Charles Wedemeyer (1981) rooted his Theory of Independent Study in the ideal of learner freedom. Wedemeyer characterized independent study as one in which:
- The student and teacher are separated.
- The normal processes of teaching and learning are carried out in writing or through some other medium.
- Teaching is individualized.
- Learning takes place through the student’s activity.
- Learning is made convenient for the student in his or her own environment,
- The learner takes responsibility for the pace of his or her own progress, with freedom to start and stop at any time (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, p. 44).
Does Wedemeyer’s construct meet the criteria of a theory of distance learning? Based on my examination of relevant literature I believe it does. Effective theory guides our practice and renders instruction more effective for the learner (Saba, 2009). If I use Wedemeyer’s ideals as guidance, I will design instruction that is individualized, fosters learner autonomy, and provides appropriate support (teaching), all of which may make the instruction more effective for the learner.
Garrison (2000) categorized theory as something that “will explain and anticipate distance education practices for a broad range of emerging educational purposes and experiences” (Garrison, 2000). Wedemeyer’s theory is fluid enough to have informed what was current practice at the time as well as inform current practice today. Wedemeyer’s contribution to the Articulated Instructional Media (AIM) project in 1964 demonstrated his theory in practice and the value of it to both explain and anticipate emergent educational imperatives: “it was proposed that a unique system be developed for a new type of institution . . . made possible through course design utilizing media and technology and . . . supported by counseling and resource and learning centres” (Sherow & Wedemeyer, 1990, p. 18).
Is Wedemeyer’s theory relevant to distance learning today? My research review suggests that it is. His theory comprises four elements of distance learning: teacher, learner or learners, method of communication, and instructional content (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012), which closely resembles a currently accepted definition of distance education: “institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors” (Schlosser & Simonson, 2009, p. 1).
Although he emphasized the importance of learner autonomy and self-responsibility, Wedemeyer also stressed the unique and important role of the teacher in distance learning (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). This distinguishes his theory from one of distance self-study and demonstrates relevance for instructional design today, as the preponderance of evidence underscores the importance of a teaching presence in distance learning (Swan & Shih, 2005; Meyer, 2003; Wu & Hiltz, 2004), and Garrison (2007) asserts a causal relationship between teaching presence and “ student satisfaction, perceived learning, and sense of community” (Garrison, 2007, p. 67).
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