Getting Started in Distance Education


If you have considered developing a distance-learning course, many questions have likely entered your mind: How do you start? How much work will it be? What is the best method of delivery? Will there actually be students who want your course? These questions, and many others, need to be answered before and during the development and implementation of a distance-learning course.

How do you begin?

As in the development of any educational project, start with the basics of education. First, determine what the goal of your course is to be (e.g., to teach introductory biology or to help students learn about French culture). Second, determine who your target audience will be (e.g., high school students, second-career adults, or retirees). Third, determine the approximate depth or extent of the educational experience you wish to create (e.g., a 1-hour orientation, 3-hour workshop, or 12-hour course). You now have a goal statement: "Teach a 3-hour orientation course on French 18th-century culture targeted to college students."

Break it down and create modules

Once you have identified the goal, the next step is to develop clear, concise course objectives. These objectives answer the question: "What, specifically, do I want the student to take away from this educational experience?" They also define what students taking the course for a grade will be expected to know for examinations. After writing down a list of specific objectives, you can rearrange (clump and split) these ideas into lesson "modules." A module is a bite-sized section of information, content, concepts, or ideas that logically go together. For example, a module in a cooking course might be "Basic Techniques for Creating Sauces." By using modules, a distance-learning student can tackle a segment of a larger course and feel some sense of accomplishment and progress with the completion of each module. Generally, a good rule of thumb is to gear a module toward 1 hour of a traditional lecture format or 2 to 3 hours of a traditional laboratory experience.

How will the student get access to content?

For the student to learn, the student needs content. Many distance-learning programs develop content to deliver to the student in an electronic or video format, but it's important not to reinvent the wheel. Bookstores, both brick-and-mortar buildings and online versions, allow the student access to almost any textbook, picture book, novella, or periodical that would provide the content or information for the course. Although developing some content is often needed to address gaps in existing materials, the time it takes to develop all the content would be better spent developing creative ways to make the content "come alive" and be interesting and inherently motivating for the student.

If classroom notes, lecture notes, laboratory procedures, or other written materials already exist from a traditional course, these can be used for content as notes sent to the students, notes posted on a Web site that can be downloaded by the student, or notes on a CD-ROM that the student can peruse or print out. Supplemental pictures, photographs, diagrams, or other illustrations can also be made available to the student on a Web site, CD-ROM, or video tape or digital video. In addition, self-contained lectures in programs like Microsoft PowerPoint can be provided on disk, on CD-ROM, or as downloadable files on a Web site. Regardless of the content type, the content should support the objectives for each of the modules.

Determine your role as the instructor.

Distance learning is still learning. There is still teacher-student interaction that provides the spark for learning, discovery, and enlightenment. If objectives are well defined and the content is judiciously selected to support them, the instructor's role becomes one of coach, facilitator, motivator, challenger, clarifier, and supporter. In distance learning the instructor relies on these roles more than on the role of a disseminator of information, because the content itself disseminates the information. Because many distance-learning programs are targeted toward adult learners, the less authoritarian role of the instructor and the newer role of coach and facilitator is often more acceptable.

Recognizing the differences between more mature learners and younger learners is very important for an instructor in distance learning. Adult learners often have very well-defined personal goals: They are looking to further their education in a specific area, are preparing to change careers, or need information to satisfy a personal need, reach a job-related goal, or meet regulatory guidelines (e.g., licensure or certification). Adult learners typically work full time, have limited time to devote to unnecessary schoolwork, and have a low tolerance for anything they consider trivial, superfluous, or unrelated to their goals. Distance-learning instructors need to acknowledge and adapt to this population of learners, who may be very different in their approaches and requirements than those found in more traditional educational settings.

Selecting a medium: televised video? World Wide Web? video streaming?

Many prospective developers of distance-learning courses make the mistake of starting with this step and then twisting, molding, and altering the instruction to fit the medium. The allure of new technology often draws novices into distance learning; however, experience has shown that successful distance-learning experiences begin with the educational principles listed above and only then involve selection of the medium.

How much time will preparation take?

Planning a distance-learning course takes anywhere from 4 to 8 months from conception to completion. The best way to start is to convert a course for which you already have content. It is easier to start this project if you don't have to develop material.

Instructor time is an important issue that should not be overlooked. In addition to the planning time, distance-learning courses involve more teaching time than traditional ones. There is more one-on-one involvement between the student and the instructor. Time is spent answering questions via e-mail, and electronic office hours (in the chat room) are often in the evening to accommodate the students' schedules. If you choose to have mandatory chat time with the students, this will also add to the amount of time you will need to spend.

Teaching via the Internet can be very rewarding. It can stimulate your creative juices and allow you the freedom to do things that you may never have done otherwise. It can give you an appreciation for some of the things you take for granted in your day-to-day teaching. Finally, it can give you an opportunity to interact with students at a different level and can even revitalize what you do in the classroom.

Jones would like to express thanks to Dr. Pete Bill, director of the Veterinary Technology Distance Learning Programs at Purdue University, for his assistance in writing this article.