Four Crucial Factors in High-Quality Distance Learning Courses

“Distance learning is here to stay. Educational institutions should have a vision for what type of distance learning programs they will implement and the standards they will hold to. Institutions will master distance learning, or in some cases, distance learning trends and demands will master the school.”  This is the conclusion of Joseph McClary of Liberty University in his article, “Factors in High Quality Distance Learning Courses,” appearing in the Summer 2013 issue of the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration.  In it, he examines the components of a high quality distance learning course and some of the barriers to their development.

Factors contributing to quality

Based on research, McClary identifies four components of a quality distance learning course that he discusses in his paper:  course design, content, instructor, and support systems.

  1. Course Design:  McClary cites existing research (Elias 2010) that identifies eight instructional design principles that contribute to quality. 
  • Equitable use:  “Equitable use involves ensuring content is available to all learners.”  These include accessibility features like scripts and closed captioning, which some designers may omit to save time.  However, McClary asserts, “ethical course design calls for a commitment toward equitable use.”
  • Flexible use:  “Flexible use involves offering content in multiple formats,” McClary writes.  For example, he cites the well-known example that Apple’s Safari browser does not support Adobe Flash, so content must be provided in an alternate format that will not restrict a student to using a certain operating system or browser to access the content.
  • Simple and intuitive:  Making content simple and intuitive takes some strategic planning, such as selecting a single learning management system so students will have a common platform across courses.  “It is generally a good practice across institutions of higher learning to commit to a single learning management system, and then develop a common course layout across most all of the courses offered in it….Colleges and universities that do not have a single vision for what their distance learning initiatives should look like have departments going different directions with variable levels of quality,” McClary writes.
  • Perceptible information.  Perceptible information refers to presenting information in different ways.  “Perceptible information involves enhancing content with descriptors, captions and transcriptions….Providing perceptible information involves not only accommodating accessibility but providing means for alternative access for the benefit of students with different learning modalities,” McClary writes.
  • Tolerance for error:  “Tolerance for error provides students the opportunity easily correct errors,” McClary explains.  For example, students need easy ways to work with the instructor to resubmit work if a revision is allowed.  Within administrative function, using “centralized authentication services,” typically a single username/password combination, allows the student easier access to registration, library, and other online functions.
  • Low physical and technical effort:  “Extraneous cognitive load placed on students involving courseware or the delivery system should be minimized,” McClary writes (Rikers, 2006). Browser checks, usability testing, clear design, and assistive technologies “allow students to dedicate more cognitive focus on content and the learning process as opposed to the learning environment itself.”
  • Community of learners and support:  “Good course design incorporates group learning and employs technology to facilitate those interactions at a distance,” McClary writes.
  • Instructional climate:  “One thread that runs consistently through research studies is that interaction is a vital element in the instructional process. Course design and instructors bear a responsibility to engage students in a meaningful way,” McClary writes.

In addition to these eight factors, McClary also suggests that “good distance learning courses are evaluated regularly” on factors like student reactions, learning, transfer (including whether the students will use the information), results, and return on investment.

2. Course Content:  There are several elements that contribute to course content.  One of these, according to McClary, is “ensuring it is up-to-date and relevant,” which means that “every module of content in the course should revolve around specific course objectives.”  He suggests that “a good distance learning course leaves no ambiguity in the students mind regarding how content applies to objectives.”

Reusability of the content is another factor contributing to quality.  “Institutions of higher learning have found that reusing content is an efficient means by which to develop online programs,” he writes.  Indeed, “for institutions that want to leverage the economies of scale, reuse of content is mandatory.”

3. Course Instructor:  McClary cites research that suggests that the role of the distance learning instructor is “ambiguous and often ill-defined,” with some people believing the instructor is even unnecessary.  However, the instructor is actually a critical component of quality, with the instructor having an impact on student involvement in the course and learning as measured by objective performance, course grades, and student satisfaction. 

 This makes it critical that distance learning courses be taught by instructors who are passionate about their subject, approachable, and able to encourage engagement in the distance medium.  It also requires universities to hire distance learning instructors who can engage the student both about the subject matter and about how they convey their knowledge.  “Good distance learning instructors are able to knowledgably engage students on the mechanics of writing style and the topic they are instructing,” McClary writes.

Of course, online instructors must also be cognizant of the demands that teaching will place on them even beyond knowledge of subject and ability to work with students.  “online instructors can have a tendency to over commit themselves professionally and consequently minimize their own expectations during a distance learning course,” says McClary about his own observation of instructors.  He also recommends that universities provide adequate training to help instructors learn about the different kinds of demands these classes will place on them.

4. Support Systems:  Finally, McClary explains that quality distance learning courses require robust support systems in the areas of academic support, administrative support, and technical support.  He writes:  “Academic support involves instructors providing substantive engagement and feedback for course activities. Administrative support involves things such as financial aid, advising, registrar services etc. For schools using technical systems to deliver education, it is not a matter of whether a student will have problems; it is a matter of when they will have problems. Academic, administrative, and technical support services should be evaluated regularly as a part of the course evaluation. In addition, evaluation data should be made available to the appropriate stakeholders to ensure accountability and ongoing improvement.”

McClary urges universities to standardize on a single course delivery system, whether that be a commercially-available system or one that is homegrown.  Failure to do so can cause many problems.  “This non-uniformity has disadvantages including lack of the economies of scale in system licensing, disparate training programs for faculty, different course design requirements and strategies, different systems for students to learn etc. In situations such as this, lack of an institutional vision for distance learning is usually at the center of the problem. If disparate delivery systems are to be used, there should be a strong objective behind the decision,” he writes.

Reprinted from Distance Education Report, 17.17 (2013): 4,8. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.