Taking a practical, curriculum-focused approach, this guide for both new and experienced distance educators allows them to develop and deliver quality courses and training sessions. Providing practices and examples, and surveying the tools of the trade, this fully updated and revised edition covers key issues including instructional design, course craft, adult learning styles, student–teacher interaction, and strategies for building a community of learners. Discussing how distance learning enables students of all kinds to earn college and graduate degrees, professional certificates, and a wide range of skills and credentials, this book details the rapidly expanding role of distance learning in higher education and the types of organizations that now offer Web-based training courses and teleseminars to their employees, clients, and other associates.
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About the Author
Robin Neidorf teaches writing and communications to adult students online through the University of Phoenix and teaches an online creative writing course through the University of Gävle in Sweden. She has provided research, training, and communications consulting through her company, Electric Muse, and is the author of e-Merchant: Retail Strategies for e-Commerce. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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Teach Beyond Your Reach
An Instructor's Guide to Developing and Running Successful Distance Learning Classes, Workshops, Training Sessions, and More
By Robin Neidorf
Information Today, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Robin Neidorf
All rights reserved.
New Tools of the Trade
"Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message."
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan first articulated what has become a mantra of the Information Age: "The medium is the message." The tools that support the interactions of your distance learning program are more than a collection of functions and features; they create more complex challenges than access or costs. Your choice of tools and how you use them will impact which students come to you, how successful they are, and the subtle messages you project about the value, purpose, and goals of your program.
The role of media in how information is received, absorbed, and processed should not be underestimated. Consider a somewhat extreme example:
Scenario 1: Employee enters the human resources (HR) director's office for a private meeting. The HR director says, "Jane, you've been doing an outstanding job. As you know, though, we're moving toward a complete restructuring of your department, and your particular job is going to be eliminated. I'd like to talk with you about the options, both for accepting severance and utilizing our job search services."
Scenario 2: Employee receives an email from the HR director, which states:
Subject line: We need to meet
Jane, you've been doing an outstanding job. As you know, though, we're moving toward a complete restructuring of your department, and your particular job is going to be eliminated. I'd like to talk with you about the options, both for accepting severance and utilizing our job search services.
Sam Smith Director of Human Resources Widget Co.: Excellence is our Passion!
It's a bad day in either case, but put yourself in Jane's position: Which communication makes you more willing to work with the person presenting the information? The same words are used, but the impact is quite different if they're said by a person rather than having the employee read the news on a screen. The medium is an inextricable component of what is communicated.
A distance learning instructor needs to have an understanding of the following factors:
Tools potentially available
Impact the tools of choice may have on the delivery of a course and on student and instructor satisfaction
Applicability of available tools to the needs of a particular project
This chapter will discuss the characteristics of the various tools that a distance instructor may decide to use, including pros, cons, and uses of each.
However, an essential consideration for any communication tool is the ease of use for the recipient of the message. Therefore, a fundamental question is always, "What are the expectations, skills, and norms of my students?" New methods of communication are constantly introduced into our networked world, and different audiences adopt these tools at different rates. When I was researching the first edition of Teach Beyond Your Reach in 2005, I would not have incorporated instant messaging into a learning toolkit aimed at mid-career professional adults because I wouldn't have been sure about their comfort level with the tool. However, by 2012, I don't hesitate: I believe that this audience is now more comfortable with such tools for effective communication.
This variability creates exciting times for instructors, with opportunities to grow and learn new skills. If you embrace that change, it will help your teaching and interactions become that much more creative.
Who Chooses Your Tools?
You may have no control over the tools you are able to use. You may be hired to teach a course and then handed a particular platform or set of tools for delivering the instruction. Or you may be in a situation of creating a learning environment entirely on your own without a budget or any technical support. Any teaching scenario will involve some requirements that are more or less out of your control.
Regardless of the degree of control you have over the tools, however, understanding all the variables involved and the pros and cons of each tool will enable you to make effective instructional choices to achieve your goals with your students.
But at the outset, it's important to keep a basic set of assumptions in mind about the technology, orientation, and comfort of both you and your students:
Connected online: Business, social lives, and education have all irrevocably moved online. Using email or text messaging is as commonplace as using the phone for voice calls (or more so). You and your students have at least one internet-connected communication device (PC, laptop, smartphone, or tablet computer) for personal use.
Access level: At least some of the web is accessible to you and your students, although you may have to address firewall issues and/or content that requires authentication to access (with IDs and passwords, or other form of validation). An additional assumption is that you and your students have high-speed access to these resources.
Comfort: You and your students undergo some degree of online interaction — with colleagues, peers, or friends — through personal choice and because it is an increasingly comfortable medium.
Customization: You and your students increasingly expect to have the option of customizing an online experience to your preferences, such as delivery methods (e.g., access via a website or having summaries emailed), priority topics, or the ability to share online material with selected contacts.
This is a fundamentally different set of assumptions than I used in the first edition of Teach Beyond Your Reach (published in 2006) or what I would have presented 2 years ago. The combination of technology advances, deeper penetration and adoption of online tools, and a generation entering the workforce that has been raised in an always-connected world has created this new — and exciting — environment in which we all interact.
Common Distance Learning Platforms
As more organizations are incorporating distance learning into their outreach, training, and support, more adults have become familiar with the most common platforms now being used. In a corporate environment, for example, it's common to have training or education delivered via web conference platforms such as WebEx (www.webex.com) or GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). In an educational setting, common platforms include complete course management or learning management systems such as Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) or Moodle (www.moodle.com; see Figure 1.1 on web.freepint.com/go/research/learning).
These certainly are not the only packages out there, but they are the most commonly used, and it is likely that you — and your students — have encountered them at some point or will soon.
If you don't have access to these options, don't worry: Many of the functions are available on their own through other providers. Following this brief overview of the full-featured platforms, we'll take a closer look at each of the key functions, how you can use them to their best advantage, and where you can find them for your courses.
Web-Based Meeting Package
A web-based meeting package usually includes screen sharing, integrated voice conferencing, integrated recording capabilities, participant polling, questions, and text chat functions. Some packages also include additional collaborative capabilities, such as a shared whiteboard. They support multiple presenters, and presenters can pass the control of the environment to each other. Most packages also include the ability to manage registrations and to automatically email reminders prior to an event and follow-up materials after an event, as well as post-event reporting on participation levels and interactions during the session (e.g., questions asked, attentiveness to the screen during live sessions.
Online Education Platform
An online education platform typically includes asynchronous discussion, private journals, electronic attendance and presentation, grade-books, group functions that enable and enhance teamwork among dispersed students, file sharing, live event capability, whiteboards, lecture postings, links to other resources and readings, and library or online resource connections. Courses often offer in-class email systems and/or a "digest" feature that allows instructors to collect responses to given discussion topics and distribute them automatically via email to class participants, turning a "pull" communication (one that a user has to go out and get) into a "push" communication (one that a user receives directly). Some vendors also make course content available in the form of a course library that instructors or organizations can access and implement "off the shelf" or with some customizations.
And, of course, proprietary web-based classrooms have the benefits offered by any web-based solution: access to other web-based resources with the click of a mouse.
If you are teaching under the aegis of a university, association, corporation, or other entity that offers a significant portfolio of learning opportunities, you will probably use one or both of these platforms or packages to deliver instruction.
Effective Educational Components
Although distance learning platforms and web-based meeting packages have a full suite of tools embedded in them, you may decide that you want to use some elements but not others, and it's always helpful to have a clear idea of when and how each component in the platform will be most useful to you and your students.
Furthermore, you may want to adapt some materials to move from a complete distance learning platform to other environments — for example, to take course materials from one institution or program to another — and laying out your tools and options will help you make that leap.
As virtual teamwork, distance collaboration, and distance learning have become more commonly recognized, a number of tools are now on the "most likely to be used" list. You've probably already thought about these or even used them as a professional, instructor, or student at some point. It's helpful to have them laid out in detail to establish a clear understanding of when and how to use each in a thoughtful manner. They are ordered here based roughly on my preferences for their usefulness to the distance instructor.
And don't forget: The medium is the message. The choices you make regarding delivery of instruction are interwoven with the messages of instruction itself.
When any participant can access class discussion at any time, from anywhere he or she has a computer connected to the internet, that's called asynchronous discussion (AD). AD is the heart and soul of many distance learning programs. Proprietary web-based course management systems incorporate AD as part of their standard feature sets.
But AD is neither complex nor expensive. In fact, it is an increasingly common form of communication through LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social networks for professional and personal use. As these tools have become commonplace in usage, students of all kinds take to them quite naturally, but they've existed in other guises for a long time.
Professional associations have fostered AD for years through online bulletin boards and listservs, which can incorporate online discussions, as well as email "digests" of recent posts and/or subject lines, to push the conversation out to participants. Other free tools can be found through such providers as Yahoo! Groups. The basic AD format follows the same flow of interaction: A point for discussion is posted as a new message. A participant can reply to all by posting a response to the message. Another participant can reply to the first response. The entire discussion appears as indented entries, one after another, under the main "thread" established by the first posting. The result is anytime, anywhere access to the interactions and activity of the classroom (Figure 1.2 on web.freepint.com/go/research/learning).
AD is a critical component of distance learning in its online forms because of the immense benefits it offers students and instructors — benefits that cannot be matched in the face-to-face classroom. While many traditional classrooms rely on discussion to deepen the learning of participants and share information, the potential for thoughtful contribution from diverse groups of students is far greater in online AD because it
Benefits students who tend to hang back in face-to-face discussions, preferring to think through their responses before jumping in.
Benefits students who tend to learn through reading rather than through listening.
Offers greater flexibility to students, which contributes to the diversity in the classroom. As an instructor, I find this diversity to be particularly stimulating, bringing my own thinking to places I never expected to go.
Enables simultaneous discussions on multiple topics, adding to the richness and depth of the dialogue.
Enables use of linking and bringing nontext content into the discussion.
Automatically archives all contributions for later review (making it easier to grade on the basis of what actually took place rather than your recollection of what took place) and allows searching and sorting by date, contributor, topic, etc.
If AD represents the excellent potential of online distance learning, it is also the proving ground for many of its weaknesses, including:
Lack of immediacy: Yes, it's a recurring theme in the challenges of distance learning, but I repeat it because it's so often a source of anxiety and dissatisfaction for participants. If you wait 24 hours for a response to a discussion contribution, it can dampen the spark of your intellectual excitement.
Poor written communication skills: Frequent typos, ignorance of grammar rules, flat-footed attempts at humor that turn into gross interpersonal misunderstandings ... You'll see it all. And not just with new students.
Despite the challenges of AD, it is an invaluable tool for distance learning. For me and for many distance learning instructors, incorporating AD into a new program isn't a decision; it's a given.
Collaborative Online Workspace
Collaborative online workspaces were a mystery to most people 5 years ago. Today, they are better understood by many adult learners as more and more organizations have introduced them into the workplace. It's easier than ever for teams of people to collaborate online to access documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, and these technological and cultural advances have enabled collaborative online workspaces to adapt to the needs of distance learning.
Within a collaborative online workspace, an instructor can designate core content components, establish team projects, track assignments, and manage deadlines. Participants can chat in real time about documents or projects, or add comments to materials for others to review. Workspaces also maintain a history of changes, so individuals can go back to review who made changes to a document or resource and what those changes were.
Costs for these systems range from free (Google Documents, for example) to more expensive proprietary platforms. Some hosted solutions charge by the seat; others offer licenses for small and mid-sized groups, and there are enterprise editions that handle users in the thousands.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of using a collaborative web space for an instructional program is that the software was not originally designed to solve the particular problems of distance learning. Education-focused solutions such as course management platforms were built from the ground up with the needs and interests of instructors and students in mind; collaborative web space lacks this focus and may need some heavy handling to get it to behave the way you want.
Video and Multimedia
In the first edition of this book, I counseled against relying too heavily on video or multimedia because of the production costs involved. At the time, an instructor who invested time and resources in video or multimedia needed to be ready to stay with that material for a long time.
Excerpted from Teach Beyond Your Reach by Robin Neidorf. Copyright © 2012 Robin Neidorf. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Website,
Introduction: Those Who Can, Teach,
Chapter 1: New Tools of the Trade,
Chapter 2: What to Expect When You're Expecting Students,
Chapter 3: Content, Part I: Instructional Design,
Chapter 4: Content, Part II: Development,
Chapter 5: Time to Go to Class,
Chapter 6: Individual Learners,
Chapter 7: Creating a Community of Learners,
Chapter 8: Beyond the Formal Classroom,
Chapter 9: Distance Learning as a Collaborative Enterprise,
About the Author,