Information Age Education Blog

The goal of IAE is to help improve education at all levels throughout the world. This work is done through the publication of the IAE Blog, the IAE-pedia, the IAE Newsletter, books, and other materials all available free on the Web. For more information, go to
8 minutes reading time (1658 words)

Distance Learning: Potentials and Perils

In this IAE Blog entry, I discuss distance learning, learning in face-to-face environments, and learning as one views and interacts with nature and other aspects of the world. The main focus is on the first two, so let me briefly dispense with the third.

Long before we had schools and the three R’s, people learned by themselves through their interactions with the natural world in which they lived. We are built to learn from what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in “nature.” A human teacher can help in this mode of learning, but each of us is innately able to learn through interaction with the natural world.

Human Teachers

We humans are born with innate capabilities and drives. But a baby survives and thrives only through the care and teaching provided by other, older people. We have come to understand the creature comfort, human touch, and instructional needs of the very young child. An excellent example of this is in language acquisition.

Patricia Kuhl’s TED Talk, The Linguistic Genius of Babies (February, 2011), discusses research on babies learning a natural language. Quoting from Kuhl’s talk:

What have we learned?Well, babies all over the worldare what I like to describeas "citizens of the world."They can discriminate all the sounds of all languages,no matter what country we're testing and what language we're using,and that's remarkable because you and I can't do that.We're culture-bound listeners.We can discriminate the sounds of our own language,but not those of foreign languages.So the question arises:when do those citizens of the worldturn into the language-bound listeners that we are?And the answer: before their first birthdays. What you see here [in the video] is performance on that head-turn taskfor babies tested in Tokyo and the United States,here in Seattle,as they listened to "ra" and "la"—sounds important to English, but not to Japanese.So at six to eight months the babies are totally equivalent.Two months later something incredible occurs.The babies in the United States are getting a lot better,babies in Japan are getting a lot worse,but both of those groups of babiesare preparing for exactly the language that they are going to learn. [Bold added for emphasis.]

As part of their research, Kuhl’s group studied babies learning while being held in the arms of a loving and caring adult, babies learning while watching the same instruction on television, and babies learning while listening to the same instruction on audio tape. Quoting again from Kuhl’s talk:

But we wondered what rolethe human being playedin this learning exercise.So we ran another group of babiesin which the kids got the same dosage, the same 12 sessions,but over a television setand another group of babies who had just audio exposureand looked at a teddy bear on the screen.What did we do to their brains?What you see here [on the chart presented] is the audio result—no learning whatsoever—and the video result—no learning whatsoever.It takes a human being [holding the baby while talking to the baby] for babies to take their statistics [do their learning]. The social brain is controlling when the babies are taking their statistics. [Bold added for emphasis.]

In brief summary, the distance language learning via television or via audiotape was not effective! Language acquisition by young babies is a social endeavor, and a baby’s brain appears to be wired to learn language in that face-to-face, held by a loving parent or caregiver, social setting mode.

Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk, Connected But Alone (4/13/2012), explores how extensive use of computerized social networking and computer games are producing a type of isolation that is damaging to children and adults. Her main point is that the face-to-face social and communication skills are not being developed as well as they were in the past, and she believes this is very bad.

To briefly summarize this section, humans are social creatures who have thrived through their face-to-face social abilities to work together toward common goals. Computer technology is significantly and negatively affecting children’s development of these innate abilities.

Distance Education

You know about distance education provided through online courses and MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). However, perhaps you have not thought of the idea that distance education is much more than this, and it is pervasive. Any person who is reading as an aid to learning is engaged in distance education. The information being read was written at an earlier date and likely in a different place. A human teacher does not need to be present to supervise the reader.

If you are a fan of the Tarzan books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, you know that Tarzan taught himself to read through use of children’s picture books. This was a truly remarkable (fictional) distance education accomplishment, since Tarzan had not yet learned oral communication in a human language!

Learning to read and write is a challenging task, even when built on a child’s well-developed oral communication skills. Our schools place a major emphasis on students learning to read well enough to be able to learn by reading in a variety of curriculum areas. That is, a major goal in education is to have students learn to learn via the distance education vehicles available to them. This is a worldwide goal, as agreed to in Article 26 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states “everyone has the right to education.”

Reading and writing were developed a little over 5,000 years ago. The reading and writing-based distance education improved slowly over thousands of years. The printing press made it possible for large numbers of people to engage in reading-based distance education. Illustrations and graphics in books are helpful. Eventually, progress in technology brought us aids to distance education such as color, photographs, sound recordings, radio, motion pictures, television, and now the Internet and computers. The world’s yearly production of more than a billion smart phones plus huge numbers of handheld electronic gaming devices provide evidence of how far we have come. Clearly, distance education is pervasive in our lives.

The Goal: Make Cost-effective Education Readily Available to All

The world now has the capabilities of educating all of its children, and it is making significant progress toward doing so. Many countries have recognized the value of having working parents taking care of and beginning the initial education of their very young children, and so provide paid maternity leaves. See

An elementary school education that focuses on learning to learn from books, radio, movies, audio recording, television, and video recordings provides a child with the foundations needed for lifelong distance learning. In some sense computers, the Internet, and the Web are frosting on the cake. With this technology, the world now has the capabilities of providing all children with a global library, global communication, and computer-based interactivity as new components of distance education.

We are making substantial research progress in a host of important other ways to improve education. For example, consider cognitive neuroscience. How does a brain learn, and how do we substantially improve the help we provide students with special needs? Researchers are currently making substantial progress in these areas, and much of what they are learning is useful in designing better aids to the distance education described above.

What do we want students to learn as artificially intelligent robots and computers become more and more capable, and the totality of human knowledge continues its rapid expansion? These are important questions for today.

Final Remarks

Long before the development of books and other aids to distance education, one-on-one or small group interaction between teachers and learners was a fundamental and successful form of teaching. Individual human tutors (parent with child, paid tutors, etc.) are a highly effective form of education. There are many important educational roles that human teachers can perform much better than can the various aids to distance education. However, it is clear to me that we are living at a time in which we will see major changes in our educational systems based on the steadily improving aids to distance education.

We know that, as children grow older, they can learn from distance education. But, we do not have sufficient knowledge to understand the social and cultural damage being done to children as more and more of a child’s education takes place via distance education.

What You Can Do

Spend some time thinking about the “definition” of distance education described in this IAE Blog entry. To what extent does it make sense to you, and what aspects of it seem “just plain wrong” to you? Examine the teaching and learning that you do through the lens of this broad based definition of distance learning, and the lens of how technology is changing distance learning. Use such thinking to improve your own teaching and learning.


Newer reference suggested by a reader: Andy Kearns on 1/30/2020

We have a guide on our site that helps students understand ways to pay for college, and I believe it can be a useful addition to your page.
I appreciate your time!

Andy Kearns

Content Analyst | LendEDU


References and Resources

Kuhl, P. (February, 2011). The linguistic genius of babies. TED Talk. (Video: 10:17.) Retrieved 10/29/2015 from

Means, B., et al. (September, 2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service. Retrieved 10/23/2015 from

Moursund, D. (10/25/2015). Nearly 4,000 MOOCs. IAE Blog. Retrieved 10/28/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2015). Self-assessment instruments. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 10/27/2015 from

Online Colleges (2015). Affordable online colleges. Retrieved 10/21/2015 from

Turkle, S. (4/13/2012). Connected but alone. TED Talk. (Video: 19:49.) Retrieved 10/27/29015 from

College and Job Readiness of U.S. High School Grad...
Nearly 4,000 MOOCS


No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Already Registered? Login Here
Monday, 18 January 2021

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to