The future for distance education points towards exponential growth, increased acceptance as a viable education and development route but increased challenges due to demand and technological advancement. According Adkins (2012) growth projections for online learning in North America alone will be a modest 4.4% which translates to a staggering $27.2 billion dollar industry. There are a multitude of factors and forces at play that driving the distance education market and its acceptance. George Siemans, in the course resource video program The Future of Distance cites the increases in online communication and experience with new tools, as well as comfort with online discourse and ability to communicate with diverse and global groups (Laureate Education, 2010). In addition there are practical matters such as the current economy that is driving working adults back for new skills. While I agree with Dr. Simonson’s assessment in the course resource video program Distance Education: Higher Education, K–12, and the Corporate World that distance education will never truly replace traditional classroom training in such places as Higher Education, but as it continues to grow and more individuals have experiences with distance learning it will continue to be an acceptable form of education.
It is important that distance learning courses, especially courses that began in a traditional format and transitioning, are designed with sound instructional design models and developed with the learner in mind. In addition to the normal analysis, design, etc. tasks that go along with a model that an ID would choose to following for the development of a distance learning course, there are some unique factors that must addressed and defined for a successful course. As Gutierrez (2012) states
What works well in person and in traditional classroom situations does not translate to the eLearning environment. Take the Power Point, for example. In traditional training sessions, instructors can stop and discuss each slide more deeply, answer questions and encourage discussion. In the eLearning environment, the Power Point becomes a boring slide show that employees simply click through as quickly as possible or only refer to when completing the assignment (Para. 4).
In particular, designers must plan and define how instructional content is presented in an online classroom and the paradigms of learner interaction (learner-learner, learner-content and learner-instructor). I personally think the planning or analysis of a distance education course is by far one of the most important phases of course development next to the evaluation.
Where as in a classroom, instructors can verbally explain confusing instructions to sideline sources of learner confusion and frustration, the nature distance learning environment makes that a bit more difficult. Learners will be accessing content at all times of the day and night and the learner’s ability to clearly identify where content is located within the C.M.S. or L.M.S. and easily understand what is being required of them is critical. This is where designers can benefit from pulling a page from a web designer’s playbook, by creating logical site maps prior to building the online classroom and test the site map with novice and expert distance learners alike to make sure content is in a logical location. As a distance learner, I find that there are few things that frustrates me more than a navigational maze when it comes to moving through an online classroom. In addition, the text surrounding class policies, procedures and even assignments must be carefully crafted and reviewed as text is quite literal and should not be open to interpretation. Along with a site map, the course should have a well developed syllabus that serves as the ‘source of truth’ for learners and defines communication methods and etiquette, what is expected of learners, assignments, resources etc. A well craft syllabus saves the learners and instructors time as it is not wasted on answering questions or searching for information.
In any design project, the designer must identify which instruction strategies will best convey the course objectives. Where traditional classroom may be somewhat limited in its possibilities to illustrate key concepts, the online classroom offers a whole host of technological opportunities for Designers and Instructors to achieve objectives, while injecting opportunities for learner interaction at any and all junctures. Simonson et al. (2012) likened a distance education course without interactivity to the ‘kiss of death’. In terms of learner interaction with the course content, designer can utilize a variety of tools to give learners an interactive and meaningful experience, including interactive 3-D models, e-tutorials, diagrams, graphics, interactive study guides, etc. Threaded discussions, webinars, chats etc. are all great asynchronous and synchronous methods learners can use to interact with other learners and the course instructors.
Threaded discussions, where learners are presented a question or scenario to which they are to respond, are one of the most popular tools in distance education courses as it offers a variety of benefits. According to Elmendorf & Ottenhoff (2009) discussions foster extended engagement, rich exchanges, reflective understanding, intellectual play and community building. Discussions offer learners an opportunity to further work with the course material and utilize critical thinking skills. Learners are allowed time to research and respond in a thoughtful manner, collectively raising the intellectual quality of the communication. The discussion also serves as formative evaluation as the instructor can gauge the learners understanding of the content in a more expressive way than any test or quiz could (Bouchat, December 17, 2007). In a threaded discussion, instructors play a unique role as their participation or lack thereof sets the tone for the discussion. Discussion topics should be structured enough to meet the objectives but flexible enough to allow students room to respond in a personal way. Ideally, instructors would respond to every 4th or 5th student response with leading questions that further discussion (Simonson et al, 2012). However, with great opportunities comes a great responsibility. As with all technology tools, glitches happen, servers fail, websites go down. Distance learning course designers must address these issues in the analysis phase with a beta testing protocol to identify and address issues before they become a problem and with a contingency plan for unforeseen problems. These plans should be communicated and continuously evaluated.
Overall, the entire distance course should be evaluated continuously utilizing models such AEIOU. According to Simonson et. al (2012) “Distance education programs and even single courses should be accountable to their goals, should be at least as effective as alternative approaches, and should have a positive impact”(Pg. 361). An evaluation of a distance education program should answer the following questions:
[A]ccountability-Did the course planners do what they said they were going to do?
[E]ffectiveness-How well done was the project?
[I]mpact-Did the project, course, or program make a difference?
[O]rganizational Context– What structures, policies, or events in the organization or environment helped or hindered the project in accomplishing its goals?
[U]nanticipated Consequences– What changes or consequences of importance happened as a result of the project that was not expected? (Simonson et. al, 2012).
Designers, instructors, shareholders, etc. should evaluate the program based on this model by reviewing data from a variety of sources, such as design documents, survey responses, assessment scores, interviews, etc. This evaluation process is an excellent opportunity to continuously improve courses driving them with better organization, more interaction and ultimately for learner-centered.
Adkins, S. (2012). North American eLearning Market to Reach $27.2 billion by 2016. Retrieved October 28, 2012, from Ambient Institute Research: http://www.ambientinsight.com/News/Ambient-Insight-2011-2016-NorthAmerica-eLearning-Market.aspx
Bouchat, C. (December 17, 2007). Threaded Discussion Tips for Designers. The eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions eMagazine , 1-9.
Elmendorf, H., & Ottenhoff, J. (2009). The Importance of Conversation in Learning and the Value of Web-based Discussion Tools. Retrieved Oct 16, 2012, from Academic Commons: http://academiccommons.org/commons/essay/importance-conversation-learning
Gutierrez, K (2012). Best Practices: Converting from Traditional Training to eLearning. Retrieved Oct 20, 2012, SHIFT’s eLearning Blog http://info.shiftelearning.com/blog/bid/222701/Best-Practices-Converting-from-Traditional-Training-to-eLearning
Laureate Education, I. (Director). (2010). The Future of Distance Ed. (Video Program) [Motion Picture].
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.