A successful learning system consists of “learners, the content, the method and materials, and the environment, including technology . . . The components must interact both efficiently and effectively to produce quality learning experiences . . . It is only with the careful planning for their BALANCE and interface that learning is the result” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 127) (emphasis added). The author continues that “another critical part of the process is evaluation . . . vital to determine what works and what needs to be improved” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 127).
These statements from the resources concisely summarize the most important elements of pre-planning for a distance learning course. Therefore, the most important aspect of pre-planning is PREPARATION. As a systems fan, structure and definition and planning are my mainstay. It comes as no surprise to me that “one key to effective distance education is correct instructional design, a systematic process that applies research-based principals to educational practice” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 146). The difficulty is in the number of steps to include in the system.
For instance, our text provides guidelines or best practices for a few different researchers in the field such as Bates, Foley, Indiana Partnership for Statewide Education (IPSE), and Graham, Cagiltay, Lim, Craner, and Duffey, all of whom have a system designed to meet the needs of distance learners. Moore (1999) posits “those needs, ‘what all distant learners want, and deserve’ include:
- Content that they feel is relevant to their needs
- Clear directions for what they should do at every stage of the course
- As much control of the pace of learning as possible
- A means of drawing attention to individual concerns
- A way of testing their progress and getting feedback from their instructors
- Materials that are useful, active and interesting” (as cited in Simonson et al., 2009, p. 151).
Preparation in a System
Returning back to the beginning of the elements necessary for a successful learning system it is possible to break each component down into sub-components for analysis. First, it is vitally important to know the learner. “By knowing more about students, the instructor can develop supporting materials to individualize instruction. Varying the presentation to match different learning styles (e.g., animation, text, verbal descriptions, visual messages) can also ensure the greatest potential for reaching all learners” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 129). Second, it is crucial that the instructor decide for the learner what content is “essential.” “Concepts, knowledge, and specific skills needs to be identified. Supporting information or knowledge is important to the scope of content analysis. Follow-up and application of the content should be considered” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 131). It is up to the instructor and/or a subject matter expert (SME) to make these determinations as there are many time and economic constraints making it prohibitive to provide ALL available content. Third, the methods chosen for the course. Again, this is determined by the instructional designer and/or instructor. In a distance learning environment decisions such as synchronous or asynchronous interaction, application projects, group projects, and delivery are just some of the issues to consider. Additionally, a communication network needs to be established with policies and guidelines. Fourth, materials and resources become crucial for design and completion. Issues such as visuals, color, copyright, handouts and student accessibility and/or distribution of materials become important. It is also important to have the evaluation materials premade in order to determine which aspects work and which do not so that revisions can be made. Media selection is also of paramount importance. “The first criterion is to match the medium to the curriculum or content. Other criteria include the accuracy of information, motivational quality, engagement quality, technical quality, and unbiased nature of material” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 133). All of these elements intersect and mesh within the fifth component, environment and technology. According to Hirumi (2000) a common to all systems is that “a system is a set of interrelated components that work together to achieve a common purpose” (as cited in Simonson et al., 2009, p. 147). The downside to a system approach is also the upside. “Because education (including distance education) is a system, each of its elements interacts with other elements, making difficult the isolation of elements. Interaction (its type, quantity, quality, timing, etc.) for instance, cannot be separated from instructional philosophy, choice of media, and other factors” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 150).
My personal experiences support the importance of a balanced and comprehensive systematic approach. As a face-to-face instructor a systematic and balanced design is necessary. Unfortunately, prior to becoming an instructor my credentialing program did not provide any information and/or tools with which to approach instruction this way. In addition, there were severe time constraints in that there was no time to prepare, design, implement and evaluate properly. Everything was rapid prototyping all the way. I spent a great deal of time “knowing my learners,” determining essential content, designing materials and implementing my design on the fly. It is unfortunate I was often unable to have the evaluation materials ready before the beginning the lessons as that would have been very helpful. As it were each semester’s reflections and evaluations contributed to improvements for the next semester. Often, I would implement changes in the interim, if possible, but that sometimes made things seem more unfocused.
My experiences within the distance learning environment are evidence to the contrary. Clearly, a great deal of time was taken to develop materials that are suitable and appropriate. There are policies and procedures, tutorials and guidelines. The instructors are professional and provide rubrics to follow. Media, tutorials, and software are chosen for effectiveness and efficiency. Content is essential and economized to the busy distant learner’s lifestyle. Please note that is not to say that the course is light in the preparation and/or learning department on the part of the student. In fact, as discussed in the resources, I spend far more time reading, preparing, reflecting, studying and (amazingly) participating. In fact, our text hit the point right on the nose on page 130. “Students can benefit from a wider range of cognitive, linguistic, cultural and affective styles they would not encounter in a self-contained classroom… When special efforts are made, distance education actually can enhance learning experiences, expand horizons, and facilitate group collaboration… Students can have more direct experiences with the information …time for reflection is possible …the ability to work with peers or experts” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 130). I know I have benefitted tremendously from this environment. The time spent in reflection, often days, weeks and even classes later has been amazing. There is information I learned a year ago in my courses in Organization course and Learning Theories that I still go back to review and integrate into my current learnings. This level of educational transformation never occurred for me in a traditional environment.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.