A Model for Assessing Distance Learning

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This article is adapted from a previously published article, Model for Assessing Distance Learning Instruction, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Spring 2003 Vol 14, No 2, 98-120.

The research reported herein is supported in part by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education through a grant to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium (MAR*TEC) at the Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education (TUCRHDE). The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position of the supporting agencies, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Distance learning has increasingly come to represent the paradigm of using electronic means of communication via e-mail and the Internet to deliver a course or components of a course to a population of students who are not sitting in the classroom with the instructor, but rather are participating in the course remotely. [1] The students may or may not meet the instructor in a face-to-face session, and the courses do not have to be place- or time-based.

Distance learning is rapidly gaining acceptance as a valid means of course delivery on college campuses across the country. Colleges and universities view distance learning as a means to better serve their traditional audiences, as well as a way to expand their population, both nationally and internationally. In a recent survey (Market Data Retrieval, 2002) of 1,621 two- and four-year colleges and universities, 84% reported operating a distance learning program, with almost half of those schools (47%) providing programs leading to an accredited degree. The number of higher education institutions with distance learning programs in the 2001-2002 academic year increased significantly over the prior year's level of 70%. With distance learning rapidly becoming an accepted form of instruction, colleges and universities are struggling to enhance the quality of edification and scholarship over the Internet while trying to effectively integrate this type of learning into the college curriculum.

As more institutions of higher education start offering computer-mediated courses, it becomes increasingly important that these courses be evaluated effectively. The model proposed in this article is based upon a review of the literature, examination of numerous evaluation models currently in use at various institutions, and the author's previous experience in offering distance learning classes. The model focuses on six constructs that distance learning courses should address during design and assessment.

Figure 1 outlines the six different constructs that comprise this model:

The Process of Teaching and Learning

The Community of Learners

The Instructor

The Student

Implementation of the Course

The Use of Technology

This article will examine each of these constructs and focus on the unique aspects that must be considered when developing and assessing a distance learning course. It will examine the issue of whether distance learning is, in fact, a new paradigm of learning.

The Process of Teaching and Learning

Perhaps the most pressing question regarding distance learning is what impact this type of delivery has on teaching and learning. When looking at whether online courses are comparable to traditional classes in terms of student achievement and learning, most research shows no significant difference between the two course formats in measures of learning outcomes in varied subject matter (Gagne & Shepherd, 2001; Green & Gentlemann, 2001; Johnson, Aragon, Shaik, & Palma-Rivas, 2000; Ryan, 2000; Schulman & Sims, 1999; Wade, 1999). These studies have found that the performance of students in a distance learning course was similar to the performance of students in the traditional on-campus course and that there were no significant differences in pre- and post-course differences and grade distribution. The findings of these studies show that online learning can be as effective as traditional face-to-face instruction with regard to achievement. Some studies show that online students outperform their on-campus counterparts and have higher achievement gains (Butzin, 2000; Hubbard, 2000; Morrissey, 1998). One factor to consider in these studies is that students may be self-selecting for online courses, and they may be better prepared and more highly motivated than the students who select on-campus courses.

Moore and Thompson (1990, 1997) reviewed much of the research from the 1980s and 1990s on the effectiveness of distance learning, which included not only computer-mediated learning but two-way interactive video and a variety of other technologies as well. They concluded that distance education was considered effective when measured by the achievement of learning, the attitudes of students and teachers, and the return on investment. In addition, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association commissioned the Institute for Higher Education Policy to conduct a review of the current research on the effectiveness of distance education (Phipps & Merisotis, 1999). They found that, regardless of the technology used, distance learning courses compare favorably with classroom-based instruction and enjoy high student satisfaction. These studies suggest that distance learning students have similar grades or test scores and similar attitudes toward the course as the classroom-based students. However, many of the articles reviewed also emphasized that "there is a relative paucity of true, original research dedicated to explaining or predicting phenomena related to distance learning" and that "the overall quality of the original research is questionable and thereby renders many of the findings inconclusive" (Phipps & Merisotis, 1999, pp. 2-3).

In terms of student attitudes toward online learning, research supports that students of all ages who are provided easy access to well-crafted computer-mediated distance learning classes generally have a positive experience taking this type of course (Abbott & Faris, 2000; Baron & McKay, 2001; Gagne & Shepherd, 2001; Mitra & Steffensmeier, 2000). However, these studies also point out that an increase in positive attitude is directly related to instructional approaches used, meaningful assignments required, supportive faculty, and involvement in meaningful discussion groups (Abbott & Faris, 2000). As Baron and McKay (2001) point out, having the requisite computer proficiency also affected the students' perceptions of the course. Those that entered a distance learning course with basic technical skills did not progress as well with the course content as those with more advanced technical skills and often found themselves overwhelmed by some of the assignments. Johnson et al. compared a graduate online course with an equivalent course taught in a traditional face-to-face format and took measures on a variety of outcomes including student satisfaction, grade distribution, and quality of projects handed in. No significant difference in the review of project ratings or in the grade distributions was found. However, students' satisfaction with their learning experience was slightly more positive for students in a traditional format. The findings of this study show that online learning can be as effective as the traditional format despite the fact that students in online programs may be less satisfied with their experience than students in more traditional learning environments.

An important point agreed upon by researchers is that most studies ask the wrong questions about student learning. Parker (1998) did an extensive literature review for the Washington Community College area to help provide a framework for assessment methodologies in distance education. He concluded that technology has managed to become the subject rather than the object of discussion and that technologies or modalities of instruction are less important than the quality and design of the instruction and communication they convey. Phipps and Merisotis (1999) concur on this point and suggest that the results of research seem to indicate that other factors such as learning tasks, learner characteristics, student motivation, and the instructor are important, not the technology. They claim that it is ironic how all the research they review ultimately winds up addressing an activity that is fundamental to teaching and learning, namely pedagogy, or how the course is taught.

Because of the need to define effective instruction within this new paradigm, many researchers have developed principles or benchmarks of effective teaching of distance learning courses. Graham, Cagiltay, Lim, Craner, and Duffy (2001) developed seven principles that typify what much of the literature recommends regarding effective pedagogical practices:

Instructors should provide clear guidelines for interaction with students. They should establish policies describing the types of communication required and set clear standards for instructors' timelines for responding.

Well-designed discussion assignments facilitate meaningful cooperation among students. Discussions should be focused on a task, a task should always result in a product, and tasks should engage learners in the content.

Students should present course projects. Students learn a great deal from seeing and discussing their peers' work.

Instructors need to provide two types of feedback on a continuous and frequent basis: information feedback and acknowledgment feedback. Students need to know how they did on an assignment or within a discussion forum, and they need to know when an assignment was received electronically.

Online courses need deadlines. Students need intermediate deadlines for handing in assignments.

Challenging tasks, sample cases, and praise for quality work communicate high expectations. A case-based approach involving real world problems with authentic data gathered from real world situations is recommended.

Allowing students to choose project topics incorporates diverse views into online courses. Such principles as these reflect good overall instructional design in any class.

The issue that needs to be considered in the process of online teaching and learning is the same one that must be considered with any course: What is the best way to teach students in this environment, and what factors would facilitate students' learning?

Developing A Community of Learners

Creed (1996) lists two characteristics of electronic communication that are beneficial: that it is not restricted to time and place, and that it is primarily visual and textual rather than aural. Therefore, this allows for

increased accessibility to the information and the ongoing dialogue about the information,

more pedagogically sound interaction with the information by students,

more thoughtful discussion by students about the information,

more equal participation in the ongoing discussion by all students,

enhanced student interaction outside of class,

unique classroom assessment techniques,

archival and retrieval of students' work, and

access to diverse sources of information via the World Wide Web.

These benefits take advantage of the asynchronous nature of this type of communication by allowing participants to transcend time and geographical place and still interact in a meaningful way.

This type of interaction is called "synergy" by The Illinois Online Network, a collaboration of 48 community colleges and the University of Illinois that together advance the utilization of Internet-based instruction (Illinois Online Network, 2001b). Research suggests that synergy, a collaborative interactive environment, is the most important learning tool in the online course, having a direct impact on learning outcomes. The cooperative efforts of the participants contribute to a productive and collaborative environment. In order for this to occur, the climate in the distance learning course must be open, honest, sincere, and conducive to learning. Ultimately, the instructor is responsible for developing and facilitating this community of learners. According to Riel and Fulton (2001), a community of learners is a group of people who share a common interest in a topic and a particular way of sharing information about the topic. Together, they build collaborative knowledge with a set of common collective tasks. This group becomes a "community of practice" (p. 519). Whether large or small, cooperation and communication are stressed within this community as its members work together to accomplish shared goals. Various activities for promoting such a community include having each member send a short biography sketch for the class to read, forming collaborative learning teams among students, assigning specific discussion questions for teams to respond to, using a problem solving/case study approach, having students present projects or reports online, having students monitor the discussion forums, having the instructor maintain online office hours and share important questions that arise during this time with the class (Illinois Online Network, 2001a).

Researchers recommend collaboration among students in distance learning classes as a means of developing a community of learners (Illinois Online Network, 2000b; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Bernard, Rojo de Rubaleava, & St-Pierre, 2001). Learning teams bond and provide mutual support and advice. There must be an equal amount of interaction between instructor and student as with student and student. Palloff and Pratt (1999) claim that the most powerful experiences are those in which interaction occurs throughout a group between students, instead of between one participant and the instructor. Therefore, they advise that the instructor assign group projects that students can work on collaboratively online, that groups participate in their own online discussion forums, and that groups be responsible for presenting their work to the class via discussion forums or shared e-mail attachments.

Electronic means of communication-from e-mail, to chat rooms, to instant messaging-are drastically changing the way that communication occurs in society. Within this new paradigm of learning, educators are increasingly emphasizing the importance of electronic communities in distance learning courses as a key to effective implementation (Creed, 1996; Herrmann, 1998; Illinois Online Network, 2000b; MacKinnon, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Poole, 2000).

In summary, the importance of establishing a community of learners cannot be overemphasized in an online distance learning course. Instructors need to establish a safe, secure, and comfortable environment in which students can share personal and content-related information with the rest of the class. Instructors should model this network through their own postings, encouragement, and feedback. Research suggests that the development of a community is a strong factor in determining whether students find the course satisfying and challenging.

The Instructor

As in any course, the instructor is really the key component to a successful experience. In an online distance learning course, the role of the instructor changes dramatically. The instructor no longer stands in front of a classroom lecturing and facilitating activities. Instead, instructors may never meet their students in person, and oftentimes interact with the class exclusively through electronic means of communication. In an online course, students must work autonomously at a computer to construct their own knowledge without an instructor being immediately present to guide the learning. Therefore, by ensuring that the course is learner-centered, collaborative, and egalitarian in approach (Grossman & Wagner, 2000), the instructor creates an environment that supports the learner as he or she progresses through the course. The instructor becomes the mentor, coach, and facilitator. According to Kearsley (2000), the most important role of the instructor in online classes is to ensure a high degree of interactivity and participation. This means developing learning activities that engage the learners in authentic tasks and problem-solving strategies. Hands-on projects help students to work together on relevant and timely investigations.

Palloff and Pratt (1999) categorize the various tasks and roles required of an online instructor into four general areas: pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical. Pedagogical functions are those that revolve around the development and implementation of a sound instructional design based upon learning theory. This includes designing the assignments, structuring and organizing the content, promoting a learner-centered environment, and ensuring overall pedagogical success of the course. The social function involves the establishment of a community of learners. The managerial function involves developing an agenda and schedule, establishing the pacing, setting objectives, creating rules and guidelines, organizing the various components of the course content, keeping track of assignments handed in, grading, and responding in a flexible and fair way to the many requests and problems that arise. The technical function depends on the instructors' level of technical expertise, their training in online course administration, and their ability to remain comfortable and confident in dealing with technical issues throughout the duration of the course.

Providing timely feedback is crucial for the instructor (Grossman & Wagner, 2000; Illinois Online Network, 2000b; Kearsley, 2000). The learners need to receive feedback about an assignment or posting before going on to the next assignment. Students need much more support and feedback in the online environment than in a traditional class because of the potential that students may feel alienated (Illinois Online Network, 2000b; Kearsley, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Using effective feedback strategies helps to ensure that students' needs are being met and that students are encouraged to participate and continue learning at a high-quality level. It is also recommended that instructors keep online office hours at specified times so learners can log on and talk with the instructor in a chat room or via e-mail (Kearsley, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999).

One implication of making a course highly interactive and providing students with timely and frequent feedback is that the instructor's workload will increase (Kearsley, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Palloff and Pratt claim that "instructors in an online arena will find that the time needed to deliver this type of class is two to three times greater than to deliver a face-to-face class" (p. 49). If a class has 30 students in it and an instructor spends at least 20 minutes per student evaluating assignments and providing feedback each week, the instructor is spending 10 hours per week on the one course without even counting the time spent moderating discussion forums, preparing course materials, learning to use new software, and troubleshooting problems (Kearsley, 2000). Although the workload for an online course may be high, there is a great deal of flexibility because the teaching activities can be accomplished when the instructor desires. This flexibility is a major incentive for faculty to teach online courses.

In summary, the instructor's role changes dramatically in an online distance learning course. It is recommended that the instructor receive training to teach in this new environment. The training program should include elements in all four areas mentioned earlier: pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical skills. The instructor will need training in how to moderate and facilitate discussion forums, how to provide feedback, how to reduce workload, how to facilitate building an online community, and many technical and managerial guidelines. An instructor who has these skills will gain a major advantage in an online environment.

The Student

In a distance learning course, the role of the student changes as significantly as that of the instructor. The key difference in online learning is that the learner has a great deal of autonomy-the choice of when, where, and how to learn. This brings with it the responsibilities of initiating the learning on one's own and the self-discipline to study and complete assignments (Kearsley, 2000). Palloff & Pratt (1999) categorize the role of the leaner in an online course into three areas: knowledge generation, collaboration, and process management. In knowledge generation, the learners must be responsible for actively seeking solutions to problems contained within the framework of the course. They must actively explore content by searching for information and questioning the perspectives of the instructor and other students while engaging in continuous online dialogue. Through this process, students generate and construct their own knowledge base with the guidance and help of the instructor. In the collaboration role, the student is expected to work with others online to solve problems and evaluate material. Many distance learning courses fail because they do not facilitate a collaborative learning process, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation. The last role students must learn is the process management role. The student participates in a new and strange environment, interacts and engages with other students, communicates frequently in course discussions, and takes responsibility for forming an online community of learners. In this role, the student must manage the whole process of learning in an online distance learning course.

Another important factor when examining the role of the student in a distance learning course is the technology-proficiency level of the students. Baron and McKay (2001) found that those students who were at a novice level in a distance learning class had to spend a greater amount of time on the course than their more experienced classmates and that their skill level interfered with the learning process. Students who had no prior experience with tasks such as sending attachments to e-mail or downloading PDF files found themselves overwhelmed by some of the assignments. Cohen (2000) found that those students with basic technological skills who were enrolled in a distance learning class became more technologically proficient at the end of the course. By using technology as part of course requirements, instead of learning about it in a separate computer course, students were forced to improve their skills.

. Phipps and Merisotis (1999), in their review of the literature, compiled a list of student characteristics that were identified as being associated with success:

students who rated themselves highly on measures of persistence related to taking on new projects,

married students,

students who rated the consequences of not passing as serious,

students who rated their chances of succeeding in their studies higher than non-completers,

students who did not need support from others to complete difficult tasks and did not find it important to discuss course work with others,

students with high literacy levels,

students who rated themselves as well organized in terms of time management skills,

students who rated their formal and informal learning as high in terms of preparing them for university studies, and

female students (p. 16).

Diaz (2000) believes that research should focus on what student characteristics facilitate success in a distance learning class. To help determine the future of distance education, studies should focus on student success rather than on which modality of delivering the course works best. Studies should examine comparing student characteristics, evaluating overall student success, and profiling successful and nonsuccessful students. Diaz suggests that educators should be asking what steps should be taken to ensure that students are successful when taking online courses.

Implementation of Course

One of the more important aspects of computer-mediated distance learning is effective implementation of the course. This covers the basic instructional design of the course, the infrastructure available to support the course, the quality of the access to the course, and the level of technical support available. Many advocates of distance learning tout access to college-level education as the reason for the proliferation of distance education. However, as Phipps and Merisotis (1999) point out, if the student does not have the appropriate equipment at home, the college infrastructure is not adequate, or the computer and software is prohibitive in terms of cost for a substantial number of students, how can public policy leaders recommend the use of this type of delivery in lieu of "bricks and mortar" learning (Phipps & Merisotis, 1999)?

As in any course, good instructional design is a critical factor in distance learning. Over the years, methods for the development of instruction have been explored and applied to the creation of many different types of courses. One of the most widely adopted models is the Instructional Systems Development (ISD) model. This top-down, linear method does not always translate well into the world of computer-based instruction. Online courses involve at least two other categories that are unique to the computer-based environment: usability and aesthetics (Kearsely, 2000). Usability refers to how easy a program is to use and primarily deals with interactivity and how the user interacts with the program. Aesthetics has to do with how information is presented and organized. This includes the use of graphics and colors, text arrangements, and creation of exciting and interesting programs so that the user is motivated to learn. According to Kearsley, there needs to be a balance between usability and aesthetics so that the course is easy to use but also visually interesting, well organized, and highly motivating.

Distance learning instruction is also unique in that the user must be able to follow the guidelines of the course and learn from the materials independently, without any intervention from the instructor. The course organization must be clear from the onset of enrollment, deadlines and assignments must be presented up-front, and the user must be able to progress independently and comfortably throughout the course without feeling confused and overwhelmed. In addition, assessment of online courses requires a different methodology. Unlike traditional classes, there is no guarantee that the student who is enrolled in a distance class is the actual person who is taking the assessment. Therefore, in a distance learning class, it is recommended that assessments be performance-based assignments that are an ongoing and integral part of the course-not the standard multiple-choice or essay test-to ensure that the grades are valid and accurate (Kearsley, 2000; Lindner, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 1999).

Although it is recommended that assessment be determined by assignments in the form of problems, projects, case studies, and the like, the computer-based environment is ideally suited for the creation of tests or quizzes with the collection of data being stored in a database. Many authoring programs offer online test tools where groups of users can share a common pool of questions that comprise a test. Quizzes can be developed as a means for students to assess their knowledge base as they progress through the course. A pretest can be given at the beginning of the course to determine how much the students already know about the material. End-of-course tests can also be developed, although this should be only one of the possible assessments that determine the student's grade. Constructing quizzes and tests is a simple matter of using computer-based technology and can be a great help for students if used for self-evaluation (Draves, 2000).

Like other forms of instruction, instructional design for online courses must include more than just the look and feel of the course; it must also be based upon learning theory, clarity and design of course and lesson objectives, and the incorporation of assessment techniques (Lindner, 1998). The basic principles of instructional design that are listed below are recommended for development of online distance learning courses (Illinois Online Network, 2000a; Kearsley, 2000; St. Edward's University Center for Teaching Excellence, 2000; University of Wisconsin Learning Technology and Distance Education, 2001). Many of these principles apply to all instruction, while some are unique to distance learning:

Content The content and links to other sites must be kept up to date, relevant, and accurate. Oftentimes, developers do not continuously maintain their course once developed and posted online. Organize the content into modules/units of study that are "doable" and not too content-heavy.

Pedagogy Have clear instructional objectives listed online that students can access, read, and print out; have a syllabus available with all assignments, due dates, worth of assignment in points or percentage of grade, and grading criteria listed so students know exactly what is expected.

Motivation Make full use of the computer and its multimedia features; create an environment that is motivating and aesthetically pleasing. Make sure the course is as interactive as possible and not just an online textbook.

Organization Establish a clear sequence through the course with set deadlines when assignments and readings are due.

Usability Make sure the course is easy to use and interact with; make sure that the interface/authoring system being used is simple and user friendly.

Assessment Create assignments that are relevant, hands-on, and problem-based; design assignments so that the students are using search strategies to solve real world problems in the field; assess students with performance-based projects and provide rubrics and criteria for assessment.

Flexibility Accommodate different learning styles and interests by providing choices; give students as much control over their learning as possible; give them directed choices as often as possible.

Interactivity Create opportunities for collaboration among teams; use the discussion forum/bulletin board as an integral part of the class.

User interface with the software is another key implementation issue. The software should be transparent so that users feel comfortable and confident about being able to navigate through the various components of the course. A participant should not have to spend excessive time trying to figure out how to post a message or go to lecture notes. Baron and McKay (2001) reported that in an online course they offered, the user interface in the course bulletin board was not designed well and led to a significant amount of confusion on the part of the students. This problem interfered with the initial use of the system and the student interactions that were so critical to the learning process.

Another important aspect of implementation is that the course must be designed with a great deal of visual appeal; otherwise, students feel cheated. They think they are getting a textbook on the computer. Internet users are now used to visual presentations of information over the Web, and they expect to see visually stimulating sites. When information is presented in text form only, a certain amount of disappointment and frustration can occur.

It is highly recommended that training for students be provided (The Institute for Higher Education, 2000). Students should be provided with hands-on training and information to aid them in using the online authoring system including how to access various components of the course, conducting research using online search engines, posting to discussion forums, e-mailing attachments, and working with multiple windows. They should also have access to technical assistance throughout the duration of the course.

In summary, effective implementation will ultimately determine the success or failure of an online course. Factors such as instructional design, user interface, visual appeal, technical problems, and training of faculty and students must be assessed. These factors affect each student's ability to access and successfully complete an online course.

Technology Use

This construct looks at how often students use various components of the course and the degree to which they find each component useful. It is highly recommended that different aspects of the course be assessed for frequency of use and degree of usefulness. Such aspects that could be assessed are the discussion forum, the announcement feature, the chat room, the white board, the student drop box (where assignments are uploaded), the learning links, the lecture notes, the schedule of assignments, the syllabus, and the e-mail feature. This information will be very useful in the revision and implementation of the course.

Valuable information is obtained by learning how frequently students are using the various components. An example is when an instructor discovered, at the end of an online distance learning class, that students were not e-mailing each other about assignments and any questions they may have had, although they were required to do so. The instructor had no way to monitor this, as e-mails were being sent to students and not to the instructor. The next time the course was offered, "buddies" were set up whereby students were teamed with one or two other students and they were then required to work together for the duration of the course. It was also suggested that the buddies "cc" the instructor when e-mail was sent. Assessment results showed that this solved the communication problem. This instructor was also surprised to find out that students rated the usefulness of the announcement component as very high. Throughout the duration of the course, the instructor never gave that component much thought and did not use it frequently. Yet, students wanted the feedback and information that it could provide. The next semester, this feature was used much more frequently.

After e-mail, threaded discussions (commonly known as discussion forums) are the second most commonly used capability for online education (Kearsley, 2001). Instructors need to know if the discussion forums were effective and helped students to expand their knowledge base and reflect on new perspectives. Oftentimes, the discussion forums can be confusing and disorganized, with hundreds of messages per topic nested to different levels of subtopics, making it difficult to understand and use. Students sometimes fail to engage in a discussion, or they will post messages that are short and unsubstantial. Assessment data need to clarify whether the discussions were effective, promoted greater interactivity, and addressed key topics involved in the class.

An essential aspect of online interaction is file transfer, or sending a file from one machine to another. Online courses often have capabilities to upload files to the hosting server and then allow instructors to read and download the assignments from the server. The ability of a student to send an assignment to an instructor and receive it back with comments and a grade is an integral part of effective online interactivity. This feature should be assessed, as technical problems in its use are common.

Another technology feature that needs assessing is the virtual classroom, which allows a real-time or synchronous learning activity to take place with instructor and students. The components typically used are a whiteboard, a chat area, and GroupWare functions (Blackboard, 2000). Using various areas in the virtual classroom, the instructor can draw, ask questions, navigate webpages, or carry on a chat. The instructor sets up a time and day for these activities. The Whiteboard is an area of the screen where the instructor and students can write questions, jot down notes, draw simple figures, and respond to questions. The instructor controls access to the whiteboard; however, it can become very chaotic and confusing if all students are trying to use it at once. The chat function is a different area of the screen where a student can type in a question or comment, which is immediately seen by everyone involved in the virtual classroom session. In this way, a spontaneous discussion can occur. GroupWare is a function that allows groups of students to meet in a private setting to exchange ideas, discuss projects, and work together. The instructor allows a certain group of students to meet in the virtual classroom to facilitate real-time collaboration online. These features need strict rules and guidelines to facilitate effective use and support of course objectives. Assessment and feedback will help guide future use of these interactive features and determine how useful students found them to be.

A key feature in any online course is the online learning links that are provided to the students to help expand their access to online research, resources, and information regarding key topics of the course. These links should be assessed as well. Often, external links are outdated or have moved, which frustrates students. Other times, links are irrelevant, point to sites that are very difficult to use, or are very time consuming to load. Additionally, some links require software to be downloaded in order to function properly. It is also becoming increasingly common for instructors to provide links to students in traditional classes as well. However, in an online environment, these links are often the main source of direction for learning the content, and students depend heavily, if not exclusively, upon their use. It is important that this feature be assessed so that course revision can consider this issue.

For effective implementation of an online course, the various technological features that make distance learning unique from traditional classes must function effectively and furthermore, should be used effectively by the students. Students need to know how and when to use the various technological features, and they need to see a perceived benefit when using one of them. It is highly recommended that different aspects of the course be assessed for frequency of use and degree of usefulness.


Computer-mediated distance learning involves a whole new array of factors to consider in the teaching-learning process. Virtual communities are established, and virtual teams work together to solve problems. The instructor may never meet the student face-to-face nor have any real-time conversations. Office hours are maintained through chat rooms, and student papers are graded through electronic attachments and e-mail. In this sense, distance learning represents a new paradigm of learning.

However, although distance learning courses involve various new factors to consider in their design and assessment, distance learning courses are fundamentally the same as any other course offered to students-the basic denominator is effective instruction. The modality of delivering the course may change, but the basic tenants of good pedagogical theory remain the same. Students will enjoy a course or dislike a course based upon the instructor who is giving it and on the way that the content is covered in class. Although education may be slowly transforming into a 21st century enterprise that uses the latest technological advances, the basic issues remain constant: What is effective instruction, and what is the most effective way to teach students who possess different learning styles and different competencies? How can instructors become more effective? How can we develop effective online courses that take full advantage of the online environment? These are the research questions that need to be considered in the field of distance learning, not whether one delivery mode is better than another. In terms of good course design, distance learning continues to represent one point along a continuum of design options, one other mode of delivery to consider.

The constructs outlined in this paper are those that should be considered in all courses. As society moves forward technologically, theories of learning and instruction need to be applied consistently and persistently to the development of all courses, and attention needs to be focused on the quality of the instruction, not on the modality of delivery. This new paradigm of learning needs to be grounded in time-tested and research-based theories of learning to ensure that students receive the quality instruction they deserve.