Strategic Networking for Distance Learning

Copyright ©1997 Paul David Henry and Gene De Libero -- All rights reserved.

Online article based on a presentation from:
Third International Conference on Asynchronous Learning Networks
October, 1997

Revised references and online links by P.D. Henry on February 4, 2002.

Lessons We Are Learning

In our work as e-learning and e-Enterprise developers, we have learned many lessons - some from books, but much more from practice. The most important of these lessons is understanding the vital relationship between implementing network technology for an application such as distance learning and the need to plan for it as a fundamental change in the way we typically communicate and learn - especially compared to traditional training and educational settings.

These valuable lessons are the kind that instructors can learn from their students and consultants can learn from their clients. However, this can only occur when they listen to them and observe the process of change that people must undertake when using innovations like computer networks for distance learning.

What we learned, we incorporated into the Strategic Networking book and through Web-based e-learning projects, including blended e-learning sites in support of traditional courses in the School of Education at New York University and online courses through the Virtual College.

In this paper, we would like to address some of the lessons we have learned in supporting e-learners who experience difficulties related to the inaccessibility, complexity, and other constraints associated not with the content of the curriculum, but rather with the underlying Internet technology and its implementation for distance learning.

Though we pose these lessons as "problem and solution" pairs, we acknowledge that the real problems and solutions associated with our "lessons" are more complex than those aspects that we have chosen to present here. Nonetheless, in the spirit of sharing our ideas with you, we also invite you to browse the "Net References" or Net Refs that accompany each example so that you can experience these problems and solutions firsthand on the Net. We also encourage you to share with us your view of these problems and solutions in our online forums.

Through these few examples of lessons learned, we hope to present a model of Internet-based e-learning that arises not merely from the presence of internetworking technology and curricula, but that which arises from user-centered design, strategic planning, and change management. Thus, our most important lesson is one that we continually learn from our users: to enable individuals and organizations to learn and communicate in an unfettered and personally effective manner.

Distance Learning Problems

Novices trying to learn through the use of an e-learning Web site are often confronted with a learning curve and other constraints (e.g., lack of service or application support, local security, etc.) in using various Internet services and associated application software such as newsgroups, mailing lists, conferencing, etc.

Strategic Networking Solutions

Online Tutorials and Resources - Provide direct support for learning about each network service and associated applications through online tutorials and links to resources.

NET REF: Select the Resources link on the Teled Web site.

Interfaces to Service Functions - Through the strategic use of HTTP, CGI, Perl and Java scripting, and available and easy-to-use applications such as Web browsers, novices can execute otherwise difficult or confusing functions of various Internet services in an easier and more reliable manner. For example, instead of having to remember email addresses or use email clients, Web-based interfaces can emulate these functions through simple form-based input.

NET REF: Select the Contact link on the Design for Learning Web site.

Emulation of Service Functions - Rather than require users (especially novices) to master more demanding Internet services and applications to enable a given learning or communication objective, strategic networking emulates the needed functions of one or more of those services in a more available, easy-to-use, single application. For example, to achieve the communication, collaboration, and learning objectives that would be typically implemented through newsgroups, mailing lists, and conferencing, a simple Web-based bulletin board encourages elaboration of prior knowledge with newly acquired knowledge for each section of a course activity or online reading.

NET REF: Click on an Idea Post link at any of several locations through the online article on the Palimpsest Web site. Then click on any of the existing message threads, read the messages and reply or start a new thread.

Distance Learning Problems

Distance learners may acquire mastery of the underlying Internet technology, but that mastery does not directly translate into more effective learning strategies that might otherwise be achieved with that technology. Developers and instructors who simply map existing curricula and procedures to the Internet may realize some benefits, but miss others if they don't assess the online learning environment as an innovation which invites new approaches to teaching and learning.

Strategic Networking Solutions

Besides addressing the mindful use of prior knowledge and the value of elaboration through discussion forums as mentioned above, a strategic networking site provides additional scaffolding and opportunities to elaborate on newly-acquired knowledge or practice newly-acquired skills.

Web-based Articles - Many courses rely on traditional sources for reading such as textbooks and articles in print. Aside from issues of cost and availability, these resources are often constrained by their linear nature and limited use of examples, cases, and other forms of elaboration.

Print texts also contain internal references (table of content, index, etc.) and external references (citations and bibliographies) which are rarely presented and used effectively, though these can provide more detailed or related information and thus, richer understanding through stronger associations. Annotated hypertext articles use annotated links both internal to the text and external to other Web sites.

NET REF: For an example of Web-based hypertext article about distance learning, point your browser to For an example of Web-based hypertext article about strategic use of Internet and intranets, point your browser to

Learning Links - Online learners need to have online equivalents of artifacts such as texts and notebooks, not only as personal tools, but to also develop shared understanding and collaborate in their learning and in the representation and use of newly acquired knowledge. The linking and multimedia features of the Web are useful tools, but not if users don't have the "power of the press" to publish this information to the shared learning space. A strategic Web-based environment provides learner-suggested resources in the form of annotated links to Internet resources.

NET REF: Select the Resouces link on the Teled Web site.

Situated and Discursive Learning Environments - An effective way of helping learners develop the rich understanding demanded by a complex knowledge or skill domain is to provide an immersive learning environment. Learning languages by studying abroad is an example of this approach, but implementing it online requires an equivalent set of rich resources, structured interaction, and simulation. Though the effort in creating these environments for each complex topic or skill in a course is considerable (unless you encourage your students to participate in this effort as a form of reciprocal learning), even a limited number of these environments can reap manifold benefits.

However, effective use of links, scripting, and multimedia are merely the bricks and mortar. The plan for situated learning should invoke authentic practices and notions associated with that domain while providing scaffolding and coaching in support of novices as they progress to mastery. This can be implemented online through richly associated learning resources as tools and structured discourse with domain experts and other novice learners.

NET REF: For immersion in a quest for knowledge that explores ancient Greek notions, practices, and artifacts as a way to address underlying, timeless issues in learning, teaching, and the representation of knowledge, point your browser to the Quest For Knowledge Web site at and select the QFK-98 Projects link.

For immersion in a learning environment that explores annotative traditions and the cognitive artifact of the manuscript, or "palimpsest" as a model for social learning and shared history (and its contemporary implementation as networked hypermedia and distance learning), point your browser to the Palimpsest Web site at and explore the multi-frame, hyperlinked support for reading, extended learning, and communication.

Copyright ©1997-2010 Paul David Henry and Gene De Libero -- All rights reserved.