We Need a Plan: An Instructional Design Approach for Distance Education Courses

Article excerpt

On October 25, 1965, downtown St. Louis stopped in its tracks and thousands watched as the last piece of the mammoth Gateway Arch was put into place. The weight of the two sides required braces to prevent them from falling against each other. Fire hoses poured on water to keep the stainless steel cool, which kept the metal from expanding as the sun rose higher. Some horizontal adjustments were required, but when the last piece was put into place and the braces released, it fit perfectly, according to plan, and no one was surprised (Liggett, 1998).

Just like the Arch, distance education programs require a careful planning process that includes systematic design and implementation. There will be success if all the pieces of the plan receive the same attention as the most obvious. The base sections of the Gateway Arch required more engineering savvy and study than any other component. The last and most visible span that connected the two halves received the most attention from the thousands of onlookers, but success was directly related to how the original supports were positioned.

One key to effective distance education is correct instructional design, a systematic process that applies research-based principles to educational practice. If the design is effective, instruction will also be effective. This article presents a review of what we know about "best practices in distance education," and proposes an easy-toapply approach to guide those who are designing classes.


Distance education has two major components: distance teaching and distance learning. Distance teaching is the efforts of the educational institution to design, develop, and deliver instructional experiences to the distant student so that learning may occur. Designers of instruction concentrate on distance teaching, while students are responsible for learning.


Distance education has been practiced for more than 150 years, passing through three phases: first, correspondence study, with its use of print-based instructional and communication media; second, the rise of the distance teaching universities and the use of analog mass media; and third, the widespread integration of distance education elements into most forms of education, and characterized by the use of digital instructional and communication technologies. Peters (2002) has suggested that "the swift, unforeseen, unexpected and unbelievable achievements of information and communication technologies" will require "the design of new formats of learning and teaching and [will cause] powerful and far-reaching structural changes of the learning-teaching process" (p. 20). Peters' views are well-accepted, but there is also consensus that the most fruitful way of identifying elements of quality instruction may be to re-examine "first principles" of distance education and mediated instruction.

Perhaps the first of the "first principles" is the recognition that distance education is a system, and that the creation of successful courses-and the program of which they are a part-requires a "systems" approach. Hirumi (2000) identified a number of systems approaches, but noted a concept common to all: that "a system is a set of interrelated components that work together to achieve a common purpose" (p. 90). He described a system that involved the efforts of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, and consisted of eight key components: curriculum, instruction, management and logistics, academic services, strategic alignment, professional development, research and development, and program evaluation.

Bates (in Foley, 2003) proposed 12 "golden rules" for the use of technology in education. These offer guidance in the broader areas of designing and developing distance education:

1. Good teaching matters. Quality design of learning activities is important for all delivery methods. …