Over the past few weeks, I’ve been studying about the origins of distance education. Not only was I surprised to learn that the idea of distance learning stemmed from correspondence courses from the mid-1800s, I was surprised to learn that the foundational principles haven’t changed since the beginning. Many courses (though this trend is changing) are still asynchronous and the method to which instruction is laid out is the equivalent to a traditional lecture course. Despite all of the technological advances in the past 150+ years, distance education has remained generally unchanged.

As an instructional designer, it’s my job to help change that trend and assist faculty or departments in creating an online learning environment. Contrary to popular belief, the structure of an online course should be much different than a traditional face-to-face class. Merely uploading PowerPoint slides with accompanying audio and expecting your students to learn is a horrible misconception and illustrates a true lack of understanding of learning. (That’s not to say that’s acceptable face-to-face teaching either!) What I found surprising was that, in many cases, it was the academic departments were pushing for online courses, not the instructors. As I’ve learned more about the process, I’ve found in many situations the departments decide which courses go online by the course, not the instructor. While this makes sense as far as department is concerned, many incorrectly assume that teaching online is a simple process for instructor.

To state it bluntly, many universities and departments don’t understand the complexities for putting a course online. Many are driven by the additional revenue provided by new students, as opposed to learning. Since universities are a business, this makes sense. For academia however, it has gotten out-of-hand and something needs to change.

Skill Sets of the Instructor

This is going to be a shocker: not every teacher should teach online. And, surprisingly, the reason doesn’t have to do with technology. 

Some faculty are really good with connecting with students.  Instead of technology assisting in that relationship, it gets in the way. Too often though, the actual strengths of the instructor aren’t in the equation. The misconception most prevalent right now is that if you can facilitate a class in person, you can facilitate a class online. 

What departments and instructors fail to realize is that teaching online is hard. It isn’t hard in the sense that it’s painful, but it requires so much more of instructors. Not only is it necessary to redevelop course materials for online consumption (that should be kept current), it requires much more time to facilitate an online, asynchronous conversation than a classroom conversation. Not to mention the numerous questions through email that come at all hours of the day, and the number one best practice for online teaching is quick relevant feedback. This is easy to hear, easy to want, but extremely time-consuming to do.

I believe we are entering into an age where many instructors are going to have to choose their distribution specialty – either face-to-face or online. (I’m leaving out blended right now.) Instructors will evaluate themselves (perhaps it will be done for them) on which one they do well. Instructors won’t be forced to teach online if they have no technological experience. Not only does it create more jobs in a field that desperately needs it, but enrollment caps won’t be necessary. More students apply; more instructors needed. Obviously, it isn’t as simple as that, but it’s a step.

The perfect learning environment

I was challenged with this question: What does your perfect learning environment look like? My answer was: it depends. It depended on the course and lesson objectives for that day, how many students needed to be present, in what medium was the content presented…etc. I slowly came to the realization there were too many variables for my vision to fit one technology. 

In my previous life as a web designer/developer, I knew there were certain limitations and many considerations when building an application. The more versatile an application was made, the more complex it became, which meant it became less user-friendly. Due to different technical skills and technology road blocks, my perfect learning environment is impossible. Not to mention even it were possible to have my own perfect world, that doesn’t mean it will be perfect for my students…you know, the ones taking the course.

A good place to be

I still have many ideas related to the different aspects of distance education, but I’ll have to save them for later. This mind dump was reserved for my view of distance education as a whole and what I think is a dangerous trend in education. While this post may have taken on a solemn tone, I believe this is a great time to be an educator. Not only has a new medium dropped in our laps, we have the ability to help create it. 

My goal on a mind dump post is to just get everything I’m thinking about a particular topic on (digital) paper. While I do go back and proofread for grammatical errors, I try to keep my thoughts as uncensored as possible. My arguments might have glaring holes, and that’s okay. My point is to lay out my view of a topic, with my bias (or my view of reality) included in hopes of creating conversation and furthering a shared knowledge.

It is important to state that I’m keeping my comments as general as possible because this is not about any one university/school/educational idea. It is just the view from my reality.