Distance Education Learning Environments Research: A Short History
of a New Direction in Psychosocial Learning Environments
Our Lady of the Lake University
411 SW 24th St.
San Antonio, Texas 78207
Abstract: Learning environments research, with deep roots in psychological aspects of
social environments, has become well established and internationally recognized over the
last three decades as a means to assess and investigate what goes on in school and
university education. Learning environments strongly influence student outcomes and
play an important role in improving the effectiveness of learning. Recently, a new branch
of learning environments research has come to the discipline— distance education
learning environments research. Investigation of distance learning environments in
higher education is a fast moving research genre resulting in a variety of new learning
environment survey instruments and new considerations for holistically considering what
goes on in the online class. This paper outlines learning environments as an area of
educational research, then goes on to describe the recent evolution of investigations of
learning environments related to online learning.
Learning environments research has roots in the study of psychological aspects of social environments and
has become an established and internationally recognized field of educational research over the last 30
years. Learning environments research offers investigators insight on what goes on in school and university
educational settings beyond that of student achievement. The learning environment has a strong influence
on student outcomes and plays an important role in improving the effectiveness of learning from the level
of the institution down to the level of the individual classroom. Since 1995, a new subgenre of learning
environments research has quietly been building. With the large scale acceptance and implementation of
distance education around the world, researchers have begun looking at learning environments exclusively
in terms of distance education and developing instruments through which they can gain insight on what
goes on in distance education learning from the perspective of students and instructors.
This paper begins with a brief prelude to psychosocial environments research, then it looks at the roots of
psychosocial learning environments research and several of the instruments used in investigations of
learning environments. An introduction is then made to those instruments focused on technology-oriented
learning situations, followed by a description of recent additions to this field of study in terms of new
distance-education specific learning environment research tools that go beyond traditional face-to-face
classroom research instruments.
CONTEMPORARY PSYCHOSOCIAL ENVIRONMENTS RESEARCH
In the 1970s, Rudolph Moos attributed an increased awareness and action related to the natural
environment to an upsurge of interest in human environments research. He noted that human ecologists
became concerned with the way people grow and adapt in their environs and that psychologists and
sociologists became more concerned with creating environments that led to the maximization of human
functioning and competency (Moos, 1976). Moos had been studying psychosocial environments for over a
decade when he put forward “five different, yet related, conceptions of how the environment works” (1976,
p. 29). These conceptions were: 1) from the perspective of evolution and human ecology, that environments
can be limiting on the actions of people; 2) from the perspective of social Darwinism, that environments
choose, or favour, people by those with stronger characteristics; 3) that environments motivate and
challenge individuals, facilitating individual and social growth in terms of the development of civilizations;
4) from a social ecological approach, that individuals seek information about environments in order to
select those with the greatest probability for success; and 5) that individuals seek increase their control over
environments in order to increase individual freedom. The integration of these five concepts led to the
development of the perspective Moos termed “a social ecological approach” (1976, p. 28) designed to
comprehend the influence one’s environment has from the viewpoint of the individual and to enhance our
environments to enrich the quality of life.
From this perspective, Moos described organizational environment system domains in social ecology that
can depict infinitely different environments in terms of three dimensions:
1) the Relationship Dimension
2) the Personal Growth Dimension
3) the System Maintenance and Change Dimension (Moos, 2002).
From subsequent work, Moos has been able to demonstrate the enduring quality of these dimensions in
terms of family, work, school, health, military, prison and community social contexts (Moos, 1976, 1979,
2002). The Relationship Dimension distinguishes the nature and strength of personal relationships. This is
the extent to which people work with one another and support and assist one another. Terms related to this
dimension include: cohesiveness, expressiveness, support, involvement, affiliation, and involvement.
Personal Development is characterized by personal growth and self-enhancement opportunities offered by
the environment. Terms related to this dimension include: independence, achievement, task orientation,
self-discovery, anger, aggression, competition, autonomy, and personal status. System Maintenance and
Change considers the degree of control of the environment, the orderliness, clarity in expectations, and
responsiveness to change. Terms characterizing this dimension include: organization, control, order, clarity,
innovation, physical comfort, and influence (Moos, 1976).
It is through the framework of these dimensions that investigators can characterize and integrate the
impacts social environments have on individuals and groups. Psychosocial environments tend to preserve
the individual characteristics that are compatible with their prevailing aspects (Moos, 2002). The settings
we find ourselves in: families, schools, work, etc., are “ubiquitous in everyday life, are highly salient for
the people who live and work in them, and exemplify how individuals construct and select life contexts that
profoundly influence their morale and behavior” (Moos, 1996, ¶ 6). When participants in an environment
are offered information about their environment, opportunities for adaptation to the environment can affect
the participant’s expectations of the social milieu. Further, given information about the social climate of an
environment, participants have potential opportunities to alter their environment positively to promote
productivity within it. Likewise, when stakeholders participating in an environment are supplied with
information on what is an ideal environment, they can use that information to shape their own toward the
goal of making it an ideal environment. “Practical applications of the concept of social climate,” such as in
school settings, “make it one of the most exciting and potentially useful ways of characterizing
environments” (Moos, 1976, p. 352).
What remains for investigations in psychosocial environments is that research, by the very nature of
changing environments, must be perpetual. “We have not reached the goal Murray (1938) espoused more
than 60 years ago: A common taxonomy of individuals’ needs and environmental press that enables us to
identify the presence of a person-environment match” (Moos, 2002, enigma III section, ¶ 2). This is due, in
part, to the fact that research in psychosocial environments faces the dilemma that environments themselves
“are likely to have only evanescent effects because they are superseded by the demands of new
environments” (Moos, 1996, ¶ 17). This paper demonstrates that, despite the rich history of research in
psychosocial environments, there is a never ending need to continue considering changes in environments
when such profound changes are rapidly impacting the way we work and interact through such media as
that available via the Internet and those related to advances in telecommunications.
EVOLUTION OF LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS RESEARCH
Following the discussion of the solidification of research in psychosocial environments in general, we must
take a step back in order to consider the roots of research into the domain of educational environments.
Hartshorne and May (1928) and Newcomb (1929) similarly noted that student behaviour could be altered
by the environment. Hartshorne and May verified that personality traits were poorly correlated to students’
tendency to participate in deceitful behaviour, such a cheating on exams, given the opportunity in differing
situations. Newcomb noted that students’ talkativeness during lunch periods was a highly stable trait;
however, the same trait did not carry over to other situations. These early studies demonstrated that
investigators must consider the environment in which behaviour takes place in order to predict individual
student actions, because students’ values change according to the expectations of the setting (Moos, 1979).
Fast forward nearly three decades— Pace and Stern (1958) recognized and investigated the association of
major fields of study with social climates in institution-wide college and university settings, in part by
developing and implementing the 30-scale, 300 true-false item College Characteristics Index (CCI). Later,
Pace (1962, 1967) measured five social climate scales: practicality, community, awareness, propriety, and
scholarship through the development and implementation of the College and University Environment Scale
(CUES) in search of associating the degree by which the environment impacts intellectual capacity and
academic competition. These studies were conducted at an organizational level, analysing whole
institutions. While important in the evolution of studies in learning environments, the scope needed to be
more narrowly focused.
Walberg and Moos, independent of one another, began considering psychosocial environments and their
influences on student outcomes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their work can be considered the
“starting points for contemporary classroom environment research” (Fraser, 1990, p. 201) that “took off in
the 1970s” (Tobin, 2000, p. 223). Methods of studying learning environments during that time, and perhaps
still today, can be distinguished as conforming to three forms: 1) elaborate coding schemes for teacher and
student activities, 2) “global observation scales,” and 3) “perceptual indexes” (Moos, 1979, p. 138). Self-
report perceptual indexes focusing on classroom environments included the peer judgement and teacher
nomination Classroom Climate Inventory (CCI); the Learning Structure Questionnaire, based on
dimensions of teacher-centeredness, class-centeredness, and self-directed dimensions; Walberg’s widely
used (Moos, 1979; Fraser, 1990) Learning Environment Inventory (LEI), focusing on cohesiveness,
friction, speed, and disorganization in the classroom (Fraser, 1986); and the Classroom Environment Scale
(CES) developed by Trickett and Moos that considered teacher behaviour, teacher-student interaction and
student-student interaction (Moos, 1979). Until the introduction of the CES, perceptual indexes “lacked the
guidance of theoretical or conceptual frameworks producing isolated findings that are difficult to organize
into a coherent body of knowledge about classroom functioning” (Moos, 1979, p. 138).
The CES, and the numerous instruments that follow, defined the classroom environment in terms of the
shared perceptions of the participants, rather than those from outside observers’ views alone. Students, with
their distinctive frame of reference generated from spending numerous hours as learners, have a large
interest in what is going on around them in their educational environments "and their reactions to and
perceptions of school experiences are significant" (Fraser, 1998b, p. 527) given that environments, like
people, take on distinctive personalities (Insel & Moos, 1974; Kiritz & Moos, 1974). Moreover, students
have the advantage of familiarity with differing learning environments and have distinctive impressions of
classroom environments (Moos, 1979). This point of shared perceptions, coupled with the framework of
Moos’ universal environmental dimensions of Relationship, Personal Relevance, and System Maintenance
and Change investigated by means of a perceptual index led to a solid theoretical structure for considering
environments in educational settings.
Learning environments research instruments
There has been a “prolific development of questionnaires” (Tobin, 2000, p. 223) in the field of learning
environments research and investigators are able to select salient scales and the items within those scales to
conduct their own studies without having to independently construct new instruments. The following
section presents an abbreviated look at a few of the instruments that are available today for face-to-face
learning environment research.
Early instruments used in the education social environment include the Learning Environment Inventory
(LEI), the My Class Inventory (MCI), and the Class Activities Questionnaire (CAQ) (Anderson &
Walberg, 1974). The LEI assumes that students, as well as the teacher, are determinants of the learning
environment (Anderson & Walberg, 1974). The MCI is a simplified version of the LEI, adapted for use
with younger children aged 6-12 years. The CAQ was constructed to measure Bloom's six-level taxonomy
(Anderson & Walberg, 1974) consisting of: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis,
and evaluation. Meanwhile, the College and University Classroom Environment Inventory (CUCEI) broke
the mould and focused exclusively upon perspectives at the post-secondary level (Fraser, Treagust, &
Instruments that are more contemporary are numerous and ever growing. They include: the Science
Laboratory Environment Inventory (SLEI) geared toward upper secondary and post-secondary students
(Fraser, Giddings, & McRobbie, 1992); the Geography Classroom Environment Inventory (GCEI), a four-
scale inventory intended to investigate computer aided learning classroom environments (Teh & Fraser,
1994); the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES) aimed at secondary students (Taylor,
Fraser, & Fisher, 1997); and the Computer Laboratory Environment Instrument (CLEI), which has
foundations in the SLEI (Newby & Fisher, 1997), among others.
The Computer-Facilitated Learning (CFL) environments instrument was developed for use in technology-
rich university courses (Bain, McNaught, Mills & Luedkenhausen, 1998) and the Constructivist
Multimedia Learning Environment Survey (CMLES) was developed to exclusively consider constructivist
oriented learning environments that made use of interactive multi-media in teacher professional
development (Maor, 2000). The What Is Happening in this Classroom? (WIHIC) instrument focuses on
secondary classrooms and is designed to bring economy to the field by combining the most relevant scales
from existing questionnaires (Aldridge, Fraser, & Huang, 1999). The Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction
(QTI), originally developed in the Netherlands, began with 77 items related to the interpersonal
relationships between students and their mathematics and science teachers (Wubbels, 1993). It has since
been reduced to a 64-item United States version and thereafter a 48-item Australian version (Scott &
Fisher, 2001). Numerous other face-to-face learning environment instruments have been validated and
utilised in educational settings around the globe.
DISTANCE EDUCATION LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS RESEARCH
While there are several learning environments studies related to classroom computer use and classroom
technology interspersed with more general learning environments studies, researchers have documented
that there is limited research on Web-based psychosocial perceptions of learning environments (Jegede,
Fraser, & Fisher, 1998; Taylor & Maor, 2000; Teh, 1999). This section introduces the short history of
distance education learning environments research noting the first such investigation and those that are
recent and emerging. It also includes a look into the scales, based on Moos’ social organization dimensions,
which are evolving in distance education learning environments research.
Technology-oriented learning environments research
Learning environments research has been conducted and associated survey instruments have been
developed that relate to computer uses in classrooms or laboratories, telecomputing, and computer-
mediated communication. Briefly, examples of technology-related learning environments instruments
include: the Geography Classroom Environment Inventory (GCEI) that investigates inequities, among other
factors, in computer assisted learning in Singapore (Teh & Fraser, 1994), the Constructivist Multimedia
Learning Environment Survey (Maor, 1999), the Computer Classroom Environment Inventory (CCEI), and
the Computer Laboratory Environment Inventory (CLEI) (Newby & Fisher, 1997). Related research
includes studies of perspectives of computer-mediated learning environments specific to teacher education
(Admiraal, Lockhorst, Wubbels, Korthagen, & Veen 1998; Goh & Tobin, 1999), computer-facilitated
learning environments in higher education (Bain, McNaught, Mills, & Lueckenhausen, 1998), collaborative
distance learning environment design (Spector, Wasson, & Davidson, 1999), and the function and
useability of virtual learning environment software (Britain & Liber, 1999). However, technology-oriented
learning environments research, while closely associated with today’s technology-oriented distance
education environments, does not fully capture salient characteristics of distance education, despite both
having technological features as a part of the educational milieu. Additionally, while telecomputing studies
and computer-mediated communication studies are influential on distance education, they do not organize
distance education learning environments research into a consistent psychosocial framework and distance
education-specific learning environments research must be developed and conducted on its own terms.
The first look at distance education learning environments
In 1995, the Distance and Open Learning Environment Scale (DOLES) (Jegede, Fraser, & Fisher, 1995)
was the pioneering investigation bringing learning environments research and distance education research
together into one cohesive body of study. And, like early distance education research, it too had aspects
focusing on technology and interaction. The DOLES considered participants’ perspectives of salient scales
of the environment primarily in distance education science classes originating from Queensland and
Western Australian universities.
The DOLES is a paper-based instrument initially validated on 660 responses to five core scales. The core
scales are: 1) student cohesiveness, 2) teacher support, 3) personal involvement and flexibility, 4) task
orientation and material environment, and 5) home environment. Optional scales are of 1) student centre
environment, validated on 464 responses, and 2) technology resources, validated on 169 responses (Jegede,
Fraser, & Fisher, 1998).
Subsequent distance education learning environments research
The previously mentioned Geography Classroom Environment Inventory (GCEI), validated from 348
responses in computer assisted learning classrooms in Singapore (Teh & Fraser, 1994) was later applied in
undergraduate-level distance education geography classes. Teh (1999) considered internal consistency and
discriminant validity of 92 responses to the paper-based version for asynchronous distance education
students in Singapore. The GCEI consists of four scales: 1) gender equity, 2) investigation, 3) innovation,
and 4) resource adequacy. The initiation of geography distance education learning environment research is
important in this case due to the scarcity of a combination of geography education research and distance
education research in Singapore (Teh, 1999) and elsewhere.
The Constructivist On-Line Learning Environment Survey (COLLES) was developed from its three-scale
predecessor, the Constructivist Virtual Learning Environment Survey (CVLES) (Taylor & Maor, 1998), to
measure questions about the quality of online learning environments from a social constructivist
perspective in an effort to ensure that “technological determinism doesn’t overshadow sound educational
judgement” (Taylor & Maor, 2000, Conclusion section, ¶ 1) in distance education. The COLLES, arranged
in six scales of: 1) relevance, 2) reflection, 3) interactivity, 4) tutor support, 5) peer support, and 6)
interpretation, has been applied to support social constructivism epistemologies of teaching and learning
during the construction and utilisation of Web-based software in online education (Dougiamas & Taylor,
2002). The results of the COLLES, in triangulation with other class assessment methods, has led to
“significant and possibly radical” changes in the way online discussions are conducted in an Internet-based
postgraduate class in Western Australia (Dougiamas & Taylor, 2002, p. 8).
Another recent distance education learning environment instrument is the Web Based Learning
Environment Instrument (WEBLEI) that considers Web-based learning effectiveness in terms of a cycle
that includes access to materials, interaction, students’ perceptions of the environment, and students’
determinations of what they have learned (Chang & Fisher, 2001a). These factors are summarised by four
scales, 1) emancipatory activities (viz., convenience, efficiency, autonomy), 2) co-participatory activities
(viz., flexibility, reflection, interaction, feedback, collaboration), 3) information structure and design
activities (viz., clear objectives, planned activities, appropriate content, material design and layout, logical
structure), and 4) qualia, a scale of attitude (viz., enjoyment, confidence accomplishment, success,
frustration, tedium). The WEBLEI was piloted and initially validated from responses of 334 postsecondary
students enrolled in a subject that could be taken either in a hybrid fashion (partially online, partially face-
to-face) or taken 100% online. Just over 73% of the responses were from students taking the class online
(Chang & Fisher, 2001b).
Adding to the recent bricolage of distance education learning environments research is the Distance
Education Learning Environment Survey (DELES) that considers post-secondary student and instructor
perceptions of their learning environment in six psychosocial scales of: 1) instructor support, 2) student
interaction and collaboration, 3) personal relevance, 4) authentic learning, 5) active learning, and 6) student
autonomy (Walker, 2003a). However, the DELES takes its investigative properties further by including a
student satisfaction scale focused on enjoyment of distance education, thus allowing researchers to
investigate associations between student satisfaction and the psychosocial learning environment. The
DELES, a Web-based instrument, has recently been refined from the responses of 680 postsecondary
students mainly from the United States, Canada, and Australia. The initial study demonstrates that the
strongest association between student enjoyment of distance education and the psychosocial environment
rests on the scale of Personal Relevance (Walker, 2003b).
Emerging distance education learning environments research
The Online Learning Environment Survey (OLLES) is currently undergoing development in New Zealand.
The OLLES currently considers eight scales, 1) reflective thinking, 2) information design and appeal, 3)
order and organization, 4) active learning, 5) affective support, 6) student cohesiveness and affiliation, 7)
computer anxiety and competence, and 8) material environment and rule clarity (J. Clayton, personal
communication, November 23, 2002). These scales are nearly equally stratified across Moos’ three social
organization dimensions, providing a strong theoretical framework to this emerging instrument.
Distance education has become firmly embedded as part of the higher education landscape over the last
decade. Networked digital communication has facilitated an explosive growth in this relatively new method
of reaching learning populations to the point that the higher education trend to produce distance education
units and programs has been referred to as a “land rush” (Molenda & Harris, 2001, p. 6) to get online.
Learning environments study, an evanescent research area, has a recent history of producing a subgenre of
distance education-specific instruments designed to measure salient scales of psychosocial environments
related to this trend in post-secondary education. This paper has briefly outlined how learning environments
research has evolved from the study of deceitful behaviour in classrooms under different conditions
(Newcomb, 1929) to the study of social ecology in online classes where university students may be
dispersed throughout different countries and spanning multiple time zones.
The DOLES, GCEI, COLLES, WEBLEI, DELES, and OLLES, with their unique variations and foci, are
leading to promising knowledge development in terms of distance education learning environments.
Perhaps in the future these instruments will be looked upon as benchmarks from which other distance
education psychosocial learning environment research will grow.
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Scott Walker is a Sc.Ed.D. candidate in the Science & Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC) at
Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. He is also the developer and
program coordinator for the M.Ed. - Online Master Technology Teacher program, Our Lady of the
Lake University of San Antonio’s first online degree program. Scott may be reached by e-mail at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. This paper is available at:
Walker, S. L. (2003, April). Distance education learning environments research: A short history of
a new direction in psychosocial learning environments. Paper presented at the Eighth Annual
Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, Honolulu, HI.