Conducting Distance Education Effectively

Table of Contents

 

What Is Distance Learning

According to the definition by the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), distance learning is any mediated instruction that occurs at a distance – regardless of the technology involved. So although you probably imagine online degrees that involve using websites, email, and videocasts, corresponding through regular mail or talking over the phone are methods that also technically qualify.

Still, in practical terms, most of what constitutes distance learning today is done by using electronic means. Teaching programs utilize not only computers, but satellites, video phones, interactive graphics, response terminals, and more.

It is also something that occurs in a wide variety of fields and locations, reaching well beyond K-12 and college campuses to include corporate, government, and military training, telemedicine, and anyone interested in lifelong learning. Distance learning is especially important for those who lived in rural or otherwise underserved communities, as well as individuals whose own physical and mental limitations impair their ability to attend traditional educational settings.

Key players in distance education typically include students, faculty, facilitators, support staff, and administrators, each of whom have very different roles. Meeting the instructional needs of students is the main goal of every effective distance education program. Regardless of the educational context, the primary role of the student is to learn. But the success of any distance education effort depends primarily on its faculty. Special challenges confront those teaching at a distance. For example, the instructor must:

  • Develop an understanding of the characteristics and needs of distant students with little first-hand experience and limited, if any, face-to-face contact.
  • Adapt teaching styles taking into consideration the needs and expectations of multiple, often diverse, audiences.
  • Develop a working understanding of delivery technology, while remaining focused on their teaching role.
  • Function effectively as a skilled facilitator as well as content provider.

Because of these challenges, faculty often find it beneficial to rely on a site facilitator to bridge the gap between students and instructor. Where budget and logistics permit, the role of on-site facilitators has increased even in classes in which they have little, if any, content expertise. At a minimum, they set up equipment, collect assignments, proctor tests, and act as the instructor’s on-site eyes and ears. In addition, most successful distance education programs hire support staff to manage student registration, materials duplication and distribution, textbook ordering, securing of copyright clearances, facilities scheduling, processing grade reports, managing technical resources, and other tasks. Finally, administrators work closely with technical and support service personnel, ensuring that technological resources are effectively deployed to further the institution’s academic mission. Most importantly, they maintain an academic focus, realizing that meeting the instructional needs of distant students is their ultimate responsibility.

 

History of Distance Learning

Though many people think about distance learning as a relatively recent phenomenon, it’s actually been going on for well over a hundred years. The first such program to appear in the United States was a correspondence school created by Anna Ticknor in 1873 – the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. Her main goal was to provide a way for women to become educated, and the school lasted for 24 years by keeping a low profile and utilizing mostly volunteers to send print materials through the mail.

Other universities made attempts at correspondence schools, but none really got off the ground – or received any kind of official recognition – until the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts in New York in 1883. After that, more and more people became interested in the idea of distance learning, and professors soon started predicting that this new form of education would quickly overtake traditional models.

The founding of the National University Extension Association (NUEA) in 1915 raised the profile of correspondence schools further by calling for standardized policies regulating distance learning courses, educators, and credit transfer to “real” universities. Instructional radio programs gained popularity throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s as the federal government granted broadcasting licenses to more than 200 school boards, universities, and colleges; and they added television in the 1950s. Still, correspondence study wasn’t readily accepted by most of the academic world, and many saw it as unprofessional.

Established in 1969, Open University in Britain changed a lot of those attitudes. Foregoing the traditional university model, it decided to see distance education as something completely disconnected from traditional education, offering a number of its own degrees. The university focused on research and technology to further distance education, and quickly became so popular that other Open Universities began operating in countries like the U.S. and Japan.

Over the last 40 years, technological advancements and practical necessity have worked hand-in-hand to continue the evolution of distance learning. More and more, educators recognize that our busy modern lives don’t allow everyone the luxury of matriculating at a traditional university or even engaging in traditional independent study programs. And perhaps most importantly, much of the research collected over decades of studies showed that students tend to learn just as well from technological methods as they do from in-person teaching.

 

The Benefits of Distance Education

There are an incredible number of reasons why someone might want to engage in distance learning. From a teaching standpoint, educators who choose to become involved will be able to help those students who aren’t able to make it to classes on campus, forge links between people of widely divergent backgrounds who otherwise would never connect, utilize speakers and other guests who are happy to interact via email, chat, or other forms of technology but wouldn’t have the time to spare for a physical class, and simply reach a wider overall audience.

These valuable things can greatly enhance the quality of a class, both perceived and real. The ability to interact with more people from varied backgrounds means that a broader point of view will be represented and explored. And courting the participation of well-known personalities and experts can help students and instructors to become more engaged with the material and even gain confidence in what they are doing.

Students who take distance learning courses have a list of reasons just as long and varied, depending on their background, needs, and lifestyle. Many do it because distance learning courses tend to be less expensive than traditional education. Others aren’t able to travel to physical classrooms due to financial concerns, physical or mental limitations, time constraints, or other concerns. And still others find that they gain more through using the technology required in most distance learning programs than they would by attending a traditional course.

In some cases, such as work training and adult continuing education courses, it’s just the method of learning that makes the most sense. Places of business don’t have to lose their workers for hours, weeks, or months in order to let them gain needed skills; and employees won’t lose pay from missed work or pay extra for travel and other associated expenses.

Below is some of the current research supporting distance learning as an instructional method:

Research indicates that the instructional format itself (e.g. interactive video vs. videotape vs. “live” instructor) has little effect on student achievement as long as the delivery technology is appropriate to the content being offered and all participants have access to the same technology. Other conclusions drawn from this line of research suggest:

  • Achievement on various tests administered by course instructors tends to be higher for distant as opposed to traditional students, yet no significant difference in positive attitudes toward course material is apparent between distant and traditional education.
  • The organization and reflection needed to effectively teach at a distance often improves an instructor’s traditional teaching.
  • Future research should focus on the critical factor in determining student achievement: the design of instruction itself.

Research also suggests that distant students bring basic characteristics to their learning experience which influence their success in coursework. Notably, distance education students:

  • Have post-secondary goals with expectations for higher grades.
  • Are highly motivated and self-disciplined.
  • Are older.
  • Are voluntarily seeking further education.

Studies also conclude that similar factors determine successful learning whether the students are distant or traditional. These factors include:

  • Willingness to initiate calls to instructors for assistance.
  • Possessing a more serious attitude toward their courses.
  • Employment in a field where career advances can be readily “achieved through academic upgrading in a distance education environment.”
  • Previous completion of a college degree.

 

The Disadvantages of Distance Education

Of course, while distance learning has an ever-increasing number of proponents, there are still those who argue against it – many for valid reasons. Despite many institutions being recognized for exemplary work, issues remain with technology being misused or falling short of standards, instruction and instructors that don’t meet the guidelines for quality, and an overall negative attitude towards distance learning by many administrators, instructors, and students.

Much of it seems to come back to attitude. Though many administrators seem to believe that distance learning is a necessary component of the overall educational experience they offer, fewer are willing to put it on equal footing with traditional schooling. This attitude bleeds over into faculty and even students.

While large numbers of those who teach and take distance courses say that they would do so again, indicating a certain level of satisfaction, many also rate those courses lower than the ones they’ve taken or given via traditional methods. Studies, however, argue that the problem isn’t so much the method of delivery, but instead the ability of instructors to effectively design their courses around it in a way that engages students.

In short, teachers themselves need to be taught how to utilize the technology so that they can prepare the kinds of courses that work best through distance learning. This would seem like an obvious conclusion to reach, but far too often instructors from traditional educational settings are simply expected to jump into distance teaching with little training on the best way to do so.

Finally, problems can arise from the quality of the technology being used. Hardware and software malfunctions can never be avoided completely, but it is vital to use equipment known for its durability and functionality since technology problems in distance learning classes can bring everything to a halt. Some programs have sought to relieve this problem by setting up multiple modes of delivery; that way, if their compressed video presentation stops working, they’ll have (for example) an audio stream available.

Keep in mind, though, that multiple modes of delivery can be expensive. Well-designed distance learning systems invest heavily in hardware and software, the on-going expense of leasing transmission access, repairing and updating equipment, maintaining a sound infrastructure, paying for technological and personnel support, and covering miscellaneous costs associated with system functionality. That said, the costs associated with offering conventional courses can be just as high, and research suggests that as programs become more efficient, expenses should decrease.

All of these issues explain why it is so important to make sure that you carefully research a distance learning program or institution before choosing them. Those institutions that place distance learning in the forefront and make it their focus tend to have more success and higher rates of satisfaction among their students and faculty.

 

How to Conduct Correspondence Courses Effectively

Effective distance learning is largely about making sure that both students and instructors become comfortable with the technology, and that courses are designed to work within the medium rather than trying to bend it to fit the lesson plan. That being said, delivery systems can and should be adapted to best meet the needs of students, so instructors must be knowledgeable and flexible enough to be able to alter things on the fly if need be.

Technical problems should be addressed and planned for before they happen, and backup forms of communication established. Guidelines for how to communicate also need to be set, and everyone must understand that clarity should be the number one goal; it is very easy to misconstrue someone’s meaning when technological barriers are in the way, so everyone should be aware and understanding of this issue. It is also useful to set requirements for people to communicate, especially early on, because it’s important to make sure that everyone becomes comfortable with the process of emailing, chatting, and so on.

Instructors should pay special attention during early classes to which students participate and which ones don’t. Those who neglect to interact should be contacted to make sure that the technology was working properly for them and that they were able to understand the lesson. Otherwise, there may be students that don’t speak up until the end of the course when there’s little that can be done.

Above all, it’s vital to remember that, regardless of the method of interaction, this is still a class of people learning from each other, just like any other class. Effort should be made to learn as much as possible about everyone’s experiences, backgrounds, learning styles, and what they want to get out of the class, and the activities and lessons need to reflect that.

 

The Teacher

Improving Planning and Organization

Suggestions for planning and organizing a distance delivered course include:

  • Begin the course planning process by reviewing the literature on distance education research.
  • Before developing something new, check and review existing materials for content and presentation ideas.
  • Make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of various delivery systems (audio, video, data, print, etc.) not only in terms of how they are delivered (satellite, microwave, fiber optic cable, etc.) but in terms of learning styles and course requirements.
  • Hands-on training is critical for both teacher and students. Consider a pre-class session in which the class meets informally using the delivery technology and learns about the roles and responsibilities of technical support staff.
  • At the start of class, hold a straightforward discussion to set rules, guidelines, and standards. Once procedures have been established, consistently uphold them.
  • Make sure each site is properly equipped with functional and accessible equipment. Provide a toll-free “hotline” for reporting and addressing problems.
  • If course materials are sent by mail, make sure they are received well before class begins. To help students keep materials organized, consider binding the syllabus, handouts, and other readings prior to distribution.
  • Start off slowly with a manageable number of sites and students. The logistical difficulties of distant teaching increase with each additional site.

Meeting Student Needs

Consider the following strategies for meeting students’ needs:

  • Assist students in becoming both familiar and comfortable with the delivery technology, and prepare them to resolve the technical problems that might arise. Focus on joint problem solving, not placing blame for the occasional technical difficulty.
  • Make students are aware of and comfortable with new patterns of communication to be used in the course.
  • Learn about students’ backgrounds and experiences. Discussing the instructor’s background and interests is equally important.
  • Be sensitive to different communication styles and varied cultural backgrounds. Remember, for example, that students may have different language skills, and that humor is culturally specific and won’t be perceived the same way by all.
  • Remember that students must take an active role in the distance delivered course by independently taking responsibility for their learning.
  • Be aware of students’ needs in meeting standard university deadlines, despite the lag time often involved in rural mail delivery.

Use Effective Teaching Skills

To maximize your teaching skills at a distance, pay special attention to the following:

  • Realistically assess the amount of content that can be effectively delivered in the course. Because of the logistics involved, presenting content at a distance is usually more time consuming than presenting the same content in a traditional classroom.
  • Be aware that student participants will have different learning styles. Some will learn easily in group settings, while others will excel when working independently.
  • Diversify and pace course activities and avoid long lectures. Intersperse content presentations with discussions and student-centered exercises.
  • Humanize the course by focusing on the students, not the delivery system.
  • Consider using a print component to supplement non-print materials.
  • Use locally relevant case studies and examples as often as possible to assist students in understanding and applying course content. Typically, the earlier in the course this is done, the better.
  • Be concise. Use short, cohesive statements and ask direct questions, realizing that technical linkages might increase the time it takes for students to respond.
  • Develop strategies for student reinforcement, review, repetition, and remediation. Towards this end, one-on-one phone discussions and electronic mail communication can be especially effective.
  • And finally…relax. Participants will quickly grow comfortable with the process of distance education and the natural rhythm of effective teaching will return.

Improving Interaction and Feedback

Using effective interaction and feedback strategies will enable the instructor to identify and meet individual student needs while providing a forum for suggesting course improvements.

Research findings on the need for interaction have produced some important guidelines for instructors organizing courses for distant students:

  • Learners value timely feedback regarding course assignments, exams, and projects.
  • Learners benefit significantly from their involvement in small learning groups. These groups provide support and encouragement along with extra feedback on course assignments. Most importantly, the groups foster the feeling that if help is needed it is readily available.
  • Learners are more motivated if they are in frequent contact with the instructor. More structured contact might be utilized as a motivational tool.
  • Utilization of on-site facilitators who develop a personal rapport with students and who are familiar with equipment and other course materials increases student satisfaction with courses.
  • The use of technologies such as fax machines, computers, and telephones can also provide learner support and interaction opportunities.

To improve interaction and feedback, consider the following:

  • Use pre-class study questions and advance organizers to encourage critical thinking and informed participation on the part of all learners. Realize that it will take time to improve poor communication patterns.
  • Early in the course, require students to contact you and interact among themselves via electronic mail, so they become comfortable with the process. Maintaining and sharing electronic journal entries can be very effective toward this end.
  • Arrange telephone office hours using a toll-free number. Set evening office hours if most of your students work during the day.
  • Integrate a variety of delivery systems for interaction and feedback, including one-on-one and conference calls, fax, e-mail, video, and computer conferencing. When feasible, consider personal visits as well.
  • Contact each site (or student) every week if possible, especially early in the course. Take note of students who don’t participate during the first session, and contact them individually after class.
  • Use pre-stamped and addressed postcards, out-of-class phone conferences, and e-mail for feedback regarding course content, relevancy, pace, delivery problems, and instructional concerns.
  • Have students keep a journal of their thoughts and ideas regarding the course content, as well as their individual progress and other concerns. Have students submit journal entries frequently.
  • Use an on-site facilitator to stimulate interaction when distant students are hesitant to ask questions or participate. In addition, the facilitator can act as your on-site “eyes and ears.”
  • Call on individual students to ensure that all participants have ample opportunity to interact. At the same time, politely but firmly discourage individual students or sites from monopolizing class time.
  • Make detailed comments on written assignments, referring to additional sources for supplementary information. Return assignments without delay, using fax or electronic mail, if practical.

Evaluation Tips

  • Check out and adapt already published questionnaires; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.
  • Draft and revise questions; change if necessary.
  • Make use of follow-up probes.
  • Alternate between instruction and interaction.
  • Sequence your questions for best effect – go ahead and ask for suggestions for improvement before asking for what is good. This will help convey sincerity for seeking improvements.
  • Place open ended questions after quick answer questions. This gives students built-in thinking time.
  • On summative evaluation, assure anonymity. This can be accomplished by having all questionnaires sent to a neutral site where they would be removed from their envelopes and forwarded to the instructor without a postmark.
  • Establish rapport by being interested and supportive. Withhold judgmental responses.
  • Adapt to the student in degree of formality and pace of communication.
  • Use evaluation as a method for understanding teaching and learning.
  • Try to get both positive and negative feedback. It is important not only to know what is not working, but also what is working.

 

The Student

The primary role of the student is to learn. Under the best of circumstances, this challenging task requires motivation, planning, and the ability to analyze and apply the information being taught. In a distance education setting, the process of student learning is more complex for several reasons:

  • Additional responsibilities: Many distance-education students are older, have jobs, and families. They must coordinate the different areas of their lives which influence each other and their families, jobs, spare time, and studies.
  • Different learning goals: Distant students have a variety of reasons for taking courses. Some students are interested in obtaining a degree to qualify for a better job. Many take courses to broaden their education and are not really interested in completing a degree.
  • Heightened need for support: In distance education, the learner is usually isolated. The motivational factors arising from the contact or competition with other students is absent. The student also lacks the immediate support of a teacher who is present and able to motivate and, if necessary, give attention to actual needs and difficulties that crop up during study.
  • Out of context: Distant students and their teachers often have little in common in terms of background and day-to-day experiences and therefore, it takes longer for student-teacher rapport to develop. Without face-to-face contact distant students may feel ill at ease with their teacher as an “individual” and uncomfortable with their learning situation.
  • Technological obstacles: In distance education settings, technology is typically the conduit through which information and communication flow. Until the teacher and students become comfortable with the technical delivery system, communication will be inhibited.

Improving Distance Learning

Beginning students may have some difficulty determining what the demands of a course of academic study actually are because they do not have the support of an immediate peer group, ready access to the instructor, or familiarity with the technology being used for delivery of the distance-education course. They may be unsure of themselves and their learning. Morgan (1991) suggests that distant students who are not confident about their learning tend to concentrate on memorizing facts and details in order to complete assignments and write exams. As a result, they end up with a poor understanding of course material.

Brundage, Keane, and Mackneson (1993) suggest that adult students and their instructors must face and overcome a number of challenges before learning takes place, including: becoming and staying responsible for themselves; “owning” their strengths, desires, skills, and needs; maintaining and increasing self-esteem; relating to others; clarifying what is learned; redefining what legitimate knowledge is; and dealing with content.

  • “Becoming and staying responsible for themselves.” High motivation is required to complete distant courses because the day-to-day contact with teachers and other students is typically lacking. Instructors can help motivate distant students by providing consistent and timely feedback, encouraging discussion among students, being well prepared for class, and by encouraging and reinforcing effective student study habits.
  • “Owning ones strengths, desires, skills, needs.” Students need to recognize their strengths and limitations. They also need to understand their learning goals and objectives. The instructor can help distant students to explore their strengths/limitations and their learning goals/objectives by assuming a facilitative role in the learning process. Providing opportunities for students to share their personal learning goals and objectives for a course helps to make learning more meaningful and increases motivation.
  • “Maintaining and increasing self-esteem.” Distant students may be afraid of their ability to do well in a course. They are balancing many responsibilities including employment and raising children. Often their involvement in distance education is unknown to those they work with and ignored by family members. Student performance is enhanced if learners set aside time for their instructional activities and if they receive family support in their academic endeavors. The instructor can maintain student self-esteem by providing timely feedback. It is critical for teachers to respond to students’ questions, assignments, and concerns in a personalized and pleasant manner, using appropriate technology such as fax, phone, or computer. Informative comments that elaborate on the individual student’s performance and suggest areas for improvement are especially helpful.
  • “Relating to others.” Students often learn most effectively when they have the opportunity to interact with other students. Interaction among students typically leads to group problem solving. When students are unable to meet together, appropriate interactive technology such as E-mail should be provided to encourage small group and individual communication. Assignments in which students work together and then report back or present to the class as a whole, encourage student-to-student interaction. Ensure clear directions and realistic goals for group assignments (Burge, 1993).
  • “Clarifying what is learned.” Distant students need to reflect on what they are learning. They need to examine the existing knowledge frameworks in their heads and how these are being added to or changed by incoming information. Examinations, papers, and class presentations provide opportunities for student and teacher to evaluate learning. However, less formal methods of evaluation will also help the students and teacher to understand learning. For example, periodically during the course the instructor can ask students to write a brief reflection on what they have learned and then provide an opportunity for them to share their insights with other class members.
  • “Redefining what legitimate knowledge is.” Brundage, Keane, and Mackneson (1993) suggest that adult learners may find it difficult to accept that their own experience and reflections are legitimate knowledge. If the instructor takes a facilitative rather than authoritative role, students will see their own experience as valuable and important to their further learning. Burge (1993) suggests having learners use first-person language to help them claim ownership of personal values, experiences, and insights.
  • “Dealing with content.” Student learning is enhanced when content is related to examples. Instructors tend to teach using examples that were used when they received their training. For distance learning to be effective, however, instructors must discover examples that are relevant to their distant students. Encourage students to find or develop examples that are relevant to them or their community.

 

Additional Instructional Strategies

Establish Class Expectations

In the distance education classroom, some students may adopt the TV attitude, expecting the course to be entertaining, not educational. Address this attitude through well planned and focused presentations with emphasis on teacher-student interaction.

Reduce Distractions

Students should also be forewarned to minimize extraneous noise and activity. Both detract from the quality of the course. Use variety and interaction.

The instructor should begin the course by preparing the learners for an active experience. Interactive videoconferencing is interactive, unlike regular television, and students can make the class much more interesting by being actively involved.

Encourage Dialogue

By asking questions and noting body language, instructors can ascertain the interest and comprehension of the students at both all sites. This kind of attention will make all students feel more comfortable.

Training for Instructors and Students

It is important that an instructor be taught how to use all features of the equipment. A short session (30 minutes) should be sufficient to give the instructor a hands-on overview of the equipment features. It would also be helpful to provide the instructor with a quick reference sheet outlining major functions.

Some of the critical operations that an instructor should be capable of performing are:

  • Turning on the codec and the monitors.
  • Dialing the distant site(s) to establish a link.
  • Controlling camera focus and field at the origination site and at the distant site(s).
  • Adjusting the volume to an acceptable level.
  • Dialing out to a remote location.
  • Selecting the appropriate data rate.
  • Re-setting echo canceling capability.
  • Switching to and from the document camera.
  • Switching to and from the computer output.
  • Utilizing a computer to generate and display multimedia presentations.
  • Using the VCR to broadcast a video for all locations.
  • Terminating the link with the distant site(s).
  • Shutting down the equipment.

Some institutions have technicians who will assist the instructor in setting up or monitoring the videoconference. However, the instructor should still be aware of the process because the technician may not always be available.

 

Suggested Delivery Systems

Instructional Television (ITV)

Advantages of Instructional Television

  • Since most people have watched television, the medium is familiar.
  • Motion and visuals can be combined in a single format so that complex or abstract concepts can be illustrated through visual simulation.
  • Instructional television is an effective way to take students to new environments (the moon, a foreign country, or through the lens of a microscope).
  • Time and space can be collapsed, so that events can be captured and relayed as they happen.
  • It is very effective for introducing, summarizing, and reviewing concepts.
  • It can be used effectively as a motivational tool.

Limitations of Instructional Television

  • Broadcast quality ITV is expensive to create.
  • Video production is time consuming and can be technically demanding, often requiring relatively sophisticated production facilities and equipment.
  • Sites choosing to interactively participate in an ITV program may require specialized equipment, facilities, and staffing.
  • Most prepackaged ITV courses use a mass media approach to instruction aimed at the average student. As a result, they can be ineffective in serving students with special needs.
  • When used passively, without interaction, its instructional effectiveness can be limited.
  • Unless professionally produced, completed ITV programs often look amateurish.
  • Once completed, ITV programs can be difficult to revise and update.

Computers

Computer applications for distance education fall into four broad categories:

  • Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) – uses the computer as a self-contained teaching machine to present discrete lessons to achieve specific but limited educational objectives. There are several CAI modes, including: drill and practice, tutorial, simulations and games, and problem-solving.
  • Computer Managed Instruction (CMI) – uses the computer’s branching, storage, and retrieval capabilities to organize instruction and track student records and progress. The instruction need not be delivered via computer, although often CAI (the instructional component) is combined with CMI.
  • Computer Mediated Communication (CMC)- describes computer applications that facilitate communication. Examples include electronic mail, computer conferencing, and electronic bulletin boards.
  • Computer-Based Multimedia- HyperCard, hypermedia, and a still-developing generation of powerful, sophisticated, and flexible computing tools have gained the attention of distance educators in recent years. The goal of computer-based multimedia is to integrate various voice, video, and computer technologies into a single, easily accessible delivery system.

Advantages of Computers

  • Computers can facilitate self-paced learning. In the CAI mode, for example, computers individualize learning, while giving immediate reinforcement and feedback.
  • Computers are a multimedia tool. With integrated graphic, print, audio, and video capabilities, computers can effectively link various technologies. Interactive video and CD-ROM technologies can be incorporated into computer-based instructional units, lessons, and learning environments.
  • Computers are interactive. Microcomputer systems incorporating various software packages are extremely flexible and maximize learner control.
  • Computer technology is rapidly advancing. Innovations are constantly emerging, while related costs drop. By understanding their present needs and future technical requirements, the cost-conscious educator can effectively navigate the volatile computer hardware and software market.
  • Computers increase access. Local, regional, and national networks link resources and individuals, wherever they might be. In fact, many institutions now offer complete undergraduate and graduate programs relying almost exclusively on computer-based resources.

Limitations of Computers

  • Computer networks are costly to develop. Although individual computers are relatively inexpensive and the computer hardware and software market is very competitive, it is still costly to develop instructional networks and purchase the system software to run them.
  • The technology is changing rapidly. Computer technology evolves so quickly that the distant educator focused solely on innovation “not meeting tangible needs” will constantly change equipment in an effort to keep pace with the “latest” technical advancements.
  • Widespread computer illiteracy still exists. While computers have been widely used since the 1960′s, there are many who do not have access to computers or computer networks.
  • Students must be highly motivated and proficient in computer operation before they can successfully function in a computer-based distance learning environment.

Teaching Considerations for Using the Internet:

When incorporating the Internet into a distance delivered course, remember that:

  • All students in a course must have Internet and WWW access to ensure equal opportunities for computer interaction and feedback. Also, convenient access to a computer at home or work may influence student success.
  • Students may face the concurrent challenges of learning basic computer skills, new software, and appropriate online communication skills. Trouble-shooting student computer problems will probably become a part of normal instructional responsibilities. Setting up a specific classroom conference for ongoing discussions of specific hardware and software problems may help students to work through these problems on their own.
  • Some students might hesitate to contribute to computer conferences or to send e-mail because of a lack of familiarity with the proper protocols. Encourage students to use e-mail, classroom conferences, electronic bulletin boards, and the WWW early in the course so they overcome inhibitions. Specifying a minimum number of e-mail communications per week will encourage active participation.
  • Using e-mail can help the instructor provide feedback more quickly than surface mail or telephone. Prompt response generally increases student motivation and performance.
  • Prompt responses might not always be appropriate. Computer conferences can foster student-to-student interaction. To ensure that this interaction is sustained, work towards a facilitative role. It might be appropriate to delay response to a query in a classroom conference in order to allow students to respond to the issue and to each other.
  • Becoming familiar with the resources available on the Internet and the most effective ways to use them will be part of the instructional challenge.

Print

Advantages of Print

  • Spontaneous. Print materials can be used in any setting without the need for sophisticated presentation equipment.
  • Instructionally transparent. The medium of delivery should enhance, not compete with, the content for the learner’s attention. If the student reads well, the print medium is the most transparent instructional medium of all.
  • Non-threatening. Reading is second nature to most students. As a result, they are easily able to focus on the content, without becoming mesmerized or frustrated by the process of reading itself.
  • Easy to use. Given adequate light, print materials can be used any time and any place without the aid of supplemental resources such as electricity, viewing screen, and specially designed electronic classrooms. The portability of print is especially important for rural learners with limited access to advanced technology.
  • Easily reviewed and referenced. Print materials are typically learner-controlled. As a result, the student rapidly moves through redundant sections, while focusing on areas demanding additional attention.
  • Cost-effective. No instructional tool is less expensive to produce than print. In addition, facilities abound for the inexpensive duplication of these materials.
  • Easily edited and revised. In comparison to technically sophisticated electronic software, print is both easy and inexpensive to edit and revise.
  • Time-effective. When instructional print materials are created, the developer’s primary focus remains on content concerns, not the technical requirements of the delivery system.

Limitations of Print

  • Limited view of reality. Print, by its reliance on the written word, offers a vicarious view of reality. Despite the use of excellent sequential illustrations or photos, for example, it is impossible to adequately recreate motion in print.
  • Passive and self-directed. Numerous studies have shown that higher learner motivation is required to successfully complete print-based courses. To a certain extent, the passive nature of print can be offset by systematic instructional design that seeks to stimulate the passive learner. Still, it takes more motivation to read a book or work through a written exercise than it does to watch a television program or participate in an audioconference with an instructor encouraging student participation and response.
  • Feedback and interaction. Without feedback and interaction, instruction suffers, regardless of the delivery system in use. By nature, print materials are passive and self-directed. Even with print materials incorporating feedback mechanisms and interactive exercises, it is easy for learners to skip to the answer section.
  • Dependent on reading skills. Thanks to television, most students have developed fairly good viewing skills by age four. These same children, however, often fail to develop adequate reading skills by age 12. Reading skills must often be improved. Lack of ability in this area cripples the effectiveness of even the most instructionally sound print material and must be overcome if print is to be used effectively.

Examples of print materials include textbooks, study guides, workbooks, course syllabi, and case studies.

 

Video

Types of Videoconferencing Systems

  • Small room videoconferencing. This system is designed primarily for small groups (1-12 participants) at all sites seated around a conference table.
  • Classroom videoconferencing. This type of system usually uses high quality AV components, codecs, and an interface that allows all participants to be seen on the monitors.
  • Desktop videoconferencing. This system utilizes a personal computer and videoconferencing software. These systems are less expensive, but offer limited resolution. They are most effective for individual and small group use.

Advantages of Interactive Video

Interactive video can be effective because it:

  • Allows real time visual contact between students and the instructor or among students at different sites.
  • Supports the use of diverse media: Blackboards, handwritten documents, and videos may be incorporated at all sites.
  • Enables connection with experts in other geographical locations.
  • Can provide access to at-risk or special needs students.
  • Provides additional access to students at remote sites.

Limitations of Interactive Video

As with any technology, interactive video has its limitations:

  • The initial cost of the equipment and leasing the lines to transmit conferences may be prohibitive.
  • Companies which produce codecs have each developed unique methods of compression which are incompatible, although protocols have been established to allow communication among brand names. However, this universal standard compromises resolution and quality to a certain degree.
  • Unless a strong effort is made by the instructor, students not located with the instructor may remain uninvolved in the course.
  • If visuals, like handwritten or copied materials, are not properly prepared, students may have a difficult time reading them.
  • If the pipe that carries the transmission among sites is not large enough, the students may observe ghost images when rapid movement occurs in real time.
  • If the system is not properly configured, class members may observe an audio echo effect. The result is audio interference that detracts from the learning environment.

 

Common Mistakes and Solutions

From a student perspective, the most common mistakes are not doing enough research before choosing a program or school, and giving up when things seem too confusing or difficult. These issues are far easier to succumb to in distance learning. Differentiating between programs can be more difficult when you can’t simply visit the campus, go to events, or talk to administrators and instructors. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to give up when you aren’t able to meet with someone face-to-face and talk about the problems you’re having with the content or the technology.

But these things can be easily overcome when people adopt the right attitudes. Even though you may not be able to get a sense of a distance learning school by stomping around the campus, there is plenty of information out there to help you pick a place that’s right for you – some even let you take a virtual “tour,” just like you would at a regular university. And there are any number of resources out there to help distance learning students overcome problems and become more comfortable working and communicating within the digital space.

Instructors who have problems teaching distance learning courses “give up” in a different way by neglecting to learn about this new delivery method and refusing to change lesson plans that have worked for them for years in traditional classrooms. There has to be a willingness to embrace technology and learn about new things in order to succeed at teaching these courses, because different strategies work better or worse depending on the medium. It all starts with training, and sometimes that might mean that the person teaching the course has to seek it out on their own so that they can put their best foot forward.

 

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