Computerized Distance Education: The Role for Facilitators

Roger Hiemstra

Syracuse University

Professor, Instructional Design and Adult Learning

Syracuse, NY


In The MPAEA Journal of Adult Education, 22(2), 1994, 11-23.Computerized Distance Education: The Role for Facilitators

Reprinted by permission.


Many adults are constrained in their study efforts by various work, family, or social obligations that limit their abilities to be successful in traditional educational settings. Computer mediated conferencing (CMC) is a promising approach for non-traditional, distance learning. A growing body of scholarship indicates that the approach is a suitable means for educational delivery, but several questions remain regarding appropriate facilitator role, training requirements for those who use the approach, and associated instructional limitations. This article provides a rationale for using CMC, describes how CMC has been used, provides information on instructional implications, and suggests some future research needs.


The use of personal computers for home, business, and education has increased tremendously in the past decade. Schieman and Jones (1993) list computer based instruction as one of several important distance education approaches. At the same time notions about a global village and the information age are rapidly becoming reality as more individuals, organizations, and institutions communicate together or access various data bases through large electronic networks like Internet.

The potential of such technological advancements is being tested in various ways. For instance, computer conferencing does away with traditional limitations of meeting length, participant numbers, and meeting time. Computer mediated conferencing is also not bound by any geographic locations (The movable conference, 1983).

There are also various education and training opportunities. For example, Forrer and Leibowitz (1991) describe various ways to use computers for human resource development. The relationship of students to each other and their increasing control over time, place, and pace of study are important features. As Eastmond (1992) notes "electronic university degree programs, dedicated to learning solely though computer network technologies, are springing up" (p. 155).

Although the term distance education has been in existence for at least 100 years (Rumble, 1986), it was not popularized until the 1960's when French and German educators used it to identify some programming activities (Moore, 1987). Moore's (1973) theory of independent study is an important paradigm that undergirds distance education. His notions about the separation of facilitator and learner that makes necessary using some type of media are important aspects of a theory (Moore, 1992).

The evolvement thus far has resulted in increasing distance education efforts, a growing body of literature, and more understanding of the process elements necessary for effective instruction. For example, scholars at Pennsylvania State University have initiated several distance education efforts. They established the American Center for the Study of Distance Education and publish the American Journal of Distance Education and DEOS - The Distance Education Online Symposium, an electronically transmitted service.1

Garrison and Shale (1987) propose three criteria for characterizing distance education: (a) noncontiguous interaction between or among teachers and learners, (b) two-way communications between or among teachers and learners, and (c) the use of technology to mediate such communication. Hodgkinson (1991) presents some similar notions but refers to them as physical, social, intellectual, and culture distance.

Of the new computer-based technologies, computer mediated conferencing (CMC) seems especially promising to meet such criteria.2 However, there are various implications for the role of facilitators in any kind of education or training setting using such an approach. This article provides a rationale for using CMC in higher education settings, describes a case example of one current CMC system, suggests some limitations impacting on those facilitating such learning, and talks about future issues that need resolving.


Combining personal computers, main frame computer technologies, and telecommunication services to impact on education or training activities is relatively new. Driving much of this change is the nature of learners today. Increasing numbers of adult learners, growing training demands in business, and expanding developmental requirements at various levels are creating large numbers of people who can or must be reached at a distance. Paulsen (1992b) includes reports of hundreds of distance learning efforts in Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South and Central America, many of which involve computer technology.

How does computer technology serve the educational needs of such learners? One such approach combines computers, modems, and telephone or electronic network linkages to form a computer mediated conferencing system. The Ohio State University Center on Education and Training for Employment (1990) examined the results of computer conferencing pilot training activities and reported the following:

. . . computer conferencing does work. Specifically, it breaks up the monotony of sitting in the classroom, enhances communication among people who may not interact otherwise, offers immediate feedback to responses and questions, saves time and expense by reducing travel, provides a printed dialogue as a reference, tightens the structure of the course and provides concise information, and demonstrates the potential of `networking' to students. (p. 1)

Wells (1992) notes that the range of CMC courses is increasing. Harasim (1987), for example, describes a successful use of computer conferencing in graduate level courses. Burge (1992), Kaye (1992), Mason (1992), Paulsen (1992a), Rapaport (1991), and Waggoner (1992) describe several CMC efforts in various locations.

While a majority of CMC efforts to date have been associated with higher education institutions, the approach is being used increasingly in other settings. For instance, the University of Colorado used CMC to offer an extension course on the "office of the future" to managers (Bacsich, 1987). The New Jersey Institute of Technology uses a computer conferencing system for several courses on management and other topics (Bacsich, 1987). McConnell (1992) describes the use of CMC for management training. Miller (1991) includes information on how CMC was used as a technique for enhancing personnel development. Norton and Stammen (1990) describe how CMC was used to provide inservice training for vocational administrators.

It is not surprising that CMC is gaining in popularity. Knowles (1983) predicted a decade ago that by the end of this century most educational programs and resources will be delivered electronically. Blackwood and White (1991) and Carrier (1987) point out that this means educators and trainers will need to be able to use any electronic technology in congruence with adult learning principles.

Roberts (1988) prefers computers in instructional efforts over other technological forms: "The computer is active. Unlike television which can only present to the student, the computer can only work with the student. It is individualized, interactive, and diagnostic and through networking and conferencing the computer is out reaching" (p. 38). There also is tremendous potential for learners to be able to access so much information electronically (Heerman, 1988; U.S. Congress, 1989). As Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) note, "having access to such a system can add immensely to the power an educator has in meeting the needs of adult learners. Self-directed learners may, in fact, benefit the most from access to increased information and improved retrieval systems . . ." (p. 165).

Robinson (1992) found that students' abilities to access information according to their own time schedules was an important factor, too. However, it should be noted that researchers have discovered some students experience difficulties in using CMC. Grint (1989) found some learners who had trouble carrying out conversations in the asynchronous time feature of CMC. Manninen (1991) found that class differences affect some of the participants in computer conferencing, with middle class learners accessing computer networks easier than lower class learners.

Pratt (1987) suggests that the effectiveness of instructional efforts when using technology actually depends on several interacting factors, including the nature of the content, technology used, time availability, costs, learning experience quality, and ability of instructors to respond to differences among learners. Blackwood and White (1991), Hiemstra and Sisco (1990), and Snell (1987) suggest various corresponding roles for teachers, including assessment, counselling, and helping learners take more responsibility for their own learning. The next section details many of these roles when a facilitator uses CMC.


The following is an example of how one institution implemented some distance education efforts using CMC. It is intended to provide a foundation for describing some issues related to effective facilitation. Although the Syracuse University example is centered on graduate level courses in a higher education setting, many of the aspects described are applicable to learning in any type of setting.

Computerized distance education at Syracuse University began in 1986 as part of a funded project to disseminate learning materials and information to adults throughout the world. An important feature centered on a distance education capacity that enabled courses, student discussions, and staff interactions to take place through on-line computer conferencing software.

There are a number of strengths in this delivery mode. CMC is self-documenting, no instructional performing skills are needed, and it allows time for reflection (Bacsich, 1987). With CMC, learners can participate in small or large group discussions, submit assignments, interact with other learners and with faculty, and exchange feedback or information via electronic communication. The medium also facilitates participation around a learner's schedule, rapid responses from instructors and fellow students, and access to various resources as needed both through the home campus computer or through computers anywhere that can be reached electronically.

The Syracuse University system operates via an on-line computer conferencing software program entitled "Participate" (Parti is the nickname used to refer to it) that resides on a university UNIX mainframe computer. Learners access courses or study information in three ways: (a) utilizing on-campus terminals, (b) connecting personal computers to the mainframe through modems, telecommunication software, and telephone lines, or (c) connecting personal computers via Internet, a large electronic network joining an ever-increasing number of higher education, governmental, and other institutions.

Parti was chosen because of its "user-friendly" nature and flexibility in terms of accessing other information sources. Dickelman (1991) and Sharples (1987) describe some aspects required of a system to be used easily by learners, including such features as a simple start-up procedure, menu driven options, system status clarity, simple resetting to a default status, and an easily accessible help component. Parti meets all these features.

The general design of courses taught via Parti includes the following:

1. Training of learners to use the software. Various training options are made available to learners. These include such activities as face-to-face meetings with individual faculty or technical support personnel, an initial large group orientation to the course and software, a manual on using the software, and on-going communication with faculty members.

2. Electronic communication. A course is built around electronic networking among learners and the instructor (a typical class size ranges from 10-15 students). A series of topics designed to elicit thoughts, reactions, and comments are posted within the course environment by an instructor. Learners can write messages, responses, or statements to the topics that can then be read by all others, by members of a small group, by each other as private communication, or by the instructor. Branches off any topic are created whenever special interests or follow-up discussions are described.

A typical course will have a student center topic for informal conversations, a bulletin board for the instructor's comments, several small group discussion topics, some large group topics, and supplemental read-only topics. In addition, most courses encourage learners to electronically access information pertaining to a course through listservs, on-line journals or discussion groups, and other available data bases.

3. The development of an extensive course study guide. The guide provides some introductory information, a summary of the course activities, various supplemental resource materials, and descriptions of course components. For each component introductory information, relevant resources, learning activities, expected computer conferencing activities, learning requirements, suggested readings, any necessary supplemental materialare described.

4. Various learning options. A course uses various learning options to stimulate learner participation and interaction. These options revolve around using computer conferencing for small group discussion of individual needs, debates, polling activities, dyadic learning partnership exchanges, one-on-one message exchanges, and small group cooperation in developing learning activity materials for distribution to other class members or to the instructor.

5. Use of learning contracts. Participants in CMC courses use learning contracts so that individualized plans can be negotiated in conjunction with an instructor (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990; Knowles, 1986). After completing a form to assess individual needs, participants use computer conferencing to discuss and clarify needs via small group, dyadic, or instructor interactions.

6. Varied evaluation opportunities. Because learners can participate in the courses without coming to campus, various evaluation options are available. Face-to-face or electronic conversations with the instructor, electronic communication with colleagues, and the use of outside resource specialist conversations, if appropriate, are the various possibilities.

7. Personal journal writing. Learners are encouraged to carry out critical reflection and thinking throughout the course. Space is provided within the Parti environment for each student to write their personal reflections or reactions to readings, discussions, or other learning experiences.

Although still in the beginning stages as a distance education medium, computer mediated conferencing gives opportunities for individualizing instruction, offering education to learners in various locations, and even providing learning opportunities to people who ordinarily would have difficulty participating in educational programs.


An important feature of CMC is providing an environment that elicits a humanistic but pragmatic collaboration between learners and a facilitator (Bates, 1986). Burge (1988) refers to this as facilitating interdependence among learners and a corresponding self-responsibility for learning. Eastmond (1992, 1993) suggests this means effective CMC instruction depends on a collaborative, group-oriented, attentive, and egalitarian instructional style.

However, there are various limitations facing those interested in using computer conferencing as a means for instructing adults.

1. There normally is a lack of technical skills for most first time users of the technology, resulting in some difficulties in connecting with networks, problems with equipment compatibility, and complications in up and down-loading large amounts of information. Facilitators need to provide appropriate time for initial tasks and adequate technical support.

2. Management of all information available to learners can be difficult, including finding information, learning to keep track of it, and making storage decisions. Facilitators need to ensure their instructional materials are well designed and packaged and that learners are provided with adequate information management skills.

3. There also are times when learners will find the management of various learning activities quite complex. Facilitators need to provide learners with appropriate instruction, training, and continuous guidance pertaining to managing the learning process.

4. The type of language, tone, and conversation used can be an issue. For example, some people simply come across to others in a flip, sarcastic, or hurtful manner without even realizing it. Facilitators need to provide learners with adequate information and advice pertaining to communicating successfully via CMC.

5. Providing continuity and helping learners pick out the important "threads" of conversations is another important part. Facilitators need to use well what Feenberg (1989) calls "weaving" skills to keep much of the course discussion targeted while not inhibiting the value of all discussion.

6. There is a need to help learners carry out what Brookfield (1989) refers to as critical or reflective thinking about topics being studied. Facilitators can support this through special activities such as journal writing, interactive reading and discussion, and providing feedback on submitted products.

7. Participation in CMC conversations will vary among learners both quantitatively and qualitatively. Facilitators need to help learners respond to others if needed and encourage participation in various ways.


There are many unresolved issues that need to be addressed by facilitators and researchers.

1. There is a diminished availability or access to computers, modems, and inexpensive access time for some learners. Thus higher education leaders need to evaluate CMC's appropriateness for any particular clientele they wish to reach (Wresch, 1996, refers to this as the haves and have-nots in the digital world). Kirkup's (1988) research on less accessibility to personal computers for women is an example of the knowledge that is needed.

2. Research is needed to more clearly understand information acquisition issues, such as the amount of time and knowledge learners require for successful course participation. For example, Davie (1989) has addressed a related issue in what is called the "small window" problem, where only one to two screens worth of information at a time may be an appropriate space target.

3. Research is required to more clearly understand various social effects of learning via CMC. Manninen's (1991) research on class differences, Roberts' (1990) research on self-concept, and Kirkup and von Prummer's (1990) research on the needs of female learners are examples of such scholarship.

4. Facilitators need to acquire a wide set of skills, such as learning how to set the appropriate climate, modeling good communication and scholarship skills, and understanding the value of "extraneous" discussion. Davie (1989), Eastmond (1992, 1993), and Harasim (1987) are some of the people examining such skill areas.

5. The traditional expectations for personal contact among learners or for personal attention from instructors needs to be addressed in relation to CMC. Research on self-responsibility by Burge (1988) and Lewis' (1988) work on autonomy are examples.

6. There is a need to better understand how high degrees of motivation and persistency for certain learners in computer conferencing settings can be stimulated. Grint's (1989) work on participation is an example of what is needed.

7. Facilitators need to learn more about techniques for building group rapport involving learners in CMC discussion, and reenergizing learners during inevitable periods of inactivity. Such techniques as learning partnerships, same-time on-line discussions, personal journal writing, on-line discussion forums, student-led discussion, and brainstorming techniques should be examined. Harasim (1989), for example, describes an interesting technique for involving learners in debates.

8. Facilitators need to help learners develop accurate perceptions of their learning styles and how they can maximize their learning skills. DeJoy (1991), for example, describes some of the learning skills required in CMC.

9. Facilitators need to secure adequate support from their organizational administrators to meet the inevitable problems that students will encounter with the technology. Mann (1987) describes several such problems and some related issues.

Only a few of the future issues have been described. Others related to such topics as evaluation, learning materials, grading or testing, learning contracts, using text-based communication, and organizational or governmental policies need future research and dialogue. It is hoped this article will stimulate some of the needed scholarship.


1 DEOS consists of DEOSNEWS (abstracts of research monographs and other information) and DEOS-L (a discussion forum). To subscribe electronically via Bitnet or Internet, post the following commands to LISTSERV@PSUVM or LISTSERV@PSUVM.PSU.EDU: SUBSCRIBE DEOSNEWS Your Full Name -or- SUBSCRIBE DEOS-L Your Full Name.

2 CMC can also stand for computer mediated communications. However, computer mediated conferencing is the preferred term when using CMC as a term to indicate the facilitation of learning experiences.


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For a look at other related references click here.

Some readings related to learning and instruction that may be of interest:

One by Burt Sisco from the University of Wyoming, another one by me (from Syracuse University), and the third one by Ralph Brockett from the University of Tennessee.

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