Principles of Learning through Distance Education

Contents: Mission StatementsOnline Leadership CommitteeForms of Distance EducationTraining RequirementsPrinciples of Learning through DEDE Course Expectations – Proctoring in DE – Accessibility in DE Courses – DE Course Revision Process – Intellectual Property Rights for DE

Fundamental teaching and learning standards for undergraduate education also apply to teaching online and hybrid courses. This means that the following principles, based on Chickering and Gamson’s best practices for undergraduate education, should inform distance education courses.

Encourage Contact between Students and Faculty

Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances student’s intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • You can encourage interaction by sending out a welcome letter before class starts or asking your students to introduce themselves the first few days of class. These are two simple ways to ease students’ anxiety and help them feel like they’re part of an online learning community.
  • Provide lots of activities for student interaction throughout the course. Setup team assignments, discussion forums, or chat rooms so that students have an opportunity to interact and share opinions and experiences.
  • It’s highly recommended that you log in to your course daily (even on the weekends) to check for messages from students and contribute to discussions, especially early in the semester. At the very least, check for messages from students 3-4 times per week and respond in a timely manner. Most students are comfortable with a response that is received within 1-2 days, but are appreciative if one comes sooner. If you are going out of town or will be unreachable, let your students know ahead of time.
  • Try to make yourself more available when you know that a deadline is approaching in your course. This is a time when students might need some reassurance or some guidance about a project.

Develop Reciprocity and Cooperation among Students

Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort that a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one’s own ideas and responding to others’ reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • Your students will eagerly welcome your voice and perspective into their online discussions. They view you as the expert and are eager to learn from you and your experiences.
  • If a student is being disrespectful of another student’s opinion, then make sure they know it’s not an acceptable way to behave. An online classroom should be a safe place to learn and share, so respect needs to be present (just as it is in a face-to-face classroom). It’s okay to have debates or disagreements, but it needs to be done in a respectful manner.

Encourage Active Learning

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • In an online class, students are in charge of their own learning. The instructor is there to facilitate or guide the learners, but the learner is primarily responsible for interacting with the content and the learning community.
  • Many of the face-to-face methods, such as “think-pair-share” can be used in the online environment. Tools like discussion forums, can be adapted for use with these techniques, as long as your instructions and expectations are clearly made beforehand.
  • Active learning is based on students reflecting and then applying ideas covered by the course. There are both traditional forms of expression (e.g. projects, portfolios) as well as more contemporary methods you can try (e.g. games and simulations). See Conrad and Donaldson, 2011, for examples.
  • Many online active learning approaches will involve collaborative work involving teams of students. Think about how best to organize the students into teams in your course to prevent frustration in setting up each activity.
  • When introducing new types of activities, it’s important to help all students experiment and adjust to the approach you are using. This might include using a low stakes assignment at first to help students acclimatize and adapt.

Give Prompt Feedback

Knowing what you know and don’t know focuses learning. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses. When getting started, students need help in assessing existing knowledge and competence. In classes, students need frequent opportunities to perform and receive suggestions for improvement. At various points during college, and at the end, students need chances to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how to assess themselves.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • The keys to successfully providing feedback in your online course are being timely and detailed. Try to return your students’ assignments within a few days, at the very most, most within two weeks. They don’t see you like they would in a face-to-face course, so they’re often wondering how they’re doing. Work very hard at providing more thorough, detailed feedback to your online learners. This is one of the few forms of communication they have with you about their learning and progress in their course. Simply letting your learners know that they understand a concept, or have done well at a particular task, will give them a boost and let them know that you have a vested interest in their learning.
  • If a student is struggling with a particular topic or assignment, then give them some guidance and an opportunity to improve their work. They may just need a little clarification about what’s expected, or may need to have a real-life example shared with them to help them grasp a difficult concept.

Emphasize Time on Task

Time plus energy equals learning. There is no substitute for time on task. Learning to use one’s time well is critical for students and professionals alike. Students need help in learning effective time management. Allocating realistic amounts of time means effective learning for students and effective teaching for faculty. How an institution defines time expectations for students, faculty, administrators, and other professional staff can establish the basis of high performance for all.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • In your syllabus or welcome letter, you need to let students know how much time you expect them to dedicate to coursework each week. Throughout your course modules, let students know how long they should expect to spend reading articles, responding in forums, and/or completing assignments and assessments. This will help them better manage their time.
  • Help your learners be successful. Send out a brief list of deliverables that are due each week. This will help keep them on task and ensure that they haven’t missed something.

Communicate High Expectations

Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone — for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well-motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • On the first day of classes, send out a brief welcome letter to students and let them know what your expectations are. As the course progresses, provide clear expectations and guidance within your content modules, assignments, forum topics, and assessments. Grading rubrics are an excellent way to communicate your expectations to students because the student knows what criteria you’ll be focusing on as you review their work.

Respect Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college. Brilliant students in the seminar room may be all thumbs in the lab or art studio. Students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well with theory. Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learn in new ways that do not come so easily.

In the distance education environment, consider:

  • Provide course content and feedback in various ways throughout the course. Some students prefer written content, while others enjoy audio and video formats.
  • Provide some flexibility in your assignments and assessments. Give students the option of writing an essay, preparing a video response, or constructing a presentation.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin: p 3-7.

Conrad, R. M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the Online Learner. Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction (updated edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

From: Used with permission.

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Dr. Paul Ramp, Director


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