Evaluation: A Key Piece in the Distance Education Puzzle

Article excerpt

The difficulties educational institutions experience when attempting to reach distant learners are well documented. While there appear to be no simple solutions, electronic delivery systems are being used more and more frequently to solve this problem. Since a delivery system is only as good as the programming it delivers, however, selecting a delivery system represents only one piece of the distant education puzzle.

This article goes beyond that question and examines two other pieces of the puzzle - faculty development and evaluation. While the primary focus is on evaluation, we begin with a discussion of faculty development because of the symbiotic relationship between the two areas: Appropriate faculty development leads to positive evaluations; at the same time, integrating information gleaned from evaluations improves the process of faculty development.

The University of Wyoming's distance education program has used multiple delivery systems - including audio teleconferencing, audiographics and two-way video - successfully for several years. We contend that the success of this program is directly attributable to four indispensable elements: faculty development, class-by-class feedback forms, midterm feedback sessions, and end-of-course evaluations by both students and faculty.

* Trained Faculty Required

Because it is generally accepted that teaching via technology is different than teaching face-to-face,[1,2] we believe that faculty development is prerequisite to any evaluation program. In other words, distance education should begin with instructors who have prepared properly.

Based on that assumption, the faculty development program for teaching distance education courses at the University of Wyoming includes three major components: recruitment and pre-course discussions with faculty, pre-semester seminars/workshops, and on-going coaching.[3]

* Recruitment & pre-course discussions.

Every effort is made to recruit faculty who have been successful in face-to-face courses. For example, several instructors who have taught via telecommunications have also received campus teaching awards. Potential instructors are also identified by discussions with department heads and deans.

After a faculty member has been recruited to teach a technology-based course, a meeting is set with an instructional designer. While there are many purposes for this meeting, specific items discussed include the goals of the course, preferred teaching strategies of the instructor, and the use of media and alternative teaching strategies. With this information, both the instructional designer and instructor explore teaching methods and course software that will accomplish the instructor's objectives and develop a course that is amenable to delivery via a variety of technologies.

* Pre-semester seminars/workshops.

Before the semester begins, all faculty who will be teaching via technology have the opportunity to attend a workshop that focuses on both technical and instructional issues. First, the technical aspects of the technology are explained and each faculty member can experiment with it, "hands on." Activities can range from using microphones in an audio teleconferencing system to being videotaped in the video classroom.

Secondly, instructional designers work with faculty members concerning specific instructional methods that have been successfully utilized when teaching via technology. Veteran technology instructors also share their experiences concerning both the capabilities and limitations of teaching via a telecommunications system. For example, veteran instructors have recommended that new instructors take time to get to know their students, to establish a good learning environment, to allow each student to experience the technology, and to provide visual representations of concepts.

* On-going coaching.

We have found that faculty have many concerns throughout the semester when teaching via telecommunications. …