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Distance Education: The Complete Guide to Design, Delivery, and Improvement

reviewed by Frederick B. King - 2004

coverTitle: Distance Education: The Complete Guide to Design, Delivery, and Improvement
Author(s): Judith L. Johnson
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807743739, Pages: 229, Year: 2003
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Distance education is experiencing explosive growth, and Judith L. Johnson has been a part of distance education for over a decade, assessing its impact and success in Maine since 1989.  The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2003) reported that in the academic year 1997-1998, the latest data available at the NCES web site, an estimated 54,470 courses were offered through distance education.  This is a more than two-fold increase from 25,730 courses offered during the 1994-95 academic year (NCES, 2000).  NCES also reported that although institutions using two-way interactive video and one-way prerecorded video remain essentially the same as in 1994-1995, the “percentage of institutions using asynchronous Internet-based technologies…nearly tripled, from 22 percent of institutions in 1995 to 60 percent of institutions in 1997-98” (2000, p. vi).  Allen & Seaman (2003) noted that 90% of all public postsecondary institutions offer at least one online course and approximately 50% of all private institutions offer at least one online course.  This movement to distance education is not limited to postsecondary schools (Le, 2003).


In the Preface, Judith L. Johnson provides a one sentence goal/summary of her book: “It is a comprehensive look at distance education, all in one volume” (p. ix).  She divides her book into four sections: Part I is an extremely brief historical look (including present day) at distance education; Part II is an examination of four distance education systems; Part III looks at “the design and delivery of distance education, and ingredients for an effective course” (p. ix); and Part IV deals with assessment, standards, evaluation, and accreditation.  Immediately following Part IV there is an extensive list of appendices that support many of the chapters in the book.  Throughout the book there are many excellent teacher examples, terrific case studies, and very useful appendices; however, I do not believe that the book lived up to its title of “A Complete Guide to Distance Education.”


Part I is composed of a single chapter.  This “thumbnail” sketch of distance education in New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and a few other countries leaves much unsaid in its brevity.  The two pages devoted to “TODAY,” however, are much better in establishing the premise that “Distance learning is the most significant phenomenon occurring in higher education today” (p. 7).


Part II examines four, author chosen, “standouts” in the field of distance education: the University of Maine system; the Community College system in Oregon; the Western Governors University; and Britain’s Open University.  Each of the four systems is described, and examples are provided of pitfalls encountered and overcome, some of the best practices within each system, and where each is headed in the future.  A surprise in this section was the brevity of the chapter devoted to the granddaddy of all the systems in the chapter, the Open University (OU) of Great Britain.  By far the largest and most far reaching of the four, OU has more than 200,000 learners in its courses and has had more than 2 million students since it received its Royal Charter in 1969.  Surely this “Mega” university deserved more attention.


Part III begins with a chapter on pedagogy (Chapter 6, “Pedagogy: What Works?”).  The author states that “In education, we use the word pedagogy to refer to the tools a teacher uses to impart knowledge and skills” (p. 49).  Most definitions of pedagogy that I have encountered include a lot more in their explanation than tools.  Thinking that tools, here, might have a more universal meaning than I first read, I was disappointed to find that my original understanding seemed to be correct.  In a listing of about three dozen tools, including HTML, Internet, MOOs, PowerPoint, and the like, no listing of teaching skills that are normally subsumed in a definition of pedagogy was included.  The chapter did have an excellent subsection that offered explanations and comparisons of 5 course management systems, with the bulk of the space dedicated to WebCT and Blackboard.  The highlight in Part III of the book was the next chapter of case studies.  The case studies were rich in detail and provided an in-depth look into the different methods instructors used to conduct courses at a distance.  Each of the case studies concluded with a list of “Lessons Learned.”  These were most beneficial.  Very disappointing was the chapter on “Design to Delivery.”  Though brief sections were devoted to the audience, cost and budgeting, building community, allocation of time and resources, and institutional effectiveness, there were no instructional design guidelines to be found; in fact, instructional design was barely mentioned in this brief, six page chapter.  Chapter 9, “The Course: What Are the Ingredients?” was as disappointing as the previous chapter in its lack of depth.  Chapter 10, however, provided an excellent discourse on student services.  Many facets of student services were covered in detail with excellent examples provided throughout this chapter.  If you are setting up a distance education program, that is truly going to be totally at a distance, this chapter is a must read.


Part IV, which deals with assessment and evaluation, was generally a broad examination with little depth.  For example, although Johnson claimed that “inherent assessment in online courses is found in the writings of students,” nothing was presented to show how one might evaluate these writings.  There was no mention of grading rubrics, nor any examples of how assessment had to be adjusted to fit a distance education course.  The Flashlight Program was mentioned as a source for assessments and surveys and the like, but again, there was no depth, and no examples were provided.  The chapter on standards, accreditation and policy makers was 3 pages long, barely enough for an introduction.


One of the absolute best sections of this book was the appendices.  The 25 appendices provide a wealth of information.  The data, charts, rubrics, guidelines, and examples found here can be used for all types of distance education, synchronous and asynchronous alike, as well as Web-enhanced courses where the majority of the course is spent face-to-face. 


The author states that “the book is an excellent textbook for upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level courses related to technology and learning” (p. ix).  However, it generally lacked the depth necessary in most areas to use this book for any course beyond an undergraduate survey course.  Going back to the Preface, Johnson states “A number of books have been published on distance education over the past decade, but most cover only one or two aspects of the enterprise” (p. ix).  Maybe there is a good reason for this phenomenon.




Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2003). Sizing the opportunity: The quality and extent of online education in the United States, 2002 and 2003. Needham MA: The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved October 5, 2003 from http://www.sloan-c.org/resources/sizing_opportunity.pdf


Le, Phuong. (2003). Online coursework appeals to teenagers.” Retrieved October 10, 2003 from http://www.indystar.com/print/articles/9/074716-3989-031.html


National Center for Educational Statistics (2000). Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1997-1998. Retrieved November 23, 2002 from  http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/2000013.pdf


National Center for Educational Statistics (2003). The condition of education 2002. Retrieved October 5, 2003 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2002025


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 1038-1040
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11209, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 7:01:08 PM

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  • Frederick King
    University of Hartford
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    FREDERICK B. KING is an assistant professor of Educational Technology at the University of Hartford.
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