Life by Design

Archive for October 2010



Distance learning is certainly gaining attention and credibility as more and more educational institutions and commercial organizations are turning to technology to help deliver education to a wider population at a lower cost.


Presently, there still seems to be some public perception that distance education can’t deliver the same rigor and content that online courses can.  This perception is partially aided by Universities and other educational institutions that focus on the features of convenience and courses for the ‘working adult’ in lieu of marketing and featuring the high standards of both their courses and faculty.  It is entirely possible to convert a rigorous course offered by institutions such as MIT, Stanford, UCLA, Yale and the like into distance education that would meet the very same requirements as classroom education.  One of the main things that change in this scenario is that the learning goes from teacher-centered to learner-centered.


There will be more acceptance of distance learning in the future as technology keeps becoming more and more user friendly, more institutions jump on the bandwagon and the global community of educators begin to collaborate on distributive learning for the good of the whole.


As an instructional designer, I can be a positive force for change by working in settings such as universities, and organizations and promoting the idea as a ways to accomplish more with less. Also, I am a living example of a consumer of online education.  My cohorts and colleagues can see that this is a viable medium to explore.  Currently, in my community of Eugene, Oregon I am working as a community organizer to try to begin the conversation about educational reform in our county.  I can see that online education can be a way to not only augment the traditional classroom but also address the ever-increasing budget cuts in our county.


I can continue to be a positive force for continuous improvement in the field of distance education by keeping up with the continuing changes in technology, software and techniques.  Also, there is a paucity of research that has been done in certain areas, so perhaps I can contribute to the field this way as well.  Evidence based research often helps to move a field forward.




A training manager has been frustrated with the quality of communication among trainees in his face-to-face training sessions and wants to try something new.  With his supervisor’s permission, the trainer plans to convert all current training modules to a blended learning format, which would provide trainees and trainers the opportunity to interact with each other and learn the material in both a face-to-face and online environment.  In addition, he is considering putting all his training materials on a server so that the trainees have access to resources and assignments at all times.

With this scenario in mind, reflect on the following:

What are some of the pre-planning strategies the trainer needs to consider before converting his program?

What aspects of his original training program could be enhanced in the distance learning format?

How will his role, as trainer, change in a distance learning environment?

What steps should the trainer take to encourage the trainees to communicate online?


Converting to a Distance Learning Format

Best Practices Guide for a Blended Learning Format


Pre-planning strategies a trainer should follow before converting a classroom program to a blended learning format:


  • Assess whether or not the learners can embrace the new delivery system.
  • Are there sufficient resources for computers and technology in the budget?
  • How will the online courses be made engaging?
  • How will the facilitator use multimedia resources?
  • How will he decide what the learners need to learn?
  • What part of the course will be delivered face to face and what part will be delivered online?
  • What mixtures of web based technologies should be used?
  • Will the course be synchronous or asynchronous?
  • How will evaluation be determined?
  • Will the learning groups be multi-disciplinary groupings of learners all with different roles and different rankings?
  • What is the company budget for such a project?
  • The instructor will have to consider creating e-Learning modules that blend with Instructor led classroom sessions, mentoring for each student if needed, and create self-study exercises.
  • If the trainer is going to have everything on a server, there must be a privacy issue addressed and all elements of the class must be stored in one folder for streamlined access.


In the case of teaching better communication methods the following aspects of face-to-face instruction could be converted to a distance-learning format:


  • Group discussions could be handled online as a threaded discussion.
  • Role playing exercises could be done in a virtual environment like Second Life, with Avatars.  In this way there might be less inhibition of acting in certain ways to address communication issues in a role-playing format.


How wills the role of the trainer change in a distance learning environment?

  • The trainer will change from a f2f instructor that leads in a traditional way to more of a learning facilitator enabling his students to create their own learning base.
  • The trainer will need to move to a student –based learning environment.


The trainer can utilize the following tips to encourage the trainees to communicate online?


  • Break the group into small groups of 3-4 people and pose challenging real life work scenarios.  Have the students participate in threaded discussions about how to solve the issue.  They must go out to the web and locate information, tools, web media that would be helpful to a problem.
  • Have the trainees keep a blog of their experiences with communication in the workplace (both challenges and successes) that could be shared with other members of the work team.  Comments could be shared.
  • Create a project based learning task that team members have to work on collaboratively online to solve.
  • Share the idea, which it is often easier to communicate in writing as you have more time to reflect on the situation you are writing about.
  • Discuss how shy workers can have a place to ‘speak up’.
  • Help employees see that ultimately they will reduce training time and that the students can move through system simulation at their own pace.




Simonson,M. , Smaldino, S., Albright, M., and Zvacek, S. (2009)  Teaching and Learning at a Distance:  Foundations of Distance Education.  Pearson.  (pp. 233-234).

When considering best practices for creating a blended learning format,  a trainer should consider several pre-planning strategies to insure success.  Some of the considerations include:  first and foremost, what do the learners need to learn, are the learners ready to embrace an online format, how will the content be divided between a true classroom environment and the online portion, how will assessment be accomplished, and finally what mixtures of web-based technologies should be used?


If the objective is to teach better communication skills, there is no better format for this than the threaded discussions offered in many online LMS systems.    If role playing is required, virtual environments like Second Life can allow participants to don their avatars, and act out the issues in a more uninhibited way.

The trainer converting to a blended learning format will have to adjust to the differences between teacher-based learning systems to student-based systems.

For a blended learning format to be successful, the trainees will need to be encouraged to communicate online.  Some interesting options here include:  breaking the group into small groups of 3-4 people and pose challenging real life real work scenarios.  Students can participate in threaded discussions about how to solve the work related issues.  The learners can research the web, locate information, tools, and web media that would be  helpful to solve the issues.   If communication issues are present at work, learners can keep blogs about their experiences, challenges and successes, post their entries and read their co-workers views.  Other incentives to online communication include:   the learner can have the chance to stop, reflect and refine their responses and ultimately move through the online system simulation at their own pace.



Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., and Zvacek (2009)  Teaching and Learning at a Distance:  Foundations of Distance Education.  Pearson. (pp. 233-234).


I chose to take a look at and specifically their selection of Italian courses.  At first glance, for an adult learner wanting to learn some interesting new things, the site in general offers a great deal of resources from a recommended book list to ‘smart’ YouTube sites.  As an adult who enjoys learning and keeping up with things, I found plenty to explore and in my free time, which I anticipate having when, I am about 85 I plan to pursue more of it!

Looking into the Italian course selection however, it was disappointing when we look at it through the lens of our distance learning guidelines as offered in our course resource  (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright,  & Zcavek, 2009).

When you click on the site, there’s simply a list of websites to different Italian courses with little explanation of how they differentiate.  There is no instruction about how to navigate the sites or to orient and instruct the new user on what exactly a ‘podcast’ is or how to download from iTunes.    I didn’t see much evidence of the developer asking the question, “What does the learner need?” in order to be successful on the site.  There was no survey offered to assess prior learning of foreign languages or working with technology.   The only option is receiving a ‘podcast’, so for the learners with other learning style and preferences, I think this site will be disappointing and non-engaging. I find myself becoming more and more a strong advocate for the learner as I consider distance education design.

When I went to the site, www., (Radio Lingua Network) I found a blog format that was intermingled with 20 weeks of daily lessons.  With a lack of menus for navigation, I had to wade through over a dozen webpages to get to the beginning of the course.   Once there, it wasn’t entirely clear whether I needed to download the podcast directly from iTunes or the site.  I clicked on a hot download link on the site and found I could get to a ‘preview’ iTunes site where all the lessons were posted.  I listened to the first lesson delivered by an Irishman with a reasonable Italian accent.  The lesson was quick, less than 5 minutes and taught exactly three phrases.  This is fine for the adult learner, who is busy and has the specific aim of learning just enough Italian perhaps to visit Italy one day.  Adult learning theory is utilized in that the course could be customized just to give the learner exactly what they need to satisfy their learning needs.

The site is not intended to be a true distance learning course and therefore, it does not offer a syllabus, collaborative learning opportunities, threaded discussions or learning activities.  If you want to pay about $45 dollars for a premium membership, you can get download a PDF to augment the lessons.   This brings up the debate about Open Source being a non-commercial enterprise. (Fitzgerald, Hissam, & Lakani, 2005, p.332).

There is a new posting on the blog for a Twitter application that can be sent to you to test your daily recall.  This is an interesting idea. There is no rubric, grading standards or expectations for the course.  It’s all up to you.  And that’s what an Open Source education site is for…it is up to you to explore and create your learning on your terms, on your time.


Fitzgerald, B, Hissam, S., Lakhani, K. (2005) Perspectives on free and open source software. MIT Press. (P.332) Extracted from:

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson. (Ch. 5 & 9)