Distance Learning Evaluation: Final Report 1994 - 1995; Dutchess County, New York

June 1, 1996

Dutchess County schools implemented a distance learning (DL) program beginning in the fall of 1992. The project, called Infinet 2000, was organized by the Dutchess County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and has initially included at least one high school in twelve of the thirteen school districts, including the BOCES Education and Training Academy (BETA) which serves students county-wide. These school districts contracted with NYNEX to provide the technological backbone, classroom technologies, and technical support for the project. Each participating school has one distance learning classroom, which connects them to a network providing twoway video and audio interaction with the other schools. A number of classes have been conducted over the network in each semester of its operation, involving a variety of teachers and students.

The Center for Children and Technology of the Education Development Center and Access to Learning conducted research and an evaluation of the distance learning project in Dutchess County.

During the 1993-94 school year, we created and tested measurement instruments and collected background data about the project. Full data collection took place throughout the 1994-95 school year. Our findings from these data are summarized in this report. Detailed information about each of the instruments and measurement tools is available in the Appendix.

We summarize here the findings of the studies:

  1. Distance learning was seen as an important innovation by administrators, teachers and students alike. Its purpose was seen by administrators and teachers primarily to be expanding the content available to students throughout the county (e.g. oceanography), and replacing some of the courses that have been lost because of budget cuts. For example, smaller schools were unable to offer some Advanced Placement or advanced language courses without distance learning. Many were also interested in expanding the social world of their students, expressing concern about the geographical isolation of students. They envisioned distance learning as a means for students to learn about and establish relationships with teachers and students outside of their immediate geographical region. Most administrators and teachers also consider distance learning to be an important part of the future of education, as do a number of students. Many teachers are also interested in distance learning as a way to expand their professional expertise.
  2. The distance learning project has been successful overall in relation to the central goals of administrators and teachers: a range of classes has been conducted, adding new course content and restoring some courses that had been eliminated. Basic logistics have been worked out, although persistent problems of scheduling across schools and planning remain a challenge. The need for continuing resolution, attention, and coordination at a system-wide level somewhat contradicts a current trend in education to devolve decision making to individual schools. A continuing commitment to partnership across institutions is needed if DL is to succeed within the public education system. Even more commitment is needed if outside institutions are involved (e.g. colleges, museums, cultural institutions and so forth). The partnership must patiently and flexibly resolve conflicting institutional cultural issues, including scheduling, performance expectations, supervision of teachers, grading and credit.
  3. The technology was remarkably free of problems. Administrators, teachers and students all reported that the technology was very reliable. This was confirmed by our systematic classroom observations. The few problems that did occur usually involved audio issues, and were quickly remedied. When asked about desired improvements, in addition to sound, teachers and students also requested improvements in visual acuity (e.g. larger, sharper monitors). This may be related to their desire for improved relationships across sites (see #7 below). The document camera was overwhelmingly the most frequently used technology in the room; teachers want more training to better incorporate the other media and communications technologies. Many students want more responsibility for operating the various technologies.
  4. The pedagogy in the distance learning classes was not notably different from that of traditional high school classes. This was reported by teachers and students and confirmed by observational analyses. Classes were dominated by teachers' lectures or exposition, and exercises and assignments were similar to those in traditional classes. The distance learning implementation was therefore not being used overall to explore or change the nature of teaching or pedagogy. Relatively few students or teachers thought that the classes were too lectureoriented, and few wanted notable pedagogical changes such as longer class periods, or more off-camera discussions. The biggest pedagogical concern was about the lack of science labs in distance learning classes.
  5. Students' achievement in distance learning classes was not substantially better or worse overall when students' numerical grades in each DL class were compared with each student's cumulative average, or when compared to those of students in a traditional class. In some classes students did notably better, in some worse, and in some their performance was comparable to their average performance. There was no overall trend toward better or worse performance across DL classes when examined for the effect of the technology alone. Likewise, students' performances in Advanced Placement DL classes were comparable to state and national norms for three classes. Students' AP scores were substantially better for one course, comparable for a second, and substantially worse for a third. For the three classes where there was sufficient data, we examined student attendance compared to overall school attendance. Attendance was better for two of the classes, and no different for the third.
  6. We were interested in how DL classes compare with traditional classes in terms of amount and type of interaction. Systematic observational analyses from a larger number of classes indicate that participation by both teachers and students (talking, lecturing, asking and answering questions) is very similar for DL and traditional classes, with the exception that there is a trend toward shorter turns for students in DL compared with non-DL classes. Variations in the frequency and duration of classroom interactions was due more to the type of course (e.g. foreign language, biology), and the particular teacher, than to the technology by itself. Very little off-task activity was observed in any of the classes. However, a particular striking finding from the interaction analysis is how little students actively participate in either the DL or regular classes.
  7. We discovered that in DL classes, in-class interaction is only a part of the overall category of relationship, which is very important to both teachers and students. Expansion of the social world of students was a prominent goal for the project. Adults and students were not notably concerned about the character of in-class interaction; in DL classes, it reflected what they were used to in school. However, they were concerned about the difficulties of establishing real personal relationships, and feeling like "one class". It appears that relationship gets established in part by the things that go on outside of class as much as by those in class - encountering each other in the halls and lunch room, informal exchanges in the borders around class periods, being in each others' physical company. Many of the suggested improvements in DL by both teachers and students concern the establishment of relationships across distances.
  8. For the most part, teachers volunteer for DL classes, within the constraints of the course needs defined by the project. Teachers are given basic training on the system, but they both want and need more advanced professional development and on-going support.
  9. Students choose to participate in DL primarily because they want to take the subject that is offered. Relatively few were recruited by teachers or guidance counselors. There is an overall perception that students tend to be advanced, motivated students because of the nature of courses offered. Likewise, teachers tend to believe that self-discipline and focus are needed to do well in DL. Administrators, differing somewhat from teachers, tend to think that DL is also good for special needs students, allowing them to be included in classes with "regular" students that they ordinarily could not take. The inclusion of special needs students in a few classes had mixed results. Class requirements were different from what they were used to (pace, lack of personal tailoring of content); some students responded well, although there was a high drop-out rate of the special needs students from the observed classes.

It takes a long time to develop, implement, refine and stabilize an innovation in education. Research over the last decade suggests that 3 to 5 years is generally required for substantial technology-enhanced innovation. It is also essential to continue to monitor and refine the implementation as both the technology, and the education goals and context change. At this point, distance learning in Dutchess County is still young.

Based on the research, we recommend that the following issues be considered as the project is refined. They are discussed at greater length in this report:

  1. Strengthen the system-wide partnerships needed for the project to be sustained in the long term, paying special attention to the problems that appear to be recurring. Review of project structure is likely needed as it moves from implementation to stabilization.
  2. Issues of establishing relationships across distances are of primary concern to teachers and students. These need to be addressed, likely through a combination of strategies for getting classes together physically on occasion, and by experiments with the technology.
  3. Encourage experiments in innovative format and pedagogy, especially those linked to other desired changes in teaching and learning (e.g. portfolio assessment), and to things the technology does well.
  4. Consider carefully the evidence of the low level of student interaction in the classes.
  5. Enhance professional development for distance learning, going beyond the basics of operation to more advanced support for instructional and curriculum strategies, integration of the supplementary technologies, and including experiments in innovative pedagogy.
  6. The technology functioned very well, but consider refinements to the visual components of the system, especially those that may strengthen perceptions of "relationship". Consider greater roles for students in the operation of the classes and the network.
  7. Consider strategies for broadening student participation, including the kinds of courses offered and the adjustments that may be needed to help them to succeed.


Terry Baker
Julie Thompson Keane
Clareann Grimaldi
Pat Dyer
Jan Hawkins