State Of The Art Practices In Distance Education

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Distance education is concerned with education delivery under conditions such that teacher and student are separated by time and or distance (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009). The process of connecting the student, teacher, and content is achieved by combining instructional systems development and distance education technology. As a profession, instructional design, when compared with, say, architecture, is a recent development and is still developing into a mature design field (Chen, 2007). In its current state, instructional design has many competing instructional theories for constructing courses and even more technologies for delivering that content. Distance education technology, often confused as the message and not the medium (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009), has an even wider variety of practices and less standardization than does instructional design. The purpose of this paper is to examine current literature for purposes of determining best practices in instructional systems design and distance education technology, the goal being to better understand and use these tools to the student's advantage.

This paper will present best practices for two main topics, instructional systems design and distance education technology. We begin by defining the method used in best practice, describe the best practice, then present current research findings, and finish by providing examples of best practice.

Instructional System Development

Instructional system design is defined as a systematic process that uses interdependent parts to design "meaningful learning experiences" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009) that result in models or "visual representations" (Chen, 2007). Additionally, at the foundation of adult education theory is the idea that adults see "themselves as self-directed learners" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009). Instructional system development (ISD) is a group of "models and processes" (Dick & Carey, 2009), any one of which can be used to construct learning environments that enable adults to self-direct their learning through the cone of experience, Figure . Therefore, if the goal of a teacher is to provide the right mix of experiences that result in a desired learning income, instructional design (framework) is the tool with which they deconstruct the experience into goals, activities, outcomes and sequences (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009). In this section, we discuss Dick and Carey, Universal Instruction Design, and ICARE frameworks for best practices, present current research, and offer best practice examples for each.

Figure : Dale's Cone of Experience

Source: Simonson, M., Smaldino, S. W., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, figure 4-2.


We define the Dick and Carey model, , as a systems based tool, meaning instruction design is done systematically, an iterative process of analyzing training needs, and developing goals assessments (Chen, 2007). The Dick and Carey model serves as an excellent generic framework for instructional designers today. What follows is a description of their 11-step system: "determine the instructional goal, analyze the instructional goal, analyze learners and contexts, write performance objectives, write assessment objectives, develop assessment instruments, develop an instructional strategy, develop and select instruction, design and conduct formative evaluation, revise instruction, and use summative evaluation" (Chen, 2007).

First, we identify instructional goals by asking, "What do students need to learn how to do from this course?" Next, we conduct an instructional analysis and ask, "What does someone doing the instructional goal do?" This leads us to develop a step-by-step analysis with a goal to identify the entry behaviors needed of learners to take the training (Dick & Carey, 2009).

Figure : Instructional Systems Design Model

Source: Simonson, M., Smaldino, S. W., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, figure 5-1.

After we understand what behaviors are needed and what they look like in action, we analyze learner and contexts to determine where the student will learn and apply the new skills, knowledge, or attitude. Without context, we write objectives in a vacuum that ignores important influences affecting student performance after training is completed (Dick & Carey, 2009).

The fourth step, writing performance objectives, ensures learning objectives map to desired learning outcomes and that the course offers enough time to complete the learning objectives. Next, we develop evaluation tools by writing assessments that measure student ability to perform the objectives we developed earlier. We develop instructional strategy by pulling information from all previous steps. After we have our strategy, we develop and select instructional materials. Depending on the strategy, we can write the materials or use existing materials (Dick & Carey, 2009).

Next, we design and conduct formative evaluation of instruction as a preflight check that gathers feedback from individual and small group tests. The goal is to tighten the course. Based on these findings we next revise instruction to adjust different components of the process and re-evaluate until satisfied. Finally, we design and conduct summative evaluation. This step is a post instruction evaluation that does not affect the iterative process used here to develop the course (Dick & Carey, 2009).

A long established model, current research reports the Dick and Carey model is still used today at the K-12 level, higher education, as well as at the corporate level (Chen, 2007). As we shall see in the example in Figure , this usefulness is rooted in the thoroughness of the model.

Figure : Sample Instructional Analysis

Source: Virginia Tech School of Education. (2003). Assignments. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from Virginia Tech School of Education:


We define Universal Instruction Design as "a process of making course concepts accessible and skills attainable regardless of learning style, physical or sensory abilities" (The Center for Teaching and Faculty Development, 2010). The underlying principle of the first half of this paper is that a framework structures education content in a way that enables adults to act as self-directed learners. Universal Instruction Design (UID) is the most inclusive framework, as it considers the needs of students of all abilities. In particular, UID provides a "level playing field" (Passman & Green, 2009) for students of any ability and offers specific eight best practices for accomplishing Universal Design online. When designing a course, it is critical that Universal Design principles are baked-in and not an afterthought, as retrofitting a course for Universal Design is often done in reaction to a compliant, is ad hoc, and clumsy. The eight practices are equitable use, flexible use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for user error, technical and physical effort, learner community support, and instructional climate. We describe them next.

Equitable use design means putting all content online and providing content translation into different languages, based on student population needs. Additionally, alternative assignments allow students who cannot, say, type, to complete an assignment via dictation. Equitable use means content is readily available and requires a limited number or types of tools to access the content. For example, consider making content available offline for dial-up users (Passman & Green, 2009).

Flexible use design accommodates all levels of abilities and learning preferences. We must present and accept content in multiple formats, offer different sources for similar material, and/or provide additional information for each module (Elias, 2010). We offer content in multiple formats to accommodate a diverse range of user "preferences and abilities" (Passman & Green, 2009). Additionally, we should annotate images in PowerPoint decks and always consider content in terms of screen reader access.

Simple and Intuitive interface design accommodates all levels of experience, language abilities, and technical skills. Keep the interface simple by eliminating scrolling. Also, link the main page to the current week's topics and recent discussion thread posts. Offer a text-only version of the site or make content accessible to screen readers (Elias, 2010). Offer an easy to follow course design that uses simple text, not ornate/fancy (we examine this topic in-depth during our course management discussion). Design PowerPoint slide decks with high contrast between text and background. Online course designs must employ consistent design: icons, format, and terminology (Passman & Green, 2009).

Perceptible information design means to bake-in, at the start the course, assistive technologies to accommodate student preferences. Assistive technologies include text-to-speech, screen readers, picture captions and alt text (alternate text for web images), closed captions for video, screen magnifiers, and cascading style sheets that allow users to enlarge/reduce text (Elias, 2010). Offer and accept alternative assignments for video-based assignments. Perceptible information design considers all senses, so we use multiple delivery formats for perception-based information (Passman & Green, 2009).

Tolerance for user error design means eliminate or minimize unanticipated consequences to students using the course. Specific suggestions include allowing users to edit prior posts, use text and sound when presenting errors to users, and avoid using color only to indicate an error condition (Elias, 2010).

Technical and physical effort design suggests student effort in the learning environment should be minimal not cause mental fatigue. A reasonable expectation is that online learning should require less physical effort than on-ground learning (Elias, 2010). Online courses should require minimal keyboard use, include voice recognition, and support screen readers (Passman & Green, 2009). Assignments that require long period of keyboard use should offer alternative assignments or assistive technology for completing the assignment.

Community of learners and support design encourages student-to-student communications as well as communication with faculty and student services (Passman & Green, 2009). Next, instructional climate design encourages inclusiveness and student feedback for purposes of adjusting course look and feel. To encourage high achievement, the instructor must create inclusive environments and articulate high expectations to students (Elias, 2010). Elicit feedback and constant improvement, as this regular contact creates a feedback loop that provides information to the instructor that will inform course design and modification (Passman & Green, 2009). The best way to include all users is to avoid putting barriers in students' way.

Current research reports online courses "generally include design elements necessary to meet basic needs of students with disabilities" (Keeler & Horney, 2007). Research also suggests that designers provide alternative methods to access content by presenting content in multiple formats - a point also noted earlier. Next, we offer, in table I, examples of best practices for each of the eight principles.

Table : Universal Instructional Design Principles and Categories of Online Course Accessibility

UID Principle

Categories and online course accessibility

Equitable use

All content online

"Anywhere Anytime"


Flexible use

Mind maps/diagram displays

Conferencing tools

Video/audio presentation tools

Slide presentation tools

Video/audio assignment tools

Links to additional information

Choice of study topics/assignments

Simple and intuitive use

Resume course

Simple interface

Direct link to new posts

1Easy-to-navigate menus


Searchable forums

Searchable content

Mobile interface

Text-only interface

Offline resources

Perceptible information

Screen preferences, font size, masking, colours

Screen/document readers


Screen/cursor magnifiers



Tolerance for user error

Ability to edit after posting

Confirmation before sending assignments

Warnings when leaving course site

Technical and physical effort

Voice recognition

Word prediction

Built-in assistive technologies

Limited use of external links

Embedded multimedia/ assistive technologies

Browser capability checker

Learner community and support

Study group

Links to support services

Instructional climate

Involvement in discussion forums

Regular email contact with students

Availability for one-on-one consultation

Source: Elias, T. (2010). Universal Instructional Design Principles for Moodle. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 110-124, table 1.


ICARE is defined as a principles-based, Constructivist - prescriptive (Ryder, 2010) framework, used to establish common scaffolding without specifying a 'look', for distance education courses. ICARE stands for Introduction, Connect, Apply, Reflect, and Extend and established at San Diego State University in 1997 as a tool to structure courses (Salyers, Carter, Barrett, & Williams, 2010). Initially, the challenge was to redesign existing courses, using the ICARE framework to create a common look, and then repeat the process in all course modules. When applied to all courses, the effect created a familiar pattern for students to navigate through disparate courses without the need to learn each course structure anew. Further, the Constructivist parts, reflect and extend, were also common to each course and reinforced sound pedagogical learning. Finally, as ICARE is principles based, no two courses need look alike, which facilitated adapting existing courses and did not require a complete rewrite of the courses. Next, we examine the ICARE framework components.

The first component, introduction, establishes course or module context. Examples include the syllabus, reading assignments, and calendar of due dates. Next, the connect section contains lecture, video segments, and material student is to learn. The apply section asks the student to demonstrate initial mastery in the form of a written paper or online quiz.

Next, the reflect section asks students to reflect on lessons or skills. An example may include discussion board questions. Finally, the extend section applies lessons to real world applications, the extension being the act of moving from talking or thinking about lessons to applying lessons in real world applications.

Research reports that using ICARE to structure courses showed increased satisfaction and academic achievement in course participants, as the student need not learn a new course structure for each new course. Current research reports students and instructors benefitted from courses constructed with a pedagogical framework that "reflects the general thinking and learning process of the involved discipline" (Salyers, Carter, Barrett, & Williams, 2010), whether that framework is ICARE or another. The point being, a framework is needed. Further, ICARE is an excellent alternative to more costly content management systems or for learning institutions with low budgets. Although not as difficult or costly as porting existing courses to learning management systems, such as Blackboard or WebCT, research also reports converting legacy courses is time consuming, as the course interface is completely reconstructed to the new framework. Finally, since ICARE is usually considered in a retrofit capacity, some instructors may feel threatened by the prospect of a framework being imposed on their courses (Salyers, Carter, Barrett, & Williams, 2010).

ICARE examples in and , illustrate the easy to implement nature of ICARE, as the framework does not require a content management system. illustrates the five simple navigation buttons needed to implement the web technology.

Figure : ICARE Introduction


Source: Salyers, V., Carter, L., Barrett, P., & Williams, L. (2010). Evaulating Student and Faculty Satisfaction with a Pedagogical Framework. The Journal of Distance Education, 24(3), Introduction.

Figure :ICARE Connect

Description: Connect

Source: Salyers, V., Carter, L., Barrett, P., & Williams, L. (2010). Evaulating Student and Faculty Satisfaction with a Pedagogical Framework. The Journal of Distance Education, 24(3), Connect.

In this section, we examined instructional systems development and using the correct pedagogy to develop learner appropriate content relevant to the knowledge, attitude, or skill we need to impart. In the next section, we turn our attention to distance education technology, the technology needed to deliver the content.

Best Practices in Distance Education Technology

In this section, we examine best practices, present current research, and offer best practice examples for two bedrock technologies of distance education, threaded discussions, and content management systems. Without either, distance education would not exist as we know it. Our first topic, threaded discussions, starts with a working definition and best practices.


We define a threaded discussion as an online conversation among students and instructor(s) (Rizopoulos & McCarthy, 2009). Threaded discussions are a natural fit for distance education as the activity promotes critical thinking skills and deep (underlying meaning) learning (Maurino, 2007).

Best practices in threaded discussions should encourage students to research their response and critically reflect on it before responding. Additionally, instructors can combine threaded discussions with collaborative group work and case studies. For asynchronous conversations, the instructor often determines the initial topic and sets an acceptable format for response and content. A most important point to consider when employing threaded discussions, the deep learning produced does not happen just because students use threaded discussions. Instead, the instructor must monitor threads to ensure student responses demonstrate appropriate development and not degrade to 'I agree' statements. Student postings must exhibit reflection and higher order thinking skills such as synthesis and evaluation, not only to construct their own arguments or positions but in response to their peers', too. In other words, for deep learning to occur online, threaded discussions are necessary but not sufficient (Maurino, 2007).

A rubric is useful tool for establishing best practices with respect to what quality and quantity of responses are expected. We provide threaded discussion best practices in.

Table : Threaded Discussion Rubric


Quality of Discussion

5 -Excellent

New and original ideas tangent to the discussion; insightful and reflective discussion; reference to and elaboration of ideas throughout the discussion; multiple contributions to the discussion.


"I agree with Amanda in that diversity and exposure to new ideas, culture, and people would be greatly enhanced. However, I would like to see specific data that empirically touts the efficacy of eLearning. If you did the study correctly, you could measure how well eLearning works.

Here's the key: each group will receive the exact same instruction/materials/notes/lectures/etc. Even the professor would be the same. Essentially, variables that could potentially influence the outcome would be controlled."

4-Very Good

Insightful and reflective discussion; reference to and elaboration of ideas throughout the discussion; multiple contributions to the discussion


"I agree with Amanda in that diversity and exposure to new ideas, culture, and people would be greatly enhanced. On a side note, I believe that eLearning has the potential to be wonderful and bring an excellent return on investment-the key word though is potential. If all the variables are not in line (i.e., enrollment, technology, professor interest, tech specialists, etc.) then the eLearning may fail. This is no different than traditional teaching."


Elaboration and contribution to one idea within the discussion; singular contribution to the thread


"I feel that there can be many positive advantages to eLearning.

One advantage would be that students would have the opportunity to interact with students from different parts of the country and the world. This would, in turn, provide diverse perspectives to the material they would be learning and could open doorways they would have never previously considered.


Simple insight or contribution to the topic; single message Posting


"As with the printing press reaching all kinds of learners with whatever subject matter and information is the main outcome.

1 -No value

"agreement" statements that merely repeat what has been said by others; single message posting


"I agree with what Amanda said. I think eLearning can be beneficial."

Source: Rizopoulos, L., & McCarthy, P. (2009). Using Online Threaded Discussions: Best Practices for the Digital Learner. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 373-383, table 1.


Much of this paper has examined creating education content. For this section, we examine distance education technology with respect to how the design methods used to present that same content affects student understanding of it and how employing best practices ensures that content delivered arrives with full meaning intended.

We define design as the visual organization and graphical presentation of content on a web page for purposes of enhancing meaning. The design and organization of web-based learning modules affects their usefulness to the user. While this may seem obvious, many course designers use their own experience, preferences, and best judgment instead of subscribing to established best practices (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010). What follows are suggested best practices for web based content design. We examine content design in terms of four dimensions, in order of greatest importance: clarity, organization, simplicity, structure, visual/aesthetical attractiveness, and excitement (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010).

The clarity dimension considers how pleasing the page is to perceive but also considers the degree of effort needed to read the interface. Organization considerations should increase web site "functionality and serviceability" (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010). The organization dimension also considers with what online designs people are already familiar. Since many users often prefer the familiar Windows behaviors when working on the Web, it makes sense multiple windows and close buttons should be located in familiar places.

The simplicity dimension focuses on emphasizing the relationship among main page elements. In other words, minimize page noise and focus on functionality (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010). Next, the structure dimension emphasizes hierarchical relationship of elements (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010). Specific suggestions include placing buttons on left, top, or bottom of the screen.

The visual and aesthetical dimensions are concerned with balance and symmetry. Color is useful for emphasizing important words, though the aesthetic ignores Universal Design principles. The aesthetic dimension also includes object placement, meaning object placement can increase usefulness of the page to the user. Aesthetic means placing objects in a manner that guides the user's attention (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010).

The final dimension, excitement, considers attributes of interface attractiveness and fidelity to a real world model. For example, an interface design that incorporates whimsical or playful elements is enjoyable to explore. However, we must pay careful attention to making our designs enjoyable without being predictable or a mystery to figure (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010). 6 illustrates the relationship among these many interrelated parts. illustrates the relationship among these many interrelated parts. illustrates the relationship among these many interrelated parts.

Figure : Relationships Between Design Attributes, Design Dimensions, and Attractiveness/Aesthetic Appeal

Source: Pomales-Garcia, C., Lopez, A. D., & Liu, Y. (2010, January). Design Dimensions and Attributes for Web-Based Distance Learning Modules. American Journal of Distance Education, 24, 21-39, figure 2.

Current research suggests course designers consider these dimensions as more than window dressing (Pomales-Garcia, Lopez, & Liu, 2010). As 6 illustrates the relationship among these many interrelated parts. illustrates the relationship among these many interrelated parts. illustrates, effective course design is a complex matter. , is our example of course design, as the work incorporates many interface design elements.

Figure : ASTD Sample Instruction Design

Source: Loiselle, B., & Hunter, S. (2010). The IDMM Approach for Developing Online Courses. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from ASTD:, figure 5.

Summary and Conclusions

As presented, distance education is a field that incorporates a number of pedagogies embodied in instructional systems, used to design courses and content based on those educational theories. Delivering these courses requires a distribution tool, content management systems and its concomitant component, the threaded discussion. In examining these topics, we presented current best practices, examples of the same, and current research.

We conclude distance education practitioners have many tools available to create and distribute quality education content. The key to working effectively and efficiently in the field is choosing and becoming familiar with the correct tool. With respect to instructional design, ICARE is cost effective for small schools retooling existing courses, the Dick and Carey model is best for developing behaviorist focused learning content, and all models should incorporate Universal Instruction Design principles to accommodate the widest range of student abilities. Delivering the content means using distance education technology. Our choices in the design methods used to present that same content, say, the font choice used to display content is correct or how closely we monitor a discussion thread, affects student understanding of it.