Advancing an Inclusive Future for Distance Learning


Roger Hiemstra


Senior Research Associate, American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC)

University of Nebraska


Janet Poley


President and CEO, American Distance Education Consortium

University of Nebraska


The Ubiquitous Internet


The growth in the World Wide Web during just the past two decades has been phenomenal, especially with the Internet’s development and our abilities to easily link with other massive amounts of information. For example, the number of Web sites has grown from 130 in 1993 to more than 70 million as of August, 2005 (Zakon, 2005). The U.S. is approaching 1.5 billion Internet address used by more than 200 million people (Miniwatts International, 2005). The number of Americans who have broadband Internet in their home increased 40% in one year, from 60 million in March of 2005 to 84 million in March of 2006 (Horrigan, 2006). No wonder Friedman (2005) in his flat world declares that the Internet’s power is unstoppable.


Researchers from the Pew Internet & Life Project support this unstoppable notion by suggesting that the “Web has become the ‘new normal’ in the American way of life; those who don’t go online constitute an ever-shrinking minority” (Rainie & Horrigan, 2005, pp 58-59). Bill Gates said something similar in a January 4, 2006, speech at the International Consumer Electronics show when he said, “2006 is going to be a big year for the digital lifestyle.”


In essence, the Internet with its connections to huge amounts of data is becoming ubiquitous and fundamentally changing how people access, think about, and use information. Unfortunately, as the well off can’t live without the Net, many hard to reach people have limited exposure to the latest technology. Unless addressed, this situation continues to divide those who most need educational opportunities from societal “haves.”  


The 2005 Katrina hurricane disaster illustrated so well those who do not have equal access to opportunities in our society. In many respects the storm and its aftermath was a wake up call for many white people. Most people in America saw the horrific pictures of mostly black people stranded in the New Orleans Superdome, at the Convention Center, on highway overpasses, and even atop house roofs. They needed water, they needed food, they needed a place safe to sleep, they needed help. The majority of those left behind to suffer during the period following the hurricane were the poor, sick, disabled, often the very young and very old, and most were minorities. Wickham (2005) notes that in New Orleans’s population before Katrina, 84% of the city’s poor were black. Omi and Winant (1994) calls the situation we all saw what it really is, racism, while Alter (2005) refers to this as “the other America.” Yes, the foe was nature’s fury, but the destruction’s aftermath was the country’s embarrassment and one for the whole world to see.


This other America is not only in urban areas. It is in white dominated Appalachia, rural or isolated areas across the country, Indian reservations, and smaller communities with concentrations of Hispanics vying for available but low paying jobs. The realities of racism, poverty, isolation, and other biasing forms limit distance education effectiveness in reaching those most in need and delimit our development at both the community and national levels. Chakraborty and Bosman (2005) suggest that today’s technology revolution is a new form of segregation for many blacks and it doesn’t take much to leap to a conclusion that many other hard to reach individuals are being segregated, too. As Lamb (2005) notes, “The real issue that needs to be examined is whether technology is actually increasing inequalities between different groups of people.” (¶ 5)


In this paper we provide information on technology changes impacting distance education and some initial ideas on how to rethink the approaches used to reach learners in light of the dilemmas raised above. We describe how our distance education efforts can be more relevant because of increasing amounts of digital resources from various cultures and languages. The availability of such information allows learners to better construct their own reality. We concentrate some practical suggestions on how to develop more inclusive lifelong learning environments, provide greater opportunities for self-directed learning, and make more appropriate technology choices.


Technology Choices and Resources


As the ubiquity of the Internet becomes increasing more a reality throughout much of our society, there are a number of digital resources available for distance educators and lifelong learners to use. Given space limitations, we illustrate only a few of them here. For example, the National Science Digital Library is a rich resource of varying kinds of multimedia. Google provides an increasing number of resources related to all types of human knowledge that tie to various search mechanisms. The Million Book Project at Carnegie Mellon has digitized several hundred thousand books and Google has created a consortium of libraries to build a massive digital collection that will ultimately result in more than 10 million online books in various languages. Google Scholar provides a means for distance learners to search for information across many disciplines and sources within the world of scholarly research.


Grambling State University, a historically Black university located in Grambling, Louisiana, administered outreach efforts with six Black Louisiana churches through a Technology Opportunities Program grant (Roach, 2001). They helped church members increase their Internet connectivity through computer labs established in the churches so they could access information and assistance in education, health, workforce development, and community enhancement.


There are an increasing number of online museums, too. For example, the  Digital Museums Projects links a multitude of museum collections and exhibits. The National Museum of the American Indian shows how information related to an important minority group can be digitized. There also are numerous efforts to combine digitized museum and library collections such as American Memory, a resource that provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.


Another illustration of an important resource that has been digitized for online acquisition is the National Digital Newspaper Program. This is an ongoing effort to create a national, digital resource of historically significant newspapers from all states and U.S. territories published between 1836 and 1922. EBSCO Research Databases has created another newspaper archive that provides learners with access to millions of newspaper pages from the United States and other countries.


Increasingly, the power of broadband Internet helps people come to think of it as there “go to” source for the information they need to navigate through life. As one person from the study described in the next session said, “Anything that you want is there. The whole world in a computer!” Tapping into that world and helping learners who can access the Internet and its many resources becomes an important goal for distance educators in efforts to supplement their learning efforts.


Tapping into the Internet to Build that Inclusive Distance Education Environment


It is our contention that distance education programs will be more effective when learners are encouraged to not only tap into the Internet, but also to take increasing responsibility for their own learning. The Internet and the ubiquitous notions described above becomes a powerful tool in supporting such self-directed learning (SDL). Bulik and Hanor (2000) suggest that the Web supports self-directed learning by both increasing learner control and providing mechanisms for learners to determine what information is pertinent to them. Mathai (2002) even goes so far as to suggest that the Internet is an ideal tool for enhancing SDL because of its ready access to massive amounts of information and its ease as a communication tool.


Draves (2002) provides a list of reasons why he believes the Internet enhances learning, including such advantages as being able to learn at a peak time of the day, learning at your own speed, accessibility to much information, an ability to track personal progress, and the capability to test personal learning efforts. He also believes cognitive learning via the Internet is actually better than in-person learning. Kerka (1997) mentions the time and place flexibility of the Internet in supporting SDL. Ruelland (2003), too, likes how the e-world provides flexibility in the learning rhythm. Candy (2004) stresses the liberating value of the Internet in terms of continuous access to information and no geographic boundaries or restrictions.


ADEC manages a multiple-year grant that is examining ways the Internet can be used to enhance such learning by providing broadband Internet to people living at the edges of the “network” via hybrid networking—the fiber of Internet2 combined with wireless satellite (VSAT technology) and various new applications. This nearly 5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation was matched by a similar amount from numerous cooperating higher education institutions across the U.S. A number of independent research efforts have been carried out to assess the project’s effectiveness. Due to space limitations, we report on only one of these efforts that involved understanding the impact of such broadband connections in rural areas. We will be pleased to dialogue electronically about the other research projects.


Three rural settings (two in Michigan and one in Idaho) were the basis for this qualitative study. Internet connections were through satellite dish feeds to multi-workstation community center facilities. Volunteer users (51 in the three locations), most of whom had had little involvement with the Internet prior to this project, were interviewed. Results from the 21 adults, 19 and older, who were interviewed serve as a foundation for the following quotes that give a brief picture at how people use broadband Internet for learning purposes once it becomes available.


A 47 year old male and beginning user from Michigan had only recently started using the Internet, but he dove into it enthusiastically:

I’ve used it for references on different things, for medical problems, . . . I have used it for to look up, with my diabetes, and since my Dad got cancer they have a, I think it’s called where you can speak with other people who were diagnosed with cancer.

A 40 to 59 year old woman in Idaho with considerable Internet experience said it very simply:

            Oh my gosh, I learned a lot off the Internet.

A 19 year old male from Michigan and an experienced user talked about how important his involvement with computers had been for his learning efforts:

A lot of my learning is really based on the computers because that is where I learned most of what I know.

A 47 year old female from Idaho who was an experienced user said,

. . . it makes it a lot more interesting and exciting than just trying to search through 100 books at the library.

Another Idaho female, a 70 year old beginner, said something similar even more emphatically:

I'm really excited about what I can do and I'm really excited about what I'm going to learn to do, the future of it,


There is no doubt the Internet has impacted the way rural people learn as well as the other hard to reach individuals involved in the NSF grant, how they use the Internet to access learning resources they need, and how they undertake various learning activities. Many of the people interviewed in the rural and other settings had become very excited about the Internet as a resource for new learning activities. Even though interviewees weren’t using terms like self-directed learning, personal control, and self-motivation, you quickly got the sense that learning by themselves had become rewarding and even habit forming.


Building a more inclusive distance learning environment involves making technological choices built on flexibility and an ability to respond quickly to changes in constantly evolving technology and informational resources (Hiemstra & Poley, in process). Collaboration, involving teachers, mentors, and instructional designers who truly represent hard to reach learners, and a willingness to invest monies in developing a cyberinfrastructure that reaches all learners regardless of where they live will be crucial. However, society needs such change if we are to eliminate the existing differences between those who have the access to information needed for productive lives and those who do not. As noted earlier, we will be happy to dialogue electronically with anyone desiring more discussion of this important topic.




Alter, J. (2005, September 19). The other America. Newsweek, 42-48.

Bulik, R. J., & Hanor, J. (2000). Self-directed learning in a digital age: Where next to browse is informed by reflection (pp. 265-276). In H. B. Long & Associates, Practice & theory in self-directed learning. See to order.

Candy, P. C. (2004). Linking thinking – self-directed learning in the digital age. Canberra City, Australian Government: Department of Education, Science, and Training. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from brochures/linking_thinking.htm

Chakraborty, J., & Bosman, M. M. (2005). Measuring the digital divide in the United States. The Professional Geographer, 57, 395-410.

Draves, W. (2002). How the Internet is changing how we learn. Paper presented to the Seventh Annual Teaching on the Community Colleges Online Conference, May 21-23, 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from tcon02/greetings/draves.html

Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers.

Hiemstra, R., & Poley, J. (in process). Building an inclusive future for learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing.

Horrigan, J. B. (2006, May 28). Home broadband adoption 2006. Washington DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved May 30 2006, from PIP_Broadband_trends2006.pdf

Kerka, S. (1997). Distance learning, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from

Lamb, P. (2005, June 3). Digital divide has not disappeared. CNET Retrieved May 30, 2006, from

Mathai, R. V. (2002). The use of the Internet to foster self-directed learning in community and technical college math and natural science classes (pp. 127-153). In H. B. Long & Associates, Twenty-First Century advances in self-directed learning. See to order.   

Miniwatts International. (2005). Internet world stats: Usage and population statistics. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge.

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Roach, R. (2001, October 25). HCBUs awarded federal digital divide grant. Black Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from is_18_18/ai_80553791

Ruelland, D. (2003). eLearning +, a support system for the workplace (pp. 235-242). In H. B. Long & Associates, Current developments in e-learning & SDL. See to order.  

Wickham, D. (2005, September 13). Blacks suffering over race or class?. USA Today. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from

Zakon, R. H. (2005). Hobbes' Internet timeline. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from robert/Internet/timeline


Biographical Sketches


Roger Hiemstra is Senior Research Associate with the American Distance Education Consortium, NSF Project, University of Nebraska. He is Professor and Chair Emeritus, Adult Education, Syracuse University and Elmira College in New York. During a 40 year career, his scholarship has focused on older adults as learners, self-directed learning, and distance education. He is recipient of the Malcolm Knowles Memorial Self-Directed Learning Award. He was inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2000 and currently serves on the organization’s Board of Directors. He is co-author of Toward Ethical Practice, Krieger Publishing, 2004.


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Janet Poley is CEO/President of the American Distance Education Consortium. She develops collaborative distance education initiatives with 60 land-grant university members. She was inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves on the organization’s Board of Directors. She received the Charles Wedemeyer Award for Outstanding Practitioner in Distance Education in 2000 and serves on the Editorial Board for the American Journal of Distance Education. She is a professor in the College of Journalism at the University of Nebraska. Dr. Poley is the author of a number of journal articles and book chapters.

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