Planning Open Courses for Distance Learners

July 29, 2011 at 11:16 pm 4 comments

Man standing on a keyboard in front of a computer screen

Open courses offer the promise of making educational resources available to distance learners around the world

The Open CourseWare Consortium defines Open CourseWare (OCW) as the “free and open digital publication of high quality, university-level educational materials” that are organized as courses (OCC). Open courses offer the promise of making educational resources available to distance learners around the world (Caswell, et. al., 2008). While the number of open courses available has grown, there is limited evidence of its impact on users (Jansson, 2011). When open courses consist of collections of lecture notes, slides, and handouts from classroom-based courses, the question remains as to whether they truly support distance learning (Jansson, 2011). Planning for classroom based learning and distance learning share some of the same fundamental design principles, however distance learning has some distinct differences that need to be taken into account. It needs to meet the needs of a variety of learners; it needs to be focused on the content essential to meeting the learning objectives; it needs to be accessible to learners with a variety of technical needs; and it needs to facilitate interaction and collaboration among learners and between learners and subject matter experts (Simonson, et. al., 2009).

Carnegie Melon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI) addresses many of these issues in the design of its open courses. I took the Visual Communication Design course through OLI, which provided a basic introduction to design principles for technical documents. The content was organized into units, which were subdivided into separate and distinct topics covering one concept such as typeface or legibility. Each topic was followed by a brief knowledge check with immediate feedback. Each unit ended with an exercise that gave me the opportunity to apply what I learned in the unit. The exercises were challenging and provided immediate and helpful feedback. Each unit also included a summary of key points. The content was presented using narration, animation and text.

The OLI courses have been planned to meet the needs of a variety of learners, which is probably difficult to achieve in an open course. First the course description and objectives permit the learner to evaluate whether the content will meet his or her needs. The learner also has the option to “Peek In” on the course without registering to determine if it will be useful. The content of the course was visual, interactive and varied, meeting the needs of a variety of learning styles (Simonson, et. al., 2009). The division of content into chunks of useful information helped to simplify complex information and interactive activities allowed the learner to assess progress. Finally, the OLI web pages were 508 compliant making them accessible to learners with disabilities.

Man sitting in front of a computer with a bored expression

Extraneous information and talking heads can cause distance learners to loose focus

Along with meeting the needs of a variety of learners, designers must focus the content in a distance education course on the concepts essential to meeting the course objectives in order to keep learners engaged and make the best use of limited time (Simonson, et. al, 2009). Consistent with principles of adult learning theory, the OLI course focused on content learners needed to know to perform effectively and could apply immediately (Simonson, et. al., 2009).  It did not include extraneous information that might cause learners to loose focus. The use of short chunks of content followed by brief knowledge checks after each topic also helped maintain learner focus. The designers used instructional strategies appropriate for the content, making good use of audio and animation rather than talking heads or excessive text.

It is also apparent that OLI has given some consideration to the potential technical limitations users may experience in accessing courses online. Prior to beginning a course, the user can conduct a system check to check for incompatibilities. All of the information was contained within the course, and learners did not need to open additional windows or have additional software installed to access the content. Users also have the option of printing or emailing pages from the course.

One element that was missing from the OLI course was the opportunity for collaborative learning. Social elements help support learners in constructing knowledge through collective reflection (Dede, 2005). Learners who participate in open courses could be given the option to engage other learners who have taken the course or subject matter experts by using a social media platform like LinkedIn or Twitter.

 Take Home Message

Open Courses open the door for people around the world to access quality instructional materials. Providers of open courses should examine whether they are offering repositories of information or true distance learning. Open courses can be designed to meet the needs of distance learner with careful planning in the design phase to structure the content and resources to work effectively in the online environment.


Caswell, T., Henson, S., Jensen, M., and Wiley, D. (2008). Open educational resources: Enabling universal education. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1), 1-11. Accessed July 29, 11 from

Dede, C. (2005). Planning for neomillennial learning styles. Educase Quarterly, 28(1), 7-12.

Jansen, E. (2011, July 7). “Open questions for open courseware.” Inside Higher Ed. Accessed July 29, 11 from

Open CourseWare Consortium. “What is open courseware?” Accessed July 29, 11 from

Simonson, M. Smaldino, S., Albright, M., and Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and Learning at a Distance (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Faustino  |  April 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    I seldom leave a response, but i did some searching and wound up here Planning Open Courses for
    Distance Learners | Take Home Messages. And
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