Parameters of Online Education

from the World Association for Online Education
WAOE Electronic Bulletin (WEB), October 2003
President's Corner, by Steve McCarty (augmented)

Considering the situation in a non-Western country, some of the basics might be outlined as follows:

Space - Japan is compact with excellent transportation, but it is still a large country and people have to travel to any face-to-face (f2f) meeting such as a class. Online education allows for various formats to overcome space by virtual classes or universities, meetings or events.

Time - People in Japan are closely connected but busy. People can only be in one place at a time, and they lose time whenever they have to travel. Virtual classes or meetings are as close as the nearest networked computer and can be synchronous or asynchronous.

Pace - With asynchronous learning as an alternative to, or in addition to the classroom, people can learn at their own pace, and have time to think over their class participation in electronic bulletin boards and the like.

People / Participation - The face-to-face (f2f) class or event is confined to students and educators who are within commuting range. Online education opens up possibilities like virtual universities and online conferences where excellent institutions could extend their reach and greater learning experiences are possible. Not only can student enrollments increase but experts can be brought into classes temporarily by the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.

Language - A multilingual Internet is very desirable, and before long most languages will be accomodated, with the capacity for rough machine translation to help humans reach mutual understanding. Multilingual communication online is still more difficult than f2f where various cues like body language and a smile can help, but in cyberspace intelligent people try harder to communicate. With English as a second language in many situations, the challenge is all the greater, however. It is more difficult for non-native users of English to understand dishonest spam and diploma mills, for example. Oral foreign language must be one of the final frontiers of online education along with full multilingualism. There are many other linguistic issues that make language an important parameter of online education.

Gender - To some extent f2f power relationships transfer to cyberspace, so participants may fall into a hierarchy at odds with the methodology of the online course or event, such as cooperative or collaborative education. Women may fall into a passive role due to their upbringing, or men may intimidate women into silence. Evaluation of an online course often involves participation, and of course in a distance education situation the participants must speak out to make their presence felt. So if some people dominate the discourse it is unfair to the others. Online courses must therefore be female friendly, making women feel safe and equally entitled to express themselves freely.

Technology / Affordability / Access - Broadband is widely available in countries like South Korea and Japan, increasingly in homes as prices of hardware and access have gone down. Internet-enabled mobile phones are ubiquitous, but few Japanese sites are educational. There is a concept of m-learning, but not well-developed in specific approaches. People could and would spend the money and time online education requires if they perceived it as useful to them and enough of a priority compared to other means of success or self-advancement.

Documentation / Evaluation - The "show me state" is in many countries where people want to look under the hood of a new technology, evaluate its worth, or make sure it is not a Trojan Horse for something else. So they ask questions or make demands of online education in areas that go unquestioned in classroom or lecture hall education. However, there is more documentation available in online classes and more accumulation of evidence for evaluation and accountability. So when, for example, Japanese professors see features like student tracking in learning management systems, they are duly impressed.

Culture - How, for example, does the notion of face affect distance learning? In situations such as maintaining sales relationships, where Westerners would use a distance technology such as the telephone, because it is the content that matters, Japanese will go in a group to a client's office, apparently because the form is at least as important to them as their content. It seems to reflect a non-Western society that places greater importance than Western society in face-to-face relationships. They might be more inclined to teleconferencing or other AV technologies that simulate face-to-face meetings. Browser or Web-based educational experiences may then be unconvincing or difficult to sell as full-fledged education for credit or degrees. However, when more brand-name universities stake their reputations on virtual programs to extend their reach, then the merits of online education may receive more recognition.

[Face -- discussed in the article below -- could be considered another parameter]

In the Japanese context perhaps some preliminary conclusions can be drawn. Online education is embraced all over the world, insofar as learners and educators have access to the Web, according to my survey findings and the research of others. Online education may be perceived in Japan as less necessary and less attractive than in most other cultures. But online education has the universal appeal of overcoming time, space, ignorance and other human limitations. It also opens educational opportunities to those other than the elite (which may not please those with vested interests in the status quo). So, as in other countries, the acceptance of online education should be a matter of discovering what it makes possible: greater learning and wider networking.

The graphic below, made with several programs, is planned to assist in brainstorming with some key concepts and the distinctions between them:

These concepts and questions are just meant for brainstorming, so please guess or speculate when you are not sure. Among the questions that could be asked are:

Connectivity: The 'Line' in Online Education

WAOE Electronic Bulletin (WEB), December 2003

In response to the previous column (above), Richard Lemmer of Chugoku Junior College in Japan wrote that "[o]nline education is better suited to mature individuals who are self-motivated and have a good sense of purpose. It is also a good means of developing a culture of lifelong learning which would benefit the society on a macro" level. He is alluding to the traditional teacher-dependency that East Asian style education inculcates. With regard to culture, he continues: The development of online learning communities and the open, collaborative and supportive environment they produce may be alien to the traditional approach to education in Japan. It is still very much a top-down hierarchy, whereas more successful online learning comes from a shared experience, with basic structure provided by the instructor, but in a manner that allows each individual student the opportunity to explore her/his particular areas of interest within a broad topic." Western programs cannot simply be transplanted into non-Western cultures, because common sense assumptions about the parameters are very different. Student-centered approaches like constructionism are contemporaneous with online education, but is there a necessary relationship between them? That is, educators may be taking on a dual challenge of pioneering technologies and pedagogies, both of which may be new to many students in the world, requiring much preparatory training and education. Indeed, with regard to time, Richard wrote that "[a]nyone interested in starting online programs [should realize] that they are very labor intensive for both student and faculty. It is also necessary to ensure that before any program is initiated the institution is ready to provide long-term support. This means that structures for financial, technological and people support need to be in place from the outset. The transition from F2F to WBI takes careful planning and time if it is to be done properly and successfully." (

He is implying that such institutional support may be hard to get. While online education is good for opening educational opportunities to the underserved, overcoming space, time and so forth, it cannot be a good way for administrators to save money by automating education.

Another parameter I suggest is face (the two F's in F2F), which figures strongly in Japanese social reality, and may be universally human. In Japan there is an a priori assumption that distance education cannot measure up to in-person education. Yet online educators are concluding that the aim is not to approximate/simulate F2F classes or even in-person relationships generally. The goals are more far-reaching, including non-linear (hypertextual) learning, telepresence, international class participation, and more.

Lisa Thomas of the Office of Web-Based Learning at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis addressed the questions about online education in detail, which gave an interesting insight into the current situation in the U.S. ( But the line in online needs be better understood, as it provides a key to the nature of online education. In a most basic sense, online education may just mean having networked computers available to some extent for educational experiences. That is, it could be for part of the time as in blended approaches, and online education also takes place in networked computer classrooms that are not a case of distance education. In a physical sense the 'line' is the cables, routers and so forth that connect networked computers in a LAN, Intranet, or to the worldwide Internet. Incidentally, with m-learning by mobile phones, PDAs and other information appliances connected to the Internet, there are networked computers (servers, etc.) down the line even when the Internet is accessed via satellite or wireless networks. Then the "line" in online starts to take on a more metaphorical meaning of connection to networks or connectivity.

John Lincoln at QueZhou College of Technology in China raised his own set of far-reaching questions of online education in another response. He wrote in part: "let us focus globally on the differences and similarities between the developing and the developed nations, the urban and the rural..." Please see the mid-November 2003 posts for the full details:

Return to Steve McCarty's bookmarks