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Confessions of an Online Distance Educator
Donald P. Ely, Professor Emeritus
Founding Director, ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology
Syracuse University

For more years than I want to remember, I taught a graduate level course at Syracuse University entitled, Distance Education. At the same time, I developed or helped to develop instructional technology courses to be offered at a distance for several universities and organizations. As a basis for the development and delivery of these courses, I used the time-honored principles of instructional design. The quiet little secret was that I never taught a course at a distance.

After retirement (better, “disengagement,” since I didn’t stop working), I taught the Introduction to Distance Education course in a face-to-face mode at Florida State University. My bluff was called when I was asked to teach the same course at a distance at the same time. I viewed this challenge as an opportunity to learn about the role of an instructor who is separated from students, only connected by computers. It was an opportunity to make comparisons between the two approaches. At that point the uncomfortable question was, “Could I practice what I teach?” Immediately after concurrently teaching the course in the two modes at Florida State, I added to my repertoire by teaching a course at a distance for Nova Southeastern University. (An attempt to increase my credibility!) Each university had a different approach to teaching at a distance. Since there is no agreed upon definition or delivery of distance education, let’s pause to consider the elements that make up the concept.

What Is Distance Education?

Is it “distance education” or “distance learning”? Maybe “distance teaching” or “distance instruction” would be more accurate (if you are the teacher). Some call it “online learning” or “anywhere, anytime learning.” Regardless of what you call it, physical separation of the instructor and learner is one characteristic. Another is the use of communication media to “deliver” instruction and to permit interaction between the learner and the instructor, as well as among learners themselves. The element that holds the course together is a study guide or course plan that serves as a road map for both the instructor and the learner throughout the course. These parts are systematically related to create an environment for distance learning. In total, the course is a carefully designed process leading to assessment of learning and evaluation of the process itself.

Another distinctive element of online distance education is 24/7 access to the course and related materials. Such access is called asynchronous since individuals do not have to be in the same place at the same time to receive instruction. Examples of this mode include Internet-based courses that use the World Wide Web as an organizing vehicle. A contrasting approach is synchronous teaching and learning where all learners and the instructor are in communication at the same time, even though they may be remote from each other. Examples of such arrangements are television courses originating from one source and received at many locations and teleconferences that permit two-way video interactions. From this standpoint, online learning would be an inappropriate term but distance learning would apply.

Other options might combine asynchronous and synchronous access to an instructor and resources thus creating a hybrid distance learning experience. There is no one way to describe the various combinations that can be utilized to create opportunities for learning at a distance. My Nova Southeastern University experience utilized online asynchronous activities (mostly e-mail), a brief face-to-face meeting of learners and instructor midway through the course, and a synchronous conference call every other week. A study guide serves as a pace-setter for the learners and provides a list of readings from textbooks and World Wide Web sites.

Now I would like to share what I learned from these experiences. Some findings confirm the principles I have been advocating for dynamic distance education; others were surprises that emerged during the interactions.

From the School of “Hard Knocks”: Lessons Learned

  • About learners. Distance learners require certain capabilities and characteristics that face-to-face learners do not always possess: commitment to learning, persistence, time, and technological (computer) skills. The successful ones are also usually mature and responsible. Those who drop out usually lack some of these characteristics.

  • About instructors. Advance preparation of a study guide and careful selection of resources reduces the ambiguity that sometimes causes communication problems when individuals are located in separate locations. The use of instructional design principles is the best model for distance teaching and learning.

  • About learning. Many comparative studies have been conducted to determine the difference between face-to-face and distance learning. In almost every study the research shows that there is no significant difference. My experience confirmed this finding. Most instructors have to prove to themselves that the distance course is equal to the face-to-face course.

  • About teaching. Learners appreciate prompt evaluation and extensive critical comments about their assignments. Feedback is essential, and the sooner the better. The one-to-one relationship between instructor and learner takes time. To accommodate for individual differences among the learners, a limit of twenty persons for each course is about right.

  • About interaction. Learning at a distance depends on frequent interaction between the instructor and the students and among students themselves. Instructors can stimulate student-student interaction by forming groups to carry out assignments.

  • About delivery systems. A distance course can be Web-based or Web-enhanced. A Web-based course provides the basic vehicle for presentation of information, assignments, resources, communication options, grade displays and other useful enhancements that serve as a guide for both student and instructor. There are several Web “templates” that include many standard features for both the instructor and the learner. A Web-enhanced course is usually a supplemental resource for face-to-face courses. It takes the place of handouts, for example, and recommends Web and library resources.

    Technology itself is neutral. It can facilitate communication but it does not “teach.” It is a delivery system for substantive content and a vehicle for communication. It has no inherent pedagogy. It is a tool that can help or hinder learning. It must be used as a tool for learning.

  • About resources. Since so much activity is online while learning at a distance, learners tend to use the World Wide Web extensively, often to the exclusion of traditional library materials. Instructors should urge learners to use the library for primary, refereed source material. There is no “outside” review of WWW content.
Entering the World of Distance Education

If this brief article has whetted your appetite for a distance education experience, you will probably begin to plan by selecting a course that you have already taught. That is how most distance courses begin. The approach to planning a traditional course is to determine what you, the teacher, will do. In the realm of learning at a distance, the focus is on the learner. What is it you want the learner to do? The most successful distance learning occurs when instructor and learner are interacting about substantive issues. I found more one-on-one exchanges in my distance courses that in traditional courses. It can become a tutorial relationship with frequent communication.

Beyond the objectives, you will have to consider the medium or media you will use since this decision will often facilitate or limit your plans. When it comes to selection of a medium, you will have to be sure that each learner has access to that medium and that you have the competencies to use it. The means and frequency of communication is an essential element of the planning as is the assessment of learner progress. Providing criteria for assessment of exercises and assignments is a helpful guide.

The one thing that has helped me to teach at a distance the most is to assume the role of learner--the role of a student who is enrolled in the course. That person is an individual you will probably come to know better than any student in a traditional course. As you plan, think of individuals, rather than of the “class.” While you are working on this role, you have one additional responsibility: to learn about distance education as you are practicing it. I know I will be a better teacher, in any context, because of the experience I have had teaching at a distance. It’s new. It’s exciting. It’s hard work. I hope you will gain satisfaction if you participate in this stimulating approach to teaching and learning. You will never be the same!

Selected Sources on Distance Education

Begin your journey by contacting AskERIC:
Click on “distance education” for a comprehensive list of references.

For an overview of the distance education field:

For daily updates on what is happening in distance education:

For up-to-date information about academic resources in higher education:

For information on WWW templates:

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