Best Practices in Distance Education
Smith, Lynn M., Distance Learning
Best practice pedagogy is becoming more of an important issue as initial implementation technological problems and challenges are solved and online education becomes a more prevalent method of instruction. Whether it is professional development, training, or content courses, high school, undergraduate or graduate, electronic courses have saturated the education and training markets. The continuum of material contained in these electronic courses varies greatly from well-planned, -designed, and -delivered products to a text-based list of information. As a result, a plethora of best practice recommendations in distance education have been developed by a number of organizations to improve quality of distance courses.
The Concord Consortium, a researchbased group that investigates online technologies, states the following in their learning model for online teaching: "Asynchronous collaboration, explicit schedules, expert facilitation, inquiry pedagogy, community building, limited enrollment, high quality materials, purposeful virtual spaces and ongoing assessment" (http://www.concord.org/courses/cc_elearning_ model.html, 2000). A large part of the research conducted within the Concord Consortium focuses on the instructional design to promote inquiry and deeper thinking. The techniques utilized to promote the dual goals of inquiry and deeper thinking are visual models, peer collaboration, multiple revisions, scaffolding, and ongoing assessment. Other organizations have developed similar best practice lists that mirror the Concord model (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996, PaIloff & Pratt, 2003).
It is this area of best practice distance education pedagogy that this article will focus, more specifically, on the design of high quality elements that promote higherlevel thinking. This article outlines an appeal for instructional technology and distance education (ITDE) managers to understand the strong connection between distance course design and student understanding, achievement, abandonment, and opportunity for plagiarism and, further, to consider that the use of visual tools is a research-supported technique for accomplishing these goals. There are, therefore, many questions that face the ITDE manager when deciding on appropriate and powerful methods to design distance education courses. Is distance education being taught in a manner that allows for students to learn and understand material, or is it presented in a largely text-based format? Does the present format of lesson presentation increase student achievement or are there better methods? Does the presentation of material affect student achievement or dropout rates? Can students understand complex materials via a text-only format? Do best practice online methods increase student satisfaction? Are there methods for addressing and reducing the incidence of online cheating and plagiarism? There is growing concern among online instructors that the methods used to instruct students may not be working at addressing the questions above. So, what does the ITDE manager look for when deciding to improve or initiate online instruction? The answer focuses on four areas of concern: higher level thinking, assessment, dropout or abandonment rates, and plagiarism or cheating and a best practice measure that, if implemented, will make a huge positive difference.
Deeper thinking and promotion of student inquiry have been an educational concern for many years. In online courses, it becomes a larger concern since many instructors, struggling with the technology, simply input large volumes of textual material into their online courses. Further, the level of thinking required from students is often limited. Most online courses, according to Jonassen (2002b) support "knowledge acquisition and reproductive learning." He expounds on the problem: "First, acquiring knowledge does not lead to or facilitate complex skill or problem solving development. …