The majority of the literature on web-based distance education (WBDE) focuses on learning styles, teaching methods, the effectiveness of WBDE as an educational medium, or on converting existing, traditional course materials to a webbased format. There is a gap in the literature dealing with core communications issues. Basic issues such as sender! source, message, transmitter, receiver, and feedback as they relate to design on the World Wide Web (WWW or Web) are conspicuously absent from the literature. Through published literature and personal observation, this article explores those aspects, the unique design problems associated with WBDE, and basic web design principles that can help overcome them.
Distance education (DE) has been in existence for many years. Delivery of course content has come in several forms ranging from mail ordered course materials and classes by telephone, to computer-based instruction on CD ROM and floppy disk. In all of its varying forms, DE has historically been viewed as a limited extension of traditional university instruction targeted to a very small and highly specialized group of students.
Today, The World Wide Web (WWW or Web) is changing that point of view. DE delivered by way of the Internet, called Web-Based Distance Education (WBDE), is forcing colleges and universities around the world to re-evaluate their traditional models of instruction. New technologies and theories of instruction are converging to form new distance learning environments that are every bit as effective and enriching as classroom-based instruction. At the same time, "The shift to knowledge-based economies...demands greater access to higher education and promotes the need for life long learning" (Taylor, 1999). Educational technology specialists, Michal Belier and Ehud Or (1998), added that: "As a result, there is an increasing demand for a flexible learning framework, one that does not tie the learner down to a specific time or place." The needs of this new market of nontraditional students, and the ability of WBDE to effectively serve that need, are at the heart of this change.
While much research has been conducted on the topic of WBDE, very little information is available regarding the core communications issues involved with the delivery of WBDE content. As a communications medium, the Web presents many challenges to effective message delivery not encountered in traditional instructional environments or in print publications. Effective web design is essential to the development of a successful WBDE course. It is also the element that is most often overlooked when a university undertakes the development of an online course.
Using the Internet as a communications medium for educational purposes poses some unique challenges. In traditional classroom-based instruction, the communication is source-based. The instructor (source) directs the flow of information in both form and time. In WBDE, the opposite is true. The communication is receiver-based. The students (receivers) initiate the communication when they want, for how long they want, in what order they want, and in what form they want. This is very unlike other forms of communication. In television and radio, for example, the communication is released at a set time and is delivered in a format that is not controllable by the receiver. When the broadcast ends, the information is no longer available to the receiver. With Internet communication, the receiver controls all of these variables, and maintains access to all of the information all of the time.
The elements of Internet communications are unique enough to merit an examination of the appropriateness of traditional communication models. The applications of the source, message, transmitter, receiver, and feedback elements of traditional communication models do not apply to Internet communications the same way they do to other forms of communication. …