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Editor’s Note
: Glenn Russell examines psychological aspects of teaching and learning at a distance. He senses an ethical dilemma of which we need to be aware and concerned. If we are aware of potential hazards – like the “distancing effect” – we can be proactive in countering them. In studies of distance learning, lack of “face-to-face” communication is a major concern. Interactive technologies do not adequately compensate for timely in-person communication.

In an attempt to compensate for the distancing effect, well designed courses combine dialog and peer learning with individual and group activities through conferences, study groups, threaded discussion, chat, netmeeting, and email. For many students, distance learning is their only access to higher education or specialized training. Others choose distance learning for flexibility in schedule, reduced travel, and ability to fit education into their everyday lives with minimal disruption to personal and professional responsibilities. Glenn Russell provides a detailed analysis and discusses ways instructional design, teachers, and students can minimize the “distancing effect” in online learning.

The Distancing Dilemma in Distance Education

Glenn Russell


The continued movement from face-to-face teaching modes to online education constitutes a dilemma for educators. Indications from communications research and philosophy suggest the existence of a distancing effect, whereby students who are separated in time and place by mediating technologies may have reduced empathy for the well-being of others. Distancing effects have an ethical dimension, because they are associated with a choice between teaching alternatives, and their consequent benefits of disadvantages for students. This paper argues that there is an ethical problem facing educators that is not always recognized.  However, awareness of these concerns will enable distancing effects to be reduced, and suggestions are offered to assist in this process.

The existence of a distancing effect

Distancing can be understood as a separation in time or space that reduces the empathy that a person may have for the suffering of others.  It is a concept that has been discussed in philosophy and literature as well as in more recent communications research, and the earliest discussions of it predate computers.  Ginsberg (1994) cites examples from Aristotle and Diderot. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle observes that

 ...it is when suffering seems near to them that men pity; as for disasters that are ten thousand years off in the past or the future, men cannot anticipate them, and either feel no pity at all for them, or at all events feel it in no comparable measure
(Cooper, p. 122, Book 2, section 2.8)

It was a concern that also attracted the attention of Diderot (1993) in the Eighteenth Century. In Conversation of a Father with His Children, he writes:

We agreed that perhaps distance in space or time weakened all feelings and all sorts of guilty conscience, even of crime. The assassin, removed to the shores of China, can no longer see the corpse which he left bleeding on the banks of the Seine (p. 143).

Similarly, Graham Greene's (1974) novel The Third Man, (which also became a classic film), shows the protagonist Harry Lime as amoral when he considers the lives of the people who appear in a "toy landscape" (p.120) at the bottom of the Ferris Wheel in Vienna.

Arguably, when computers or other forms of electronic media mediate human experiences, a similar process operates because the immediacy or richness of the communication is reduced by the technology.  In the research literature, there are several related theories to support an argument for the existence of technology-related distancing, including moral distancing, psychological distancing, media richness, and psychological propinquity.

Rubin (1996) argues that technology increases the propensity for unethical conduct by creating a moral distance between an act and the moral responsibility for it This position, known as the Moral Distancing Hypothesis, draws on earlier pre-Internet theories such as Wellen's (1986) Psychological Distancing Model. For Wellens, immediacy was related to the number of information channels, in that the reduction of telecommunication bandwidth leads to a progressive decrease in sensory modalities as one moves from face to face to videophone, telephone, and written forms of communication.  The implications of this theory is that the movement from face-to-face teaching to online applications risks both a reduction in "sensory modalities" and the inability of teachers to appreciate how their students' behaviour will be affected by computer-mediated alternatives.

Media or information richness theory argues that learning is constrained by the characteristics of the communications channel, and, as Dede (1991) suggests, the wider the bandwidth of a communications medium, the more immediate and rich a learning experience can be. For Walther, (1992) bandwidth and the number of available cues is related to whether an available channel can be considered lean or rich.  Hence, for Walther, CMC (Computer-mediated communication) is seen as a lean channel while videoconferencing is seen as moderately rich.  Daft and Lengel (1984, 1986) had earlier posited a hierarchy of information richness based on the potential information-carrying capacity of the data, and they classified information mediums available at that time in order from highest to lowest.  These were seen as face-to-face, telephone, written personal (letters, memos), written formal (bulletins, documents), and numeric format (computer output).  Face-to-face communication was seen as the richest form of information processing because it provides immediate feedback. The presence of multiple cues was also seen as important.

Much of the media richness theory predates the ready availability of some contemporary communication modes that are now in common use. In particular, learners often have the use of subjects that are delivered or supported by the World Wide Web.  Increasingly, these contain elements such as sound, animation, and movies, in addition to text.  Other web-based technologies, including video conferencing and electronic whiteboards have also been used.  A revised hierarchy of media richness for online education is suggested in Figure 1.


Media type


Web page text + graphics + sound + motion


Web page text + graphics + sound


Web page text + graphics


Web page text or text-only email

Figure 1:  A hierarchy of media richness for online education

This hierarchy progressively adds sensory modalities to the students' experiences, commencing from text-based materials at the bottom of the figure.  Although it is likely that distancing effects are reduced as information richness increases, the converse is also true. Progression through the levels from the top to the bottom may be accompanied by experiential impoverishment as the available information, feedback and cues diminish.

The significance of the hierarchy in Figure 1 is that the richest online learning experiences (in terms of bandwidth) are unlikely to match those provided by traditional face-to-face teaching.  As Palmer (1995) observes, face-to-face contact between people is seen as the ideal. 

Face-to-face communication would appear to remain the idealized form of interpersonal communication, embodying all the features that humans developed to facilitate the rapid, explicit, and implicit negotiation of relational information (p. 286)

Korzenny and Bauer (1981) provide a useful perspective on this phenomenon.  This interpretation of communication theory has been referred to as psychological or electronic propinquity and it refers to the degree to which members of an organisation experience communication satisfaction. Factors including bandwidth, complexity of information, feedback, level of communication skills, and level of communication rules as the main contributors contributed to propinquity.  Bandwidth was defined as "the information transmission capacity of the available sensory channels (visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory) for vocal and nonvocal, and verbal and non-verbal communication" (p. 481). Thus, face-to face conferences have all five channels available for communication and were defined as having a wide bandwidth; video conferences have only two channels (visual and auditory) available and were defined as having medium bandwidth, while audio only conferences have only one channel available and were defined as having a narrow bandwidth

Thus, it is possible that online education can disadvantage students, in comparison with traditional face-to-face teaching.  The use of narrow bandwidth learning modes can cause problems unless an allowance is made.  As Korzenny and Bauer argue,

almost all of us would agree that a blind person is handicapped in his/her ability to receive certain types of information, although in time the person may learn to compensate for the loss of the visual channel (1981, p. 493).

Social and relational cues and distancing

Research that is more recent has concentrated on the ways in which online settings tend to filter out social and relational cues. Parks (1996) maintains that those cues emanating from the physical setting are missing in online contexts, as are nonverbal cues regarding vocal qualities, bodily movement, facial expressions, and physical appearance. The reduction in contextual, visual, and aural cues should cause communication in on-line settings to be more impersonal and non-conforming than their face-to-face counterparts. This lack of cues associated with virtual environments is seen by Sheehy and Gallagher (1996) as "an impoverished communications medium" (p. 160), and for Wegerif (1998), the lack of instant feedback can be isolating and unsupportive.

The lack of cues is likely to be most acute when text-only email or web pages are used, as the hierarchy in Figure 1 suggested earlier.  Cues relating to social differences such as age, beauty, race, gender, and status are not readily apparent in many emails unless they are specifically referred to. This does not mean that emotion cannot be expressed through email. As with the nuances of printed text through the ages, email is able to use the full range of the written language to express meaning and attitudes.  However, as Nie (2001) explains, expected affective behaviour between people relies on means other than words on a computer screen:

Face-to-face and even telephone communication among colleagues, friends, and families are often about matters of affect. It is not that empathy, tenderness, reassurance, flirtation, sadness, or happiness cannot be written into email. Rather, eye contact, body language, facial expressions, vocalization, hugs, pats on the back cries, embraces, kisses and giggles are the fundamentals of our evolutionary socio-emotional well-being (p. 432)

Email limitations are important when considering the question of distancing in online education because, as Cummings and Sayers (1995) note, it is asynchronous.  It does not occur in "real time", and can be valuable to students because it allows for flexible access and time for reflection. It shares a number of the attributes of CMC. As Zellholler, Collins, and Berge (1998) suggest, these include a lack of geographic, temporal, and time-related barriers. It is likely, then, that email will continue to be both popular with educators and students, and associated with the effects of distancing. In contrast, Schneider, Kerwin, Frechtling and Vivari (2002), suggest that video conferencing tends to convey the immediacy of face-to-face conversation.  Rich media of this type may come closest to making people feel as though they are in each other's company, but although video conferencing has greater bandwidth, it is less flexible.  The synchronous nature of video conferencing means that in many cases, individual or small-group conferencing sessions would have to be replicated several times for a group of learners to obtain the same information, and there is, in addition, a need to schedule sessions at agreed times. Consequently, synchronous communication modes are unlikely to be as popular as asynchronous, and distancing effects are likely to remain a serious problem.

Measuring the Distance Effect

If the use of online technologies were widely believed to contribute to learners' lack of empathy, a strong research trend would be expected involving the identification of its nature and extent, and comparisons between online and face-to-face learning would be able to describe the results.  However, there is little research in this area, because there is a focus on areas such as the achievement of cognitive objectives and learner satisfaction. Inglis (2001) argues that while online teaching is suitable for transmitting knowledge, it struggles to address the Affective Domain.  Evidence for this view can be found in the choice of subject matter reported in comparative studies. For example, Johnson, Aragon, Shaik and Palma-Rivas (2000), observed that online and face-to-face projects were not seen as significantly different in quality when marked, while Sumner and Hostetler (2002) compared computer conferencing and face-to-face communications, and concluded that evaluative tasks were more effective in computer conferencing. Baker, Hale, and Gifford (1997) summarise existing CMI research, and report that CMI is characterised by improved learner effectiveness, learner efficiency, greater learner engagement, and enhanced learner interest.

Two explanations can be suggested to explain why there have been few attempts to measure distancing effects in online learning.  First, although it would be possible to administer tests involving scales of empathy and tolerance to both online and face-to-face groups, it would be difficult to control for the variables that would inevitably arise outside controlled clinical groups. Scales for measuring attitudes already exist. Bogardus (1936) described methods of measuring opinions and attitudes many years before online computing emerged. However, if a user's attitude is measured after completing an online module, conclusions from the resulting data are unlikely to discriminate between competing influences such as family, peers, friends, organizations, and other electronic media. It is not surprising that Rice (1993) should observe, "there is still very little empirical validation of the media richness construct" (p. 481)  

Second, distance education can be offered by institutions because of profit rather than pedagogy.  Increased market share rather than teaching quality can drive decisions. This is not an approach that has recently emerged, or is restricted to online education.  Marcuse (1998), commented that technology was an instrument for control and domination, and cited Lewis Mumford, who wrote as early as 1936 in Technics and Civilization that the aim of many of the primary inventions was not technical efficiency, but business, or power over other men.

Ethical Problems and Distancing.

Educators are constantly faced with ethical choices. With distance education, there is a need to weigh alternatives in the teaching practices used, to ensure that the choices made will be of most benefit to students, and that harm is minimized. The responsibility for these choices is accompanied by the responsibility for their consequences.  Implementing an online pedagogy can cause harm by reducing the empathy that one person should feel for another in a civilized community.  Ethical decisions are however rarely uncomplicated, and the disadvantage caused by distancing must be balanced against the benefits or disadvantages to the student, who might be unable to complete the relevant course of study if it were not offered in an online mode.

There are examples outside education where employees have not acted responsibly, and this has resulted in very serious consequences.  These have included defective vehicles (De George, 1991), surgeons who violate the aseptic conditions of operating room (Muskins, 1991), and radiation machines that deliver fatal doses of radiation (Collins and Miller, 1994). In these cases, the cause and effect is empirically verifiable, and it is reasonable to hold the employees involved accountable for their actions. However, in comparison, it is difficult or even impossible to identify or measure the distancing effect that might arise from the use of online education. One of the commonly held principles of accountability is that a person must know that their actions or negligence can cause harm (Weckert and Adeney, 1997). Without the knowledge or belief that a distancing effect exists and is likely to result in harm, it would be unreasonable to blame educators for the consequences.

Reducing Distancing Problems in Online Education.

It is likely that distancing effects in online education do exist, although their measurement is likely to remain problematic. If this is the case, it would be prudent for educators to reduce these effects.  The steps that might be taken to accomplish this include:

  1. Increasing the amount of face-to face interaction.  This may be with the teacher, or may involve others such as family, peers, or community support groups.

  2. A preference for high bandwidth solutions.  The use of desktop video conferencing and streaming video would be a useful supplement to an online course that relied heavily on email

  3. The design and implementation of procedures to reduce isolation and enhance interaction. This could include personal contact with staff, easy administration, the provision of counseling, or availability of resources.

  4. The identification of any affective objectives or community norms that the institution supports.  The emphasis on easily measured cognitive objectives may be at the expense of values, attitudes, and beliefs.

  5. Consideration of the most appropriate form of online education for each student. Factors such as the ability to work independently, or readiness to interact with technology should be taken into account

  6. Recognition that all decisions to use one technology or pedagogy rather than another are ethical decisions.  There is a continuing responsibility for students' welfare, to the extent that the teacher is under an obligation not to knowingly implement any practice that will cause harm


The possibility that online education will result in a distancing effect, in which students becoming less sensitive to the needs of others, raises important questions about ethical problems confronting educators. The consequences of choosing between different pedagogical alternatives include not only a consideration of how effectively objectives may be achieved, but also a balancing of the resulting good or harm

Pedagogical choices in distance education can result in unanticipated and even unwelcome consequences. This observation is also true of other technologies, and it is illustrated by an historical anecdote. In the early twentieth century, steel axes replaced stone axes in two traditional societies.  The consequences for this introduction on the Yir Yiront, a group of Australian aborigines, are related by Sharp (1952), while Connolly and Anderson (1987) describe the effect on the native men and women of the New Guinea Highlands.  Artifacts that were introduced for trade or utility caused serious disruption to customary beliefs and practices in each case

Online education is a very different technology from that of steel axes. Nevertheless, it is still appropriate to observe that in both cases, ethical dilemmas can arise that require further study.  Proposals to identify or measure distancing effects, the identification of hierarchies of information richness, and suggestions to reduce the extent of ethical dilemmas arising from distance education may be the start of this process.


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Affective domain – The study of values

Asynchronous communication – Communication that is not in real time

Community norms – Community expectations of behavior

Distancing effect – A reduction in empathy for the well-being of others through online technologies

Ethical dilemmas – Choices facing educators involving a balancing of good or harm

Face-to-face teaching – An experiential teaching mode involving the physical presence of teachers and learners

Information richness – A theory or hierarchy of information richness based on the potential information carrying capacity of the data

Media richness – The characteristics of the communication channel for constraining or enhancing learning

Moral distancing – The tendency for technology to increase the propensity for unethical conduct by creating a moral distance between an act and the moral distance for it

Psychological distancing – The reduction in telecommunication bandwidth leading to decreased sensory modalities

Psychological propinquity – The degree to which members of an organization experience communication satisfaction

Social and relational cues – Cues characteristic of face-to-face and online environments

About the Author

Glenn Russell completed his B.A and M.Ed Studies at Monash University, before completing his Ph.D at Griffith University. He has taught in schools for twenty years, and for more than ten years has been a lecturer in Information and Communications Technology in Education. His research interests and extensive publications include education and cyberspace, schooling futures and online computers, hypertext, and virtual schools.

He currently lectures at Monash University.

Further details about his work are available from his web page at Monash University. 
Email contact is welcome at glenn.russell@education.monash.edu.au.


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