Vol. 15 : No. 10
Editor's Note: This is an intriguing and powerful resume of the current extensive and varied human involvement in learning. Sometimes, history records, knowledge was highly valued but equally highly restricted. Ms. Davis, through her broad scholarship and in-depth experiences within the Distance Learning field, brings to her readers the intense excitement of a learning age where knowledge will be freely accessed, profoundly abundant, and offered in a cornucopia of formats.
What E-Learning Can Learn from History
By Shirley M. Davis
The world is embarking on a new age, an Age of Learning. Never before have so many people been involved in learning at all educational levels, from schools to colleges to workplaces, in formal and informal settings. Increasingly adults of all ages are recognizing the need for lifelong education for their own career development. School is no longer just for the six-to-22-year-old.
Those of us involved professionally in education welcome this new Age with excitement and optimism. Not only are learners ready to learn, but technology is propelling us forward into new ways of reaching this increasingly diverse audience with a variety of flexible, compelling, and more effective learning opportunities. [Ed. note: for an extended discussion of the impact of the Age of Learning, see author's article in "Ed at a Distance," Volume 13, Issue 7, July 1999.]
In the center of this growth is e-learning, creating its own maelstrom of questions as well as its proponents and detractors. Numerous colleges are offering e-learning opportunities to their on-campus students as well as serving nontraditional students through distance learning. According to Market Data Retrieval's College Technology Review 2000-2001, 70% of all U.S. colleges and universities offer Web-based courses. Many colleges, such as Columbia University, are certain enough of the future of e-learning to have established for-profit subsidiaries that focus on the e-learning market. Other colleges have joined together in consortia to develop and offer online learning, such as the 16 universities linked with the Thompson Corporation to create the for-profit Universitas 21 Global.
Similarly e-learning has made its way into the public sector. For example, the National Governor's Association endorses distance education in its two recent reports "The State of E-Learning in the States" and "A Vision of E-Learning for America's Workforce," although some concerns are expressed about the need for research and development to assess quality courses and quality learning. Despite the economic downturn of 2001, e-learning companies like the Apollo Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, and Sylvan Learning Systems, have, at the end of the second quarter, outperformed companies in the broader technology industry. As quoted by CNET.com, "the online learning industry is expected to grow from $6.3 billion in 2001 to more then $23 billion in 2004," according to market researcher IDC. (CNET News.com, June 26, 2001, "E-learning companies making the grade," by Rachael Konrad.)
Keeping up the swirl in the maelstrom is the recognition that undoubtedly some predictions about the growth of the Internet and e-learning were overly optimistic. The 2001 ASTD State of the Industry reports that workforce training worldwide has fallen far short of predictions that 23% of all training would be delivered online by 2000. In fact, it may not even have reached 10% as employers are recognizing the high cost of creating and maintaining e-learning operations and are often unable to quantify increased learning benefits.
In the current swirl of e-learning, the messages to us involved as professionals are several. We have to continuously seek to understand what factors add up to excellent delivery of e-learning, that is, effective learning that meets the educational needs of an increasingly diverse population of learners with a wide range of expectations. Furthermore, as competing education providers seek to serve this burgeoning market, we must be sure that we "get it right" the first time. In our eagerness to provide learning opportunities online, we may be guilty of not recognizing what we have already learned through best practices in distance learning. And in their eagerness to learn, students are increasingly impatient with providers who don't give them what they want and expect. Once lost, these learners may well not return for a long time.
While e-learning is relatively new, a phenomenon of the past three years, it isn't as though distance learning is new. We have years of experience to build on, and while e-learning presents us with opportunities for new approaches as well as new obstacles, much of what we have learned during the past 30 years of technology-assisted distance learning is still relevant.
One of the keys is recognizing that distance learning requires different pedagogical approaches from classroom learning. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, numerous colleges embarked on live televised distance learning, an approach often referred to as the "candid classroom," using two-way video and one-way audio. Initially the concept was "sold" to faculty from the perspective that they did not need to do anything they weren't already doing in the classroom -- standing up and teaching. The camera people would do the rest. But it wasn't long before course administrators and faculty themselves realized that other issues needed to be dealt with, from sending handout material ahead of time to having an appropriately controlled environment for distant participants in the synchronous class. As students became more sophisticated participants, their evaluations revealed the need for other changes -- a redesign of the lecture format to be more interactive, graphics that were more legible than blackboard or newsprint writing, and tapes available for delayed viewing. In short for this mode of distance learning to be meaningful to learners, the faculty had to do much more planning and make some conscious decisions about pedagogical changes. Despite the additional support needed and the cost of building the production and distribution infrastructure, interactive video has remained the distance learning medium of choice primarily for four-year institutions.
In the early 1980's another form of video-based distance learning began to evolve: telecourses. The outreach possibilities that the televised classroom provided for large universities were mirrored by telecourses in the smaller colleges and community colleges. Unlike the synchronous classes, telecourses are highly produced video documentaries or dramas that present information related to the learning objectives and are often broadcast by PBS stations or college cable channels. Students attend class, so to speak, in their own homes and, with VCR's, are able to tape and time-shift class viewing. Because telecourses are designed for a national audience of learners, they are enriched by the guidance of national advisory committees and generally rely on one or more of the major textbooks in the field. Individual faculty who teach telecourses modify the course syllabus and requirements to fit the standards of their college and their own teaching preferences.
Lessons learned from the telecourse experience that carry forward to e-learning emphasize the necessity to validate equivalent learning acquired through distance learning, to provide learner support services that reduce the isolation of learning, and to ensure that students and faculty can communicate easily with each other. The value of providing learners a quantifiable goal cannot be underestimated. At the outset of PBS' "Going the Distance" project, colleges now able to offer full degree programs at a distance found that their course enrollments doubled. For colleges, the benefit of telecourses is that they provide a low-cost way to serve large populations of non-traditional students using excellent learning experiences that are the result careful instructional design. Like the televised classroom approach, telecourses are widely used to this day; on any day, over 1000 colleges are offering one or more PBS telecourses, together enrolling nearly 500,000 students a year.
The decade of the 1990's saw the phenomenal growth of the Internet, with its impact felt in our lives in dozens of ways. For distance learners it has meant new ways to link with classmates and faculty and new ways to access information. Most faculty of both synchronous televised classes and asynchronous telecourses have embraced e-mail for communication and some have moved beyond that to augment their courses with Internet-based discussion boards, collaborative learning, and online research assignments. Whether faculty-generated "candid classroom" courses or institutionally licensed telecourses, both modes of distance learning have been affected positively by innovative faculty who have capitalized on the wide acceptance of the Internet in this country.
The e-learning model of distance learning that has emerged in recent years is completely online, taking advantage of both the synchronous and asynchronous nature of Internet communications. Many institutions are also exploring hybrid courses, ones that blend media, such as including face-to-face sessions with online learning, or combining the video of telecourses with online learning. Just as the two previously discussed video models do, Web courses follow both modes of faculty and institutional involvement: (1) the original creation of an online course usually as a new iteration of an existing face-to-face course and (2) licensing an existing online course that is adopted and modified by the teaching faculty. The latter option appeals to colleges and faculty who want high-quality courseware but do not want to make the large investment required to support course production and maintenance.
Many faculty have opted for the first route, to put their own courses online. This has proved to be an exciting new mode of teaching, and course management system providers have encouraged faculty to think of this as a quick and easy process. One such firm runs ads claiming that it is possible to put a course on line in 15 minutes. While a few faculty may have the insight, time and resources to do this well, it appears that many have ignored the lessons we learned from the televised classroom experience about the need for course redesign when moving to a new medium.
The asynchronous nature of online courses appeals to students for much the same reason telecourses do: flexibility of when and where they study. Students also applaud the greater access they have to faculty, a perception that sends faculty searching for gentle methods to control the number of hours they spend interacting online. Unfortunately, too many faculty enter into the e-learning world naive about the time-consuming monster they can create unless they take steps to control student expectations about responses. Safeguards are usually built into courses designed for national licensing.
Institutions are also discovering the high cost of creating and maintaining online courses making the alternative of licensing already-developed online courses very appealing. Those institutions that found success with licensing telecourses have been the first to license online courses for their distance-learning students. And there is an increasing number of courses to choose among. During 2002, PBS alone will offer thirteen teleWEBcourses and Webcourses from Quisic in the undergraduate business curriculum, two Web courses from the University of Delaware in basic Internet literacy and multimedia production, 10 undergraduate courses in the associate degree curriculum from DALLAS TeleLearning, over 60 online professional development modules from PBS TeacherLine correlated to certificates for K-12 teachers, and twelve University of Washington Webcourses for current or future Web professionals leading to four certificates in Web administration, Web production, Web consulting and e-commerce.
Each of the producers of these courses has struggled with instructional design questions and related bandwidth and student support issues. For example, the University of Washington, developer of the courses for web professionals, has an extensive team of faculty, instructional designers, web developers and video producers who have created the twelve courses for web professionals under a $1.6 million grant from the U. S. Department of Education. Interaction is used frequently in the courses to make the learning units conform to what we know about the attention span of learners. Videostreaming with optional use of videotapes is part of all courses, in recognition that much affective learning can best be acquired through seeing and hearing people involved in the business. The courses will be piloted by PBS during Fall 2001 and Spring 2002 and will be available for general licensing during Summer 2002.
Quisic, producer of thirteen high-end Web courses for the undergraduate business curriculum, has pioneered the story-telling strength of multimedia combined with the powerful interactivity of the Internet. Exemplary case studies are shown vividly through video, and interactive graphic examples help learners master critical concepts. Serving a different audience, PBS TeacherLine, an emerging online service for K-12 professional development funded by the U. S. Department of Education, makes use of a modular format, competency-based evaluations of achievement, and streaming video for examples of theory put into practice in the classroom. While use of video online offers effective learning, exploitation of the possibilities of online multimedia today requires judicious use by a technically savvy designer. If students have trouble or experience excessive delays in downloading a lesson, you may well lose them from e-learning for many years.
As we learned, colleges offering complete degree programs at a distance through telecourses saw learner numbers and completion rates increase. Especially when learning at a distance, adult learners need tangible outcomes to sustain their motivation to learn. Certificates, such as those built into the University of Washington courses and based on tests developed by the World Organization of Webmasters, as well as CEU's or other recognized state credentials, like those offered through PBS TeacherLine, are important to achieving enrollment goals and bolstering student completion of e-learning courses.
As we learned from both the televised classroom and telecourses, faculty teaching distance learning courses need to take time and spend institutional resources to learn the tricks of teaching online. Course producers provide extremely helpful Faculty Manuals that lead both new and experienced faculty through the features of the course they are preparing to teach as well as provide general guidance for teaching online. Recognizing the key role that module facilitators play in online instruction, PBS TeacherLine offers a one-day face-to-face instructional session with a six-week online follow-up to launch those new to this role. (Putting this training fully online is one of the project goals.) Many colleges have recognized the need for similar training for online faculty as well as training for new online learners. For example, Penn State's World Campus provides modules for both of these groups to get them started teaching and learning in the right ways and with appropriate expectations (Faculty Development 101 and World Campus 101, respectively). As more and more institutions and educators believe, we have to get e-learning right the first time if we want to succeed - and that includes having satisfied instructors and learners.
While educators can learn most of the lessons we need to learn from distance learning history, there are some new challenges offered by online education that have no precursors. One of the most significant is the increased emphasis on designing both varying instructional approaches and substantive interaction into the courses to involve students in a variety of ways. These activities are designed to help meet the needs of those with differing learning styles and to capitalize on the special strengths of online learning. Ten years ago, before the publications of Howard Gardner (1993, 1999) and others who looked at multiple intelligences and, later, different learning styles became widely read, little thought was given among educators to meeting the differing needs of learners. Similarly without having had relevant experiences, we had little concept of the possibilities of technologically mediated collaborative learning and web-based simulations. These are approaches we have needed to learn from the ground zero, and in my opinion we haven't fully mastered the topics yet. Further research and skillful application of the results are needed to develop the understanding and sets of best practices that can guide us successfully forward.
In conclusion, as we enter this new Age of Learning with a citizenry eager for learning on their terms and the technology tools to help us frame and disseminate this learning, we dare not pretend that e-learning is a totally new enterprise. We know the engaging power of video as a teacher, and when distributed via the Internet, the learning successes it can engender; we know the power of modularized approaches and frequent interaction; we know the power of good instructional design. Past research and experiences in distance learning point the way to many of the solutions that are needed to help us get online learning right the first time.
Where to find information on Online Courses
For a complete listing of college-level distance learning courses currently offered for licensing by PBS Adult Learning Service, see: http://www.pbs.org/als/guide/courselistings/index.html
Quisic Web Courses
Access online previews at http://www.pbs.org/als/quisic/
Access online previews at http://www.pbs.org/als/quisic/
University of Delaware Web Courses
Access online previews at http://www.pbs.org/als/preview/onlinepreview.htm
DALLAS TeleLearning TeleWEBcourses
Access online previews at http://www.pbs.org/als/preview/onlinepreview.htm
PBS TeacherLine: Online Professional Development for K-12 Educators
For descriptions of currently available modules: http://teacherline.pbs.org/teacherline/modules/catalog.cfm
Demonstration of a module: http://teacherline.pbs.org/teacherline/modules/modules.cfm
Modules are now available in 25 states through participating PBS stations; see: http://teacherline.pbs.org/teacherline/community/feature.cfm
For access to the Virtual Math Academy: http://teacherline.pbs.org/teacherline/academy/virtual.cfm
University of Washington Courses for Web Professionals
See article at: http://www.pbs.org/als/agenda/articles/webcert.html
Courses available from PBS for general licensing Summer 2002
About the Author
Shirley M. Davis is Director of Learning Innovations for PBS Adult Learning Service and PBS TeacherLine. She is past-president of USDLA and WMDLA (Washington Metropolitan Distance Learning Association). Shirley Davis has been a highly respected leader of distance learning movement for the past 20 years and continues to be a major force in the advancement of distance learning. Her email: smdavis@PBS.ORG