Faculty are surrounded by opportunities and demands to redesign their courses for delivery on the Web or for distance learning. How should they respond, especially when so many questions prevail about the use of existing and emerging technology for distance education? This FAQ is a primer for faculty facing both the promise and the challenge of distance learning.
During this time of rapid change, it is actually somewhat presumptuous to set forth "answers" to questions about distance learning. So it is our hope that this FAQ will serve as a touchstone for discussions by faculty. No matter what higher education institutions ultimately do, the outcome of an interactive distance learning initiative will be to expand access and learning. Faculty should help shape that future. This FAQ has six sections, the first of which is an introduction defining what distance learning might be, given the potential of new interactive technologies. The next three sections address the design, development, and delivery of distance learning programs. The fifth section address the role of technology, and the last section serves a catch-all for a few of the remaining questions. Recognizing the prominence of global networking and telecommunications via the Internet, this FAQ focuses primarily on distance learning delivered on the Web.
Distance Learning Defined
What is distance learning? Traditionally, distance learning is a means of providing access to instructional programs for students who are separated by time and physical location from a faculty member. Distance learning is often thought of as prepackaged text, audio, and/or video courses taken by an isolated learner with little or no interaction with a faculty member or other students. But this is a dated perspective. Today's information technologies allow a richly interactive distance learning experience which can, in some cases, surpass the interactivity of a traditional classroom.
What is interactive distance learning? Is it the beginning of the new learning paradigm? The paradigm of interactive distance learning that is rapidly evolving is based on the new interactive technologies. It promotes learning experiences based upon the following types of interactions: faculty with students; students with other students; and students with resources such as books, journals, experts, and other dynamic electronic sources. Through the use of technology, these interactions can occur at any time or in any place. This new interactive distance learning will change the environment on campus as well as off.
Who might be interested in interactive distance learning? Interactive distance learning is attractive to the same population that has traditionally been interested in distance learning-adults who wish to complete high school or college, university students who have schedule conflicts, and lifelong learners. Interactive distance learning will also be attractive to a new group of continuing professional learners-working professionals who need to retain certification, earn advanced degrees, and who need or want to update job-related skills. Interactive distance learning can also provide flexibility for on-campus students.
What are some of the principles for designing effective distance learning programs? What about my concerns about not seeing my students? In addition to designing distance learning on the three interactions of faculty-to-student, student-to-student, and student-to-resources, the probability of effective learning outcomes can be improved by designing with the following ACCEL model that builds on learning principles and learner characteristics:
Active. Learners participate in a learning program that requires
thoughtful and engaged activity.
Collaborative. Learners engage in discussions, activities and projects with fellow students.
Customized and accessible. The learning program is designed to fit the needs and requirements of students in terms of time, career goals, levels of preparation, and learning styles.
Excellent quality. Courses are designed with a learner focus, enabling learners to achieve desired goals and objectives. This learning generally includes communication with faculty members and other students, and it includes quick and easy access to high-quality instructional resources.
Lifestyle-fitted. Interactive distance learning accommodates the lives of students, affording cost-effective educational opportunities anywhere, anytime, and at a reasonable speed.
Effective ACCEL learning is set within a context of a mentoring relationship with a faculty and a learning community of fellow students. The model also assumes access to a rich, information-age library including digital journals and books, databases, interactive instructional resources, and real-life practitioners and experts.
I have heard many types of courses described as Web courses. Just what is "a course on the Web?" A fundamental shift that is occurring in distance learning is the shift to the World Wide Web as the center for interaction between the faculty and the student. On campus, the center of a course is the physical classroom. In the new distance learning model, the center of a course is the Web site-resulting in a "Web-centric" course. The Web-centric course transfers the primary framework for instruction from the classroom or guidebook to the Web. It uses the interactive capabilities of the Internet such as e-mail, digital libraries and office hours, and chat rooms to facilitate student-to-student and instructor-to-student communication and interaction. A Web-centric course will use many other traditional elements in its design-including books, CDs, group projects, and residency or field experiences as "course launching or course celebratory events."
Many faculty are beginning the shift to Web-centric courses by creating course Web sites where core course information and announcements reside for easy access by students. Faculty are gradually encouraging student interaction with digital resources and by setting up a listserv for student-to-student interaction. Faculty are also encouraging the shift with online office hours and electronic announcements and communication.
Designing and Planning a Course
When do I need to start planning for an interactive distance learning program? For a formal launching of a distance learning program, a lead time of about 18 months is needed. Offering a course in this mode requires developing and requesting supplemental budgets; selecting the sites for any "residency" activities; hiring any additional personnel resources for preparing copies, digital or print, of course materials; getting approvals through curriculum committees; and for marketing of the program. Planning ensures greater success in meeting the minimum course enrollments and getting adequate information to potential students.
Less time and budget is required for launching a Web-centric course on campus to on-campus students. The reason for this is that fewer new support structures and materials need to be designed and developed.
What are the expected deliverables of an interactive distance learning program? The expected content deliverables include a Web-site with a course syllabus containing goals and objectives, a bibliography, structured student activities, and a library of resources and content. Other deliverables might include a guidebook for facilitators and course mentors, a delivery manual for registration and participation processes, and marketing materials.
Developing a Course for Distance Learning
Who is in charge of the content of distance learning courses? In all models of learning, faculty are in charge of the content. Distance learning offices often assist in the design process of developing a course for distance delivery to ensure a fit with the technology and with the delivery infrastructure. The instructional design process focuses on determining the goals and expected outcomes of the educational experiences and then matching those goals to the desired instructional strategies and to the supported media.
How will assessment of student learning take place? The faculty experts determine the appropriate methods for assessing student learning based upon the course objectives. Testing might be done online with secured passwords or monitored by a site coordinator. Other assessment methods include projects, presentations, and papers.
What kind of team is needed to develop a distance learning course? A development team for an asynchronous distance learning course usually consists of a project manager, faculty content experts, an instructional designer, the Webmaster, a content researcher, and a graphic designer. Personnel for assistance in the marketing, administration, and delivery of the course are also needed. This may also include support for handling copyright issues, student support, and other program support.
How long is the actual development process? The actual time spent in the development phase of a distance learning project is highly dependent on the richness and completeness of the content resources that are already available. If a course is designed around a book that is available in both print and digital form and with whom a copyright agreement is in place with a publisher, that can be a big time saver. If the course is also designed around a set of video tapes that can be affordably purchased or digitized and stored on a video server, development time can be dramatically shortened. Other time savers include whether or not the course has been designed for constructive, collaborative, and interactive activities on campus. Generally speaking, a minimum of one year is required for the redesign of a three-credit course. If a course is to be totally asynchronous and packaged, a development time of 18-36 months is not unusual.
Who will help obtain copyright clearance for materials? Faculty are responsible for determining which materials will be used and the sources for copyright clearance. The university library, office of research, or area copy centers can help in determining the processes and time needed to obtain copyright permission. The following Web sites are good sources for monitoring the evolving recommendations and guidelines in this area.
The Role of Technology
How do I select the right media and technologies to use in a distance learning course? Distance learning courses generally include a mix and match of various media. The key determining factors in the choice of media tends to be who the intended students are and where they are located, combined with the course objectives.
What are the various media that are often used in distance learning courses? The well-established media for distance learning courses are print, audio and video cassettes, and television via satellite or microwave. The new emerging media include the Internet/WWW, video conferencing via compressed video, and computer resources delivered via disk, CD, or the Internet.
How will distance learning students communicate with the faculty mentor and other students and submit assignments? Some of the ways students can communicate are electronic mail, phone, fax, and a Web site with bulletin boards, online seminars, and conferences. Students can submit their assignments online, or they can use snailmail or fax.
How will students off campus arrange for their Internet connections? Many institutions provide students with an e-mail account and Internet access free of charge. Alternatively, each student can contract with a local Internet service provider.
I have heard that classes may be taped and the tapes sent out to other students. Are the new videotapes going to replace me, the faculty member? Videotapes are often used as a contingency plan in the event a technology outage is experienced by a site. Normally they will be erased at the end of the semester and not marketed in any way, unless the video tape library is designed up front to be part of the resource database.
How will interactive distance learning affect me personally? Redesigning your course under a timeline and as a team member can be a very trying, yet very rewarding experience. And the subsequent rewards are great. Once the course is redesigned, faculty report increased satisfaction with the interaction between themselves and students and an increased interest by students in taking responsibility for their own learning.
Will distance learning replace faculty? Faculty will always be needed, we think. Faculty are the content experts and as researchers, they are constantly creating new knowledge. However, the role of the faculty will change. By necessity there is less lecturing and more mentoring. Also, if a large percentage of the content is packaged, a graduate student may be in charge of that portion of the delivery.
How will the quality in distance learning courses be maintained? Quality control for distance learning courses is partially assured by the focus on instructional design. The instructional designer focuses on determining-in collaboration with the faculty member-what are students intended to know, do, and think upon completing the learning. Distance learning courses should also be evaluated with peer review of the materials and student evaluations.
Who owns the course once it is developed? This is an important issue that is under consideration by distance learning experts everywhere. Traditional on-campus courses are "owned" by the faculty. However, distance learning courses generally require more of an institution's resources, and thus they often belong to the institution. Materials that are marketed may have appropriate faculty royalties negotiated. Flexibility on what is fair and equitable are real concerns here. For now, it is wise to track the amount of resources and effort being invested in the development of distance learning courses.
If an interactive distance learning course has an increased student load, how should this be addressed? Increased student loads can be accommodated by various strategies similar to those used for large on-campus courses: graduate students, site facilitators, collaborative group leaders (teams), and mentors.
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