Distance Learning Designer’s Guide

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December 17, 2012 by idinnovation

Consider the following scenario: A training manager has been frustrated with the quality of communication among trainees in his face-to-face training sessions and wants to try something new. With his supervisor’s permission, the trainer plans to convert all current training modules to a blended learning format, which would provide trainees and trainers the opportunity to interact with each other and learn the material in both a face-to-face and online environment. In addition, he is considering putting all of his training materials on a server so that the trainees have access to resources and assignments at all times.

A blended or hybrid course is one where a significant portion of the course is delivered online; the defined range is between 30 percent and 79 percent (Deubel, 2007). Distributed learning is an instructional model that represents hybrid and blended learning which is learner-centered education that allows for students, instructors and content to be located in different locations and allows for learning and instruction to occur independent of each other. Hybrid courses substitute a portion of face-to-face instruction and replace it with online activities (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012). Distance learning has immersed itself in learning and development programs in the US whether it’s simple office training and development software, human resources onboarding, harassment and office policy training or job specific targeted training.  Organizations are replacing training travel, location, and loss of productivity with instantly available e-learning access (Moller, Foshay and Huett, 2008).  Computer and Internet technologies provide opportunities to use and create student-centered learning experiences.  In a learner-centered environment there are many benefits to students of hybrid learning such as:

  • Students that might not communicate in traditional face-to-face classroom settings might be able to participate more in an online forum because they have more time to prepare review course material and their responses (Lloyd-Smith, 2010).
  • The integration of the Internet both to deliver and to mediate the learning process in combination with face-to-face contact with others students and with the instructor, provides a meaningful opportunity to bring together the best of both worlds (Reynard, 2007).
  • Reynard (2007) contends that hybrid learning increases students’ learning autonomy however, students should be mindful because the instructor might function more as a director than as a respondent (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012).
  • Once course materials are developed they are easy to update, and provide students with 24 hours a day in asynchronous environment, are time zone independent and are available at the learner’s convenience (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012).

Instructors must redesign their courses by looking at their goals, objectives and learning activities in order to effectively integrate the online learning activities with the face-to-face learning experience (Hybrid Courses, 2012). Separation of instructor and learner is a key component of distance learning.  Because hybrid courses share characteristics of both traditional learning and distance learning these courses falls into the different-time, same place approach to education developed by Dan Coldeway (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012).

The instructor of a hybrid course typically determines what the outline of the course will be and decides what learning activities will be presented in the traditional environment and which ones will be moved online.  The instructor will take into consideration the learning goals, objectives, content and specific circumstances of the class in order to plan the course outline (Hybrid Courses, 2012).  Blended courses are implemented when the course instructor feels that online learning would promote and encourage a more productive learning experience and active learning environment for students (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012).  Transactional distance suggests that there is communication among individuals, the environment and the patterns of behavior in a given situation. Furthermore, transactional distance has distinguishing characteristics of separation of teacher and learner and is relative rather than absolute, is conducive to a range of structures, communication, and learner autonomy as long as the instructor and learners are spatially separate. Learner and instructor individual characteristics such as motivation, expectations and learning style as well as cultural considerations should be considered as well as technology limitations, learner support and skills to use/interact with the defined technology (Harris, Connolly, & Feeney, 2009).

The creation of identical courses for traditional and distance learning courses are likely to be ineffective and course designers should use a variety of learning approaches to create effective instruction – instruction should be equivalent but not identical (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). New and improved instructional design methodologies are needed for online instruction that learners will use. Moller (1998) notes that “meaningful learning is likely to occur in supportive communities, which encourage knowledge building and social reinforcement.” Contemporary approaches contend that F2F (traditional instruction) controls, provides effective educational experience, and encourages the attainment of objectives and defined learning.  However, it does not maximize on learning potential and may in fact hinder natural learning abilities and is not harmonious with dialogue-based or social collaborative learning models.

Whether designing for educational or organizational learning and development it is important to focus on the type of learner that will be engaged (learn) for the materials; realizing that collaborative learning environments are not always a good fit for some training needs such as immediate individual training (Moller, Foshay and Huett, 2008).  The profile of the distance learner is changing from adults that are place bound, goal orientated and naturally motivated to one that is diverse, dynamic, younger and responsive to rapid technological changes (Dabbagh, 2007).

Designers of distance learning education should follow a number of best practices, as described by Dr. Piskurich in his video “Facilitating Online Learning” (Laureate Education, 2012) instructors should be trained in the software technology that they and their students will be using, show learners that they care about their success, participate in all synchronous and asynchronous discussions, and keep in constant contact with students in the online environment.

The instructor is responsible for maximizing student interaction in an online environment (Beldarrain, 2006). Using activities and applications are at the core of effective distance learning courses (Facilitating Online Learning).  Instructors who seek to promote participation should establish minimum guidelines for student participation.  There are many factors that support online learning environments such as: timeliness in responding to student questions, responding to students using their names helps to personalize communication, and explicitly communication the tone of voice through the use of “lol” laugh out loud, winking, or other emoticons, contribute positively to creating a supportive, positive learning environment and promote interactivity (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006). Distance learning instructors who seek to promote open, supportive and respectful online environments can create discussion areas that allow students to post questions and have the instructor answer.  This area provides an environment much like a face-to-face question and answer setting (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006).

Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek (2012) contend that one of the foundations of Internet-based distance education is student-centered learning which promotes active learning, collaboration, mastery of course material and student control over their learning process. Course materials and activities that are distributed across computer platforms promote active learning and facilitate intellectual participation with course content which is advantageous to students (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). Web 2.0 applications are predominantly utilized in sectors other than education however, Web 2.0 technologies provide remarkable benefits to learners through their learner engaging functionality and should be used in the next generation of course management systems (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). The characteristics of distance learning tools encourage and promote better instruction than tools used in traditional learning (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012) and provide students sufficient freedom which both requires and encourages them to control their learning processes (Boyd, 2004).

Distance Learning Implementation Guide


Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance education trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education, 27(2), 139–153.

Boyd, D. (2004). The characteristics of successful online students. New Horizons in Adult Education18(2), 31-39. Retrieved from http://education.fiu.edu/newhorizons/journals/volume18no2Spring2004.pdf

Deubel, P. (2007, April 19). What’s online education all about? — THE Journal. THE Journal: Technological Horizons in Education — THE Journal. Retrieved November 11, 2011, from http://thejournal.com/articles/2007/04/19/whats-online-education-all-about.aspx39

Harris, P., Connolly, J., & Feeney, L. (2009, January 1). Blended learning: Overview and recommendations for sucessful implementation. Retrieved from http://epubs.rcsi.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=ilhmart

Hybrid Courses: Welcome. (2012). UW-Milwaukee. Retrieved November 11, 2012, from http://www4.uwm.edu/ltc/hybrid/index.cfm

Lloyd-Smith, L. (2010). Exploring the advantages of blended instruction at community colleges and technical schools. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching6(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol6no2/lloyd-smith_0610.htm.

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 1: Training and development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75.

Reynard , R. (2007, May 23). Hybrid learning: Maximizing student engagement — campus technology. Campus enterprise networking & infrastructure — Campus technology. Retrieved November 11, 2011, from http://campustechnology.com/articles/2007/05/hybrid-learning-maximizing-student-engagement.aspx

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: foundations of distance education (5th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


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