“Best Practices”

“Best Practices” of Effective Online Learning

With more than sixteen years of experience in Internet-based higher education, American Academy of Distance Learning has identified eleven “Best Practices” of effective design for Internet delivered courses. These Best Practices, when applied, can make Internet delivered courses as effective as courses conducted in physical classrooms.

1) Videos Don’t Work. Anyone who visits a Coursersa, Udemy, Udacity or other online course will see immediately that somebody thinks that video recordings of lectures are useful. Videos have some utility, especially for the scholars who, until the advent of Internet delivered education, lived in obscurity. Now they are hailed at airports and on the walkways of their campuses as celebrities. Students compelled to watch these recordings, however, wonder when they’ll end.  Time is a most important ingredient in the success of Web based distance learning.  So, if less time is the attraction, why add more time to by requiring students to watch videos?

2) Don’t Ask a Traditional Instructor to Design His Own Internet-delivered course. In fact, don’t ask a classroom instructor to engage in anything but instruction. So, tasking one of these specialists to design a course for one of the most difficult modes of learning–distance learning–is a recipe for disaster. Because the best Internet courses are designed by professionals who understand the principles of instructional design, the footrace for effective methods of training in the 21st century will be won by those who understand the differences between classroom learning and distance learning.

3) Oversight Is King. Most distance learning simply operates on cruise control. A content specialist develops a course, students enroll and the specialist thinks his work is done. As a result, student surveys give distance learning mixed grades, but seldom a solid “A” for excellence. And the reason is that few institutions oversee instructor/student engagement on a daily basis. For every Internet delivered course there has to be a trained person who monitors student and instructor activity.

4) Training Students and Instructors. Most Internet course management systems are simple enough to learn, if you can type and know the fundamentals of word processing and e-mail communication.  Unfortunately, the habit of checking e-mail, attaching files to messages, and saving files cannot be assumed. Even some Web browsers don’t work on all course management systems and, then, there are differences between Macs and PCs. When you add to that installation of microphones for use in Webinars, suddenly you are consuming valuable time that ought to be used in instruction. Every company offering Internet delivered courses must have a system for training students and instructors before they enter a course.

5) The Web Is a Valuable Resource–Use It!  Even today, few instructors tasked to develop a course for distance learning will surf the web for free books or other valuable resources or create exercises and drills that utilize web content. Very few will create their own online textbook. Commercial textbooks are too expensive and a majority of students will not purchase them.

6) Think “Online.”  “Thinking Online” is as important as it is for film makers or television producers to think “pictures.”  The language of training is words. But distance learning is a mix of words and Web-based resources and concepts of instructional design.  Overcoming “word think” is imperative for successful distance learning.

7) Should Internet Courses Offer Discussions? A natural response to a new medium of communication is to adopt the practices of traditional communication. In education, that means class “Discussions.” One of the reasons that most distance learning courses have low completion rates is our tendency to do what we learned to do in traditional classrooms even though some of those practices clearly do not work online. One-on-one discussions work online, but not a typical discussion with many students.

Discussions and “Chats” simply do not work online. For that reason, if we follow the Best Practices of effective online learning to their logical conclusions, we must seek alternatives to class Discussions. That means that instructors must discuss assignment with each individual student on a one-on-one basis and preparing instructors for what for some is “drudge” work.  Until then, class discussions in Internet delivered courses are wasteful of students’ time and for classes with students living in different time zones, impossible to organize. And more instructors must be recruited and trained. Burn-out is the largest instructor-related issue that must be faced by having more instructors than is assumed necessary and training them.

8) Today’s Students Can’t Write. Instructors will tell you that most of their students are not adept at English composition or grammar  Unfortunately, Internet distance learning requires that students be able to write or, at least, communicate by means of grammatical sentences. The aspiration of the creators of Internet courses to provide education for everyone will quickly face the difficult truth that not everyone can write a grammatical sentence. Every Internet program should do one of two things: 1) admit only those who can write a grammatical sentence or 2) offer a course of study in grammar and composition.

9) Students Will Cheat. In any environment where there is no supervision, some students will plagiarize or cheat on quizzes and pay others to write end of term “papers.”  Solutions such as Iris scans, fingerprint IDs, or video surveillance come to mind as ways to assure that every student taking exams or completing quizzes has not cheated. If tuition cost is a consideration, these technologies add to the cost of Internet delivered courses.

A solution is to accept that it takes a commitment to fraud that can be difficult to sustain over time. Sustaining fraud over a series of courses will experience less cheating than a single course. The lesson to be drawn is not to require costly anti-cheating devices, but by offering “Badges” only for successful completion of a series of courses in Certificate Programs or complete degree programs of a minimum of twenty courses.

10) Age Is An Issue. Any company, high school, college or university seeking to utilize the efficiencies of the Internet to deliver education products must be aware that Internet browsers were not commercially viable until the late 1980s. An instructor who was born thirty or forty years before the advent of Web browsers probably began to use a PC only in the last then or fifteen years.  That doesn’t prepare them to lead development of, or even participate in, online training programs. Always employ instructors between the ages of 25 and 35 who grew up using a PC.

11) Most Instructors Are Not Geeks. Any course management system that requires course developers to learn computer programming is dead as a door nail. That is why Google’s “Course Builder” bit the dust. Only course management systems with user interfaces that enable everyone to install content into a course template will survive. Some of the best have mastered this aspect of the business and deserve praise for transcending their “Geekness.”