A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A DISTANCE LEARNING DEVELOPER

Ian Douglas*

Florida State University has initiated one of the largest distance learning initiatives in the USA. An overview is given of the development for one of the courses on this initiative. Developing quality distance learning is an expensive undertaking, involving many specialist skills, which few individual instructors have. While this may be generally recognized, it is believed that the development cost is balanced by a saving of faculty time during course delivery. The current case suggests that when you look beyond the technology, this is not the case.

 

INTRODUCTION

Florida State University has begun to implement a strategic model for new technologically based courses. This was developed primarily as part of a large-scale initiative in distributed and distance learning and was built upon the universityís own experience and that of the British Open University. The strategic model uses three key characteristics:

Materials-based learning: a set of materials in a variety of media (including printed materials) and technology, carry the core content of a course, and are produced with the assistance of specialists in different media.

Team developed and managed courses: a systems approach is adopted for course development, which relies on project management and a team-based approach to course development. The team will include content experts (1-5 faculty members), technical experts (e.g. web programmers), media designers, writers, editors, instructional designers (to assist in the formulation of educational objectives, learning tasks, and assessments), and a project manager.

Course-specific learner support systems: Each student is assigned to a mentor who serves as a direct first point of contact for the student in all matters related to the course. Each mentor has responsibility for about 20 students, so personal care and attention is possible. A studentís mentor is there to help with the learning process, and is expected to be proactive in dealing with students.

 

THE COURSE

One of the first courses to be developed for distributed and distance learning is COP3331 Object Oriented Analysis and Design. This commenced development in January 1999 and was offered for the first time in January 2000 with 94 on-campus students and 40 distance-learning students located all over Florida. This is a fairly new area of computer science and almost all the learning materials for the course had to be developed from scratch. The textbook used was only published one month before the course commenced.

The course was made up of a self-paced study guide, with an accompanying CD-ROM and web site. The course was designed around specific learning objectives and the students had to complete a number of assignments based on the objectives. Completed assignments were submitted through the course web site.

 

THE EXPERIENCE

The effort and resources that went into this course and others being developed for distance learning was far greater than that which would be put into a traditional on-campus course. The team approach was found to be useful. Having a qualified technical writer to edit and improve written materials was of great help, and a key position was that of project manager.

The rationale behind such an investment of effort in distance learning courses is that once the materials are developed, they can be used to teach a greater number of students and that time would be saved from not having to run face-to-face classes. This is seen as the opposite of a traditional course, were relatively little effort is spent on the materials development, but time has to be allocated for the delivery of that materials (mainly through lectures). Thus, in theory, spending more time in development saves time on delivery, as the high quality materials enables self-paced learning.

From the experience in this course, the actual distribution of effort involves more time in development with no savings in delivery effort. This is confirmed by experience in other Universities (Doube and Churchill, 2000). The overall effort, depending on the number of students, can therefore be at least one and half to two times that for a traditional course with the same number of students.

There are a number of reasons that account for this difference:

The customer-service orientation of distance learning students.

Traditional on-campus students tend to be young, have their fees paid by parents or scholarships and are receiving a complete on-campus experience more than one particular course. Deficiencies in courses are made up for by access to library and computer facilities, and interaction with instructors and fellow students. Distance learning students tend to be older, pay their own fees and the course experience is what they are paying for. If anything about this experience is not to their liking they will expect the same quick customer-oriented service they get from other commercial services. Satisfying this need requires effort on the part of the service provider.

 

The overheads involved in email communication.

During or after a traditional class an instructor can quickly and efficiently deal with a number of student questions, they can have an efficient dialogue and use non-verbal information (facial reactions) to monitor and react to student responses. Most distance learning relies on electronic communications that are slow to compose and prone to misperception (see Thimblebly, 1996).

The problems in delivery technology.

No matter how well you test the technology used, problems will arise. For example, despite claims of standardization through the web there are often problems that appear in one type of browser and not another. No matter how good your technical support, faculty will inevitable become involved in technological issues. Sometimes a low-tech approach is a solution to technical problem areas.

The coaching required for distance learning mentors.

Although faculty can quickly become adapted both to the technology and the techniques of distance learning during the development process, many of those who support the faculty will be new to both. They will turn for the faculty to support when problems arise. Thus the faculty needs to take the time to be a mentor to the mentors.

The co-ordination and quality control in a large-scale course.

In order to ensure standardization over a large course, effort has to be put into managing mentors. The faculty must ensure that they are enforcing the rules of the course and providing adequate feedback to their students.

All of these factors serve to increase the cost in faculty time of running a distance and distributed course. There are benefits to such courses in terms of increasing access and quality; however, the cost accounting needs to factor increased faculty loads for course delivery in addition to those generally recognized for course development.

 

REFERENCES

Brugge, B. and Dutoit, A.H. (1999). Object-Oriented Software Engineering. Saddle River,NJ: Prentice Hall.

Doube, W. and Churchill, V., (2000). Distance Teaching Workloads. Proceedings of SIGCSE, vol 32, n. 1, p.347-351

Thimbleby, H. (1996). Internet, Discourse and Interaction Potential. Proceedings of the first Asia-Pacific conference on Computer-Human Interaction. Singapore, sept, p. 3-18.