3. Planning the Perfect Online Course


The purpose of this chapter is to present best practice ideas for teaching the distance learner.

Chapter Objectives

After reading and reviewing this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Explain why it is important to plan ahead when teaching at a distance.
  2. Describe a systematic design process for instructional design.
  3. Discuss the literature dealing with “best practices.”
  4. Design a course using a systematic design model that attends to best practices.

Chapter Sections

  1. Signal Fires
  2. Why Plan for Teaching at a Distance?
  3. Introduction to Principles of Instructional Design Systems
  4. Issues to Address in the Planning Process
  5. Models for Designing Online Courses
  6. Best Practices in Course Design for Distance Education
  7. Recommendations for Distance Delivered Instruction
  8. End-of-Chapter Resources


Written by Dr. Michael Simonson. This chapter was derived with permission from Simonson, M. (2015). Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education , 6th Ed. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing

Section 1: Signal Fires

Video: The Perfect Online Course:

By Dr. Michael Simonson


In one of the greatest Greek tragedies, Agamemnon, Aeschylus begins his drama with word of beacon fires carrying news of the fall of Troy and the return of the king—news that set in motion Clytemnestra’s plan to kill her husband in long-delayed revenge for his slaying of their daughter. These signal fires would have required a series of line-of-sight beacons stretching 500 miles around the Aegean Sea. Line-of-sight communication, as signal fires would require, has a long history. Most broadcast television applications require line of sight; even communications satellites orbiting in the Clarke Belt thousands of miles above the equator are “in sight” of the uplinks and downlinks on Earth.

Communication with someone you can see has a visceral element that is missing when that person or group of people is not “in sight.” Certainly, considerable communication in distance education does not involve face-to-face instruction. The heart of distance education is the concept of separation of teacher and learner. Many say the meeting of students with teachers will soon be a relic of the past, like signal fires. This group touts the convenience of “anytime, anyplace” learning and the power of modern communications technologies to unite learners with instructional events no matter when they are needed and no matter where students may be located.

Others advocate the need for face-to-face instruction. This group stresses the importance of seeing and being seen, and the personal nature of the teaching/learning environment. Some even say that you cannot really learn some topics without being in a specific place with a select group of collaborators.

A third position is advocated by others who say that education should occur using a combination of instructional strategies. Schlosser and Burmeister (1999) wrote about the “best of both worlds,” where courses and programs would have varying percentages of face-to-face and distance-delivered learning experiences. Blended or hybrid approaches are probably the most widespread applications of distance education (Orellana, Hudgins & Simonson, 2009; Daffron & Webster, 2006; Epstein, 2006).

To date, however, no clear and verified process for determining whether face-to-face instruction, distance instruction, or a combination of the two is best. Most instructional designers and instructional technologists know that Richard Clark was correct when he said that media are “mere vehicles,” but when courses are designed and instruction delivered, what are the templates, the processes, the approaches to be used to determine whether a module, course, or program should be delivered face to face or online? Or, what percentage of each is “best”? Where is the research? Certainly, decisions about how a course is to be delivered should not be based solely on the “beliefs” of the instructor or the mandates of administrators. Signal fires told of the fall of Troy probably because that was the most appropriate technology available. Today, many technologies are available for instruction of the distance learner. Instructional design processes help the instructor make informed decisions about technology use.

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Section 2: Why Plan for Teaching at a Distance?

Just like other kinds of teaching, distance education requires planning and organizing. However, teaching at a distance, whether synchronous or asynchronous, requires that greater emphasis be placed on the initial planning phase.

On October 25, 1965, downtown St. Louis stopped in its tracks and thousands watched as the last piece of the mammoth Gateway Arch was being put into place. The weight of the two sides required braces to prevent them from falling against each other. Fire hoses poured water down the sides to keep the stainless steel cool, which kept the metal from expanding as the sun rose higher. Some horizontal adjustments were required, but when the last piece was put into place and the braces released, it fit perfectly, according to plan, and no one was surprised (Liggett, 1998). The thousands of onlookers applauded as the sun reflected off the bright span. The architects and engineers who were also watching smiled and went back to their offices.

Just like the Arch, distance education requires a careful process that includes systematic design before implementa- tion. Success is almost guaranteed if all the pieces of the plan receive the same attention as the most obvious. The base sections of the Gateway Arch required more engineering savvy and study than any other component. The last and most visible span that connected the two halves received the most attention from the thousands of onlookers, but success was directly related to how the original supports were positioned.

Design is the fundamental element of effective instruction. Many think that the traditional systematic models of instructional design are not relevant to the online teaching. Some claim that the traditional models of design such as the Dick, Carey, and Carey’s model (2011), and its derivative the ADDIE model, cannot be readily applied to instruction that is delivered to distance learners. Some claim that systematic planning is not important or even  needed when learner-centered instruction is developed.

In spite of claims, the evidence remains clear that the key to effective instruction is the concept of design, defined by Seels and Richey (1994) as:

“the process of specifying conditions for learning. The purpose of design is to create strategies and production at the macro level, such as programs and curricula, and at the micro level, such as lessons and modules.” (p. 30)

At the root of most widely practiced and classic design approaches is the concept of systems. The idea of systems used in instruction is derived from Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968), and Banathy’s Instructional Systems (1991; 1968), usually called instructional systems design. This process has served as the intellectual technique of those in the field of instructional technology and distance education for decades.

Instructional designers, the engineers of quality instruction similar to the construction engineers and architects who designed the Gateway Arch, are on the front-lines of distance education implementation. Certainly, modern interpretations of the ADDIE model, such as the Unit-Model-Topic approach have been proposed to clarify and simplify the approaches for the systematic design of distance delivered instruction. However, any approach that makes claims about quality but that does not have the systems approach at its foundation should be considered suspect.

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Section 3: Introduction Principles of Instructional Design Systems

Systematic Process

Instructional Design for online and blended courses will be covered in more detail in the next two chapters. Here we present an introduction to the topic.

The process of systematic planning for instruction is the outcome of many years of research (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2011). An analysis of the application of this process indicates that when instruction is designed within a system, learning occurs. The process of instructional design is a field of study. Instructional design is considered the intellectual technique of the professional who is responsible for appropriate application of technology to the teaching and learning process. In other words, instructional design is to the instructional technologist as the rule of law is to the lawyer, the prescription of medicine is to the medical doctor, and the scientific method is to the chemist—a way of thinking and solving problems (Thompson, Hargrave, & Simonson, 1996).

A critical part of the process is to consider the components of a successful learning system (Dick et al., 2011). These components are the learners, the content, the method and materials, and the environment, including the technology. The interaction of these components creates the type of learning experience necessary for student learning.

The components must interact both efficiently and effectively to produce quality learning experiences. There should be a balance among the components—none can take on a higher position than the others. The attempt to keep the components equally balanced while maintaining their interaction effect is essential to planning quality instruction. Simply stated, a series of activities alone cannot lead to learning; it is only with the careful planning for their balance and interface that learning is the result.

Another critical part of the process is evaluation. For successful learning to take place, it is vital to determine what works and what needs to be improved. Evaluation leads to revision of instruction, and revision of instruction helps secure the final outcome of helping students learn (Smaldino, Lowther, & Russell, 2012). Because of an emphasis on planning and revising, well-designed instruction is repeatable. This means that the instruction can be applied again in another class. For example, instruction designed for a televised, multisite class can be used again with a new group of students at different sites. Because it is “reusable,” the considerable initial effort is well worth the time and energy.

Planning for Instruction at a Distance

The process of planning and organizing for a distance education course is multifaceted and must occur well in advance of the scheduled instruction. One “tried and true” approach for planning instruction is to model others. One excellent resource is Pina and Mizell’s book Real-Life Distance Education: Case Studies in Practice (2014). This book provides research-based case studies about distance education. This book helps to eliminate trial-and-error preparation. Additionally, distance learning faculty should:

  • Keep in mind that courses previously taught in traditional classrooms may need to be retooled. The focus of the instruction shifts to visual presentations, engaged learners, and careful timing of presentations of information.
  • In revising traditional classroom materials, consider ways to illustrate key concepts or topics, using tables, figures, and other visual representations.
  • Plan activities that encourage interaction.
  • Plan activities that allow for student group work. This helps construct a supportive social environment. For example, the instructor could present case studies related to theories and concepts covered in the course, and then groups of students could discuss case study questions and reach consensus on a solution to the problem.
  • Be prepared in the event that technical problems occur. If synchronous equipment fails, it is important for students to have projects and assignments independent of the instructor and alternative means of communi- cation (e.g., fax, phone,  e-mail).  Discussing alternative plans with students ahead of time in case there is  a technological problem will eliminate confusion and loss of productive class time when a problem occurs (Orellana, Hudgins Simonson, 2009).

In addition to considerations related to planning for instruction, there is also a need to examine issues associated with the separation of instructor and some or all of the students. Time constraints for class delivery, lack of eye contact, visualization of the materials, and planning for interaction require a reconsideration of classroom dynamics. Often instructors use visual cues, such as student facial expressions, within the traditional classroom and conversations with students after class to decide quickly to adjust the instructional approach for a course. These cues give instructors insights that help them personalize the instruction for the students and ensure a quality learning experience for all.

In an online course it is more difficult to acquire visual cues from and about students. Even when using desktop conferencing technologies, the visual component provides limited information to the instructor. Teaching at a distance eliminates many of these cues. Alternative approaches to ongoing evaluation of instruction must be incorporated. If instructors ignore this area of preparation, planning to teach as they always have, they may feel frustrated. Likewise, students may become alienated and may begin to” tune out” the instructor. The instructional development process must be based on the unique characteristics and needs of students, meshed with the teaching style of the instructor and the course goals and content. Interaction must be maximized, the visual potential of the medium must be explored, and time constraints must be addressed.

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Section 4: Issues to Address in the Planning Process

Who are the Learners?

There are several reasons for bringing students together in a distance learning setting. Students can be pooled into classes of sufficient size to create a critical mass. Students can aggregate for advanced courses in subjects that might not otherwise be available on-site. Distance education can be an important approach to responding to the growing pluralism of learners’ backgrounds, characteristics, or unusual learning needs that may require or benefit from specialized instruction. One reason profiles are so important in social media is because people want to know their “friends”, or at least know about them. Distance learning students want to “know” their instructor and to be known by their classmates.

Taking the time to learn about the learners in the class yields a more productive learning environment. Knowledge of general learner characteristics can inform the instructor of the nature of the students at local and distance sites. This knowledge can aid the distance education instructor in overcoming the separation of instructor and students.

Along with the general information about the learners, an instructor needs to know the number of students in the class. In video-based distance education classes, knowing how many students are at each site and the number of sites involved in a synchronous distance education class can influence the level of interactivity. For example, in an on-line class with a large number of participants, it is likely that some students will fail to interact in discussions. Thus, an instructor needs to know his/her students and what technologies are available to them to plan effectively for interactive learning. Also, it is essential to know the nature of the audience. Are students from urban areas? Rural areas? What is their age range, grade range, and educational background? All this can have a marked impact on the levels of interaction among students. The instructor may have to plan more carefully for the types and levels of interaction to ensure a quality learning experience for all members of the class.  The cultural,  social,  and economic backgrounds of the students also constitute important information for the instructor. In addition, educational expectations of learners can also influence the quality of the learning experience. The attitudes and interests students bring to the class will impact the learning environment. Thus, an instructor who wants to create a quality learning experience for all members of the class, with the ultimate goal of learning as the outcome, will be certain to account for these variables in planning.

Analyze the General Abilities of the Class

Analysis of the cognitive abilities of the class allows the instructor to observe how students relate to the content of the lesson. Such issues as clearly defining the prerequisite knowledge or skills for the specific learning experience are important to ensure a successful learning experience. The students’ prior experience with similar types of cognitive tasks is important.

Further, learning styles have once again become an important area of consideration. With the introduction of Gardner’s multiple intelligences has come the resurgence of an examination of learning styles (Gardner, 1993). How students approach learning is as important as how well they can function in the classroom. So knowing more about how students interact with information is important in creating a valuable learning environment.

An instructor can determine students’ general knowledge and ability in a number of ways. Pretests and portfolio reviews can provide information about learners’ abilities. Because students are coming to the class from a variety of backgrounds and learning experiences, they may be underprepared for the content intended for a particular course, and thus will be frustrated and even unsuccessful in the learning experience. Or, conversely, they may already be familiar with the content and will be bored and uninterested in participating in the class.

By knowing more about students, the instructor can develop supporting materials to individualize instruction. Varying the presentation of materials to match different learning styles (e.g., animation, text, verbal descriptions, visual messages) can also ensure the greatest potential for reaching all learners.

The instructor can present complex cognitive content in ways that give learners clues, scaffolds, for understanding fundamental concepts, and thereby reach a wider range of individuals. People can remember complex material better if chunks of information are grouped into spatially related locations. Placing similar ideas in a logical sequence can aid retrieval of information at a later date.

Analyze Potential for Learner Interactivity

Students who are less social may find the distance education environment more comfortable for them. Students may become more expressive because of the perception of privacy and the informative nature of mediated communication. They may perceive the increased and varied interactivity and immediate feedback as a positive input to their interface with the learning experience.

Additionally, students can benefit from a wider range of cognitive, linguistic, cultural, and affective styles that they would not encounter in a self-contained classroom. The emphasis should not be on the inherent efficiency of the distance learning, but on the values and services offered to students through their exposure to others (Herring & Smaldino, 1997). Relationships can be fostered, values can be expanded, and shared purposes or goals can be developed. Distance learning experiences can serve as “windows to the world” by providing extended learning experiences.

When special efforts are made, distance education actually can enhance learning experiences, expand horizons, and facilitate group collaboration (Dede, 1990). Students can have more direct experiences with the information (e.g., close-up viewing of an experiment is possible). Time for reflection is possible before responding to the prompts presented, and the ability to work with peers or experts enhances the potential for learning. One of the most effective techniques to promote interaction in distance education is the threaded discussion—instructors post questions related to reading, viewing, and/or listening to assignments, then students post comments in a discussion area. Wade, Bentley, and Waters (2006) have identified 20 guidelines for successful threaded discussions. One critical guideline is the division of large classes into subgroups of 10 to 15 students so that discussions are manageable. A rule of thumb for the instructor’s involvement in threaded discussions recommends that early in a course, the instructor should post once for every 4 or 5 student postings, then as students take more responsibility for their own learning later in the course, the instructor might post once for each 10 to 12 student postings—primarily to keep the discussions on track (Simonson, 2007).

Understand Learner Characteristics To be effective, it is necessary to understand the learners in the target audience. Willis (1994) suggested that the following questions should be asked prior to development of distance learning environments:

  • What are students’ ages, cultural backgrounds, interests, and educational levels?
  • What is the level of familiarity of the students with the instructional methods and technological delivery systems under consideration?
  • How will the students apply the knowledge gained in the course, and how is this course sequenced with other courses?
  • Can the class be categorized into several broad subgroups, each with different characteristics?

These questions are not easy ones to answer. An instructor should attempt to find the answers prior to the first class meeting. Asking a few well-chosen questions of individual students will help the instructor understand their needs, backgrounds, and expectations. Additionally, students will feel they are important to the instructor. In an online environment, it is often more difficult for the instructor to get information about students; thus it is essential that the instructor plan a way of inviting students to share information about themselves. Be careful to respect their right to privacy, while trying to learn as much as you can about them.

Help Learners Understand the Context of the Learning Experience

Morrison, Ross, and Kemp (2013) refer to three types of context: orienting context, instructional context, and transfer context. They suggest that the learners need to grasp the intent of the instructor when participating in various types of learning experiences. When the learners have an understanding of the reasons why they are participating in a particular type of instructional activity, they are better able to use that experience to expedite their own learning.

Each of these contexts serves a particular purpose for the learner. The orienting context refers to the students’ reasons for being in a course. These reasons vary among the students. For example, a student may be participating in a course for credits toward a pay raise. Or, a student may wish to change positions within a company, which is dependent on completing the particular study area.

Instructional context addresses the learning environment. Scheduling a course to meet at a certain time and location or specifying dates for completion of assignments also impact the manner in which the student interacts with the class. Knowing how convenient it is for students to access the resources or to rearrange their own personal and work schedules is important when planning instruction. The third context, transfer context, refers to the way in which the knowledge will be used by students. It is critical when planning that the instructor considers what information is important so the students will apply it to work or school applications. Students will value that information they perceive as useful. Knowing the students and their interests or needs will help the instructor plan useful learning experiences to ensure transfer of learning.

What Is Essential Content?

The content of a course needs to reflect where this content relates to the rest of the curriculum. It is essential to examine the nature of the content, as well as the sequence of information. In any synchronous distance learning environment, one particular issue, that of time constraints, impacts other planning areas. Time constraints refer to the actual online time for delivery, which is often limited and inflexible. The issue of limited time makes it necessary to closely examine the essential elements of the course content. The instructor needs to balance content with the limited time for learning activities and possibly remove extraneous, nonessential information.

Generally speaking, the scope of the content for a course needs to be sufficient to ensure the entire learning experience will lead to the desired outcomes. Concepts, knowledge, and specific skills need to be identified (Dick et al., 2011). Supporting information or knowledge is important to the scope of content analysis. Follow-up and applications of the content should be considered.

The instructor’s time is best spent on content analysis if the content is organized within a hierarchy. Starting with the general goals, followed by more specific goals and objectives, the nature of the structure of the content can be made to fall into place. The resulting framework of information about content helps the instructor decide the value and importance of specific information to the total instructional package. It is important to remember that no matter which media formats are used in distance education, the trend is to reduce the “amount” of information delivered and to increase the “interactive value” of the learning experience. Thus, the instructor may need to remove content that had been included in a traditional presentation of a course.  Or, the instructor may need to consider  delivering information through alternative means, such as additional readings or booklets designed specifically for tasks.

The instructor also needs to examine the sequencing of information. A number of variables—for example, character- istics of the learners, their prior knowledge, content, time, and number of sites involved—are critical when deciding the order of presentation of information. Because the instructor and some or all of the members of the class are separated, the material must be sequenced in a logical fashion for the students.

Goals and Objectives for Instruction

The challenge of education is to match the content of the subject to the needs of the learners. Broadly stated goals are a helpful starting place for the instructor. The instructor must decide what is appropriate for a group of students and for the individuals within that group. Each instructor constantly must face the challenge of adapting instruction to the student who is expected to learn it. Although content is important, instructors should remember that their focus is on the students. This is critical when establishing goals for any course.

The traditional approach for writing objectives is also effective for distance education courses. Specifically, objec- tives should state the conditions under which learning should occur, the performance expected of the learner, and the standard to which the performance will be matched.

One way to write objectives is as follows:

TABLE 3.1:

Given: The conditions under which learning occurs
The learner will: meet some predetermined level of performance
According to: a minimum standard

The objectives of a particular lesson may not necessarily change simply because an instructor teaches at a distance. Good instructional goals should form the basis for instruction, regardless of the medium used. Instructional goals and objectives always should be shared with the students, helping both the origination and remote-site students to focus on the parameters of the instruction. This information may be included in course outlines, presentation handouts, or materials presented at the beginning of the course.

What Teaching Strategies and Media Should Be Used?

Students can provide insight into the design of the learning experience. They can give feedback in lesson design and instruction delivery. Using a simple feedback form, students can describe or indicate in some other way their expectations and perceptions of the class structure and the delivery mode. The instructor can examine information students provide to determine if the mode of presentation was effective. Evaluating these responses, the instructor can gain an understanding of how the learners perceived the class experience. An instructor’s personal philosophy will influence the approach to teaching at a distance. An individual’s philosophical belief will affect selection of goals and curricular emphases, and influence how that individual views himself or herself as a classroom instructor. The instructor who thinks in the philosophical arena of realism, idealism, essentialism, or perennialism will see the instructor as the central figure in the classroom, delivering knowledge and modeling to the student, an instructor- centered approach. On the other hand, the instructor who advocates the philosophies of pragmatism, existentialism, progressivism, constructivism, or social reconstructionism thinks that the student is the central figure in the class- room. The instructor is viewed as the facilitator of learning by guiding, rather than directing the students, thus modeling a student-centered approach.

Although the dynamics of a philosophy will not predict an instructor’s success in the distance education classroom, successful teaching at a distance places the recipients’ needs before organizational convenience and at the center of planning and decision making. The individual needs of the learners are brought to the forefront in education that uses electronic technology because separation of learners from the instructor requires students to take more responsibility for learning. Consequently, the learner’s opinions and needs play a more important role in decision making than  is usual in an instructor-centered environment (Macfarlane & Smaldino, 1997). It is oversimplified to suggest that there is one best way to teach at a distance. In any given content area, there are several potential ways of providing a quality learning experience for the students (Smaldino, Lowther, & Russell, 2013). However, the one thing that has been repeatedly demonstrated through research is that lecture, or the “talking head” approach, is the least successful strategy to employ in distance education. What is essential in deciding which strategy or strategies to employ is the issue of engaging the learner.

The instructor should focus on selecting instructional strategies that engage all the learners in active learning. To do this, the instructor may need to de-emphasize the “informative” part of the instruction for more “discovery” of information. The emphasis on keeping the learners engaged in learning ensures that students will be in tune with the class.

Media Selection

Several models are often used in selecting media (Dick et al., 2011; Holden & Westfall, 2006). The common theme among these models is the learning context, which is the content, the intended outcome, and the nature of the students. Practical considerations such as available resources for creating media and the technologies for delivery of instruction also play a hand in the selection process. Mainly though, the goals and objectives will influence the selection of media. McAlpine and Weston (1994) have come up with a set of criteria for selecting media, whether they are commercial media or media developed specifically for a particular course. The first criterion is to match the medium to the curriculum or content. Other criteria include the accuracy of information, motivational quality, engagement quality, technical quality, and unbiased nature of material. These should be considered in selecting media in order to match student needs to the strategies employed.

Media that are “off the shelf” are often considered sufficient for a quality learning experience in the traditional classroom (Heinich et al., 2002). However, in a distance learning environment, the “ready-made” materials may need to be adapted or modified to accommodate the technologies involved in instructional delivery. Some materials may need to be enlarged or enhanced to be seen by students at a distance. With others, the digital format may need to be changed.

Because of the nature of distance learning and the separation of the instructor from the students, it is essential that the instructor begin to think visually. Too often, instructors do not place enough emphasis on designing and using quality visual materials. Taking the time to develop good visual media will enhance the quality of the learning experience (Heinich et al., 2002).

Visualizing Information

Visuals provide a concrete reference point for students, especially when they are engaged in an asynchronous learning experience. Even if the visuals are lists of concepts and ideas, they can help students. Visuals also help learners by simplifying information. Diagrams and charts often can make it easier to understand complex ideas. A visual that breaks down a complex idea into its components can show relationships that might be otherwise confusing to students. Also, visuals that serve as mnemonics can assist student understanding. Visuals help students in their study as well. They can use the visuals to prepare for tests and other means of assessing their learning.

What Is the Learning Environment?

Educators are familiar with classroom settings; they are comfortable with using the space available to enable learning to take place. It is when the classroom shifts into a distance learning setting that the environment often becomes a challenge to the instructor. Several important elements must be addressed within the distance learning environment.


The type of setting, be it place- or time-shifted, will influence planning decisions. Environments that are place- shifted are those that are synchronous but are not in the same location (e.g., a live, video-based distance class). Those that are time-shifted are asynchronous, where students access the class at different times. Assessing the use of technology in a distant setting is essential. In any distance learning environment, the technology becomes an element of concern for the instructor. The instructor must become familiar with the hardware and the nuances of the technology to use them effectively. The instructor needs to balance concern for the operation of the equipment with effective teaching. Once the technology becomes transparent in the educational setting, the instructor can reflect on the lesson quality, the outcomes, and the plans for subsequent lessons.

Several issues are associated with technology when teaching in a distance learning mode. First is the basic operation of the equipment. In a televised distance learning setting, switching between sites is usually a simple procedure, but it does require instructor time to acquire the finesse to operate the switching buttons smoothly—to manipulate cameras, to control sound levels and to change graphic images. Second, using additional cameras in the classroom can create some concern for the instructor. The overhead camera needs to be focused and materials lined up to ensure that learners in all sites can see the material. Third, the instructor should always consider what the student should be viewing during the lesson. Is it better to see the instructor, the visuals, or other students? When an instructor has had experience teaching with the equipment, these decisions become automatic, making learning the foundation for the decisions made (Herring & Smaldino, 1997).

In an online learning environment, the instructor needs to be concerned with the layout of the courseware and the types of resources available to the students learning at a distance. The instructor needs to be certain the material is designed in a way that is intuitive for the various types of learners who may be interacting with it. The instructor also needs to be concerned about student access to the appropriate hardware and software to be successful in connecting to the courseware, and that the students can complete the tasks expected of them. Finally, the instructor needs to be certain that the students understand the terminology being used. Today, at a minimum, the typical distance student needs only a computer with a modern monitor to view course materials.

It is essential that the instructor be prepared with alternatives in case of technical problems. What will the students do during a synchronous class being delivered using desk top video such as ZOOM (a proprietary videoconferencing software system) if the technology is not operating properly—or at all? Preplanned contingencies should continue the learning process even though the technology is malfunctioning. Alternative lessons must always be ready but, it is hoped, never needed. Students need to be prepared to know what to do with those materials. The materials must be designed to be used without instructor intervention. Recording of synchronous sessions is almost always a good idea.


The second element to consider in the instructional environment is the resources available to students. What materials will they have at hand? What materials will be available in libraries and laboratories? Will students have access to resources for easy communication with the instructor?

These are the types of concerns that an instructor needs to address when thinking about the learning environment. It is difficult to plan for a particular type of learning activity if the room cannot be adapted or changed in any way. For example, if the instructor plans a group activity in which students will need to communicate to one another, how will this be accomplished?

Planning to Teach at a Distance

Much of what has been suggested in the planning process is not specific to a particular type of distance technology or delivery mode. Rather, the instructional design process is relatively open to any instructional setting. But, when planning to teach on the Web, an instructor needs to address some essential considerations. One very important issue is that the instructor is “ready” for the course to begin. It is frustrating for students who begin an online course only to find that all the materials are not prepared or not accessible at the time they need them. It would be advantageous for the instructor planning an online course for the first time to consider working 3 to 5 months in advance of the beginning date. This will ensure that the materials will be planned and prepared in a timely fashion. Another important issue when teaching online is that of establishing the communications framework. All too often, instructors of online courses “complain” that students expect them to be available all the time. If you as instructor do not intend to check your course materials daily, indicate that with the initial materials that are distributed. Tell students they can expect a response within a day or that you intend to be online checking the course on specific days of the week. That way both students and faculty will not be frustrated by the interrupted communications process.

Instructors have found that to ensure quality and promptness with online coursework, it is necessary for the students to know exactly when assignments are due. A calendar or timeline is very important. Providing students with rubrics or guides for how to complete assignments well is also very important. The more information students have about completing assignments, the fewer problems the students and instructor will experience during the course.

Finally, when planning to teach online, advise students (and this is a good piece of advice for the instructor as well) to set aside specific periods of time during the week to work on the course. It is so easy to let it slide that often  the complaint is that there is never enough time to get all the work done. This usually results from someone letting the work pile up before getting to it. With an online course, it is best to plan several shorter periods per week, rather than one longer one. This helps to check things out, do work offline for a period of time, and then to finish up before the time period is up. Part of the initial materials presented to the students should provide guidelines for students to ensure a successful learning experience. When it is noted that a student is falling behind in the work or is not participating at an acceptable level, the instructor should contact that student privately, either by e-mail or by phone, to see if there is a reason for non-participation. This takes time, but the instructor will find it beneficial for a successful distance learning experience.

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Section 5: Models for Designing Online Courses

Traditionally, there are four approaches for the instructional design of courses that are to be delivered asynchronously using the World Wide Web. The four approaches are not entirely new. Two are based directly on the individualized instruction movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The four models are:

  1. Linear-designed instruction
  2. Branched-designed instruction
  3. Hypercontent-designed instruction
  4. Learner-directed design

Although these four design models are different in approach and use, they have several similarities. First, instruction is divided into units. Different instructional designers use terms such as units or blocks instead of modules, but all refer to a subdivision of a course’s content. Generally, a three-credit college course would have about three units divided into 12 modules, each taking about a week to complete. Designers further divide modules into topics that directly relate to the module.

Linear-designed instruction is based on linear programmed instruction. First, major subdivisions of a course are iden- tified—usually three for a three-credit college course. Next, a content area such, as distance education foundations, is divided into important ideas. These ideas are called modules. Modules of instruction are divided into topics. Each topic has instructional events, or learning experiences, followed by some kind of an assessment. Before students are permitted to continue to the next topic within a module they must successfully complete the assessment. If the assessment is an objective test, they must pass the test. The sequence of topic-related instructional events followed by assessments continues until all topics in a module have been studied. Often, a module-ending assessment must be completed before the student moves to the next module. Similarly, there are often mid-course assessments and end-of-course assessments that require the student to synthesize learning that is related to many modules.

Linear-designed instruction is sequential. Students move in the same path through the concepts, topics, and modules, and complete the same assessments and tests.

Branched-designed instruction is similar to linear with two major exceptions. First, assessments are more sophis- ticated in order to diagnose a student’s progress and understanding of concepts and topics.   If a student shows a propensity for topics in a module, it is possible to skip ahead, or branch forward. Similarly, if a student has difficulty, the assessment process will require that the student branch backward, or to remedial instruction, before moving forward in the lesson.

The second distinguishing characteristic of branched-designed instruction is the use of alternative instructional events or learning experiences. In other words, students may interact with different instructional content depending on the results of assessments. Just as a human tutor might decide that an algebra student needs more practice with mathematics, a branched-designed lesson might require a student to complete a drill-and-practice lesson on long division. Branched-designed instruction is difficult and time consuming to effectively produce, and is not often used in distance education.

Hypercontent-designed instruction also has units, modules, and topics. First, modules are identified and organized into units of similar content. Next, topics related to the module are identified and learning experiences are designed and produced. These topics are presented using text, audio, graphics, pictures, and video. Finally, a module assessment activity is developed. This assessment is designed to determine if a student has successfully completed and understands the module satisfactorily. If so, the student moves to the next module in the sequence of modules.

Within the module, there is little instructor-determined sequencing of topics. Rather, the topics and corresponding learning experiences are studied in an order determined by the learner. In other words,  the student has control  and topics can be studied in a random, nonsequential manner, or in a hypercontent order. Often a course-ending assessment such as a major paper, presentation, or product is required. This design approach is the most common model used.

The final design module is the learner-directed design. For this approach, the instructional designer identifies units, modules, and topics, including learning experiences, but places no sequence or order on the topics within modules, or among the modules themselves. Learners decide what order of topics are studied, and sometimes even the topics themselves. Learners construct their own instructional strategies and even their own instructional design. Students move through modules in any order they choose. Few, if any, requirements are placed on the student by the instructional designer.

To be successful, this approach requires considerable talent and effort on the part of the learner. Direction is given to students by module goals and by outcome assessment activities. Some constructivists who advocate learner-directed design procedures ask students to construct their own outcome assessments.

Instructional design models for online instruction are evolving. These four approaches draw on the experience and research of the programmed instruction efforts of the past. Some teachers mix and match the four approaches into amalgams of design procedures. The four approaches just described are something of a starting point for course design. Next, literature dealing with what is commonly referred to as “best practices” will be reviewed.

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Section 6: Best Practices in Course Design for Distance Education

One key to effective distance education is correct instructional design, a systematic process that applies research- based principles to educational practice. If the design is effective, instruction will also be effective.

Distance education has been practiced for more than 150 years, passing through three phases: first, correspondence study, with its use of print-based instructional and communication media; second, the rise of the distance teaching universities and the use of analog mass media; and third, the widespread integration of distance education elements into most forms of education, and characterized by the use of digital instructional and communication technologies. Peters (2002) has suggested that “the swift, unforeseen, unexpected and unbelievable achievements of information and communication technologies” will require “the design of new formats of learning and teaching and [will cause] powerful and far-reaching structural changes of the learning-teaching process” (p. 20). Peters’ views are well accepted, but there is also consensus that the most fruitful way of identifying elements of quality instruction may be to re-examine “first principles” of distance education and mediated instruction.

Perhaps the first of the first principles is the recognition that distance education is a system, and that the creation of successful courses—and the program of which they are a part—requires a “systems” approach. Hirumi (2000) identified a number of systems approaches but noted a concept common to all: that “a system is a set of interrelated components that work together to achieve a common purpose” (p.   90).   He described a system that involved    the efforts of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, and consisted of eight key components: curriculum, instruction, management and logistics, academic services, strategic alignment, professional development, research and development, and program evaluation.

Bates (in Foley, 2003) proposed twelve golden rules for the use of technology in education. These rules offer guidance in the broader areas of designing and developing distance education:


  1. Good teaching matters. Quality design of learning activities is important for all delivery methods.
  2. Each medium has its own aesthetic. Therefore professional design is important.
  3. Education technologies are flexible. They have their own unique characteristics, but successful teaching can be achieved with any technology.
  4. There is no “super-technology.” Each has its strengths and weaknesses; therefore they need to be combined (an integrated mix).
  5. Make multiple media available to teachers and learners. Print, audio, video, and computers should all be available.
  6. Balance variety with economy. Using many technologies makes design more complex and expensive; there- fore, limit the range of technologies in a given circumstance.
  7. Interaction is essential.
  8. Student numbers are critical. The choice of a medium will depend greatly on the number of learners reached over the life of a course.
  9. New technologies are not necessarily better than old ones.
  10. Teachers need training to use technology effectively.
  11. Teamwork is essential. No one person has all the skills to develop and deliver a distance learning course; therefore, subject-matter experts, instructional designers, and media specialists are essential on every team.

A number of these guidelines are overlapping. Three of them (1, 2, and 11) address course and program design. Any examination of first principles should first examine instructional design. While it has been noted that instructors, even those new to distance education, can learn to adapt courses and create materials for online delivery (Ko & Rossen, 2010), and the author-editor model has long been an element of correspondence study programs,  “what  is strikingly missing in these arrangements, usually, is an instructional designer and many good features of the instructional design approach” (Moore & Kearsley, 2012, p. 101). The team-based approach to distance education course development is generally regarded as more likely to result in high-quality materials, experiences, and, hence, more satisfactory teaching and learning experiences (Hirumi, 2000).

Bates’s triumvirate of subject-matter expert, instructional designer, and media specialist is the standard core of  the course design team, which may be expanded—one source (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, & Conceicao-Runlee, 2000) has suggested as many as eight members—based upon the particular needs of the program and the media employed. No single approach to course design is ideal; as Moore and Kearsley (2012) noted, the course team approach results in “materials [that] are usually much more complete and effective. Furthermore, [it] tends to emphasize the use of multiple media in a course” but is “very labor-intensive and therefore expensive, and it involves a lengthy development period” (p. 101-2). Of the two approaches, “the author-editor approach is the only one that makes economic sense if courses have very small enrollments or short lifetimes, while the course team approach is justified for courses with large enrollments and long-term use” (p. 102).

Foley (2003) has noted “there are general principles of good design that can be applied to all distance learning activities” (p. 831), but noted the following influences:

  • The target audience of the activity
  • The content of subject matter to be delivered
  • The outcomes or objectives desired (p. 831)

Other considerations having “profound effects on the design of the learning activities” (p. 831) include:

  • The cost effectiveness of the system
  • The opportunity costs of alternative systems and methods
  • The availability of technology to the provider and to the learners
  • The geographical location of the learners
  • The comfort level of the learners with any technology that is used (p. 834)


Foley notes that these factors apply equally well when designing instruction for any given audience, from children to adults. When designing the World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network, “results of more than 30 years of research on adult learning were applied to the distance learning programs” (p. 832). The criteria included:

  1. They are based on clearly established learning needs and built around succinct statements of outcome.
  2. They are based on a variety of teaching and learning strategies and methods that are activity based.
  3. Effective distance learning materials are experiential. . . they address the learner’s life experience.
  4. Quality distance learning programs are participatory in that they emphasize the involvement of the learner in all facets of program development and delivery.
  5. Successful distance learning programs are interactive and allow frequent opportunities for participants to engage in a dialogue with subject-matter experts and other learners.
  6. Learner support systems are an integral part of any successful distance learning program. (p. 832)

The Indiana Partnership for Statewide Education (IPSE, 2000) proposed “Guiding Principles for Faculty in Distance Learning”:

  • Distance learning courses will be carefully planned to meet the needs of students within unique learning contexts and environments.
  • Distance learning programs are most effective when they include careful planning and consistency among courses.
  • It is important for faculty who are engaged in the delivery of distance learning courses to take advantage of appropriate professional developmental experiences.
  • Distance learning courses will be periodically reviewed and evaluated to ensure quality, consistency with the curriculum, currency, and advancement of the student learning outcomes.
  • Faculty will work to ensure that incentives and rewards for distance learning course development and delivery are clearly defined and understood.
  • An assessment plan is adapted or developed in order to achieve effectiveness, continuity, and sustainability of the assessment process. Course outcome assessment activities are integrated components of the assessment plan.
  • Learning activities are organized around demonstrable learning outcomes embedded in course components, including course delivery mode, pedagogy, content, organization, and evaluation.
  • Content developed for distance learning courses will comply with copyright law.
  • Faculty members involved in content development will be aware of their institution’s policies with regard to content ownership.
  • The medium/media chosen to deliver courses and/or programs will be pedagogically effectual, accessible to students, receptive to different learning styles, and sensitive to the time and place limitations of the students.
  • The institution provides appropriate support services to distance students that are equivalent to services pro- vided for its on-campus students.
  • The institution provides its students at a distance with accessible library and other learning resources appro- priate to the courses or programs delivered via technology. It develops systems to support them in accessing and using these library and other learning resources effectively.
  • It is important to provide the appropriate developmental experiences for faculty who are engaged in the delivery of distance learning experiences.
  • The institution implements policies and processes by which the instructional effectiveness of each distance learning course is evaluated periodically.
  • Timely and reliable technical support is vital to the success of any distance learning program.
  • It is recommended that a system of faculty incentives and rewards be developed cooperatively by the faculty and the administration, which encourages effort and recognizes achievement associated with the development and delivery of distance learning courses.
  • The institution will communicate copyright and intellectual property policies to all faculty and staff working on distance learning course development and delivery.
  • The institution complies with state policies and maintains regional accreditation standards in regard to distance learning programs. (www.ihets.org/learntech/principles_guidelines.pdf)

Commonalities between these principles and those suggested by other authors and organizations may be readily perceived. For instance, careful planning and the need for teacher training are cited by Bates (in Foley, 2003), and the emphasis on the unique needs of students in a variety of contexts is mentioned by Foley (2003). The IPSE principles make an important contribution by highlighting the need for consideration of copyright law and policies, intellectual property ownership, faculty incentives, and state policies and accreditation standards.

Because education (including distance education) is a system, each of its elements interacts with other elements, making difficult the isolation of elements. Interaction (its type, quantity, quality, timing, etc.), for instance, cannot be separated from instructional philosophy, choice of media, and other factors.

Whatever media are selected to facilitate instructor-student and student-student interaction, it should be recognized that these forms of mediated discussion should not completely replace the face-to-face element in courses. As Peters (1998) noted, those who think that new, digital media will “supply the interactivity and communication lacking in distance education. . . cherish a hope here that will prove to be serious self-delusion” (p.  155).  Peters’s comments on the topic (in the context of videoconferencing, a relatively rich, “high-bandwidth” form of communication), trenchant and incisive, are worth quoting at length:

Communication mediated through technical media remains mediated communication and cannot replace an actual discussion, an actual argument, the discourse of a group gathered at a particular location. Mediated communication and actual communication stand in relationship to one another like a penciled sketch and an oil painting of the same subject. What takes place in a discussion between two or more people can only be transmitted in part electronically. . . .A virtual university that does without face-to-face events by referring to the possibility of videoconferencing can only ever remain a surrogate university. . . .There is no doubt that to a certain extent [videoconferencing] will improve the structure of communication in distance education—but it cannot ever take the place of personal communication in distance education. (p. 155)

Peters’s views on virtual communication have not been significantly modified with time.

They reduce, surround, parcel out, spoil or destroy experiences gained at school or university. For this reason, it may be concluded, learning in virtual space will never be able to replace completely teaching in real spaces. (p. 104)

The effective use of a variety of media to facilitate communication, combined with critical quantities of well- structured face-to-face instruction and learning, have characterized many distance-delivered programs. They are two key elements of the model of distance education what has been called “the best of both worlds”—a combination of face-to-face and online instruction (Schlosser & Burmeister, 1999).

As important as is the appropriate selection and use of technologies of instruction and communication, technologies are not critical elements in shaping students’ satisfaction with their distance courses. Rather, satisfaction is deter- mined by “the attention they receive from the teachers and from the system they work in to meet their needs. Those needs, “what all distant learners want, and deserve” include:

  • Content that they think is relevant to their needs
  • Clear directions for what they should do at every stage of the course
  • As much control of the pace of learning as possible
  • A means of drawing attention to individual concerns
  • A way of testing their progress and getting feedback from their instructors
  • Materials that are useful, active, and interesting

At the same time, it should be noted that frustration with the use of complex, inadequate, or malfunctioning equipment, as well as perceptions of emotional distance engendered by the use of distance education technologies, have negatively affected students’ attitudes toward—and, in some cases, achievement in—distance education.

Bates’s seventh golden rule, that “interaction is essential,” is well accepted by the field, and is a central element  in most definitions of distance education (see, for instance, Keegan, 1996, and Schlosser & Simonson, 2012). Keegan (1996) noted that distance education must offer “the provision of two-way communication so that the student may benefit from or even initiate dialogue” (p. 44). Initial provisions for interaction were primarily for student-instructor interactions, but with the availability of expanded communication technologies in the 1990s came an increasing emphasis on additional forms of interaction. Three forms of interaction are widely recognized by the field: student-content, student-instructor, and student-student. It is this third form of communication, reflecting, in part, andragogical and constructivist perspectives, that has increased dramatically with the rise of online education.

Concurrent with the expansion of online education and the diffusion of new communication technologies, there arose the mistaken belief that if interaction is important, “the more interaction there is in a distance education class, the better” (Simonson, 2000, p. 278). As Simonson (2000) has noted, early research in the field had “demonstrated clearly that the provision for interaction was critical” (p. 278), but later research indicated as clearly that “interaction is not a magic potion that miraculously improves distance learning” (p. 278). Indeed, “the forcing of interaction can be as strong a detriment to effective learning [as is] its absence” (p. 278).

When quantifying and qualifying student-teacher and student-student interaction,  perceptions may be less than reliable. In a study comparing distance students’ perceptions of interaction (as compared with observations of their interaction), Sorensen and Baylen (2000) noted that in a videoconference class with several sites students accurately noted that across-site interaction was very low, within-site interaction was very high, interaction changes with instructor location, remote site students participate less, and group activities increase interactions. However, students perceived that less interaction occurred over time (when, in fact, interaction increased), and that technology inhibits interaction when, more accurately, it seems to create different patterns of interaction (p. 56).

Although Sorensen and Baylen (2000) examined interaction in the context of an interactive television course, their findings have implications for other distance education modalities. The researchers concluded that a sense of community formed among students at the distant sites, but interaction increased when the instructor was present  at a given distant site. Sorensen and Baylen noted that “varying activities and including hands-on exercises and small and large group discussions were instructional methods appreciated by the students” (p. 56). Students in the Sorensen and Baylen study expressed satisfaction with the “distance learning experience,” but suggested that the course include “at least one opportunity for students to meet face-to-face” (p. 57).

Distance teaching institutions (and their students) have a wide variety of instructional and communication media from which to choose. These two categories (instructional and communication) may be, to some extent, addressed separately, but they are often one and the same. Bates’s fourth golden rule, that there is no “super-technology,” is well accepted and understood by experienced instructional technologists and distance educators, but often less so by those new to the field (and many, many of today’s practitioners fall into this latter category). For this reason, it is important to invoke the findings of Clark (1983) explained in an earlier chapter, who noted, two decades ago, that “media do not influence learning under any conditions” (p. 446).

If, as Clark (citing hundreds of studies and decades of research) maintains, the application of any particular medium will neither improve student achievement nor increase the speed of learning, what criteria might a distance teaching institution apply in the selection of media for the delivery of instruction and the facilitation of communication? Cost (to both the institution as well as to the student) is an obvious criterion. Less obvious, perhaps, are the culture of the institution and expectations of students (or potential students).

At a very practical level, Ko and Rossen (2010) suggested that, prior to selecting media and instruction for online education, the institution’s resources should be assessed and the following questions should be asked:


  • What’s already in place (what, if any, courses are being offered online; who is teaching them, etc.)?
  • What kind of hardware and operating system does your institution support?
  • What kind of network has your institution set up?
  • What kind of technical support does your institution provide? (p. 19)


As Ko and Rossen noted, “the tools an institution uses and the support it offers very much influence the choices [the instructor will] need to make” (p. 18).

Other guidelines for selection of media for synchronous communication, in the context of one best practice in distance education—collaborative, problem-based student work groups—have been offered by Foreman (2003). Foreman noted the usefulness of a wide variety of synchronous technologies: chat, telephone conference, Web con- ferencing and application sharing, voice-over-IP, virtual classrooms, and videoconferencing. Of the technologies at either end of the spectrum—chat and video conferencing—“neither works especially well as a tool for collaborative teamwork” (para. 5) because chat is slow and awkward, and because videoconferencing is expensive, is frequently of low technical quality, and often fails to capture many of the visual cues so helpful for communication. Modern desk-top systems, such as ZOOM, have significantly reduced these problems.

Telephone conferencing, however, “is highly effective for organizing small-team distance learning experiences” (Foreman 2003, para. 6), as it “provides immediacy, a high rate of information exchange, and complex multi- person interaction facilitated by a familiar audio cueing system.” Foreman recognized that telephone conferencing can be expensive but counters that significant savings may be realized through inexpensive three-way calling op- tions—which, “despite its name, four or more people can use. . . at once” (para. 7)—available through most telecom providers and cell phone companies.

In the end, all of the criteria just mentioned are considered and, frequently, a pragmatic approach is adopted. As Bates recommends in his fourth golden rule, “each [medium] has its strengths and weaknesses, therefore they need to be combined (an integrated mix)” (Foley, 2003, p. 843).

The literature abounds with guidelines for distance education and identified best practices of distance education. Sometimes these are based on careful research but are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the products of practitioners relating practices that have proven successful for that author. Still, some common threads have emerged.

Graham, Cagiltay, Lim, Craner, and Duffy (2001) offered seven lessons for online instruction:

  1. Instructors should provide clear guidelines for interaction with students.
  2. Well-designed discussion assignments facilitate meaningful cooperation among students.
  3. Students should present course projects.
  4. Instructors need to provide two types of feedback: information feedback and acknowledgment feedback.
  5. Online courses need deadlines.
  6. Challenging tasks, sample cases, and praise for quality work communicate high expectations.
  7. Allowing students to choose project topics incorporates diverse views into online courses. (http://ts.mivu.o rg/default.asp?show+article&id=839 )

In his eighth“golden rule, Bates notes that “student numbers are critical.” While this observation is made in the context of cost and media selection, student numbers are, indeed, critical in at least two other respects: class and working- (or discussion-) group size. Distance education has been embraced, in some quarters, as an opportunity to reduce costs by increasing class sizes. The literature clearly indicates that there are practical limits beyond which the quality of instruction and learning are compromised. As Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, and Conceicao-Runlee (2000) noted, “demand for interaction defines the size of face-to-face classrooms and the nature of the interactions within those classrooms; the demand for interaction has a similar effect upon online classrooms” (p. 26). Palloff and Pratt (2003) suggest that experienced online educators can “handle” 20 to 25 students in an online course, while “instructors who are new to the medium, or instructors teaching a course for the first time, should really teach no more than fifteen students” (p. 118). Orellana (2009) has reported that the optimum class size for an online class with one instructor is about 20, if optimum levels of interaction are desired.

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Section 7: Recommendations for Distance Delivered Instruction

These recommendations are based on the current literature of the field of distance education (Simonson, 2005; 2008). These recommended guidelines are intended to provide ways to organize courses and be guiding principles that will make courses with equal numbers of semester credits equivalent in terms of comprehensiveness of content coverage, even if these courses are offered in different programs, cover different topics, and are delivered using different media.

Assessment Guidelines

Assessment is defined as the determination and measurement of learning. Ultimately, assessment is used for grading. Assessment is directly related to learning outcomes.

  • 1 major assignment per unit
  • 1 minor assignment per two to three modules

A typical three-credit course has the following assessment strategy:

  • 1 examination
  • 1, ten-page paper
  • 1 project
  • 3 quizzes
  • 3 small assignments (short paper, article review, activity report)
  • graded threaded discussions, emails, and chats

Learning Outcome

A learning outcome is observable and measurable. Learning outcomes are a consequence of teaching and learn- ing—of instruction and study. Often, learning outcomes are written with three components: conditions under which learning is facilitated (instruction), observable and measurable actions or products, and a minimum standard of expectations. Often, there is one learning outcome for each course topic. For example, a learning outcome for a topic dealing with the median might be:

After studying the text, pages 51-53, reviewing the PowerPoint with audio presentation on measures of central tendency, and participating in synchronous chats, the Child and Youth Studies student will satisfactorily complete the objective test dealing with measures of central tendency at the 90% level.

Content Guidelines

Traditionally, instructors have offered content by making presentations during face-to-face instruction. Additionally, readings in textbooks and handouts are required of students. Flipped classes, a currently popular approach, expects students to access all course materials, including pre-recorded lectures or presentations, as homework. Classes are then devoted to discussions and interactions in the classroom or during live, synchronous sessions.

In distance teaching situations, readings in texts, handouts, and information placed in the course management system are often used to deliver content. For high-quality courses, there should be an emphasis on the use of various forms of visual media to offer instructional content. Videos, visual presentations with accompanying audio, and other graphical representations of important topics are important to the well-designed course. A variety of delivery systems for content should be considered, including the use of compact discs, electronic files posted to Web sites, and streaming (Blackinton, 2013). Content is organized into topics for students. Topics are combined into modules of similar topics, and modules are used to form units (Figure 5-6).

Modules might have three to five topics presented in the following ways:

  • Readings in the text or other written materials
  • Videos
  • Audio recordings of speeches or presentations
  • Recorded presentations using PowerPoint with prerecorded audio
  • Synchronous chats with content experts

Instruction/Teaching Guidelines

The pace of instruction for learners is a critical concern to the distance educator. Because many distance education students are employed full-time, it is important to offer instruction in a way that complements their other responsibilities. These guidelines relate to the pace of instruction and the need for continuing interaction between instructors and students in a typical college semester:

  • 1 module per week
  • Instructor e-mail to students each week
  • 1 synchronous chat per week
  • 2 to 3 threaded discussion questions per module
  • Instructor comments on discussions as part of threaded discussion board
  • Progress reports (grades) submitted to students every week or two

These course design guidelines are based on the literature of distance education and are derived from an analysis and review of quality courses delivered at a distance.

The simplicity of the Course Unit (also referred to as the Carnegie Unit) has made it the standard for course design, primarily because it is easy to apply. The Course Unit requires 750 minutes of class time for each semester credit, which translates into 15, 50-minute class sessions. A three-credit college course would meet three times a week for 15 weeks, according to most interpretations of the Course Unit. It is easy to count class sessions in order to determine if a course measures up. If traditional students are in class for 3 hours per week, they probably spend about 6 hours per week outside of class doing homework, reading, completing assignments, and viewing course materials. Thus, a typical student might be expected to be involved in a typical college three-credit course for somewhere between 100 and 150 hours, or 5 to 10 hours each week in a 15-week semester. This rule of thumb is also explained in Chapter 7. The Unit-Module-Topic approach to course design can be used to meet this “time standard.”

It is essential that the instructor take the time to plan and organize the learning experience when engaged in teaching at a distance. The instructional design process provides the framework for planning. Instruction must be at a standard that is acceptable in all venues. The students should be engaged, and the instructor should be satisfied. Planning makes the difference in a successful learning environment.

Best Practices for a 3-Credit Semester Course

Table 3.2

Structure Content Artifacts of Learning Unit Contents
Instructor  time:     ~120 hours Syllabus 3 Major Graded Assignments Introduction to Unit

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End-of-Chapter Resources


  1. Of the four models listed, which is best for a project-based course? A science course? A math course? Outline what topic you are going to teach and decide which model best suits the learning needs.
  2. What is equivalency theory, and how does it relate to the design of quality online learning experiences? Why does equivalency matter?


Create a list of learning activities completed in your face-to-face course. Then create a second column of equivalent learning experiences that could be applied in the online course. Remember that equivalent does not mean equal. Some learning activities done in a class might not be done in the online course, but an equivalent learning experience should be designed for the online course to take the place of the one completed in the face-to-face course. Students should receive the same level of quality learning opportunities regardless of delivery format of the course.

Some examples to get you started:

  1. A face-to-face course has a group field trip to a park. An online course asks the students to visit a local park and take photos of ecosystem indicators and then post them to a discussion forum and talk about what they learned and observed.
  2. A face-to-face course has a guest speaker. The online course could still have an interview with the guest speaker as a video, or have the guest speaker present in a webinar format to the students.
  3. A face-to-face course has a live debate or role play. The online course could have a debate or role play in the form of a discussion thread.




  • Virtual Learning: learning that can functionally and effectively occur in the absence of traditional classroom environments (Simonson & Schlosser, 2006)
  • Blended Learning: Allen and Seaman (2003) defined a blended learning course as “having between 30% and 80% of the course content delivered online” while they considered an online course as having “at least 80% of the course content delivered online” (p. 6).
  • Equivalency: the online course should offer an equivalent learning experience to a face-to-face course. Not the SAME learning experience, but equivalent


This chapter was derived with permission from Simonson, M. (2015). Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education , 6th Ed. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing

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Banathy, B. (1991). Systems design of education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications. Banathy, B. (1968). Instructional systems. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers. Berg, G. A. (2001, April-June). Distance learning best practices debate. WebNet Journal, 5-7.


Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General systems theory. New York: Braziller.

Blackinton, M. (2013). Teaching a “hands-on” profession in an online classroom. PT in Motion, November, 16-23.


Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.


Daffron, S., Webster, E. (2006). Upon reflection: A case study of a simultaneous hybrid classroom. Distance Learning, 3(3), 25-34.

Dede, C. (1990, Spring). The evolution of distance learning: Technology-mediated interactive learning. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 247-264.


Dick, W., Carey, L., Carey, J. O. (2011). The systematic design of instruction (8th ed.). New York: Longman. Epstein, P. (2006). Online, campus, or blended learning: What do consumers prefer and why. Distance Learning, 3(3), 35-37.


Foley, M. (2003). The Global Development Learning Network: A World Bank initiative in distance learning for development. In M. G. Moore W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of distance education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Foreman, J. (2003, July/August). Distance learning and synchronous interaction. The Technology Source. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show+article&id=1042


Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

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