Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Impact of Open Source

(this post is submitted as a (late) assignment for a Walden University course, asking that we evaluate a distance course provided by an open course site. We are directed to comment on the course's planned attention to distance learning, its attention to DL recommendations, and its use of activities to maximize learning.)

I chose to examine a course on Lighting Design for the Theatre, provided by MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. I picked the class because I took a very similar course during my sophomore year at Swarthmore, and I thought my experience would allow me to compare and contrast the distance and face-to-face approaches.

Does the course appear to be carefully pre-planned and designed for a distance learning environment? If so, how? If not, in what ways?

In short, the course does not seem to have been designed in any way for a distance learning environment. At best, we might say that the course provides the shell for a web-facilitated course where most instruction was planned for face-to-face classroom meetings. All direct instruction occurs either in face-to-face classes or through readings from textbooks that are not cited by name--leaving distance learners without any means of securing information about the content. There is a course calendar, but it does not contain either dates or ways of finding out specific assignments for most tasks.

The course is delivered through a flat, text-based website using static HTML; as such, it lacks such LMS features as discussion boards, chat rooms, etc. Most pages are simple text, although there are a few images included either in the pages or in linked PDFs. There is no way for learners to contact a professor to ask for help, although in a free open course that hardly seems surprising.

Does the course follow the recommendations for online instruction as listed in your course textbook? Which does it follow? In what ways? Which does it not follow?

Unsurprisingly, the course follows relatively few of the recommendations in our text book, at least insofar as those recommendations pertain specifically to distant learning. The first guideline, "Avoid 'dumping a face-to-face course onto the web (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 248)", is almost humorous, since this course seems to epitomize dumping materials onto a website and calling it a distant course. It seems to lack visible organization, and its syllabus is unclear by distance education standards. I don't see any evidence of a means for staying in contact with students, nor does the course integrate many web-based materials. The course materials are heavily focused on textbooks rather than independent readings, and the course offers no training on how to use the (minimal) website. To the extent that those recommendations are "best practices" for distance learning, the course does a poor job.

Where the course does stand up is in its attention to the recommendations for thinking about course outcomes and testing applications rather than rote memorization (Simonson et al., 2009). The course appears to be carefully designed to help students develop both a theoretical understanding of theatrical lighting design and a strong familiarity with the actual practice of working lighting designers. I don't see any evidence that the course focuses on memorization at all, and the example assignments all involve original work solving real-world problems in an authentic context--a very constructivist approach.

Did the course designer implement course activities that maximize active learning for the students?” If yes, in what ways? If not, how is it deficient?

I believe the course designer did implement course activities that maximize active learning. Many of the assignments involve detailed, interesting thought that would force learners to elaborate on new knowledge. Many of the assignments require learners to translate words (or emotional ideas) into visual expressions, either through the use of lighting instruments or by finding images that represent a particular lighting idea. I imagine that classroom debates would focus on the merits of different choices, and I have found that style of learning to be highly effective with artistic topics. The assignments show a deliberate sequencing from easier tasks to more complex ones, and they seem to shepherd learners from simple, guided tasks into independent work.

It might be fair to ask, "can a lighting design class really be taught online?" Yes, I believe it can. There are strong software packages that allow users to simulate different lighting plots on their home computers, without need for a theater. Sites like Youtube make it easy to view videos of theatrical lighting, concerts, and other examples of lighting design--without the constraints of physical proximity. There are certainly some aspects of lighting design that require practical, face-to-face instruction: electrical safety involves developing deeply-ingrained habits, and ultimately learners need to demonstrate their mastery using real lighting instruments. But much of the class seems like a strong candidate for blended learning.

I would encourage MIT to revisit its lighting design class, incorporating a learning management system for student engagement, shifting from textbooks to PDF-based journal articles or resources, using simulation software to enable students to work with lighting problems at home, and linking to videos depicting different kinds of lighting topics. I would recommend that they keep their excellent exercises largely intact, altering them only so as to help them fit in a distance context.


Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Reflecting on Distance Learning

This post is submitted for my Walden University class on distance learning. I was asked to respond to three questions: What do you think the perceptions of distance learning will be in the future (in 5–10 years; 10–20 years)? How can you as an instructional designer be a proponent for improving societal perceptions of distance learning? How will you be a positive force for continuous improvement in the field of distance education?

In the next 5-10 years, I think distance learning will continue to gain traction and respect in academic circles as well as corporate ones, since entire generations of distance-trained students will have moved into decision-making roles in education, business, and government. I don't see this as a hostile takeover or a diplomatic coup; I see it as continued adaptation to new demands and needs. I imagine distance education as an ivy vine that will slowly infiltrate even the bastions of the Ivy League, weaving itself into the fibers of our educational institutions across the board.

Twenty years from now, in 2031, I doubt that the term "distance learning" will continue to hold its present meaning--I expect "distance learning" to become subsumed into our definition of "learning". Traditional instructors will continue to adopt portions of the technology available to them, and "pure" face-to-face classes will become Web-facilitated, then blended... and will, gradually, join with whatever technology replaces the Web in twenty years. I think most educators are already on this road. Will traditional institutions still exist? Absolutely! They might even retain as many students as they have now. But I expect the overall market for education to grow as more and more people gain access to high-quality teaching at a distance, and I think education that incorporates distance will hold a much larger portion of the market than it does today.

Bates (in Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 147) advanced a set of "golden rules" to guide instructional designers in developing technology-based instruction, including such ideas as "Good teaching matters", "There is no 'super-technology'", and "New technologies are not necessarily better than old ones". Simonson's version of Bates's final point is worth quoting here: "Technology is not the issue. How and what we want the learners to learn is the issue and technology is a tool (p. 147)." So too with distance learning. I think our responsibility for helping to improve both the image and the substance of distance learning is the same as our duty in any instructional design context: to ask the right questions, to think carefully, and to develop training that is efficient, responsive, and effective at meeting the needs of our learners. Delivering great training is a far better advertisement than any Super Bowl ad or direct mailing scheme.

More directly, what can we do to improve societal perceptions today? My personal commitment is to speak out, frequently, about my experiences as a distant learner with an unimpeachable undergraduate pedigree. I went to one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the United States, and I find my distance Masters program valuable and challenging. I don't whitewash over the problems I see, but neither do I withhold praise where Walden earns it. So I think we can change a lot by offering appropriate personal testimonials. Speaking as an instructional designer, I think an important way to improve perceptions is to make sure that we only propose particular delivery methods with sound reasoning and design to accompany them. If face-to-face instruction is the right choice for a particular topic, we should not hesitate to use it--and we should not agree to "slip by" using distance learning. But similarly, if a topic can be served by distant methods, we should boldly embrace them--and be prepared to explain our reasoning.

As far as being a positive force for pushing distance learning in new directions, I think the best I can say is that I will try. I will try new ideas. I will try to find ways to reach my future learners through technological means, whether that means offering bagpipe lessons at a distance, helping to develop distance-based education for new hikers, pulling Reachout's training toward including more online resources and communication methods, teaching New York's suicide intervention trainers through distant media... or whatever new opportunities arise. I will try. I will try, and I will look unflinchingly at the results. George Piskurich (2006) talks about rapid instructional design not as a one-time process but as a continuous spiral of improvement and analysis--like the successive approximation I learned in physics--and I take that as my model. I will improve distance learning by trying new things, by looking at the results, and by trying again until we reach the goal. That's my plan.


Piskurich, G. M. (2006). Rapid instructional design: Learning ID fast and right (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Converting courses to blended instruction

As part of my MS, I've been asked to prepare a short checklist of ideas and tips for a trainer who's thinking of migrating a face-to-face training program to a blended instructional delivery model. The scenario is pretty free-form, and the only other information is that the trainer wants to make the change because of poor learner communication in the face-to-face class.

I broke my guidelines into four basic areas:
  • Things to consider before starting the transition
  • Areas where distance education can be of benefit
  • Changes to the trainer role
  • Ways to help facilitate communication among the learners
Within these categories, I proposed a variety of thought experiences intended to help the course designer focus on important questions related to instructional design.

In an ideal world, my hypothetical trainer would follow all of my instructions. In the real world, he might do a few of them--possibly saving his learners from an excruciating videotape-the-lecture snorefest.

Here's the list of guidelines! Click to view.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The 'Myth' of eLearning? A reply

 Posted in reply to Trent Batson's article, "The Myth of eLearning: There Is No 'There' There". I found Batson's article (and a worthy discussion about it) from Eric Tremblay's excellent blog, E-Learning Acupuncture

Many of Batson's claims about exciting new classroom prospects--coordinating learning done elsewhere, the use of portfolios, focus on written communication and collaboration, authentic learning and assessment--are hallmarks of the distance learning approach. That's intriguing given his flat claim that "distance education is an oxymoron". I wonder if he's reading the same research I am--or whether his claim is based in evidence. I'd love to hear.

The first page of his article seems to devote itself to carving out turf: "distance education is not, and should never be considered, a replacement of traditional on-the-ground learning". The irony is that most distance learning folks aren't interested in _replacing_ F2F universities; the focus is more on providing complementary alternatives, and much of the distance education literature focuses on blended approaches that incorporate both distant and face-to-face contexts.

I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion that employers want people who write well, collaborate well, and are skilled at assessing and handling complicated, difficult problems. I think he's wrong about the idea that in-situ universities are automatically the best way to reach these goals simply by dint of their physical presence.

As a check of concept, if his ideas are correct about the importance of being in a physical community with lots of other learners doing authentic tasks, we should expect that homeschoolers would have significantly poorer assessments than people who went to high schools--after all, the difference between a high school senior and a college freshman is quite small, and homeschoolers don't get a huge physical community with lots of other learners. But we don't see that difference in performance.

Some of Batson's points are excellent. But claiming them as a mandate for campus-based education and a rebuke of distance learning is a rhetorical device, not an evidential one, and it doesn't work for me.