In distance education the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance or both. The main aim of the distance education is to provide access to learning to these learners. These distance education programs often are developed singularly by faculty or through divisions of continuing education. Since there is no coordination in developing the programs they result in disjointed and non-focused programs. Distance education programs should encourage quality and customer orientation. They should also provide the tools necessary for faculty members to modify course materials. A major problem associated with distance education is the lack of program focus, with the majority of attention going to individual course offerings. Accepting the notion that a holistic view must be assumed for distance education programs to be considered effective, the current paper analyze various factors necessary to improve quality in distance education.
Now-a-days distance education is a standard component of most higher education institutions. These programs are offered through self-learning materials, Internet, satellite or television broadcasts and serve the students who were not able to attend regular classes at reduced or alternative rates. A prominent concern for institutions has been the structuring of how to offer courses via distance education programming. Realizing that learners as consumers only purchase what they perceive to be legitimate products (learning), administrators of distance education programs often become caught in the middle between faculty and students, between faculty and outside constituents, and between the institution and faculty. The result is a need to better establish and to document initial baseline data about what distance education administrators perceive to be essential ingredients in the improvement of courses offered through distance education technologies.
Best Practices in Distance Education
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Distance education should be learner centric. First you should analyze the learner and understand their requirement. The course materials should be developed keeping average learners in mind. Recognize that not all learners are comfortable with technology, and the technology will not always work when and how it should. Determine how much time you expect the learners to spend online using newsgroups or web-based materials. These require learner participation. The asynchronous nature of online learning can lead to feelings of isolation by the learners. Participation and interactivity are key elements to keep the learners engaged.
As an instructor, you should first know what you are going to achieve with distance education that cannot be achieved through other methods. You should make optimum use of technology. You should create online materials that work well with your approach to teaching. If you are not comfortable with the layout, content, or design of the instruction, you cannot expect your learners to be comfortable. Keep your expectations for the learning realistic. Get feedback from your fellow instructors before releasing the technology-driven materials to students.
Printed material can enhance the teaching, learning, and managing of distance education. The most common are discussed here:
Syllabus: The syllabus for a distance learning environment must be provided on the first day of class and contain the instructor information, the textbook and any other required materials and the logistics such as meeting times and locations if applicable. It must contain all policies such as attendance and participation as well as special items set forth by the individual instructor or institution. The syllabus must contain the course and unit goals and objectives along with instructional activities, assignments, and assessment information and due dates for all assignments.
Self-Learning Materials: Whenever you are using any image or a section from a textbook, ensure that you have enough rights to use them. Remember, just because it is on the Internet does not mean it's free to use â€¦ even if it is for education! Be prepared to protect the rights of your materials too. State objectives and align assignments, activities, and assessments with the objectives. Develop courseware to recognize differences in culture. Do not use jargon in distance education material. Consider potential differences in participation and assessment requirements.
Interactive Study Guide: An interactive study guide can prove to be a useful tool, especially if the distance education program uses some type of telecast or video. The study guide contains an outline of the course or instructional unit and materials such as graphics, tables, and exercises to enhance the learning process. The student must have the guide prior to the beginning of the instructional unit. Design all material in accordance with graphic design principles. Consider size, font, color, and contrast when designing graphics and other visuals.
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Text: If textbooks are required and the course is entirely online, students should be able to purchase the textbook online before the beginning of the start of class. If textbooks are available to be viewed online, provide the ability to print.
Visuals: Supplementing the written word with visuals will aid in comprehension. Use visuals, such as conceptual maps and graphics to show relationships and to clarify difficult concepts. Consider the size of the file and the speed of transmission of the visual to the learner's computer while using visuals.
Assessment & Evaluation
You should recognize that the assessment and evaluation method used in distance education is different from that of regular. Use the technology and asynchronous environment to your-and your students'-advantage. Create assessment opportunities with electronic portfolios, journals, collaborative learning, and writing. Do not force a traditional test into the materials if it isn't needed. Evaluate and revise. Use feedback from the learners and formative and summative evaluations to determine any changes that could improve the course for future learners.
Learning objectives state what the learner is expected to know at the end of the instruction. They should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-focused and Timely). Oftentimes, learning objectives are also called performance objectives because they state what the learner will be "doing" or "performing" after the completion of the instructional unit. The writing of good objectives leads to the development of good instructional materials, and a wealth of information is available to facilitate this process. Students are motivated by knowing what they are going to learn and motivated again when they have attained the knowledge.
In distance education, you can have two modes of communication: synchronous and asynchronous. In synchronous communication, the instructor and the learners participate in the learning environment at the same time, though not necessarily in the same location. In asynchronous communication the learners and the instructor participate in the learning environment at different times. Interaction between learner and instructor must be frequent and meaningful. Most interaction between learner and instructor will be in the form of feedback. Frequent and timely feedback is required for retaining and motivating students. Interaction between students in an online environment is referred to as participation. Requirements for participation in online discussions must be established and clearly stated. Netiquette is network etiquette, which are the rules for communicating and minding your manners in an online environment. Since body language (visual) and tone of voice (audio) are missing in the online environment, netiquette will help you understand and get along with others in an online environment. Provide a location in the online environment for informal communication, which can help build a social community in the distance-learning environment. Students feel more connected to instructors who show their "presence," that is, those who allow their personalities to come out in their lectures and through their online discussion. Ensure the student can communicate directly and privately with the instructor. Provide multiple modes of communication such as email address and telephone number.
Motivation is required if the learner is to succeed. Motivated learners have higher success rates, regardless of how and where learning takes place. Self-motivation-coupled with the ability to "structure one's own learning" - led to success in the distance learning environment. Without the formality of the traditional classroom setting, learning becomes autonomous. It is up to the learner to take advantage of the opportunity for learning through discussions and other forms of interaction. If the learner lacks motivation, he/she may find it easy to withdraw from the course when confronted with the challenges of distance education. Some of these challenges include responsibility for scheduling coursework and learning to work with the delayed responses inherent in asynchronous learning. The distance learner, who enters the distance education environment without a specific goal, whether it is a degree or a certification, faces not only the inherent challenges of distance learning but also the challenges of persisting through the course. The "purest form" of distance learning is asynchronous learning, which takes place at different times and different places for both the teacher/instructor and the learner. This separation also separates distance learning from traditional learning. One aspect of distance learning brings "life" to this environment: interaction. Three types of interaction prevalent in distance learning environments include: learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction. Of these, "learner-learner interaction has proven to be a productive part of the learning process." The implementation of interaction allows the teacher/instructor and the learner to rise above the flatness of distance learning. The teacher/instructor acts as moderator and stimulates the learning process by keeping the students engaged in the course. Remaining engaged and interested in the subject can be the key in keeping a distance learner in line for successful completion of the course or degree program.
Student Feedback and Evaluation
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All online content must be monitored to determine effectiveness and alert faculty to changes in the target population. In a traditional classroom, faculty has visual indications of the quality of the course and the satisfaction of the students. Critical to this evaluation is data collected concerning student performance and participation and satisfaction with their distance learning courses or programs. Data on student satisfaction can be helpful in improving a course or program and planning for future programs. While data gathered from student satisfaction surveys tend to be quantitative and are most important for comparison to other courses or programs, qualitative data can also provide insight into which aspects of a course work well and which are problematic.
Student Support Services
By definition, many distance learning students are geographically separated from their colleges or schools. A simple act such as purchasing a textbook, taken for granted at a campus where a bookstore customizes its inventory for the courses offered, may prove problematic for a student who lives many miles away. Basic student services such as admissions advisement, financial aid counseling, registration, and paying tuition and fees are complex activities in most institutions. Services that directly support instructional activities, such as libraries, media centers, or computer laboratories, need to be considered when delivering distance learning. Reserve readings, video clips, recordings of classical music, or simulation software needed to solve science problems are examples of instructional materials generally available on campus to students. While high attrition for distance learners might relate to pressures of time, employment, or family, institutions should not accept this as a natural outcome of this type of learning. On the contrary, distance learning providers must consider support services such as advisement and counseling that might help stem attrition.
The field of education all over the world is swept by a paradigm shift that is the result of a new awakening in the teaching-learning process. The onus is now on the learner and the teacher is now looked upon as a facilitator. Understanding that the traditional chalk and talk method can no longer enthuse the students, the college continuously strives to innovate methods that will sustain their interest and make the learning process more productive and interesting. Innovative teaching can take many forms. Educators must learn to change with the times and the methods offered for instructing students. These changes will ultimately benefit the students and the education system. The ability to adapt to these changes may be one of the most important attributes for today's educators.
Research is a never ending phenomenon. Quality is a perspective that can always be improved for the best. Though this paper tries to outline some of the important aspects of quality improvement but this research could be taken further to incorporate the issues of technology to improve distance education.