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More and more students are finding themselves learning 'at a distance', even in institutions that are ostensibly single-mode face-to-face (f2f) teaching establishments. So, whether or not we see ourselves as engaged in the business of distance education, all academics need to have a basic understanding of the requirements of distance learners and some idea of how best to support them while they attempt to learn.
This guide is a distillation of the essential elements of distance education and a succinct guide to how to produce effective distance learning materials. It is not a course in developing full-blown distance learning courses. But the underlying rules, tips and tricks are precisely those that go in to the best examples of such courses. Many of them will also benefit f2f learners if applied with imagination.
There is a plethora of excellent guides to the production and presentation of distance learning materials. A number of these are listed at the end and if you are serious about developing distance learning modules, you are strongly recommended to consult them. The best I can hope to do here is to provide a number of aides mémoires and attempt to encapsulate some of the accepted wisdom on distance learning. If you are hoping to develop a distance learning module for yourself, you would be wise to follow the guidelines provided here. But all such activities are experimental so have a go, enlist the learners in the experiment and see what happens!
This guide is styled as a short practitioner's guide with a number of brief activities. First, though, I am going to go over just a few of the key ideas.
Open learners study in their own time and at their own pace (within reason - more on this later). Distance learners are physically and/or temporally remote from each other and their 'teachers'. So each type of learner has their own needs. Try this:
So, you see, open learners need not be distant and distance learning need not be open.
Open and distance learning (ODL) is the term coined to cover the common ground between both types of learner. You need to decide where on each of the scales of open-ness and distance you want or expect your learners to be.
One of the key questions to address as a provider of ODL is the extent and manner of support you will be offering to learners. All learners need access to some kind of 'tutor' to help guide them through the sticky patches. The range of possibilities extends from old-fashioned 'correspondence tuition' to regular f2f meetings and includes student/student peer support. Many factors combine to influence what level of support is appropriate, ranging from the geographical distribution of learners to the cost of providing a given level of service. But support there must be if learners are to complete in any numbers.
The advent of widespread domestic access to the Internet has dramatically altered educational providers' views of ODL. The concept of 'putting the course notes on the World Wide Web' and thereby creating a course has, thankfully, now largely been discredited. But there remains the feeling that anyone with a computer is a potential 'e-learner' - for which read 'sales prospect'. I have attempted in this guide to adopt an approach that is independent of the medium of delivery or presentation of the learning materials. The principles of good ODL apply just as much to e-learning as traditional approaches, if not more so. The computer provides a great opportunity to do some things better (or at least differently). But it presents many pitfalls to the obsessive technophile.
According to Rowntree (1994) among others, to be effective, ODL materials have to be:
To these, I would add a fourth characteristic:
Why are you reading this? Stop and write down at least two plausible
reasons. (I'm not going to provide any answers to this - the
reasons must be your own.)
Was it clear enough at the beginning that your needs were likely to be satisfied by what you would find here? The point is a general one: it's not enough simply to have a clear sense of purpose when you prepare ODL materials, you also have to communicate that clearly to the learner. So how do we define and communicate purpose?
The most obvious definition of purpose for a learning package is what the learner will be able to do at the end - the vogue term is 'learning outcomes' but historically the word 'objectives' has also been widely used. The most successful ODL materials have always had clear statements of outcomes couched in terms that are unambiguous. For me, the test of a good learning outcome is whether the learner can point to some specific evidence that they have achieved it. Try this.
Of course to demonstrate any learning outcome you have to do something. So why not rewrite the outcome in terms of what the learner should be able to do? It takes a little more thought but can be much more informative for the learner. Linking outcomes to some form of assessment reinforces the learner's sense of purpose.
Test each of your outcome statements by asking yourself always 'What evidence could I produce to show that I could now do that?'
Most of us have come to terms with living in an 'outcomes-focussed' learning environment. Everything we do has to be circumscribed by one or more sets of learning outcomes; the two principal reference points for the materials science and engineering community are the 'benchmark statements' produced by the Quality Assurance Agency (Quality Assurance Agency, 2000 and 2002) and the 'output standards' under development by the Engineering Professors' Council (Engineering Professors Council, 2001). It takes a little creativity to turn a benchmark statement into a learning outcome statement. But a well-constrained learning module lends itself quite easily to such descriptions. I recommend the following approach:
For example, suppose you were planning a short ODL module on corrosion at a relatively advanced level (assuming some prior knowledge of the subject). The relevant benchmark statements work as follows:
The benchmark statements for Materials (Quality Assurance Agency, 2002) suggest under 'Materials related knowledge and skills' that:
...materials graduates will have ... some familiarity with relevant concepts associated with ... degradation/durability of materials - effect of liquid and gaseous environments on the performance of different material types.
Given the level of the module, you might be pitching the outcomes at 'Attainment level B' according to the benchmarking document, which states that:
New knowledge is readily acquired ... Routine calculations, explanations, interpretations and analysis are executed accurately. Understanding of relevant facts and techniques is good.
The relevant benchmark statement for Engineering (Quality Assurance Agency, 2000) is to be found under the heading of 'Knowledge and understanding' in the 'Design' category. At a 'good&' attainment level, graduates are expected to have:
knowledge and understanding of the characteristics of engineering materials and components.
Now write out what you think would be an appropriate learning outcome for this module on corrosion, recognizing the benchmarks statements for both materials and engineering. You might need to leave some gaps in the outcome statement to take account of the actual content of the module.4
Once you have a set of learning outcomes, you need to ensure that the module itself adequately supports those outcomes and is designed in such a way that learners collect evidence that they have achieved them as they study.
The structure of a learning module is of paramount importance in maintaining a learner's interest. Just as with purpose, the structure must be clear to the learners and this will allow them to exert some control over how they learn. Distance learners can feel extremely isolated and a feeling of control is a great boost to self confidence.
There are a number of ways of structuring ODL materials, each of which can be equally effective but each has its distinct advantages and disadvantages. The following brief list encompasses most options:
Think always in terms of a narrative. People find it easiest to follow something that has a beginning, a middle and an end - something akin to a 'learning journey'. The narrative does not have to reside explicitly within the learning resources. It can be constructed by the learner themselves, under your guidance or in collaboration with other learners. The choice of structure you adopt is crucial to deciding how to provide a narrative but a random collection of 'learning objectives' is not likely to motivate the learner.
In the case of teaching narratives, you are going to have to construct the learning materials effectively from scratch. You should not underestimate the commitment this requires and the time and trouble you will have to take.
Continuing with the subject of corrosion, one way of structuring a linear teaching narrative might be (don't take this too literally):
Having written such a text, you must ensure that it is reviewed for accuracy and edited for sense and style by other colleagues. Of course this will add time to its production but will more than repay the time cost in increased effectiveness.
An alternative way of providing such a learning package is to use existing published texts to cover the same ground. You could keep the same order of material that I have suggested above but this time provide a specified list of readings under each of the headings (with the possible exception of the introduction). Such readings, however, are likely to be crucially deficient in many of the key attributes of ODL materials that I have listed in previous and subsequent sections. So you can provide them in a narrative commentary. This is your opportunity, of course, to criticize the established view on the subject. Mostly, though, you need to think about how to assist the learner actually to learn from the given texts by incorporating appropriate interaction.
A different approach is to turn the narrative on its head. Given that effective learning involves doing things, a good way of generating learner-focussed learning materials is to set the learners one or more tasks and guide them to the sources of information they need to complete the task. Here the learner will be providing much of the narrative for themselves and this approach requires a significantly higher level of sophistication from both you and the learner.
This last approach highlights the fact that the structure you adopt can depend as much on the abilities and stage of development of the learners as on what you are hoping to achieve. So you might consider a progression from purpose-written narratives at Level 1 to more of a resource-based learning approach at Level 3.
Race (1992) is worth consulting for more ideas and suggestions.
I mentioned earlier that open learners study at their own pace. Those experienced in ODL will know, though, that completely open-ended study is rarely effective. Most learners will lose momentum at some stage and, without a truly pressing need to continue, will rarely pick things up again. Mostly the pressing need is some form of assessment, so here we have one of the main techniques for pacing learners - deadlines!
Assessment deadlines can be published in a study calendar which also provides you with an opportunity to suggest the overall pace of study you expect from the learner. The pace itself should be a balance between what you think is reasonable to expect from the learner (given that they are studying at a distance and in conjunction with other activities) and how the particular learning module ties in with other modules in the programme.
Interaction, both learner-to-learner and learner-to-tutor, is another powerful method of ensuring learners maintain an appropriate pace, and judicious intervention by tutors can help motivate and encourage learners to keep going. The role of the tutor in distance learning is a subject in its own right and I recommend you consult one of the sources listed under 'Further reading' if you wish to pursue this further.
Do you want to know what comes next? Why? Is it really that important to you or have I managed to excite your interest despite more pressing demands on your time?
Look back over the previous section of this guide and identify at least three devices I have used to engage your interest. Which do you think is most important and why5?
There really is little point producing learning materials that don't engage the learners in the process of learning. As academics we tend to present information in just about as dull a fashion as is imaginable. But think about it from a learner's perspective. Would they rather be working through your stuff or doing the ironing? I can think of many occasions when the ironing seemed infinitely preferable. And, unlike the captive audience in a lecture theatre, there is actually nothing stopping the distance learner getting up and walking away when they lose interest. So you have to put some serious thought into engaging and motivating the learner.
Some of the rules of engagement in distance learning are not so obvious so here are a few notes that you might find helpful.
As I stated earlier I've used an approach that has avoided discussing the medium in which the learning module might be presented. The fashion over the last decade in ODL has been a steady move towards electronic media (stand-alone and networked). But as the developer of an ODL module you should think carefully about the appropriateness of the media you intend to use.
Write down two advantages and two disadvantages to presenting study materials on a computer screen rather than sending learners traditional materials such as print and cassette.6
The actual choice of the mix of media should be led by a combination of the learner's needs and your own. The effectiveness of the learning experience hinges more on aspects of purpose, structure, pacing and engagement than on precisely which media you choose.
Any discussion of media would be incomplete without some reference to current legislation on disability. The best advice on this must be to consult the experts as to what is practicable at as early a stage as possible. I have included a checklist point on this in the template that follows.
The guidelines presented in this guide formed the basis of a workshop hosted by The Open University, Department of Materials Engineering on behalf of the UK Centre for Materials Education in October 2001. I should like to extend my gratitude to David Baume who, as then Director of the Centre for Higher Education Practice (CeHEP), made a major contribution to that workshop and contributed to the material presented here.
Engineering Professors Council (2001)
The EPC Engineering Graduate Output Standard, http://www.engprofc.ac.uk/op/op10.html,
London: Engineering Professors Council
Quality Assurance Agency (2000)
Engineering benchmark statements, http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/benchmark/benchmarking.htm
Quality Assurance Agency (2002)
Materials benchmark statements, http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/benchmark/phase2consult.htm
The Department for Education and Skills (http://www.dfes.gov.uk) offers a range of immensely informative Guides for Managers, Practitioners and Researchers in open and distance learning, commissioned by their Lifelong Learning and Technologies Division. These include many well-documented case studies.
There are a number of good books available to help with the job of developing ODL materials and supporting distance learners. In particular:
Rowntree, Derek, (1994) Preparing materials for open, distance and flexible learning: an action guide for teachers and trainers, London: Kogan Page
Race, Phil, (1992) 53 interesting ways to write open learning materials, Bristol: Technical and Educational Services
Salmon, Gilly, (2000) E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online, London: Kogan Page
Salmon, Gilly, (2002) E-tivities: the key to active online learning, London: Kogan Page
Simpson, Ormond, (2002) Supporting students in open and distance learning, London: Kogan Page
The University of Plymouth, Department of Telematics maintains a website of Distance education resources, lists and contacts, http://www.fae.plym.ac.uk/tele/resources.html
The National Extension College (http://www.nec.ac.uk) offers courses in online tutoring.
The Open University (http://www.open.ac.uk) offers postgraduate courses in Open and Distance Education.
BAOL, The British Association for Open Learning (http://www.baol.co.uk)
is a forum for UK providers of
ODL, mostly from the private sector.
EADL, The European Association for Distance Learning (http://www.eadl.org) offers a Europe-wide forum for ODL providers.
EADTU, The European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (http://www.eadtu.nl) concentrates on HE providers in the public sector.
ICDL, The International Centre for Distance Learning (http://www-icdl.open.ac.uk) maintains a vast database of information about all aspects of ODL.
ICDE, The International Council for Open and Distance Education (http://www.icde.org) is a global organization supporting ODL providers that sponsors a biennial World Conference which attracts thousands of delegates from many different countries. They have just (March 2003) launched an International Standards Agency to accredit courses and programmes worldwide.
ODL QC (http://www.odlqc.org.uk) is an accrediting organization for ODL providers, mostly below HE level and in the private sector. Their Quality Standards (http://www.odlqc.org.uk/standard.htm) are a model of their kind.