Distance Education is About Change

In distance education, learning takes place by connecting learner, teacher and subject matter through some sort of technology. In this paper I will discuss first the course design process and key design considerations when creating and administering a course (an educational event) online. I will then discuss current and future technologies having applications or potential applications in the field of distance education. My focus in both of these areas will be on current research, but I may refer to classic foundational literature in the field of distance education. Distance education is indeed about change, but as I have found in my research for this paper, and indeed in my studies in Adult Education 470, it is also about a foundation of wisdom from which to draw as we move forward into the future of improved course design and pedagogically sound application of the latest technology.

Course Design and Development

The process of effective course design for distance education, done properly, is a long, meticulous one that involves many players (Moore, 1992; Moore & Kearsley, 2005). The instructional designer usually acts as lead project manager and must coordinate all the individuals and resources involved, similar to choreographing a dance. Several milestones must be met in order for the process to move forward. Without this meticulous planning and coordination, the final product – the course – will suffer, as will the student! The entire process from concept and discovery to implementation can take up to a year or more. I will describe the process, using the Instructional Systems Design (ISD) decision model underlying the process as a model (Moore & Kearsley, 2005). I will insert into my description some of the modifications to the ISD model that the World Campus has undertaken. A World Campus course generally takes about 9 months from discovery to implementation.

1. Analysis

In the analysis phase, the design team must determine the specific skills or competencies that should be demonstrated to determine learners’ mastery of the particular subject matter. The characteristic of the students likely to take the course should also be determined. In the World Campus, this happens once our Program Management staff has determined that the course will go ahead and has given budgetary approval to its development. The lead instructional designer then meets with the faculty member. Several things take place at this initial author meeting. The author is given a sample lesson from an existing online course for a general idea of what the final product might look like. The World Campus has a questionnaire for the author to fill out that will give the instructional designer some ideas for course objectives, learning activities and assessments. Finally a sample course outline is shared, and the author is prompted to think about developing one for the new course (Penn State World Campus, 2007).

2. Design

In the design phase, several things must happen and be coordinated between the design team and the course author. Learning objectives must be determined, and appropriate technologies selected to best assist in the attainment of these objectives by the learner audience determined during the analysis phase. The appropriate levels and types of student interaction with the content, teacher and other students should also be determined. At the World Campus, a “Course Launch Meeting” is held which all members of the design team attend – instructional designers and assistants, multimedia specialists, production and copyright specialists, and instructional technologists. At this meeting it is determined what the workload and roles of all team members will be, and a draft of a course development timeline is shared and agreed upon. At the same time, the lead instructional designer will be receiving the course outline and content for the first lesson of the course from the course author. Using the predetermined objectives, technologies and interaction strategies, the designer will mock up the first lesson of the course.

3. Development

In the development phase, the bulk of the course is produced using the course outline and the first lesson as a cue for the design of the rest of the course. Assistance comes from instructional design assistants, multimedia specialists and instructional technologists with the instructional designer always in the lead role. The instructional designer makes sure that the course author submit chunks of content for subsequent lessons according to the agreed upon schedule, and works with the faculty member when questions or difficulties arise. Another key role during the development process is for the production or copyright specialist, as permissions for textbooks, images and other proprietary media must be secured early and it must be ensured that materials are available for students.

4. Implementation

Implementation is like “the performance of a play that has been written and rehearsed” (Moore & Kearsley, 2005). Instructors who are new to teaching online should become familiar beforehand with online teaching best practices, such as rapid turnaround time for assignment feedback (Maddux, Cummings & Newman, 2005). Students should have an opportunity to become familiar with the technology used in the course, and know where to turn for help. The better the planning that has gone into the first three phases of the ISD process, the more smoothly will the implementation phase go and the more satisfied the learners will be with their experience, provided good instruction is provided.

5. Evaluation

Evaluation is usually considered the last step in the ISD process, but evaluation can and probably should occur at many points during the process. Quality Matters is a professional, peer-reviewed mechanism by which faculty and instructional designers can have their courses reviewed for technical and pedagogical soundness (MarylandOnline, 2006). It is regular practice at the World Campus for a new or revised course to go through a thorough review by a staff member that was not a part of the original design team. This helps in placing that “extra set of eyes”, ensuring that key elements were not missed in the design process.

Technologies in Distance Education

Technology in distance education has evolved rapidly in just the past ten years. Today’s Web represents a new landscape, just as today’s higher education learner represents a new generation having not known a world without the internet. Young adults today (in the 18-28 year old range) are often referred to as the “Net Generation” (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007). They are the first adult learners to have grown up with computers in the home, cell phones, text messaging and music downloads. It is increasingly important for older educator to understand these and other emerging technologies and their potential for sound and robust educational use. It is not uncommon, for example, to see a young adult listening to an iPod while text messaging on a cell phone and checking e-mail on a laptop. Young adults are very engaged in multiple methods of information gathering. How can today’s distant educator tap into the educational potential of today’s technologies? I will explore several current and up-and-coming technologies with education potential in the remainder of this paper. I will use the 2007 Horizon Report produced by the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE to shape my discussion.

Social Software and Web 2.0: User-generated content, RSS, and tagging/folksonomies

“Web 2.0” is a buzz term used to describe generally the recent internet phenomena related to user-generated content (Web users contributing on a much broader scale than ever before) and Web-on-demand (O’Reilly, 2005). Such recent phenomena as YouTube, Facebook, del.icio.us, flickr, and RSS are examples of user-inspired engagement in the Internet today. This changing landscape offers many attractive tools for educators.

User-generated content includes such phenomena as blogs, wikis, podcasting and social bookmarking. Blogging software is relatively easy and cheap to set up and support for the academic institution (Bryant, 2006). Penn State currently has a pilot blog project at http://blogs.psu.edu. Penn State University (2007) defines a blog as “a place for personal reflection, a place to take notes, share pictures, publish your movies, and anything else that you can dream.” Their applications in education are ubiquitous. They can be used as an easily accessible platform for thoughtful journaling and scholarly discussion (Utecht, 2007). Used as a journaling platform, blogs can establish social presence and refinement of writing style through practice (Mejias, 2007). Blogs can enable “receptive learning, directive learning, and guided discovery” (Glogoff, 2005).

Wikis in education are an astounding and nearly revolutionary phenomenon. Basically, wikis allow their users to make direct edits to a community-created Web page, while having their entries tracked. An obvious implication is that wikis allow students to easily collaborate on writing projects, without the old cumbersome method of passing word processing documents around and trying to keep track of versions. The fact that entries are tracked allows the instructor to easily assess the contributions of individual team members. As with blogs, it is easy and cheap for the academic institution to build and support a wiki platform. Wikis are also relatively easy and intuitive for students and educators to use (Bryant, 2007). Wikis go beyond blogs in their potential richness of educational value: they provide community space to formally synthesize learning (Mejias, 2006). Ferris and Wilder (2006) describe wikis as a fusion of the print paradigm of learning accustomed to by instructors and the secondary-oral paradigm of learning that is increasingly part of learning by students today. Wikis are “a medium in which information is neither fixed in format (as it was in the print age) nor limited to locale (as it was before the print age) but still changeable to meet the needs of the community, freely accessible to remote parties, and easily archived for future use.” Indeed, in the blog “Remote Access”, Fisher (2007) postulates that wikis offer the opportunity to extend learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom in both time and space. Learners can learn from and add to the contributions of learners from previous terms, and may continue to learn from the input of future learners once the class is over.

Podcasts are easily accessible, and easily producible, audio segments. These audio segments can be recorded and listened to on portable devices called MP3 players, the most common type being the iPod. Podcasts can be easily downloaded from and uploaded to the online environment, and carried with the student for listening or recording while exercising, traveling or during idle time. A very effective use of podcasting technology is for foreign language instruction at a distance: students can listen to audio recordings of foreign language samples on their MP3 players, and record assignments to upload for instructor assessment. Students can also download foreign language newscasts that are available as podcasts (Campus Technology, 2007).

Social bookmarking, using such sites as del.icio.us, lets users “tag” Web sites as a way of storing and categorizing them. Also known as “folksonomies” (as opposed to “taxonomies”), tags are simple one word descriptors that the user associates with an item such as a link. For example, if I were to publish this paper online and reference it in del.icio.us, I might tag it with these words: online_course_design, online_course_development, technology, education, blogs, wikis, social_bookmarking. Notice the use of underscores to get around the one word rule for tags; this is a common practice. Anyone looking for information on, say, online_course_design, would find not only my paper referenced, but also anything anyone tagged with online_course_design. An interesting application in the online classroom might be to have students post links on del.icio.us to scholarly readings or articles, tag these links with an identifier for the particular class (ADTED470 might be used for the class I wrote this paper for), and provide a thoughtful annotation on those links (Bryant, 2006). The instructor could then assess students’ work by identifying the quantity and quality of each student’s contribution.

Finally, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a way to provide customized content for a particular use or user. I subscribe to many, many education- and technology-related blogs, journals and newletters using an RSS aggregator. This ensures that the latest publications come to me in a convenient format all in one place, rather than me having to hunt this content down by “surfing the Web”. An educational application of RSS in an online course might be to embed news feeds on a course-related topic, and to use these feeds as topics for discussions. In rapidly-changing fields such as medicine or technology, it would behoove the educator to consider using RSS to pull the latest information, rather than having to invest time in frequently updating course content that goes stale.

This concludes my discussion of “Web 2.0” in online education. All these tools are revolutionary in their application in education; indeed, today’s latest tools seem almost perfectly tailored to designing constructivist learning environments. Today’s “Net Generation” learner wants to be engaged in the learning environment, perhaps even demands it.

What Does the Future Hold? Technologies on the Horizon

I will now discuss briefly the technologies that the Horizon Report (2007) defines as “Time-to-Adoption: Two to Five Years”. In other words, while there are occasional adopters that are using these technologies today (I will provide examples), these are technologies not yet ready for “prime time”; only the most adventurous educators (and, perhaps, learners) are using these. Nonetheless, these are technologies to keep a watchful eye on in the coming years.

1. Mobile Phones

Mobile phones may be used as an “anytime, anywhere” device to connect learners to instructors and each other via voice, text and video. Today’s cell phones are getting more and more sophisticated; they are essentially tiny computers capable of communicating instantly via text and voice, surfing the Web, even getting up-to-the-minute sports scores. Mobile phones can be used for such subjects as language lessons (Prensky, 2005) and English literature (Shih & Mills, 2007) and to communicate course updates, grade information, deadline information and weekly “hot” topics (Duvall, Powell, Hodge & Ellis, 2007). Mobile phones can also be used to raise literacy rates in third-world countries where infrastructure and cell phone adoption is sufficient (Aderinoye, Ojokheta & Olojede, 2007). Theory is beginning to emerge around distance education’s adoption of mobile phone technology. Should we define “mLearning”, as it has become known, in terms of the devices themselves, or in terms of the “mobility of learners and the mobility of learning” (Traxler, 2007)?

2. Virtual Worlds

Second Life is the most prominent and well-known example of a virtual world today. Second Life is “a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents” (Second Life, 2007). It has education potential in terms of simulations and inquiry-based and experiential learner. Users construct “avatars”, 3 dimensional versions of themselves that walk, talk and can acquire and build things. Avatars can walk, fly and teleport from location to location within the virtual world. Virtual worlds add the most value to education when:

The subject is best learned through role-playing
The subject must be modeled using complex data and formulae
The subject is amenable to learning through exploration (Koo, 2006)

As well, the beneficial effects of video realism on learning are well documented (Wisher & Curnow, 2003). “Virtual classrooms” in Second Life have been held in formal higher education for credit around such topics as literature and organic chemistry (Sussman, 2007), law (Gard, 2007; Lamb, 2006), and ancient cultures (Ransford, 2006). Though these examples certainly represent pioneers, most students and instructors report a sense of curiousity about the Second Life environment and perceive it as having educational value.

3. The New Scholarship

The “New Scholarship” describes an emerging medium for scholarly discourse and publication which takes advantage of “Web 2.0” technologies and includes such phenomena as scholarly blogs and wikis, free online books and open access journals. Today’s emerging scholars are coming out of the Net Generation, and it is inevitable that their approach to research and scholarly discourse will reflect today’s technologies and the reconceptualization of ownership of content that Web 2.0 is forcing. We as educators must understand the needs of today’s young student and provide guidance. “The cognitive patterns of today’s Net Generation students, formed by lifetime exposure to interactive media, may prepare them for the heterogeneous, distributed systems that characterize tomorrow’s learning organizations, but they do need to learn the processes of innovation, creativity, and collaboration that these organizations will value” (Philip, 2007). Examples of this new scholarship are emerging. The Science of Spectroscopy is a closed access wiki, open only to experts in the field who register, yet it provides these experts with a way to learn and share with colleagues the most up-to-date content in a rapidly changing field (Mader, 2007). Lund University Libraries (2007) provides an online Directory of Open Access Journals covering “free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals”, with 2802 journals and 143,071 articles listed in the directory. Indeed, many of the journals I used in researching this paper, including Innovate, Educause Quarterly and the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, are open access.

4. Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs)

Interactive video gaming is nothing new to today’s Net Generation. Today’s video games are sophisticated in their 3 dimensional imagery and complicated gaming objectives. An important difference between virtual worlds and MMOGs is that MMOGs have a built in goal or objective; users must make decisions and accept consequences of those decisions while trying to achieve the game’s built-in goal. Begg, Dewhurst & Macleod (2005) point out that “the process of game play is so similar to the learning processes outlined in constructivist theory and problem-based learning that they are nearly interchangeable”. Game-informed learning, as such, can be used to enrich the learning experience and support the learning objectives.

At this time the research into MMOGs in education is almost purely theoretical (Foreman, 2004; Young, Schrader & Zheng, 2006). Very few examples of their application can be found. Begg, Ellaway, Dewhurst & MacLeod (2007) offer one example of a virtual clinical setting in healthcare education in which students interact with virtual patient simulations in an MMOG environment called Labyrinth. Labyrinth offers a form of practice-based learning in a world where access to real patients is becoming increasingly limited.


In this paper I have discussed the course design process and how it has evolved to meet today’s needs in the world of online distance education, using Penn State World Campus’ process as an example. I have also discussed at length some of the challenges and opportunites for distance educators offered by today’s emerging technologies. We have seen and will continue to see rapid change as distance educators struggle to meet the changing needs of students in a world of changing technology.


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