AT A DISTANCE: An Instructional Design Framework for Distance Education

Article excerpt


Instructional design (ID) offers a systematic process for ensuring the development of effective learning environments. The creation of learning solutions through ID is typically based on a model that serves as a framework for the design and development process. In the world of distance education, the application of such processes are as important, if not more so. While distance education reflects a specific context for which instructional programming is produced, it maintains inherent features that require a customized model to guide development for this delivery approach. As stated by Head, Lockee, and Oliver (2002), distance education presents a myriad of different (and sometimes new or difficult) parameters regarding how the instructional program has to be delivered.

Simply considering the delivery technologies that may be employed for distance courses gives insight to the types of challenges that need to be planned for designing such instruction. What if a particular system of providing distance education has limited (or nonexistent) face-toface interactions? Do time delays exist among members of the learning community? Is the targeted class synchronous, asynchronous, or a blend of both? Professors teaching in distance education environments are aware that there are other complexities as well: what technologies are available, how easy are they to use, what are the uses; what is possible, probable, unlikely, or impossible to do? These considerations should factor into how instruction will be organized, developed, presented, delivered, and ultimately designed and evaluated for maximum learning effectiveness.

Distance education does not offer a new or better way of teaching or learning; it is a different context that provides an alternative approach. As Gustafson and Branch (1997) stated, "the greater the compatibility between an ID model and its contextual, theoretical, philosophical, and phenomenological origins, the greater the potential is for success in constructing effective learning environments" (p. 16). If the model can be aligned to the way it is going to be used, the instructional designer will be more likely to create a successful learning experience (in any medium). This construct is especially true for distance education. The model by which distance courses are developed must consider the features of this specialized learning environment.

The model proposed herein consists of seven key stages, four of which have substages of their own. This model, called AT A DISTANCE, is an acronym for the primary seven stages: Analysis, Technologies, Affective domain, Design and develop, Implement, Sample, Tryout, Adjustments, Negative consequences, Completion, and Evaluation and endorsement. Combined aspects from established design models have resulted in the current framework for the systematic planning and implementation of distance education.

What makes this model different from many others is that it inherently acknowledges the significant influence that organizational and/or technological infrastructures place on the designer or instructor in choosing how to best design for the delivery system in place. According to Gustafson and Branch (1997), "models also assist us in selecting or developing appropriate operational tools and techniques as we apply the models" (p. 21). Related to this principle, any designer or teacher would prefer to have full control over what, how, and why they would choose to use a particular development tool, media, or mode to deliver their instruction. The reality is that an instructor is presented with a list of available technologies and told to "pick one or several" to deliver their instruction. It may seem like a step backwards, and in many situations, it is. Often being "stuck" with a particular technology that does not match the instructional goal will result in an ineffective instructional experience. Through early recognition of the technologies and tools the instructors are "bound" to use, instructional designers can create a more complete and cohesive learning solution. …