or doing a project devoid of ongoing feedback, and eventually receiving a grade.


Jane Addams developed the Hull House in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century to show how learning can and should occur within a social context (Addams, 1930). Students worked together with the community to develop and implement projects that would directly benefit the local neighborhood. This allowed students a meaningful context within which to gain knowledge, accruing not only the new data necessary to accomplish their task, but also the skills needed to creatively improve the world they lived in. In a similar fashion, technology need not be a tool used simply for accumulating more information to add to one's existing database. Instead, it can be used in support of learning to make creative use of information in order to interact more successfully with the world in which one lives. Distance-based learning has unprecedented potential to gain from and contribute to a community far exceeding the scope of Addams' Hull House, yet using surprisingly similar basic principles. Toward this end, progressive ideals should be considered whenever technology is used to enhance the learning environment.


Addams, J. (1930). The second twenty years At Hull House. New York: Macmillan Co.

Cremin, L. (1961). The transformation of the school. New York: Vintage.

Dewey, J. & Dewey, E. (1915). Schools of tomorrow. New York: Dutton & Co.

Dewey, J. (1910). The postulate of immediate empiricism. In The influence of Darwin on philosophy, and other essays. New York: Holt & Co.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: MacMillan & Co., Inc.

James, W. (1907). Pragmatism. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.

Johnson, M. (1939). Thirty years with an idea. Unpublished manuscript, Columbia University, Teachers College, NY.

Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori method. New York: Schocken Books.

Morris, C. (1970). The pragmatic movement In American philosophy. New York: G. Braziller.

Strain, J.P. (1971). Modern philosophies of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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