September 24th, 2008

Choosing Appropriate Distance Learning Tools

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Faculty need to consider learning objectives, learning styles, accessibility, cost, and available technical support when designing distance learning courses, says Laurie Hillstock, manager of distance learning at Clemson University.

Hillstock works with faculty to develop satellite, CD-ROM, and Web-based courses using a design model that is roughly 80 percent asynchronous and 20 synchronous. Within this model, instructors can choose a variety of technologies that the university’s office of educational technology services (ETS) supports.

The decision to use a given technology needs to be based on a needs assessment of the course, the technology’s compatibility with the institution’s course management system, and the level of technology students have access to.

For example, suppose an instructor decides that his or her students would benefit from view-on-demand presentations. There are many products that can do this, but not all will work as well across different platforms and within a course management system. Also, different products have different end-user technology requirements.

The technologies you use and how you incorporate them into your course can have a major effect on student support issues. Hillstock recommends the following strategies to reduce student support issues:

  • Put things in one place. “If you’re using things like video or on-demand presentations, the course management system should be the container for all of that. Even though you know that you’re using six different technologies in your course, the students don’t care. All they need to know is that they have full access to the course by logging in to Blackboard, which is the course management system we use,” Hillstock says.
  • Provide students with clearly stated minimum technology requirements. Students need to know up front the technologies they will need to access the course. This lets students know ahead of time what arrangements they will need to make, whether it’s upgrading their technology or making plans to use a computer at a local library or friend’s house. Hillstock recommends doing a test run several days before using synchronous tools in a course. The five minutes it takes for students to connect and verify that they can see and hear and navigate through the system will greatly reduce the need for support staff help during the actual synchronous session.
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  • Hide functions that are not used. Course management systems and other online learning tools have many functions that are not always used in a course. Once you determine which tools you will be using in your course, hide all the other functions. This will make the course easier for students to navigate and will reduce the need for support staff help, Hillstock says.
  • Avoid using too much technology. Just because your institution supports a wide range of technologies does not mean that they all should be used in your course. Deciding which tools to use should be based on the specific needs of your course. And there is such a thing as using too much technology. How much is too much? “If I look at a course that uses videoconferencing, audio conferencing, satellite, video streaming, and Blackboard, I stop and say, ‘Whoa.’ I stop and ask, ‘Why do you think this is a good idea?’ They may have good reasons, but a lot of times when I listen to them, it’s more like, ‘I just thought that since you guys support all these things, I should try to use them all.’ There is nothing wrong with them trying to use videoconferencing, audio conferencing, or even streaming video, but many times those faculty who attempt to use five or six different technologies do it because they don’t have a thorough understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each of those tools,” Hillstock says. Rather than trying to include every technology that might be appropriate for a course, Hillstock recommends that instructors begin by using the course management system and one additional tool. This reduces the amount time it takes to create the course, and instructors often find that this less technology-intensive design works well. “The majority of faculty members basically want to use things like discussion boards and chat, and to be able to make their course documents available to their students,” Hillstock says.