What Hawaiian Quilting Taught Me About Distance Learning

A few years ago, I took a Hawaiian Quilting class from Quilt University. While I had been quilting for a few years, this was my first quilting class. It

Hawaiian Quilt Block

I learned to Hawaiian Quilt online.

was also my first experience with distance learning since Quilt University is a wholly online quilting school. Each week, I would download a detailed lesson from the instructor and complete the work at my own pace. I would post pictures and receive feedback from the instructor and my classmates. There was also a threaded discussion board for the class where we would work through problems, swap tips, and learn from each other. By the end of the course I successfully produced a Hawaiian quilt block and learned to do needle-turn appliqué. The course also introduced me to the potential that lies in distance learning.

Over the next 5 to 10 years, I think perceptions of distance learning, particularly online learning, will begin to shift and people will expect to be able to access learning at any time and in any place. Many people are being exposed to distance learning – good and bad – in their workplace as organizations more towards more online learning (Moller, et. al., 2009). People are also casually learning online as they look up how to put together a bike on YouTube©, use a QR code in the store to learn more about a new product, or tap into their social network on Facebook© or Twitter© to solve a problem. Increasingly, knowledge and information are distributed across networks instead of being concentrated in one place (Siemens, 2008). Learning is becoming less about knowing the answer, and more about knowing how to find the most current and most relevant answer when it is needed. Mobile access to information means that people are becoming less tied to computers. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 35% of American adults own smartphones and 25% of those people say they prefer to use their phones to go online instead of a computer (Smith, 2011). In 10 to 15 years, learning will be everywhere.

Of course improving the perceptions of distance learning is dependent on the availability of quality learning experiences. This does notComputer button that says Distance Learning mean putting content on YouTube and making handouts readable on a mobile phone. It means developing distance learning experiences that are built on the fundamental principles of effective education and learning theories. I returned to Quilt University for three other courses after my first experience, not because it was online but because it met my needs as a learner. The skills taught in each course were broken down into meaningful chunks which students could work through at their own pace (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Adult learning principles were used as the facilitator provided a supportive learning environment that included clear descriptions, learning objectives, resources and timelines (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Scaffolding was also used to help students move from basic to more complex skills, and feedback was provided to help learners refine their skills and stay motivated. Consistent with Hilary Perraton’s theory of distance education, learners participated in frequent, regular activities beyond reading course materials, and group discussion was effectively used to facilitate learning (Simonson, et. al., 2009). I could be a successful distance learner at Quilt University because it was structured with my needs as a learner and the learning outcomes in mind.

Moving forward, instructional designers can continue to improve the field of distance education by staying focused on the needs of the learners and grounded in theory. Instructional designers will need to continuously reexamine existing theories in light of how technology and communication evolve over time. New theories may emerge to better predict how people learn in this environment, and it will be necessary to continue to learn about developments in this area. We need to understand more about how people use emergent technologies to process, store and retrieve information (Moller, et. al., 2009). This will provide the necessary frameworks to develop effective learning strategies (Simonson & Saba). New technologies and new theories may mean new approaches to designing and facilitating instruction (Beldarrain, 2006). We must be prepared to apply new tools and techniques, and manage shifting roles and responsibilities. Instructional designers will also need to look at how learning outcomes are assessed in the online environment and how the impact of distance learning is evaluated (Moller, et., al., 2009). Again, this may require adapting existing assessment and evaluation methods, and possibly developing new ones. If distance learning does not work, it will not continue to be adopted. We need to develop and apply methods to measure learning outcomes and the transfer of new knowledge and skills to performance (Moller, et. al., 2009). As instructional designers, we can continue to improve the distance learning experience by remaining lifelong learners who continuously evaluate our work and put what we learn into practice.


Moller, L., Foshay, W., and Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional designe on the potential of the web. TechTrends, 52(3), 70 – 75.

Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and Knowing in Networks. Presented to the ITFORUM for Discussion.

Simonson, M. and Saba, F. “Theory and Distance Learning”. Walden University.

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

Smith, A. (2011, July 11). “Smartphone Adoption and Usage.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved August 18, 2011 from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Smartphones.aspx.

Untitled image of distance learning button. Retrieved August 20, 2011 from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=learning&ctt=1#ai:MP900387761|mt:2|

Currie, K. (2011). Hawaiian Quilt Block. From personal collection.


August 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm 2 comments

Converting to Blended Learning: Best Practices

Click here to open a PDF of this guide. Link opens in a new window.

Frustrated by the quality of communication among trainees during in-person training, a training manager decides to convert all training modules to a blended learning format. This would allow participants and trainers to interact in both a face-to-face and online environment. He is considering putting all of his training materials on a server so participants have access to course resources and assignments at all times.

Girl Mixing BatterTraining managers may have a variety of motivations for pursuing blended learning approaches – frustration with in-person courses, lack of time and resources, or pressure to try something new. Blended courses have several advantages over face-to-face training alone. Findings from a Department of Education meta-analysis of research in online learning found that blended learning approaches had stronger outcomes than face-to-face courses without online components (Means, et. al., 2009).  This was attributed in part to students in online courses spending more time learning and engaged in active learning experiences (Means, et. al., 2009). Online discussions may encourage more thoughtful responses from participants because they have time to reflect on what the content, access additional resources, and craft well thought out responses resulting in deeper learning (Center for Online Learning, Research and Service; Simonson, et. al., 2009). For participants, blended learning can be more convenient and flexible while still offering the group interaction sometimes missed in completely online courses (Moore, 2004). For organizations, one of the limitations of in- person training is lack of transfer of knowledge and skills from training to the job. Blended learning offers the opportunity to extend learning as participants go back to work. This can provide cognitively-oriented performance support as the employees begin to apply what they have learned (Moller, et. al., 2008).

However, adapting a course for blended learning is not simply a matter of setting up a chat room and putting all of the course materials online. Blended learning presents opportunities and challenges for learners and facilitators that must be taken into account when planning a course. In a blended learning environment, 30% to 70% of the content is delivered online while the rest is delivered in-person (Simonson, et. al., 2009). However, Dzubian, et. al, argue that blended learning should not simply be defined by how much content is offered online, but should instead be approached as a “fundamental redesign of the instructional model” (p 3) which shifts from faculty-  to learner- centered instruction and increased interaction among participants with peers, the instructor and outside resources (Dzubian, et. al, 2004). In a blended learning environment, the facilitator must be prepared to step back from the role of “sage on the stage” and create a supportive environment in which learners are self-directed and engaged in collaborative learning. These arguments are supported by the Department of Education study which found that online instruction that supported learner reflection, self-regulation, and self-monitoring led to more positive outcomes (Means, et. al., 2009). The study also suggested that there might be learning advantages to giving participants control over online resources (Means, et. al., 2009). These strategies are core principles in models and theories such as andragogy (adult learning), connectivism, and the theory of interaction and communication (Davis, et. al., 2008; Simonson, et al., 2009).

In adapting an in-person course for blended learning, the training manager will have to adopt strategies to promote independent learning, participant and facilitator interaction, and participant collaboration. Key factors for the success of blended learning include a theory based instructional model, learner support, and trainer preparation (Dzubian, et., al., 2004) . Theories and models such as adult learning theory, connectivism, and the theory of interaction and communication provide useful guiding frameworks for planning the redevelopment of course content and developing strategies to support learners and facilitators.

Adapting face-to-face courses for use online requires careful planning to effectively integrate the in-person and face-to-face components (Moore, 2004). The course materials and activities may need to be redesigned, new activities and resources will have to be developed and instructors will have to be trained to work in the new environment. The training manager will also need to fully understand the technical capabilities of the organization and the learners who will need to access the online components of the course.

Course Content

Examine course content and identify which sections would be suited to in-person instruction and which would be suited for online learning (Moore, 2004). It is worthwhile to examine training evaluations to identify portions of the course that might be improved by online strategies. Online learning is well suited to facilitating discussions, reflection, group activities, games, and the use of multimedia resources (Center for Online Learning, Research and Service; Simonson, et. al., 2009).  Connectivist learning strategies that encourage learners to collect and synthesize knowledge from across information networks are also well suited to online learning (Seimens, 2008). Consider the different types of technology that can be used to support these strategies such as wikis, blogs, and podcasts (Seimens, 2008). The in-person time can be spent engaged in activities better suited to face-to-face interaction such as orienting learners to the technology, building relationships to support the online learning community, hands on practice, oral presentations and learner assessment (Simonson, et. al., 2009).

Learner Needs

When considering the needs of your participants, identify needs related to the learning outcomes and related to technical support issues.

Learning Outcomes

An existing course is likely to already have learning outcomes, however these should be reexamined when preparing to transition to a blended course. The blended course will need to be focused on the essential content learners need in order to meet the learning objectives. Consistent with principles of adult learning, content should also be focused on the needs of the learners (Simonson, 2009). Extraneous information can eat up limited time in the in-person portion of the course, and cause learners to lose motivation and focus in the online portion of the course (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Craft interactive activities and engaging discussions that help learners process information, connect new content with existing knowledge and experiences, and share what they have learned with others (Kop, 2011; Siemens, 2008).  Go beyond text based resources and incorporate video, audio, and animation where appropriate (Simonson, et. al., 2009). The training manager must also recognize that learners in the online environment are responsible for tasks traditionally fulfilled by the instructor in a face-to-face course such as time management, motivation and assessing progress. Think through the metacognitive tools and resources that can be provided to support self-directed learning and self-assessment (Moore, 2004).

Technical Support Needs

The training manager will also need to assess the learners’ technical support needs. The online component of the course will be ineffective if learners cannot access the resources. This means considering different operating systems, hardware and software specifications, and security settings (Simonson, et. al., 2009). It also means considering access issues for learners who may have disabilities and use assistive technology such as screen readers and closed captioning.  Click here for more information about accessibility standards for online content.

Facilitator Needs

Similar to participants needs, there are also two dimensions to facilitator needs: content and technical support.

Preparing to Facilitate

In a blended course, the instructor will be engaged in fewer activities where he or she is pushing out information to students and taking on a more supportive role of a faciliator who guides autonomous learners who are actively engaged in collaboratively constructing knowledge (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Facilitators should be prepared to employ learner-focused teaching methods based in adult learning theory, connectivism and the theory of interaction and communication (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Facilitators will also have to be prepared for the practicalities of managing the online components of the course related to engaging students in discussion, providing feedback, responding to questions, managing appropriate online behavior, and assessing learner progress in the online environment (Moore, 2004; Simonson, et. al., 2009). The training manager will have to identify the best ways to prepare facilitators to work in the blended learning environment. One potential approach is to offer facilitator training as a blended course to model best practices (Kaleta, et. al., 2007). The training manager must also work to ensure that facilitators have adequate administrative support, particularly if they have other job or teaching requirements (Moore, 2004).

Technical Support Needs

On the technical side, instructors need to understand how to manage the online learning environment. This includes posting assignments and discussions, managing participants, uploading resources, and other administrative tasks required by the content or learning management system. The facilitator should also understand how to provide some basic technical support to the learners in the course, or at least how to direct them to appropriate support services. The training manager should ensure that the facilitators have adequate technical support to use the online tools.

Organizational Needs

The training manager must be aware of how the environmental issues within the organization impact the development and implementation of blended learning courses (Moore, 2004).  The designer must consider the systems within the organization that can support or be a barrier to blended learning, as well as the bigger picture issues of how blended learning fits in with the goals and mission of the organization.

Organizational Systems

Understanding the organization’s information technology systems is key to planning strategies that will be used in the blended learning course. It is not only important for the training manager to understand the current capabilities, but to also understand how the organization is planning to evolve the IT infrastructure over time (Moore, 2004). Engage IT managers as stakeholders in the development and deployment of distance learning early on in the planning process (Moore, 2004).  Their buy-in can help support the development process, and may even help the training manager identify untapped resources.

Meeting the Needs of the Organization

The manager should also consider organizational goals and objectives for blended learning. What is the organization trying to achieve and how is blended learning integrated into the organizational mission? Aligning the blended learning plans with the direction of the organization is key to growing and maintaining support for blended learning initiatives. The needs of the organization also have implications for how the training manager measures the value and benefits of blended learning courses (Moller, et. al., 2008).


Blended learning is likely a good option for our frustrated training manager.  Blended learning courses have demonstrated efficacy at achieving learning outcomes that are better than face-to-face courses alone (Means, et. al., 2009). Well-developed online activities support active learning, self-reflection and collaboration among peers. Participants in online courses spend more time processing new information and developing thoughtful responses to discussions resulting in deeper learning (Means, et. al., 2009).  For corporate training efforts, blended learning can provide on-the-job performance support improving transference of new knowledge and skills to the job (Siemens, 2008).

However, developing blended learning courses requires more planning than placing course materials on the server. Blended learning is not a delivery channel but an instructional approach that requires as much training as any other strategy.  The manger must review the course content to decide how to best integrate the online and in-person components. The course materials and resources will have to be revised and new interactive activities will have to be developed. The manager will need to develop resources appropriate for the online format that will meet the needs of the learners and the learning objectives. He or she will also have to ensure that learners have access to the online components and adequate technical support. Recognizing that facilitating instruction in the online component of the course will be different from instruction in the face-to-face component, trainers will have to be prepared for a shift in roles. Trainers may need to be trained to use instructional strategies more grounded in learner-centered theories such as adult learning theory, connectivism and theory of interaction and communication. Trainers will also need to be prepared to manage the online environment. In preparation for adapting the in-person course, the training manager will need to engage IT managers to understand the infrastructure in place to support blended learning. This is key to making decisions about how to develop and deliver the course content and prepare students and faculty to work in the online environment. It is also important for the training manger to understand how blended learning fits into the larger context of what the organization is trying to accomplish in order to develop appropriate evaluation approaches.

Best Practices for Adapting In-Person Courses for Blended Learning

In working through the process of adapting in-person training for blended learning, the information gathered in each domain will inform the approaches taken in the others.


Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance education trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education, 27(2), 139 – 153.

Center for Online Learning, Research and Service. “Designing a Blended Course.” University of Illinois Springfield. Retrieved August 10, 2011 from http://www.uis.edu/colrs/learning/pedagogy/blendeddesign.html#blendedbook

Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved August 9, 2011 from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/

Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., and Moskal, P. (2004). Blended Learning. EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Bulletin. Retrieved August 7, 2011 from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB0407.pdf.

Image of woman mixing batter in a kitchen. Retrieved August 12, 2011 from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=whisking – ai:MP900427694|mt:2|.

Kaleta, R., Skibba, K., and Joosten, T. (2007). “Discovering, Designing and Delivering Hybrid Courses.” In Picciano, A (Ed.), Blended Learning: Research Perspectives. Sloan Consortium. Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Kop, R. (2011). The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: Learning experiences during a massive open online course. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 19 – 38.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. US Department of Education, Washington, DC. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. and Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for Instructional design on the potential of the web. TechTrends, 52(3), 70 – 75.

Moore, J. ed. (2004). ALN Principles for Blended Environments: A Collaboration. The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved July 8, 2011 from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/books/alnprinciples2.pdf

Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. ITForum.

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

August 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm Leave a comment

Planning Open Courses for Distance Learners

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 http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ898148

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 http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/07/07/essay_on_unanswered_questions_about_open_courseware

Open CourseWare Consortium. “What is open courseware?” Accessed July 29, 11 from http://www.ocwconsortium.org/en/aboutus/whatisocw

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

July 29, 2011 at 11:16 pm 4 comments

Collaborative Web Tools for Training

The Scenario – A Collaborative Training Environment

A new automated staff information system was recently purchased by a major corporation and needs to be implemented in six regional offices. Unfortunately, the staff is located throughout all the different offices and cannot meet at the same time or in the same location. As an instructional designer for the corporation, you have been charged with implementing a training workshop for these offices. As part of the training, you were advised how imperative it is that the staff members share information, in the form of screen captures and documents, and participate in ongoing collaboration.

The challenge in this scenario is to facilitate collaborative learning at a distance.  Collaborative web technologies can be integrated into this type of training environment to engage participants in interactive, problem based group work that is focused on the real-world needs of the participants (Beldarrain, 2009). They can also be used to help learners and facilitators keep content relevant and up to date despite distance and time constraints (Beldarrain, Y, 2006). In this scenario, I would consider the use of two web based tools – wikis and microblogs.


A wikki is made up of user-generated web pages focused on specific topics (Beldarrain, 2009). Users can structure and organize the content in the wiki in the ways that make the most sense for what they are trying to accomplish. They can include links, video, audio and documents. In our scenario, participants could upload screen captures and documents that other participants could comment on and edit. Participants can continue to update the wiki as they move what they learn in training out into the field. The wiki becomes a repository of relevant, timely information that users can refer back to when needed; and that subsequent training participants can learn from and contribute to.

The Adult Literacy and Education Wiki is a community of practice of researchers, educators, students and adult learners on topics of adult literacy, numeracy and basic and secondary education.


Wikis are useful tools for creating, organizing and sharing collective knowledge. But what about when participants have an insight or idea they would like to process with others? What about when they are working in the field and come across a bit of useful information or tip that might make life easier? If you think of a wiki as working together in a virtual conference room, then a microblog is running into someone at the water cooler and sharing something you just figured out.

People around a water cooler

Microblogging is like running into someone at the water cooler

Microblogging tools offer a solution for more informal collaboration and learning. It allows users to post short amounts of text, video, audio and pictures through the internet, mobile applications and text messages. Users can also view and comment on the microblog from mobile devices. A microblog allows for blogging on the go and access to just in time information when and where it is needed.

Twitter is probably the most widely known microblogging site. However, tumblr may have broader applications in a collaborative training environment such as our training scenario. tumblr allows users to create posts that include text, links, quotes, audio and video (tumblr, 2011). Posts can be tagged for easy searching. Unlike Twitter, posts can be longer then 140 characters. It is also easier to follow the posts on a tumblr page. The posts and comments are organized and archived in one place, making it easy for viewers to follow the thread of discussions and posts. In the case of our scenario, the instructor can set up a tumblr account and give participants permission to post to it. Participants can post updates, discussion questions, screen captures or video. Like the wiki the tumblr site could become a repository for relevant timely information.

World-Shaker is a tumblr site about social media in education. It also aggregates other tumblr sites with the education tag creating a network of instructors who are blogging on tubmlr.

Take Home Message

Web tools can be useful for facilitating collaborative learning at a distance. They have the added benefit of providing relevant, up-to-date information for participants after the course. This can extend learning and collaboration well after the training and provide user generated performance support tools. Consider tools such as wikis that allow users to work together to create and curate content, as well as more lightweight tools such as microblogs which allow for more informal learning and sharing.


Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance education trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education. 27, 139 – 153.

tumblr. (2011). “About tumblr.” Accessed July 12, 2011 from http://www.tumblr.com/about.

July 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

Rethinking Distance Education

In the mid-nineties, I was working for a national non-profit organization. We had some pressing training needs for field staff but no real way to make it happen due to resource constraints. We had just started using a service that allowed us to have conference calls and I thought this might be a potentialOrange Phone solution. We could send people a slide presentation to follow on their computer and deliver the lecture over the phone. It was a pretty novel idea at the time – distance staff education.  If you had asked me at the time, I would have defined distance education as content delivered to participants who were physically separated from the instructors. Since then, my conceptualization of distance education has evolved.

Distance education has been defined as “institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunication systems are used to connect learners, resources and instructors (Simonson, et., al., 2009).” The interaction between the learners and instructors can occur at the same time (synchronous) or there can be a delay in the interaction (asynchronous).  My idea to train field staff over the phone technically fell within this definition of distance education.  However, I was thinking of simply delivering my in-person course over the phone without taking into account the limitations of the technology or its potential advantages.

According to the Sloan Consortium the ideal online learning environment for learning effectiveness includes interaction with classmates and instructors, course design that takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities, an emphasis on communications and community building, and courses that are instructor led (Moore, 2005).  While this description focuses on the online environment, I think it offers a useful vision for distance education delivered using any telecommunication platform.  Distance education isn’t classroom education that happens to be delivered over the phone, webcam or via webinar. It is an educational strategy that leverages the capabilities of the medium to promote collaboration and learning.

Beyond the Next Button

Had I narrated my slides and sent them out to participants, I don’t think it would have fallen within the above definition of distance education because of the lack of interaction between the learner and the instructor. This point has actually been a more recent “a-ha” moment for me in the evolution of my thinking on distance education. In focusing on bridging the distance, I think I may be neglecting the “education”. Distance education holds the promise of delivering educational activities to large groups of people, fairly quickly and at a lower cost than in-person training.  In a rush to convert all of our training to e-learning have we considered that a person sitting at their desk clicking through slides is not education when it lacks interaction between the learner, other learners and the instructor? Simonson et., al.’s review of various definitions of distance learning all include interaction with an instructor (2009). A learner working alone at their desk is self-study. Education involves assessment and guidance from an instructor (Simonson, 2009).

Finger clicking a mouse buttonI think web 2.0 social networking technologies hold the potential to put interaction into e-learning activities. Instead of learners clicking the next button, they can tweet an idea or response to a question to the instructor or subject matter expert.  In fact, new e-learning software is allowing designers to integrate Twitter into e-learning courses (Adobe, 2011). Learners could also click a link to join an online community of practice or contribute to a course wiki. They could share a video with classmates and the instructor, and the instructor could share one back. Instructional designers can leverage collaborative Web 2.0 tools to bring instructor interaction, community building and communication into e-learning, making it a true distance education experience.

 Take Home Message

How would I define distance education now? Education where the learner and instructor are separated, that has been specifically designed to leverage interactive telecommunication technology to connect learners to resources, instructors, subject matter experts and a community of learners.  It is not a way to deliver your in-person lecture over the phone. It is an approach to education that takes full advantage of telecommunications resources to support learning.

Mind map of my definition of distance education

My evolving definition of distance education


Moore, J.  (2005). The Sloan Consortium Quality Framework and the Five Pillars. Sloan-C, accessed July 1, 2011 from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/books/qualityframework.pdf.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

July 1, 2011 at 10:35 pm 1 comment

Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to my blog. I’m a health educator who has spent the last 15 years developing and disseminating programs to try to help people reduce their risk for chronic diseases by eating more healthfully and being more active. Since I’ve mostly worked on national programs, most of my time has been spent providing training and technical assistance to other health educators, community health workers, lay health ministers and just about anyone trying to make a difference in their community. I have discovered that my true passion is helping people who work in public health improve their ability to do their jobs. I’m currently taking courses in Instructional Design and Educational Technology because I think will help me be better at my job. I blog (when I get the chance) about how we might be better trainers, educators and communicators, and because maybe we’ll start learning from each other and stop reinventing wheels.

Check out some of the older posts and please feel free to share your ideas. Thanks for stopping by.

June 27, 2011 at 9:41 pm 4 comments

Reflections on Learning Theory and Instructional Design

Learning theories are useful tools for instructional designers. They provide a set of principles to explain how and why learning occurs. A useful theory offers predictions about how learning strategies and techniques facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills. The Learning Theory and Instructional Design course has given me the opportunity to consider how learning theories apply to the technologies that are becoming more widespread in the delivery of instruction. It has also given me the opportunity to examine emerging theories such as Connectivism that focus on the role of technology in learning. What I find striking is that, while the fundamentals of how we learn have not changed, the context in which learning takes place has evolved so that the ways in which we learn have changed.

When considering my own learning processes for example, I recognize that my basic learning preferences have remained fairly constant over the years. I have developed a set of metacognitive strategies for processing and encoding information that seem to serve me well. And the factors that reinforce and motivate my learning are pretty consistent. However, I have gained an appreciation for how much the context in which my learning takes place has changed. The most significant realization is that learning for me is an ongoing process rather than the occasional formal continuing education activity. Since knowledge is constantly evolving, I must constantly be learning. For me, this means that learning has become more social. In order to manage the need for ongoing learning, I have to be able to identify and engage knowledge and expertise across a variety of disciplines almost on-demand. I must also work with others to process and interpret information because the knowledge we gather is often ambiguous with no clear solution for the issues we are trying to address. I have become dependent on technology to facilitate this process. I use online databases, social networks, e-mail, blogs, wikis, and social bookmarks to build and maintain a personal learning network to meet my needs. This is vastly different from the ways in which I learned just a few years ago.

For me, this has several implications for how I might approach instructional design. First, it is not enough to equip learners with a body of knowledge. The so-called facts of what we know change, often in subtle but fundamental ways that we don’t communicate to learners. I think this is why health educators are always being accused of changing their minds about recommendations. More than once I have heard complaints such as, “first you said eggs were bad, then they were good again.” The reality for most health recommendations is “it depends,” but this is not what we communicate. I think we have to move away from presenting information as the absolute truth and instead equip learners with the skills to find and interpret information, work effectively with others, and contribute what they have learned back into their learning networks. This means that the role of the instructor changes from the person who is the expert imparting knowledge, to the facilitator who helps participants learn to process information, collaborate, and build good learning networks.

I think these issues reinforce the need to be grounded in theory. Technology offers opportunities to expand the delivery of education to many more people and provide just-in-time instruction. However, there is the temptation to jump on the latest innovation without considering how it may fit with what we know about the basic principles of how people learn. Technology is a tool that expands our capacity to learn when applied correctly.  For me, this course has reinforced the need to utilize learning theories as guiding frameworks for how educational technologies might support learning.

October 31, 2010 at 11:34 am 1 comment

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