The Brighter Side of Education

The History and Future of Teaching Online with the Father of Distance Education Theorist Dr. Michael Grahame Moore

December 02, 2022 Dr. Lisa R. Hassler Season 1 Episode 6
The Brighter Side of Education
The History and Future of Teaching Online with the Father of Distance Education Theorist Dr. Michael Grahame Moore
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Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I focus on theory as a variable. How can theory affect positive change in education? Here to discuss theory in education is Dr. Michael Grahame Moore. He first defined distance education in his Theory of Transactional Distance in 1972 and then expanded on that in 1997. He was named as “one of the 128 most important, influential, innovative and interesting thinkers on education of all time,” by The Routledge Encyclopedia of Educational Thinkers in 2016. Dr. Moore is internationally recognized for establishing the scholarly study of distance education and for pioneering the practice of teaching online.

Theory affects positive change in education because it uses scholarly study and research to describe what we know works. The Theory of Transactional Distance is not new, only the full and sudden emergence of America’s classrooms online in 2020. As a nation, we took a huge leap forward teaching from online platforms. While it felt painful because the educational system was not prepared, we still learned a lot and advanced. Now, educational leaders and politicians need to keep the momentum moving forward. COVID was the wake-up call to America that the way we are preparing teachers is outdated.  

So here is the call to action: Teachers and parents- advocate for distance education teacher training through your state and district. Online education whether it’s pure, blended, hybrid, or hyflex is growing and we need the best education for our children. This is only possible through applying sound theories to teaching methods.

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Distance Education with Theorist Dr. Michael Grahame Moore


·       Lisa Hassler

·       Michael Moore

LH: Welcome to the brighter side of Ed podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Lisa Richardson, hassler here to enlighten and brighten the class classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables, and how can we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I focus on theory as a variable. How can theory affect positive change in education? In 2020, schools closed during the pandemic, and the educational system made an enormous leap forward by using online learning to bridge the distance. However, the educational system was not prepared, and it became painfully obvious as we slipped academically as a nation. Here to discuss theory in education is Dr. Michael Graham Moore. He first defined distance education in his theory of transactional distance in 1972, and then expanded on that in 1997. He was named one of the 128 most important, influential, innovative, and interesting thinkers on education of all time by the Routledge Encyclopedia of Educational Thinkers in 2016. Dr. Moore is internationally recognized for establishing the scholarly study of distance education and for pioneering the practice of teaching online. Welcome to the show, Dr. Moore.

MM: Thank you.

LH: Okay, can you tell us about yourself and explain what is educational theory?

MM: Okay, well, Lisa, about myself very briefly, I held academic positions in Kenya, East Africa, in England and Canada before I came to the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University in 1986. At Penn State, I founded the American Center for Study of Distance Education, where we were experimenting with new forms of teaching online through the late 1980s and 1990s into the new century. I also founded the first American research journal, the American Journal of Distance Education, and I'm still its editor. Now, beginning our 37th year of publication, I worked for a period as education specialist at the World Bank. And then with my own consulting firm, I traveled the world to advise on setting up distance education systems, training trainers and teachers, and evaluating distance education programs. About Theory in everyday speech, when people say I have a theory, they usually mean they have a speculation, hypothesis, suggestion. But a scientific theory is not a suggestion. Scientific theory can be defined as a structured explanation of a set of facts. Now, I like to think of theory as being like a map. A map of a mountain, for example, shows what's known about the landscape and the contours and the rivers, et cetera. But importantly, it also reveals any areas that have not yet been mapped. So old maps used to mark such empty spaces as terra incognito, land unknown. So every theory, like the map, displays what's known, but importantly, it also reveals what is not known. And that's why research depends on theory. You can't add much to human knowledge except through scientific research. And research begins with spotting gaps in knowledge and then looking for data to fill the gap. As editor, I select for publication only those articles in which authors explain how their data relates to theory. That is, how it adds to what's already known. Unfortunately, a lot of people do go out and collect data without looking for those gaps. That data doesn't get reported if it doesn't add to what's already known. So that's roughly the idea.

LH: So what's happening in your life that led you to develop a new educational theory?

MM: Well, I stumbled upon a big gap in knowledge. In 1970, I began to study for a PhD in education at University of Wisconsin in Madison. My background was not that of the average student. I said I'd worked for the newly independent government in Kenya for seven years, and I learned that a very effective way of delivering educational programs to people in the African villages with very primitive roads was using radio. And I also learned to write correspondence courses for training government employees in the newly independent country. So when I began to read for my doctorate in Madison, Wisconsin, I could find no scientific research on that kind of teaching. All the research in education was framed in the assumption that teaching was activity. I'm quoting directly now from a document from the American Curriculum Society, something of that nature. It's a direct quote, and it says teaching was activity which takes place during schooling and within the classroom setting. Teaching is activity that takes place during schooling and within the classroom setting. Well, I'd spent the last seven years teaching that wasn't in a classroom or schooling. And so I set out to fill the gap in the theory by defining that other form of teaching and learning. And in 1972, I published a definition of distance education for the first time. I defined it as the family of instructional methods in which the teaching behaviors are executed apart from the learning behaviors, so that communication between the learner and the teacher is facilitated by print, electronic, mechanical, or other devices. Should there be anyone interested. You can read the Journal of Higher Education back in its 1973, and you'll see all that laid out. So it was seeing the gap and going to work. It took two or three years to do it, but to fill that gap. So that's the story.

LH: And so what is the theory of transactional distance, and how is it important to education?

MM: First, I should explain that the theory wasn't just conjure out of thin airs. It was a deduce from data from my analysis of hundreds of educational programs. I gathered together descriptions of programs delivered by communication technologies such as radio, television, the telephone, and then very early, computer experiments. And I analyzed these to look for what I call the macro factors, the broadest variables that would define the field. And I came up with three sets. And the first of these came from analysis of the content of courses in study guides and programs. And I called that the program structure. The second set of macro factors derived from analysis of interactions between teachers and learners was labeled as dialogue in the program. And the third, based on analysis of the behaviors of students in the programs, described the extent to which they participated in making decisions normally reserved exclusively for teachers. Decisions about what to learn, how to learn, how much to learn. And I called that dimension the learner's autonomy. And I presented a typology of educational programs that showed the whole range that were possible according to those three dimensions. Now, the term transactional distance that was first used in the 1980 Handbook of Adult Education, the concept of transaction comes from John Dewey to quote the authors, the editors of that handbook it connotes the interplay among the environment, the individuals and the patterns of behaviors in a situation. So the transaction and distance education is the interplay of the behaviors of teachers and learners in environments in which they're in separate places and have to communicate through a technology. So it's that separation between learners and teachers that requires the, quote, special patterns of behavior in how content and teaching are organized, that is, their structure and special patterns of behavior and how teachers interact with learners, which is the dialogue. And in both creating the right structure and determining the right form of dialogue. For any specific student, the aim is to build a bridge across what can be conceived as a psychological distance, which is the distance or the gap in what the student understands about a reality and the understanding of that same reality by the persons charged with helping the student in the development of his or her knowledge. Because knowledge is not information. Information isn't knowledge. It's only the student that makes knowledge out of the information which is structured and then processed in a dialogue with the student. So the theory is important to education as a foundation for research and as a change of perspective on curriculum and instruction, and perhaps most important, as the foundation for a more modern, 21st century perspective on how to organize. Resources, human and financial, into a different kind of system from the 19th century school system that we've inherited and into which we're now trying to fit 21st technology. That's the problem that we perhaps can discuss a bit later on.

LH: Yeah, I was interested in our previous conversation when you were talking about the satellites and listening for the sounds of heartbeats from the students at Berkeley. And so you were a pioneer at its very earliest moments with distance education. Can you talk about what was it like to be on that cusp you.

MM: Heard that when still working in Africa and intending to leave? I'm a British citizen. I'd not been in the United States at that time, but meeting American visitors to to Kenya. I was told of a professor in the university Extension in Madison, Wisconsin, that knew of my work and was offering me the possibility of working with him as a researcher. And I had my own private concept that I should proceed into a doctoral degree. As I mentioned before, charles Wettermeyer is really the visionary behind all that we do. When he was mentioned to me, I was told that he was rather unusual.

LH: Shall we say first eccentric.

MM: Eccentric was the word I was trying I was feeling for. Thank you. Eccentric and unusual person. He had crazy ideas. One of his ideas was that one day in the future there would be satellites whizzing around the world and we would be able to connect teachers with students through satellites up in space. That's how crazy this man is. But if you still want to come and work with him, he's interested in having you as his research assistant.

LH: You're like, that's a great idea.

MM: So within a few weeks of being there, but immediately, I was driving with him down to the State Department state office building in Madison, where he was leading a group that were attempting to set up what he called an open school for the state of Wisconsin. The idea being to pool all the resources of the state and develop a system that would support the regular schools and also learning at home and continuing education using the range of technologies available at that time. So this is another story but very important part of our history. And he had also, incidentally, been the adviser to the British government on setting up the British Open University, which is by far the finest example of a distance education in the system, distant education system in the world. He had lived in Great Britain for some time, and I think it was partly the British connection that made me of interest to him. So this is a long, long story. But to get the immediate point of the question, soon after arriving in Madison, he had the visit with him over at a center that they had set up to develop satellite communications engineering school. And they developed an experiment to see if they could transmit an audio program from one part of the United States to the other. The audio program they were testing was the heartbeat of a person in I think it was in Pasadena. It was in California. Anyway. And so I sat as a young researcher with my boss and group of engineers listening and listening and listening, and the engineers were pushing wires and pressing buttons and running around outside and then eventually got it, we got it, we got it. Listen. And it was very exciting. They were excited because they could hear the heartbeats that were coming from California up to the satellite and back down to Madison, Wisconsin. So in terms of technology, that's how primitive it was. The birth of communication technology in education. I don't know how much not a specialist and I haven't looked into it how much was going on in the broader field. But certainly in education we were taking the very, very first steps, I should say, in the technology aspect. Wettermeyer had already thought through a lot of the pedagogical innovation that we're still talking about today. He had in the 1960s obtained a grant to develop an experiment that he called the Articulated Instructional Media Project. And in that he tried out the hypothesis that if you take the process of teaching and break it down into its components, somewhat like Henry Ford took the construction of the automobile and broke it into its parts and then was able to develop automobiles more efficiently. If you do that in education, could you deliver learning programs more efficiently of at least as good a quality? And that worked ran for about three years using a range of technologies. And it was that idea that was picked up by the British when they were wanting to start a new form of they they called it at the time university, the air. And they were thinking about broadcasting radio and television. They pulled Wednesier in and he gave them this systems approach of breaking down process and then having each of the parts of teaching focused upon by a specialist. And we'll probably come to that in our conversation because that's the basic model that we are slowly, slowly moving to. And the faster we move to it, the sooner we'll have better education and more favorable for the taxpayers because our present system is so inefficient and that system delivers high quality at lower prices. So he had that idea back in the 60s that I came in as his research assistant and of course picked up on all that. And indeed I did then go back at one point to Great Britain and work to the British Ope University. So I'm honest, I mean, I did all the stuff. I did all the work you did.

LH: You've been there from its beginning, which is so exciting to see the development and the growth and the changes and how our mindset has shifted to embrace distance education more regularly than we have over the past 20 years. Especially where you've seen it more on the university level, where it's been widely accepted and high school. And now it's coming trickling down into elementary. And of course, with COVID and the school closures, we saw that that was something that we went to. So what are your thoughts then, when we reflect on the COVID school closures and the forced online classrooms, knowing what you know about its birth and how you see it grow and the structures that when put into place, can be done very effectively, and then we all had to go to that as a nation. What are your thoughts about that?

MM: With the pandemic, the whole world was forced to look for alternatives to the traditional classroom and the whole world and I get articles from all over the world, everywhere they attempted to provide some kind of distance education. Well, it was distance education of a kind because learners and teachers were in different places, so that fits the definition. But unfortunately, what we learned from this is what I could have told them, is how unprepared our teachers and our teaching systems were to properly engage 21st century technology. Because most of the people who began to teach online had no knowledge about distance education theory or how to practice distance education. They simply went online and tried to teach the way they teach in the classroom. Understandably? What else could you do? Our colleges still do not teach distance education, with very few exceptions. They'll teach how to use the computer, how to use zoom, but they don't focus on those variables of design and dialogue and engagement of the learner according to their capacity for self management or autonomy. Teachers, they have not been trained to facilitate the dialogue for good quality, distant education. They've not been trained to structure their lessons for delivery by media. And because all their training and experience is fixated on the class, that is, on groups of learners rather than individuals. If we go back to 100 years correspondence teaching, that is, teaching people at a distance through the mail, it was always regarded as a tutorial. It's one to one. It's a tutorial approach. Our traditional education is all a class approach. So the teacher approaches the students as a body, as if they're all thinking in the same direction or same stage of development and so on, which of course is ridiculous. Training is all fixated on the class. And so they were poorly prepared to engage a different approach. And so unfortunately, it meant that it was not a good experience for many teachers and students. Most of them couldn't wait to get back to face to face teaching in the classroom. It was quite hurtful for me with my love and life in distance education because I'm hearing I'm seeing people on television saying what bad experience they're having and whether they want to get back to the real thing. And I know that the real thing isn't as good as what we could be doing, but we're not doing it right. It was a kind of bitter sweet, and still is. I'm getting articles every day with COVID usually in the title. And I should add that theory only received a small boost from academic research because most of the education students and professors are also unprepared for distance education. So they frame their research questions in terms of classroom education. And the question is typically, how can online emulate the classroom? But that really is not going at it the right way. I recall I'd mention this sometimes in class back in the 18 hundreds when the automobile was first invented, they used to have a person walking in front of the automobile with a red flag so that the automobile wouldn't frighten the horses. That's a little bit of where we are. We're trying to put the automobile of the technology into the classroom, and we're trying not to frighten the horses. I got lost in that metaphor.

LH: No. Yes. You're combining two things that they're not the same, and so we can't be applying the same strategies and methods when they're not applicable. And I think you're going to then have a disastrous outcome because you're not using what is intended for in that modality. And I think that we get lost in that sometimes because we're so fixated as classroom teachers to be using distance education in the online platform for classroom, as we were trained in our teacher education programs for face to face theory and strategies and methodologies, and that's not truly applicable.

MM: Let me jump in and add I think I'm beginning to sound like a grouchy old man here, which I am. But I do think I am hopeful. I'm really hopeful because this exposure, the fact that we're having this conversation, it might not have happened before COVID this exposure to using the question of how do we use the technology in our classrooms? And more broadly, the fact that it's so high on the agenda now is a really good thing, and perhaps the majority of people will only slowly get there. It's the old Rogers adoption diffusion theory. At first, only a few innovators will experiment, and then more people will follow, and then the majority will follow. And I do think we are in, and I hope we're in the early stages of really important innovation that the COVID brought people to look at the technology and education and say, how can we use it? Most of it was used not very well, used poorly. But the fact that the question is being asked has to be a really encouraging phenomenon. And I think more educators will study distance education, will look for the literature. There's not a lot of published textbooks, for example. But I think we can be hopeful from that experience, even though the experience itself wasn't all we would like it to be.

LH: Well, I think that that's true. And so now, if a teacher is interested in well, does not have a background in distance education, but learns the theory based on what they read, and they try to apply that theory of transactional distance to their online class that they have. Now, are you hopeful that knowing those three clusters of dialogue structure and learner autonomy, those facets will help improve their online course, if nothing else, if that's all that they know, Are you hopeful that the knowledge of theory will be helpful?

MM: I pause because I don't think there isn't a direct one to one connection relationship between therium practice. I would expect that improved outcomes would follow from the self awareness, perhaps from the awareness that the structure requires attention and the nature of the dialogue and the management of the student self management. I'm fumbling here because I'm starting to think about how we treat our own health condition. Our own health, yes. The theory says that I really should have gone to the treadmill this morning so knowing that maybe tomorrow I actually will go. There must be a space there between the awareness and the applications. Probably the gap needs to be filled by training, by fairly close study and training. It won't be a short term and direct relationship awareness would lead to some improvement, I expect.

LH: Yeah, I think reading about the theory and understanding it, knowing it's out there, I think right now, a lot of teachers have not been trained in distance educational theory. And so knowing that there are theories that can be applied to online classes could be a helpful resource for them to know that there are different ways to organize and to use those methods or strategies to be able to help improve student engagement and with organization of their classroom. Even just as a resource to be able to go to to say oh, okay, there is some structure and some organization to how this can be done better. Instead of what we were handed, which was here is a platform and now go teach, and now you have these students and there was no background knowledge. And so I think that having a little bit of a roadmap is a helpful guide for teachers and that they were looking for something as a help. And now we have blended classrooms, hybrid classrooms, high flex. This new word I've learned over the last couple of weeks, which are all of these mixtures of online and face to face where a teacher is being, in my view, torn between two different places, whether it's on the online platform or it's in the face to face classroom. And that could be very challenging. But then knowing the theory can be helpful when you know how to structure, how to organize the content and how to deliver it. That's a very big challenge that teachers were facing and could be still to this day. I know a lot of them have gone to that platform and definitely over the last two years, which is something that I was doing with second grade. And while it was a challenge, I did see its benefits. And I know that for me, using your theory of transactional distance was extremely helpful to me. And I was able to pass that on to my colleagues as a resource for them to understand how we should be organizing and developing our platform and our content better for student engagement and for better student outcomes. So that was helpful for me. But there are teachers that are teaching online right now that may possibly not have any educational background for distance education. Do you have any advice for those teachers who are being put in the position where they are supposed to be teaching online but they do not have a distance education background. Is there any advice that you could give them?

MM: Yes, I'll take a shot at it. Before we finish I hope we'll get a chance to address my wish to advocate for change in the system. I often say, and I'll say here the problems we're facing are not to do with technology. A lot of people write articles and send me the question they address is to do with the application of a technology. But technology is not an easy challenge, relatively easy challenge to deal with, not even pedagogy. Because through our conversation we're indicating that we have a pedagogy of distance education. We know how to do it. Our bigger problem is the organization of our institutions which don't really allow for optimum use or optimum practice of the pedagogy using the technologies we have. And ultimately the problem is a policy or political problem because our organizations aren't resourced in order to use the pedagogy that we know using the technologies we have. So that is my perspective before I address the person for whom I have such sympathy, who is within this system, who's told go and teach online, she or he does the best they can. And when I was asked this the other day, I came up with what I called some Crip Notes for Teaching, I think the title was I put it in the American Journal as an editorial the Covered Crisis crib Notes for Teaching Online. So in answer to your question within the system we've got, which is not the system I want to see in the future, but in the system we've got, I would say as follows firstly, in the classroom it's effective very often to rely on spontaneity and improvisation but this is very risky online. I think the idea of the structure is really important. A successful online course depends on having a solid structure and what that means is and I've been hammering away at this as a consultant around the world for years and it's like telling people to eat their oatmeal. It's objectives, learning objectives. I'm only talking about what teachers all know but you've got to practice good hygiene. You've got to have your lesson based on knowing specifying clearly what are the outcomes that are expected from that lesson, the beginning and I think time management is very important. You have to plan the lesson as a series of chunks of time. For most students a sensible chunk of time is about 15 minutes or so but you have your own experience on that. But the lesson has to be planned in chunks of time and the beginning of each chunk of time you have to know what is expected by the end of that. And with more mature students, certainly you can tell the students what they should be able to do at the end of that period. These are the learning objectives. You all know it. If you don't know Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy back from the absolutely should know it. Many university professors don't, because university professors, of course, don't know how to teach. They don't be trained to teach. But each objective should have a specific outcome and it will tell you if the objective is achieved. And then resources have to be selected according to achieve the objectives. There'll be recorded materials or your own presentation recorded materials. Time has to be spent on curating the video and audio resources, the online documents that are going to be used so that every resource contributes directly to the achievement of the learning objectives. But as I'm talking, the idea of the structure becomes really important through the technology. There isn't room for loose meandering and wandering. It's really got to be tightly programmed, if you like. Saying that reminds me the metaphor, the comparison when the film camera was first introduced, they took the camera before modern cinema. They took the camera into the theater and they filmed the action on the stage until very quickly, I think they realized that what you see through the camera is a very different experience from what you experience when you're sitting in the live theater. The movie is very tightly structured, constructed and structured quite different from the experience on the stage. So then I say there's no place in the lesson for social or aimless chat. That's not to say there cannot be a dialogue between the students, but it's a designed dialogue. It's dialogue that follows the question, the question which is derived from the objective, what is expected in that piece of teaching? So tasks can be set for the students to reach an objective through discussion or through team projects, but no aimless chat, especially if it's in a zoom like environment. People will just get lost and discouraged. And then finally, there has to be the evaluation task that wraps up each chunk of lesson time. It can be five minutes of a 15 minutes chunk or whatever. I worked in Brazil with a project with 27,000 teachers training 27,000 teachers. And I insisted that the the core of the whole project had to be focused on the evaluation. These people were in villages all over that huge country, teachers in practicing schools, in service, on the job training. And I used to say that we should be able to tell if in any one school the teachers were not achieving the learning objectives. We should be able to tell if in any one state they were not achieving the objectives and in one school they're not achieving the objectives. Then we intervene and do some extra training in that school. But if across the whole system people are not achieving one of the objectives, then we have to change the objective or change the technology we're using for communicating on that objective. But you have to have very effective evaluation in order to know if your objective is wrong and needs changing or. If the technology you're using is wrong and needs changing, or possibly the evaluation criteria need changing. So these are, I think, every school teacher, unfortunately not every university teacher. Every school teacher who's been through a teacher training program probably knows the importance of the learning objectives, the selection of the technologies, and the procedures to match up each learning objective and the importance of the evaluation. But it's that simple structure that will determine the program that's more successful or less successful. Now, in fact, ultimately, I think every teacher should have specialist support in each of those activities, should have specialist support in designing designing objectives, specialist support in the communication through the range of audio and video technologies, and specialist support in the evaluation process. It's too much to ask the one person to do all that optimally alone and the person in the next room doing the same thing alone, and the person in the next room doing the same thing alone.

LH: Right. And specialist support would allow the continuity between those different what feels like isolated islands where every teacher is on its own little island and you're in a silo kind of a factory. You don't really know what's going on in your neighbor's classroom, and so you're going to continue to perpetuate what you believe is correct or good strategy. And so having someone that can see all of them will be able to allow that continuity and higher excellence. So I think that's a good idea to have those specialists. All right. Excellent. Okay, so well, thank you for that. That was fascinating and definitely wonderful advice that goes back to your three clusters. Theory affects positive change in education because it uses scholarly study and research to describe what we know works. The theory of transactional distance is not new, only the full and sudden emergence of America's classrooms online in 2020. As a nation, we took a huge leap forward teaching from online platforms. And while it felt painful because the educational system was not prepared, we still learned a lot and advanced. Now educational leaders and politicians need to keep the momentum moving forward. COVID was the wake up call to America that the way we are preparing teachers is outdated. So here is the call to action. Teachers and parents advocate for distance education. Teacher training through your state and district. Online education, whether it's pure, blended, hybrid, or high flex, is growing, and we need the best education for our children. This is only possible through applying sound theories to teaching methods. Thank you, Dr. Moore, for joining me today to talk about the importance of theory in education and its impact on student outcomes. If you have a story about what's working in your schools that you would like to share, you can email me at or visit my website at and send me a message. It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good and education so that it spreads affecting positive change in schools. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our students'success.