Delivering Instruction to the Distance Learner

Delivering Instruction to the Distance Learner

Lawrence A. Tomei (Robert Morris University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-824-6.ch012


During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of alternatives to traditional higher education developed in the United States as a direct result of numerous social upheavals. National trends that included the rapidly rising costs of traditional education, curiosity with informal and nontraditional education, increasingly mobile populations, growth of career-oriented predilection, the quickening pace of new technologies (and, therefore, the need for learning new skills), and general public dissatisfaction with educational institutions brought about a mounting interest in distance learning.
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Distance education is hardly a new phenomenon. Its beginnings are rooted well over one hundred years ago in the extension models of Oxford and Cambridge. In the mid-1960s, the United States developed the Correspondence Education Research Project that investigated the effectiveness of the infant correspondence study programs in American higher education. Before that, military training during and after World War II was firmly grounded in mail-order courses especially for follow-on education after basic training. Into the 1970's, ground-breaking programs such as the University without Walls project at Sierra University promoted student-centered learning apart from the traditional classroom campus environment. Using a technology-based modality of the times, Chicago’s ‘Sunrise Semester’ (circa 1959) offered film-based classes as its instructional media. Coastline Community College and Dallas Community College were early innovators of educational television earning them a reputation as one of the first “virtual colleges”, with over 18,500 students at their peak enrollment.

Online courses have become very popular, particularly in higher education. In the 2003 Sloan-C Online Learning Survey Report, it was found that “Over 1.6 million students took at least one online course during Fall 2002.” Enrollments in online classes expanded rapidly since 2000, but growth slowed in 2006. Recent increases are being attributed to the rising cost of gasoline. Pricing policies for online courses vary by campus, but most classes cost as much as, or more than, traditional ones. One Florida Community College reported a 24.5 percent increase in summer semester online enrollment in 2008 (New York Times, July 11, 2008). While most universities and colleges have established training programs to prepare their faculty to teach online, school systems are just beginning to address this need.

Although the demands for teaching online are minimal, many otherwise excellent classroom teachers continue to fall short. When considering qualifications, it is assumed by many that teachers already possess the skills and competencies of the traditional environment. For that reason, many institutions require their online teachers to first evidence competency as a traditional classroom instructor. Other common pre-conditions for online teachers include first hand experience as an online learner. Most institutions seek instructors who have themselves taken online courses – and, naturally, possess evidence of their own successes as an online learner. Also, online teachers must demonstrate a comfort level with the hardware and software tools that will be provided as the course platform. Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn, CyberLearning Labs, Intralearn, Angel, Moodle, and others allow institutions to provide online environments for distance, on-campus and hybrid learning.

To be an effective online instructor, the teacher must exhibit a flexible teaching approach and a willingness to experiment and condone experimentation among their students. Online teachers must enjoy one-on-one interaction in lieu of classroom lecturing or even group presentations. And, they must be comfortable in front of a computer for several hours every day. Some unsuccessful online teachers have difficulty establishing a routine, remaining online for extended periods, and complying with the personal demands on their time (students often expect teachers to respond immediately to emails). Technical issues thwart many would-be instructors who fail to appreciate that technology is vulnerable to problems and can misdirect and confound instruction if backups and alternatives are not previously considered. Online teachers must be flexible and accommodating.

While there are no commonly accepted standards regarding online teaching skills, the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) established by International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), have offered some skills and competencies for all teachers that focus on technology. For example, NETS suggest that all teachers be proficient in the use of the basic interpersonal elements of online courses: email, threaded discussions, real-time conferencing, chat rooms, etc. All teachers should be able to recognize the characteristics of successful distance learners and describe techniques for effective online teaching (see Table 1). Quality, strategies, and legal and ethical issues with respect to technology-based courses are also of paramount importance. A typical curriculum of competencies over and above the traditional pre-service teacher courses is shown below.

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