ads or Trends? Distance Education and Critical Thinking   
American society has seen its share of "in-again" and "out-again" 
fads. Baby Boomer educators are going through feelings of déjà 
vu as they encounter students fashioning the bell bottom pants, 
tie-dyed shirts, and peace sign necklaces similar to what educators 
themselves wore in school. Educators have also seen their fill of 
pedagogical trends implemented in the classroom. This issue of 
Academic Exchange Quarterly (AEQ) is a collection focused on two 
educational trends: distance education and critical thinking teaching. 
Distance learning, especially on-line education, which is the 
emphasis of this issue, is a growing trend that is greatly 
reorganizing the presentation styles of kindergarten through 
college educators. Teaching for critical thinking is an old 
pedagogical strategy that goes through cycles of increasing and 
decreasing emphasis in the curriculum.

Are these instructional strategies truly here to stay and remain 
a major part of the curriculum? Is there measurable evidence that 
they are valuable at improving instruction? Educational research 
indicates that the answer to both questions is yes for both 
distance learning and critical thinking teaching. The articles 
included in this issue were selected to provide a breadth of 
discussion about the concerns related to distance learning and a 
synopsis of strategies for encouraging critical thinking in various 
classroom settings.

Distance learning did not get a stronghold on schools until the 
advent of the Internet. At first, distance learning had an 
ignominious reputation and was limited to a correspondence course 
format. It gained some popularity with working students but did 
not warrant having major resources earmarked for this teaching 
modality. Video instruction then became a popular format still 
widely used by many community colleges and universities. It 
captured the same student audience as correspondence courses and 
did not make any major improvements to the effectiveness of 
distance learning. It also promoted a novel way of providing 
students who could not attend classes, for example, disabled 
students and students in remote locations, with access to simulated 
classroom instruction. Greater access to computers by students and 
faculty in addition to improvements in computer-based communications 
have made distance education an attractive pedagogical tool. It has 
gained a broader audience of students who want more flexibility when 
balancing part-time jobs with coursework. Many schools are finding 
distance learning a valuable avenue for dedicating instructional 
resources to make school more accessible to the public.

A variety of creative approaches to distance learning are represented 
by the manuscripts in this AEQ issue. In addition, the philosophical 
basis of distance learning is approached and challenged by several 
authors. All the authors speak from their experiences with distance 
learning and on-line communication with students. They convey their 
elations and frustrations with this growing instructional strategy. 
Carr's (page 14)  and Hullar's  (page 61) papers weigh the benefits 
and shortcomings of on-line education, while an article by Markel  
(page 26) explains the educational theory behind on-line learning. 
Various myths that dilute the role of distance learning in contemporary 
teaching are expounded in Harvey's (page 42) work. Marshak (page 57) 
looks behind the pedagogy and sees distance learning as a strategy for 
institutions to reduce educational costs without improving instruction. 
Practical advice about the age-old problem of cheating is revisited by 
Straw (page 21) in context of the on-line instruction environment. 
Papers by Smith  (page 33) and Pankey (page 38), et al., present 
specific classroom strategies for applying distance learning.

My first exposure to critical thinking came after making a career 
change to teach community college after eight years of teaching biology 
at universities. I found myself developing new courses for an industry-
based biotechnology technician training program. My experiences in 
university biology departments entailed teaching large groups of 
students a mountain of facts that were regurgitated verbatim on 
multiple choice tests. Critical thinking was reserved for esoteric 
upper-level and graduate classes. My first career in industry had 
taught me that the students in the biotechnology program would gain 
little value from an education entrenched in rote memorization. They 
need the ability to apply the technical information to unexpected and 
ever-changing situations on the job. This means they have to be good 
at critical thinking.

Critical thinking has been identified by the United States Department 
of Labor as a crucial skill for success in the workforce. They 
emphasized that schools need to provide students with a firm foundation 
in critical thinking skills throughout the curriculum. It is recognized 
that, unlike rote memorization, critical thinking encourages students 
to be active participants in life-long learning. Critical thinking also 
permits students to place values on information and respect the role of 
information in problem-solving situations.

Many educators are thrown into a situation in which they must teach 
critical thinking without having a firm definition of critical thinking 
skills. In addition, they are provided with few examples of critical 
thinking pedagogical strategies. The manuscripts included in this issue 
of AEQ contribute to a sufficient definition of the skills that qualify 
as critical thinking. Topics such as higher-order thinking (pages 92 and 
107) are addressed as well as ready-to-use classroom ideas for 
incorporating critical thinking into traditional teaching  (pages 117 
and 124), service-learning activities (page 67),  and much more.  See 
Table of Contents. 

Enjoy the articles and use them to formulate or help reformulate your 
opinions and perceptions of these two educational trends.

Brian R. Shmaefsky, Ph.D.
Kingwood College
Subject Editor