Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Distance Education vs. Traditional

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 21, 2000

  there is a lot more work in the distance ed version ... simply because it  tries to make up for the lack of any class contact ...

This is a fascinating assertion. I have heard the comment before that distance courses contain more work than traditional in-class courses, and have seen evidence of that myself. But two questions come to mind:

1. Does the increase in work actually 'make up' for the lack of class contact?

I can sort of see the thinking here. Both types (traditional in-class, and distance) involve a certain amount of reading and exercises. A tried and true formula.

The traditional in-class type in addition has the classroom component, which the distance course obviously does not have (though in the online environment designers are working to emulate that environment).

So, to make up for the lack of a classroom component, distance students are assigned 'more work': this can take the form of a greater number of exercises, can involve delving into the material in more depth, or perhaps may involve covering a wider range of topics.

So my question is: does the 'more work' component make up for the 'classroom' component.

And at first blush, the answer would be 'no'. The 'more work' component is a completely different type of entity than the 'classroom' component'. They do different things. They have different outcomes. They engage different capacities and learning modalities. They are not even remotely similar.

Why, then, would distance students be assigned 'more work'?

Obviously, they are assigned more work because it is perceived that, by missing the classroom segment, they are missing on an important component of a course. The more work is a (feeble) attempt to fill that gap.

But I am wondering whether a better approach would not be to ask about what is missing in the classroom component, and to then design distance learning around that need. And indeed, when we look at distance learning design, we see that a lot of that has been done already. To take some simple examples:

a. Class pacing and structure - much of what occurs in a classroom setting involves pacing and course structure. The instructor tells students what to read or complete, assigns adeadline, and sets out the list of topics to be covered though the course.

In a distance education setting, this role is accomplished via a course manual, which essentially sets out the class plans for the entire semester.

b. Questions and answers - a significant component of atraditional classroom session involves a give and take between the instructor and students. Sometimes this is a discussion, sometimes this consists of question and answer sessions, and sometimes a more free form style of interaction is adopted.

In distance education, this role is filled with synchronous teleconferences, chat sessions,interactive video, and similar conferencing tools.

c. Lectures - the third major component of a classroom session is the delivery of instructional content by the instructor. Typically this does not consist of more or different material than that contained in the assigned readings; rather, it is the same material, presented in a different manner, in a different mode, with contextualization and localization.

In a distance education setting, this task is accomplished through the use of video andaudio tapes, supplementary written materials, and even (bad) telephone or video conferencing.

We can see through this quick examination that 'more work' accomplishes none of these three objectives.

2. Does the increase in work actually result in greater student attrition?

As a distance education instructor, I have often heard the comment, "It was a lot more work than I expected."

At the time, it seemed to me that students were comparing the current course with previous distance education courses. But perhaps they were comparing the current course with previous in-class courses.

After all, compared with the discipline and work required to complete a distance learning course, a traditional in-class course is pretty slack.

It runs more quickly (six to twelve weeks instead of six or eight months), classes don't take a lot of work, readings and assignments are lighter (they have to be, because there isn't as much time), and the tests and assignments can be less comprehensive.

As an instructional designer working with instructors, one of my preferred tactics was to have the instructor create the distance course structure from the in-class lesson plans. While this produced a good structure, it also resulted in a constant demand to cover more material, add more readings, or to generate more tests.

A traditional course can look pretty sparse when the actual content is written down on paper. So there is a tendency to beef up the material. That way, the course will appear to be substantial.

But a student - faced with a bulkier courseload - and faced with a lack of any of the support systems offered by an in-class environment - may find himself overwhelmed. Three months into the course and only at unit 2? I would have been done after this much work in a traditional course!

I think it is at least possible. And I think it might be the sort of thing empirical studies don't get at (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here) because students are not exposed to alternate deliveries of the same course (for the most part) and so do not have a basis for comparison.

But in any even, I think we can safely say that 'more work' does not make up for the 'classroom component', and might even cause more harm than good.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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