Distance Education: What Works Well
Eastmond, Nick, Quarterly Review of Distance Education
Distance Education: What Works Well, by Michael Corry and Chih-Hsiung Tu (Eds.). New York: Haworth Press, 2003, 135 pages, $19.95 [softbound], $29.95, [hardbound]).
This is an edited book that provides a means for increasing competence and professionalism among practicing distance educators. While there are certainly other forms of distance education, this volume aims primarily at computer-based distance education, the area that is clearly the fastest growing and, in my mind at least, the most challenging form of distance education yet to appear.
It is worth noting that, besides being issued in both paperback and hardback, this material was published simultaneously in the journal Computers in the Schools, 20(3) (2003). Each chapter is available for a fee through Haworth Document Delivery Service. That extent of distribution is exemplary. Given the value of the material, I would say that the investment in such widespread distribution is justified.
The book's authors represent an impressive lineup of talented people, some of whom I have known professionally over the years and others who are unknown to me, but whose capability in online teaching shines through the lines of the book. I am impressed that the authors are talking about practical matters as people who have engaged in extensive practice. The range of practice is wide, from two articles about virtual high schools to faculty development and online teaching at university levels. The book is replete with excellent ideas, with challenges to improve one's own online teaching practices, and with ideas about how to do so. The bibliographies at the end of each chapter provide a useful set of readings for those wanting to go deeper into the topic at hand.
I have always thought that there are major differences between online classes that reach 10-15 people-the equivalent of a seminar on campus-and those reaching much larger numbers, similar to a lecture course. Each has their strengths to exploit and their weaknesses to be worked around. Also, my sense is that frequently as educators we know how to do things better than we actually perform. The value of this book is the reassurance that such hunches about good teaching are correct: such as, that cooperative learning can be worth the investment in time (p. 52), that not every word of every threaded discussion posting has to be read by the course instructor (p. 91), and that time spent providing feedback in an organized fashion pays off in quality performance (pp. 88-89).
Let me cite from various chapters ideas that I found useful, with enough of the material quoted to convey the sense of the value of the idea.
From the chapter by David Winograd on "The roles, functions and skills of moderators of online educational computer conferences for distance education," here are his comments on "weaving:"
Weaving was the most repeated concept in the literature of online conference moderating.... Online, the only cue that can be communicated (when someone is bored or distracted) is silence, which hardly communicates anything at all, and what it does communicate is ambiguous. Weaving is explicit metacommunication relating to an online discussion. It summarizes the discussion and extracts its major themes and disagreements to clarify a discussion that has gone off in directions that people are having trouble following.... Weaving is a skill that a good moderator learns by being aware that a discussion, over time, is not necessarily linear. It takes practice to start seeing things that appear out of order as a coherent discussion, and the moderator, at least once a week, can assist the group by weaving together recently posted ideas salient to the discussion. (p. 67)
The person moderating learns this skill through practice, but certainly coaching can help, as this chapter indicates.
The authors, Chih-Hsiung Tu and Michael Corry, describe the value of students working with others in their chapter "Building active online interaction via a collaborative learning community" as follows:
In collaborative learning small groups of students are encouraged to work together to maximize their own learning and the learning of each group member. …