First Monday has an article (which I read via Palimpsest) about “Students’ Frustrations with a Web-Based Distance Education Course.”

The article is a very good example of a very bad kind of research. It points out (rightly) that there’s a shortage of good qualitative research on Distance Learning, especially research that focuses on the experience of the students. But then it doesn’t really provide that kind of research.

The students in the course which the article examines are frustrated…but they’re not frustrated because of any inherent problems with DL. They’re frustrated because this particular course (“B555”) is poorly-designed and poorly-implemented.

In summary, in this distance education course, students’ frustration originated from three sources:

  • technological problems;
  • minimal and not timely feedback from the instructor; and,
  • ambiguous instructions on the Web site as well as via e-mail.

Now, these frustrations are real–and these problems with this course are real, too. But they are not necessarily representative of any large majority of DL courses. The article’s authors, Noriko Hara and Rob Kling, do try to address this objection:

It is easy to place the burden of students’ frustrations wholly upon the instructor’s limitations. With an experienced and skilled instructor, the students would have found the online version of B555 to be a valuable delight! There is good reason to believe that many online courses are taught sufficiently well that the students value them and do not experience the kinds of frustrations that we discovered in this case.

One might argue that this course was a unique case of a poor instructor poorly teaching an online course, and that this “oddball case” tells us nothing about online courses. We differ with this last interpretation. The department chair had taught some online courses and his department had notable experience with online courses taught by several of his faculty. He could have cancelled the online course if he could not find a competent instructor. He could have sought mentoring help for the instructor. Alternatively, she might have sought advice from the faculty about improving her teaching of this online course. None of these alternatives were enacted. It would be remarkable if this were the only time that an academic administrator mis-perceived the pedagogical capabilities of a replacement instructor when faced with the loss of the original instructor. It appears that even an experienced administrator and online teacher also mis-perceived the kinds of pedagogical shifts required from face-to-face teaching, and could underestimate the extent to which mentoring could be critical. Certainly, these issues arise in traditional face-to-face courses.

Yes, these issues arise in traditional face-to-face courses. But do they arise more frequently in online courses? The authors make no such claim (as they have no evidence to support such a claim) but they clearly make such an implication. It’s a very unfortunate implication.

The article’s ultimate conclusion:

Clearly, we need more student-centered studies of distance education. We need research that is designed to teach us how the appropriate use of technology and pedagogy could make distance education beneficial for students.

is one I support 100%.

But the overall tone of the article, the implication that these authors have “discovered” some hidden node of failure or frustration in distance learning generally, is extremely harmful–and misleading.

Bad instruction is bad instruction. It’s frustrating for students, and detracts from the educational mission of the particular course and the institution as a whole. But that fact is not exclusive to DL.

Similarly, research which succumbs to utopianism or a pollyannish extolling of virtues, is not a useful kind of research–but it is not a kind of research that is exclusive to DL research.

Studies like the one presented in this article, however, go too far in the other direction. If we really want a worthwhile look at the benefits or drawbacks of distance learning, we need to look at a competent (at least) example.