Vol. 15 : No. 11< >
Editor's Note: If 2001 is the year of eLearning for industry and training, 2000 was a year when academic was reevaluating distance learning in its video and online formats. In July 2001 we reprinted the study by the National Education Association http://usdla.org/ED_magazine/illuminactive/JUL01_Issue/article01.html. In this same period, the American Federation of Teachers studied the ramifications of distance learning by gathering data from their members. Although the results are in some ways similar to the NEA study, the AFT guidelines emphasise standards and flexibility.
Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice
This report was prepared by the Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers
The term distance education is commonly used to describe courses in which nearly all the interaction between the teacher and student takes place electronically. Electronic communication may take the form of audio, video, e-mail, chat, teleconferencing, and, increasingly, the Internet. Distance education courses range from short-term training workshops to undergraduate and graduate programs for college credit.
Distance education courses for academic credit have been expanding dramatically at colleges and universities. To cite just one example, in just three years-from 1995 to 1998 - the use of Internet-based courses grew from 22 percent of institutions to 60 percent. A National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) survey estimated that more than 1.6 million students were enrolled in distance education courses in 1997-98. Proponents of distance education point out that the practice may allow learning to reach thousands or even millions more people on an "anytime anywhere" basis. This applies especially to potential students who are homebound or physically remote from a college campus, as well as students who find it extremely difficult to fit their family and work responsibilities into a traditional academic schedule.
Observers point to numerous case studies indicating comparable student performance in distance education courses. Proponents maintain that distance education is better able to foster independent study-that it is preferable to move the faculty member, as they often say, from a "sage on the stage" to a "guide on the side." Still, a good number of educators remain skeptical. Believing that teaching and learning are inherently social processes, these educators consider "same-time same-place" interaction central to a successful educational experience. Pointing to shortcomings in the research on distance education (see the 1999 AFT/NEA sponsored report, What's the Difference? [Institute for Higher Education Policy]), skeptics cite a variety of concerns, among them:
Whether distance education may be ineffective for certain types of subjects and students, leading to higher dropout rates;
AFT has long been active in distance education. In 1996, the union released its first report on the subject, Teaming up with Technology, which urged higher education unions to become involved in a host of distance education issues on their campuses, from cost and workload to intellectual property and educational quality. Follow-up reports have appeared since then. AFT has also been a leading figure in policy debates about distance education, arguing that educational quality, not financial gain, should guide where, when and how distance education is employed.
This report constitutes the next step in the AFT's involvement. In the fall 1999 academic term, the union surveyed 200 members of AFT higher education locals who are themselves practitioners of distance education. These practitioners taught distance education courses in every major academic area and delivery mode (the largest type being Web based.) The vast majority had taught equivalent on-campus classes. A summary of the survey results, along with selected individual responses, appears at the end of this report.
Drawing in large part on these responses, as well as scholarship on distance education and the advice of AFT's higher education program and policy council in the 1999-2000 academic year, this report presents a set of guidelines for good practice in distance education. These guidelines drawn from what we know today amid a constantly changing landscape-are not in any way designed to be the "last word" on the subject. We have attempted to make our standards high without being unattainable, specific without being rigid. We have also tried to go "deeper" than a number of other guidelines we have reviewed.
For example, many existing standards of good practice state that there should be a high level of interchange between the professor and the student. That is true, but the really important question is: What specific things do we need to do, what do we need to put into place to have what we're willing to call a "high level of interchange"? And what are we willing to do about a course if we do not have the appropriate level of interchange? Frankly, we are concerned about good practice guidelines being applauded at their inception and then ignored whenever it becomes inconvenient to stick by them. If these guidelines have validity, administrators and faculty members must be willing to say "no" to practices that violate good practice.
We hope that the following guidelines will assist faculty members teaching, or preparing to teach, distance education courses, as well as higher education locals negotiating distance education issues with management. We also hope the guidelines will be useful to college administrators and public officials who want to put quality at the center of their technology programs, as well as other organizations around the country who are attempting, as are we, to shape new media of instruction in constructive ways.
In that vein, we want to note at the outset that the practitioners responding to our survey overwhelmingly indicated that we should move forward with distance education: 169 (of the 200 respondents) said they would teach by distance education again, while only 31 said they would not. These respondents reported that students who successfully completed their distance education courses performed the same (109) or better (55) than students in comparable courses that they taught in the traditional classroom did. Reviewing the responses, it is also clear that faculty members teaching distance education courses are serious, gifted instructors utilizing every means they can to serve their students. Most practitioners believe they are successful in their distance education classes when they are given the proper time, tools and training, and when they have mature, highly motivated students with appropriate equipment and training. At the same time, the responses pointed to circumstances under which distance education seemed problematic. Our standards embody both these themes.
Also, please note that many of the points embodied in the upcoming pages may have applicability to all types of distance education from job and skill training to undergraduate and graduate credit programs - because they are simply about good teaching. Our primary focus encompassing the special expertise of our higher education membership is on distance education in college credit-bearing degree programs: two year, four-year, and graduate.
Finally, these standards apply equally to public, private, non-profit, and for-profit educational providers. In our view, for-profit providers war rant a higher level of scrutiny because the commercial marketplace creates special incentives to cater to the consumer's desire for ease and convenience rather than academic rigor. For-profit enterprises that meet the guidelines of good practice, however, deserve their place at the table.
1. Faculty Must Retain Academic Control
Decisions about particular courses should be made at the departmental or interdepartmental level, including the decision to award credit for distance courses generated by transfer from another institution or provider.
2. Faculty Must be Prepared to Meet the Special Requirements of Teaching at a Distance
Faculty teaching distance education courses must become proficient in the communications technology employed in their distance education courses. They must be prepared - either on their own or working in teams with other specialists - to design courses that take full advantage of the potential of the medium in which they are operating. Faculty teaching Web based courses must possess strategies and skills to communicate with their students electronically in the absence of visual and oral cues.
As a result, faculty teaching distance education should be prepared to spend a good deal more time preparing for distance courses than traditional ones. Almost uniformly, practitioners responding to our survey emphasized that the preparation time for distance learning courses is much greater than for a classroom-based course, particularly the first time the course is offered by the faculty member. Faculty members teaching Web based courses, for example, must prepare, in advance, highly structured written materials and graphics covering every detail of the course. Some estimates range anywhere from 66 percent to 500 percent longer.
Similarly, once the course is under way, faculty must be prepared to be available to students on an extended basis electronically. Again and again, practitioners report that it takes considerably more time to communicate with students electronically. In addition, faculty members must keep up with the odd hours many distance education students have to devote to their coursework and the more tenuous connection many of them have to the institution. For example, to reduce potential attrition, a number of practitioners reported that faculty must answer questions right away, grade papers very quickly, and follow up with students within a week or two if they are not participating in class.
To handle these responsibilities effectively:
Faculty must be provided adequate training and technical support-in terms of hardware, software and troubleshooting. The importance of adequate technical support was emphasized repeatedly by faculty in the field. Support should include special assistance in instructional design. Upon request, the institution must enable faculty members to work with knowledgeable instructional and technical design specialists in designing courses as long as the faculty member has the final say about presentation.
Additional compensation should be provided to faculty to meet the extensive time commitments of distance education. Despite the clear demand for extra preparation time and the increased time commitment of e-mail, only half of respondents reported that they had received any form of compensation for the additional time required.
Compensation can be provided in the form of credit toward load assignment, which means that the additional time counts toward the faculty member's required workload for the term. The need for extra time is most pressing the first year, but that may not be the end of it. The report of the 1999 University of Illinois Distance Education Seminar indicates that the second iteration of an on-line course may require as much time and effort in making improvements as the first required in changing format. "It is not until the third iteration that the preparation effort begins to diminish," according to the Seminar report.
Institutional reward systems for faculty - including policies regarding promotion, tenure and special funding for faculty projects - should accord positive recognition for the creative work of formulating distance programs.
Because distance education calls on a specialized set of skills, teaching distance education courses should be a matter of faculty choice.
3. Course Design should be Shaped to the Potentials of the Medium
As we all know, live theatre is a special experience that delivers a unique brand of emotional impact. In most cases, however, live theatre looks claustrophobic and strangely inert when it is filmed "straight on," without the camera moving among different locations, doing close-ups and engaging in its own special tricks. This tells us that you can't "do" film the same way you do a live performance. Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses and can deliver different kinds of dramatic experiences.
The literature on distance education suggests a similar relationship between same-time same-place instruction and distance education. It may not always be effective to simply transfer a live lecture and accompanying course materials into an electronic course on the same subject.
Similarly, faculty members who try to literally "match" traditional classroom interaction with the kind of interaction available in a distance education course may well be frustrated and disappointed.
Same-time same-place instruction and distance education each have their own pluses and minuses, and each have their own potential to deliver certain kinds of learning. As noted by Professor Andrew Feenberg of San Diego State University, "Writing is not a poor substitute for physical presence and speech, but another fundamental medium of expression with its own properties and powers. The on-line environment is essentially a space for written interaction. This is its limitation and potential. Electronic networks should be appropriated with this in mind and not turned into poor copies of the face-to-face classroom that they can never reproduce adequately." In short:
Faculty members developing distance education courses should approach course design-curriculum planning, class projects, visual aids, library materials and student interaction-not in terms of replicating the traditional classroom, but in terms of maximizing the potential of the medium that will be employed. This harkens back to the importance of substantial technical support.
4. Students must Fully Understand Course Requirements and Must be Prepared to Succeed
Over all, the survey respondents rated the performance of distance education students about the same (54 percent) or better (27 percent) than their classroom-based students. At the same time, a substantial proportion (over 42 per cent) reported higher dropout rates in their distance education courses.
Over 85 percent of the respondents reported that particular kinds of students perform better in distance education than others. Many noted that successful distance education students need to be highly motivated, and found the practice more problematic for younger, less-motivated students. Some emphasized that distance education students must have strong written communication skills; that cyberspace coursework may be more difficult for students whose personal learning styles depend heavily on visual and verbal cues. Finally, many respondents stressed the importance of students receiving good advance information; too many students, they believe, begin distance education courses under a false impression that they are easier and less time consuming than traditional courses.
In light of these findings, every institution, as a matter of good practice, should have procedures in place to ensure, to the extent possible, that new distance education students have the wherewithal to perform successfully.
In response, before the course begins, students should be required to submit a written statement to the institution delivered electronically. As little as a paragraph or two explaining the student's aims, the statement would be designed to demonstrate: (1) that the student possesses the proper equipment and knows how to make it work; (2) that the student has the skills needed to perform effectively in a writing-based medium; and (3) that the student has motivation and realistic expectations.
5. Close Personal Interaction Must Be Maintained
Almost everyone agrees that the most important challenge facing distance education is the need to develop a rich level of personal interchange between professor and student and among students themselves. Respondents to the AFT survey went to great lengths to maintain communication with their distance education students, utilizing, among other things, e-mail, electronic discussion groups, telephone, mail, fax and audio/video conferencing. In about a third of the cases, students were required to come to the campus or the faculty member met with students off campus at least once during the course.
Practitioners using interactive TV frequently cited problems in maintaining interaction with students, often based on the limitations of the technology that was available to them. On the other hand, Web based courses received generally higher marks from those who taught them. Many practitioners maintain that in-depth interaction with students over the Web is actually stronger than in traditional classrooms. Others, however, felt that the loss of immediate visual and verbal interaction undermined the advantages of Web based coursework.
Specific positives cited by respondents: Web based communication provokes more thoughtful answers on the part of students. Some students feel more immediacy of feedback. Some faculty members believed that less aggressive students did better in a Web based setting; others disagreed. Often-cited negatives: There is a high learning curve for both teachers and students in getting cues right when there is no eye contact. It is harder to tell if students understand when you can't see "the light bulb go on." Distance education is too dependent on equipment functioning properly. It is harder to catch cheating. It may not be as effective for students with written communication deficits.
real-time electronic interchange through devices such as chat rooms and discussion groups; and:
Why do we emphasize the necessity of same-time same-place interaction? First, because we believe there is something unique and important about the simultaneous visual and verbal interaction of individuals in the same place working together toward a common educational goal. Second, we place a high value on same-time same-place interaction because it permits students to connect directly to the resources of the campus-from classrooms, laboratories and libraries to social and performance spaces. Access anytime/anywhere is a great advantage, but a campus visit helps each student to understand that he or she is part of a learning enterprise greater than this one course. On-campus students are surrounded with those reminders each day, motivators that enrich them as they make their way through an academic program.
6. Class Size should be Set through Normal Faculty Channels
We have seen how strongly practitioners feel about the need for very extensive preparation time in distance education courses. We have also seen that most distance education courses require more time for personal interaction. The question of class size for distance education courses must be seen in that light.
About a third of our survey respondents taught classes of fewer than 20; over half taught classes of 20 to 50 students. Less than a tenth taught classes of more than 50, and only a few taught classes of more than 100. The 1999 report of the University of Illinois Faculty Seminar on Distance Education recommended smaller faculty-student ratios in distance education because there is so much information to be monitored. Most of the practitioners we consulted, however, did not endorse such a hard-and-fast rule.
Class size should be established through normal faculty channels to insure that educational rather than bureaucratic or financial considerations drive the process.
Class size should encourage a high degree of interactivity. Given the time commitment involved in teaching through distance education, smaller class size should be considered, particularly at the inception of a new course.
7. Courses Should Cover All Material
Based on the earlier findings, it is not surprising that some respondents to our survey reported difficulty in covering as much material, including laboratories and practica, in the same amount of time through distance education compared with traditional classroom. Factors such as the slowness of interactive TV transmission and the need to rely on written communication in Web based courses all contribute to this.
The amount of material covered in a distance education course, and the depth with which it is covered, should equal that of a classroom-based course.
8. Experimentation with a Broad Variety of Subjects Should Be Encouraged
Some faculty members have more difficulty teaching certain subjects at a distance than others do. For example, one survey respondent cited Spanish as a problem; another cited theoretical philosophy. Some, but not all, faculty members have been unable to incorporate laboratories and practica into a distance mode. They said, however, there is not sufficient evidence to believe that distance education can be ruled out, a priori, for any particular kind of credit course. If a faculty member is having a problem with a particular course, another professor in another location may be fixing that problem right now; there is no reason to declare most problems unsolvable under the right conditions. Similarly, the weight of the evidence is that higher-order thinking skills, as opposed to rote training, can be acquired in distance education.
Thus, experimentation in offering a variety of subjects through distance education should be encouraged. Some faculty members report success in supervising real or virtual laboratory activities, and even practica, at a distance. However, "hands-on" activities of this nature should be reviewed very carefully by the department faculty prior to approval.
Institutions should not continue to offer courses that have been unsuccessful. If attrition rates are high or test scores are low, or if the teacher reports disappointing results, the faculty should declare a "time out" during which a careful evaluation is conducted, along with an exploration of successful learning techniques employed elsewhere. If the faculty determines that problems have been overcome, the course can be re-instituted.
9. Equivalent Research Opportunities Must Be Provided
To a varying extent, all college degree programs - whether two-year, four-year, or graduate-must provide numerous and varied opportunities for students to conduct independent research. Students need to have access to a broad spectrum of research materials in all formats and to learn how to evaluate such material critically. This requires a partnership between faculty and librarians, working together, to develop in students "information literary" competencies that allow individuals to recognize when information is needed and to locate and use effectively the needed information. As has often been reported, the ability to critically evaluate material is especially important in light of the mass of seemingly authoritative, but sometimes bogus. material seen on the Internet.
In general, the distance education practitioners responding to our survey felt that their students had adequate access to informational materials. Many of them worked hard to prepare packages of materials for all students, and some offered students extensive information about online materials.
Distance education students should be given access to all possible electronic research material. Students must be shown how to connect with online articles, books and catalogues at the college library or cooperating libraries. Students should be given the names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers of librarians trained to handle electronic requests for materials.
10. Student Assessment Should Be Comparable
Two-thirds of the respondents indicated that they use the same criteria for grading their distance education courses as for their traditional courses. Some indicated they placed less reliance on tests in their distance education courses. Respondents were split about whether there should be greater concern in a distance education environment about security related to papers, tests, etc.
As a matter of prudence, steps should be taken to limit the possibility of fraud and abuse in a distance education environment.
11. Equivalent Advisement Opportunities Must be Offered
Care must be taken to offer distance education students pursuing college degrees repeated opportunities for individualized advisement by academic professionals. Same-time same-place advisement should be made available, particularly at key junctures in the student's academic career, but telephone contact is an acceptable alternative when that it not practicable.
12. Faculty Should Retain Creative Control over Use and Re-Use of Materials
Until now, faculty members have developed courses and course materials largely on their own. Since the faculty member taught any further iteration of the course, he or she effectively maintained control over subsequent changes in course materials and the overall quality of the presentation.
Courses developed for distance education may differ from this model in a variety of ways:
The institution's technical facilities may have been used to mount the course for video or the Web;
As a result of these differences, the institution may claim ownership of the course and all materials related to it. If it assumes ownership, the institution may seek to reproduce the course year after year, utilizing different faculty to teach the same material or make changes in the course over time without involving the faculty member who created it.
There is not enough space here, nor is this the right venue, to explore the range of legal and negotiation issues surrounding the ownership of intellectual property in distance education. The use and re-use of course materials, however, raises an issue of quality and educational good practice.
The faculty member(s) developing a course should maintain creative control over the use and re-use of the course in subsequent years. In the absence of such control, students have no guarantee that the course they take is of the same quality as in previous years and has been updated to reflect changes in the subject area.
13. full Undergraduate Degree Programs should include Same-Time Same-Place Coursework
The fact that distance education may be a good option for teaching a particular course, or set of courses, does not automatically mean that it is acceptable to offer an entire undergraduate degree program, two-year or four-year, without providing students in-class experience. Four years ago, AFT's higher education division wrote, "Our experience as educators tells us that teaching and learning in the shared human spaces of a campus are essential to the undergraduate experience and cannot be compromised too greatly without rendering the education unacceptable."
This view was reaffirmed in the report of the 1999 University of Illinois Seminar on Distance Education, as well as AFT's survey of distance education instructors. When asked what percentage of an undergraduate course of study ought to be taught by distance education, about 35 percent of the AFT respondents answering this question said a quarter or less and another 35 percent said between a quarter and a half. Altogether, over 70 percent of the AFT respondents answering the question came out in favor of half or less of an undergraduate degree offered by distance education. These responses are important because they came from distance education practitioners who were generally favorable to the practice, considered it successful and indicated that they would teach a distance course again if asked.
Procedures should be established to ensure, on a case-by-case basis, that a full undergraduate distance education program is available to those students truly unable to participate in classroom education at any time after considering all other options.
14. Evaluation of Distance Coursework should be Undertaken at All Levels
Even as we encourage experimentation in distance education, we must conduct much more rigorous evaluation of distance education programs and disseminate the results broadly. At a minimum, this should take place at three levels.
Evaluation of distance education should become a priority concern of the federal government. The federal government should take two steps immediately:
Clearly, every faculty union should become deeply involved in technology decision-making. Faculty should negotiate with management on a variety of technology-related subjects, such as workload (including e-mail and prep time), compensation, training, jurisdiction, staffing levels, class size, acceptance of credits from other institutions, travel to other sites and grading responsibilities. Unions must also attempt to negotiate protection of intellectual property rights in cyberspace for their members. Materials and technical assistance for local unions attempting to fulfill these responsibilities are available from the American Federation of Teachers.
The potential benefits of distance education, coupled with its successful application in many forums, clearly warrant a continuing effort to develop quality programs. Plenty of room should be left for experimentation, and we should not be defeatist when we encounter problems. But as we move forward, we must insist on the high standards outlined here-standards that, we believe, are not impossible to meet and are worth sticking to, point by point. When problems arise, we must make every effort to surmount obstacles, but we must also be prepared to say about distance education, "not us, not now" when the required level of quality cannot be achieved.
Some believe that distance education erects too many impediments to faculty-student interaction and therefore should be abandoned or severely restricted. Others say that the "market" will demand convenience and a flashy presentation style above all other values and that higher education had better adapt or lose out to competitors. It is indisputable that colleges and universities should develop courses that are as attractive as possible and no more onerous than necessary. But credit-bearing coursework must produce education that lasts, and to achieve that, we must develop and stick to high standards of good practice. We hope this report makes a positive contribution to reaching that goal.
About the American Federation of Teachers
SANDRA FELDMAN, President
EDWARD J. McELROY, Secretary-Treasurer
NAT LACOUR, Executive Vice President, Higher Education Program and Policy Council, August 1998-August 2000
IRWIN POLISHOOK, Chair, AFT Vice President, Professional Staff Congress, City University of New York
NORMAN SWENSON, Vice-Chair, AFT Vice President, Cook County College Teachers Union
WILLIAM SCHEUERMAN, AFT Vice President, United University Professions, State University of New York
CLYDE BARROW, University of Massachusetts Faculty Federation
ROWENA BLACKMAN-STROUD, United University Professions, Health Science Center at Brooklyn/SUNY
JASON BLANK, Rhode Island College Chapter/AFT
ARTHUR HOCHNER, Temple Association of University Professionals
DONNA HURTADO, Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute Faculty Federation
NORA DAVENPORT LAWSON, Alabama State University Faculty Staff Alliance
SUSAN LEVY, Washington Federation of Teachers
JOHN MCDONALD, Henry Ford Community College Federation of Teachers
KAREN SCHERMERHORN, Faculty Federation of the Community College of Philadelphia
RAYMOND SPOTO, The Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals
LOUIS STOLLAR, United College Employees of the Fashion Institute of Technology
TOM TYNER, California Federation of Teachers Community College Council
MITCH VOGEL, University Professionals of Illinois
NICHOLAS YOVNELLO, Council of New Jersey State College Locals
LAWRENCE GOLD, AFT Higher Education Director
PERRY ROBINSON, AFT Higher Education Deputy Director
American Federation of Teachers © 2000