Distance Education: If Done Right, Is It Right for You?


I guess you could say that I am an eternal optimist who believes strongly that nothing is impossible. In 1992, I wrote a tech prep grant proposal as a high school computer applications teacher. My principal at the time said, "you can go to those tech Prep meetings if you want, but there's no money in it". A year later, he stood at the door with me as a whole new lab of shiny MAC computers were unloaded into my classroom, courtesy of a $30k tech Prep award, that no one but me thought I would receive. the district administrators were so convinced it wouldn't happen they completely ignored that there was a $30k district obligation for matching funds! So, as the district finance officer robbed from one account after another to find the match (endearing my success to no one), I planned a career pathway for my students that would take them from the high school into the community college multimedia degree program. The rest is history. I'm now in my tenth year at that college, still working on the bleeding edge of things, a full distance education evangelist. (I definitely have learned that innovation isn't always going to make me popular.)

Vocational Instructors, Purveyors of Change....

So, what do you teach? does what you teach rely on access to the digital world? do you use technology tools to teach small engine repair, or to monitor sine waves, or for forensic investigation or in teaching about wireless networking? Whatever your vocational niche, you have likely been responding to change driven by advisory committees. because we do what we do, we are generally the ones most used to, and ready to accept change. so here is wave one: Just because we are particularly good at using technology, mainly computers, and because we are good at accepting progress, doesn't mean we are automatically good online instructors.

To teach online, you may have to learn how to teach all over again. you will need to study proven successful techniques and expect to continue having to learn, paying attention to learning theory using this unique paradigm.

It's Not About the Technology....

Learning how to teach well online has very little to do with learning to use technical tools. While it's nice to know how to make a web page or create a screen capture video, that's not what makes a good online teacher. learning how to teach at a distance means shifting your focus to being heard rather than seen. Courses-in-a-box provided by publishers are tempting, but injecting your own personal style is more likely to make you a successful teacher.

Wrong motivation can doom you to failure. If you think distance education means more time off-campus and therefore less work, you are in for a rude awakening. Teaching online for the wrong motivation is bound to lead to problems and will disadvantage your students because "regular effective contact" online takes more, not less, work.

Human Contact at a Distance....

Excellent teaching online is a very personal and human activity. Marty Hittelman, in his infamous memo "Questions on the Distance Education Report" sent to the Distance Education Technical Advisory Committee (DETAC) in 2005, after a lengthy request for proof that distance education and online degrees have value, remarked as follows, have any such degrees or certificates been issued and if so, how many and at what institutions? Is there any evidence, other than anecdotal, of the percentage of students who prefer technologically mediated instruction to instruction presented by a human being (emphasis added)?

As I read Marty's memo, I appreciated the questions and his desire for hard data to answer them. however, that last line made me furious. It also made me wonder if he had ever had access to a really good online course. my classes, and I say this emphatically, are taught online using technology presented by a human being! I am what causes my students to be successful in my courses. This point has to be the heart of any message of advice I could give about teaching online: Put yourself whole-heartedly into your online courses. (stay tuned, there will be a list of suggestions at the end of this tirade!)

As vocational educators, we realize more than most people that our students depend on what we give them, sometimes, with their very lives. If a student tells you that s/he has quit a clerking job to become a full-time student in order to become a professional in your discipline, you realize that what and how you teach is a serious responsibility. When people give up money, time, and jobs, they expect us to provide an education that will better their lives. We can't let them down when we move to a methodology that gives them increased access to our programs. We must make a commitment to be there, in that online class, every day, one-on-one, with our stories, advice and knowledge, in addition to our technical acumen.

Everything and Everyone Online?...

many of us share best practices and we study learning theory and new techniques, but ultimately, our success rests on our own abilities to reach students. No one can, nor should, be pushed into online teaching, nor made to feel badly because they don't embrace it as a possibility.

In 1998, I started with the idea that many things could be taught online but not everything. certainly one couldn't teach interpersonal communication online and physical education was definitely out of the question! Then I watched my colleagues become amazingly successful online with these courses and I started to believe that everything could be taught online. I still think that, but I am much more reserved now. I've seen a lot of "junk" online and cringe when I occasionally produce it myself. now I believe that there are some things that absolutely shouldn't be taught completely online, child development, for example.

Exposing Ourselves to the Light....

The distance education classroom is most successful when it is an extension of yourself. Just as the 300-person lecture hall is abnormal on our campuses, so must we also insist that online courses should be similar in size as their face-to-face counterparts.

Through all the years of Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (VTEA) accountability, we have become masters of the competency list and tying outcomes to objectives. We understand evaluation of our courses and our teaching, better than anyone. When we expose our programs to the critique of the business community, through our advisory committees, we do so confident that we can meet any challenge they put before us.

As promised, here are resources that may be of help:

Enroll in training workshops or courses about how to teach online. check out sessions at Academic Senate Plenary, leadership Institutes, and Curriculum Institutes, and the @ONE offerings at http://www.cccone.org )

Share best practices and actual content materials with others in your discipline check out http://www.merlot.org and the June 2006 Online Teaching Conference at http://www.cccone.org.