Vol. 7, No. 6: February 15, 2001

General Principles and Good Practices for Distance Education

by Rosemary Lehman, Senior Outreach/Distance Education Specialist,
Instructional Communications Systems, University of Wisconsin-Extension


One thing we’ve learned at Instructional Communications Systems, as we’ve worked in the area of distance education over the years, is that when designing for distance education, instructors are not merely involved with designing a course, a program, or a session--rather, they are involved in designing an overall experience for the learners.

This concept is continually reinforced as we work with instructors at colleges and universities, government groups, non-profit organizations, and business and industry. One example to illustrate this is a videoconference we recently held with a number of instructors who were in their first semester of teaching via compressed video. The videoconference was arranged to give the instructors the opportunity to share their experiences with others who were preparing to teach their first courses in a few months.

In telling their stories, the "seasoned" instructors talked about their course content and how it was designed to take advantage of the potential of the technology. However, many other factors arose. Here are some of their comments:

French instructor: "I often have the feeling, because this is a new experience and people want to see what it’s like, that I’m an amoeba on a slide under a microscope. As for the teaching experience, I want to focus on the support staff, on the enormous role that they play in every session. Without them, this just wouldn’t happen!"

Education instructor: "I know what you mean about the amoeba under the microscope. At times, I feel like I’m in a fishbowl. I had a group of nine visitors drop by unannounced. What I’m experiencing with the class is that there is this distance that separates you from the students…so you have to find ways to reach across that distance. And it’s important to incorporate variety into the session, through the use of various appropriate media and to reach out to students at the remote sites, to question them frequently, to engage them and keep them involved so they’re less likely to tune out."

Writing instructor: "Now I need to tell you what I feel like – there’s a pack of dogs nipping at my heels and sometimes they get very close. I had release time for planning, but I needed more, at least this first time – I see you’re all nodding in agreement. As for the class, with the students, as I teach, communication is essential. I’ve encouraged a number of ways to communicate, for example: fax, e-mail, and regular mail, and, of course, phone. This is very important, to keep in touch and to keep the communication flowing."

Education instructor: "Many students don’t know how to learn via distance education. They have to be trained and oriented. I was surprised to find out how many students were unfamiliar with e-mail and the process of creating and receiving attachments. From now on I won’t make assumptions about students’ skills."

French instructor: "Time is really involved in teaching this way. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time developing class materials. My syllabus alone is thirty pages long. It helps bring organization to the experience…students know exactly what will be covered each day. This detail is very useful if something happens on the system."

Writing instructor: "I’ve found, too, that organization and clarity are critical, that I need to be very specific in my instructions. And when I do the final evaluation, I’ll need to include areas like the technology, the sites, the support, etc. This is a different and more complex situation we’re in."

Listening to these instructors, it becomes obvious that more is involved in teaching via technology than designing content for learning. The role of teaching itself is changing. First, there is the additional pressure and risk placed on the instructor who is venturing into new territory. Then, there are additional factors:

Preparing Instructors for the New Interactive Experience

Principle 1 – Reach Them With Their Love for Teaching

Working with instructors in this new environment and preparing them for the experience of teaching via interactive technology is challenging. Instructors come with varying levels of enthusiasm, technical knowledge, and experience with practical application. They all, however, have one thing in common: they love to instruct. This is where we try to reach them – with their passion for teaching and working with learners. We assure them that this will still be their focus, but that they will now have an expanded set of tools at their disposal.

Principle 2 – Provide a Means for Voicing Issues and Concerns

In an ideal world, the instructors’ institutions or organizations have developed and carried out a needs assessment and actively involved the instructors in creating a strategic plan, selecting appropriate technologies to meet specific needs, and developing policies that place value on instructing via technology. This is the world we need to work toward, one in which thoughtful and effective planning both involves and supports instructors.

In the real world, this is often not the case and in many instances, instructors come into the training situation filled with issues and concerns that need some degree of resolution. We take this into consideration and provide time for discussion. It is also very reassuring for instructors to hear that others have the same concerns.

Principle 3 – Instruct Via the Technology to "Experience the Experience"

Instructing via technology means "experiencing the experience." Often our design team is asked to train in a face-to-face situation. We do everything we can to discourage this. It is impossible to "just talk" about something that centers on the physical experience of doing. Instructing via technology is an intellectual, physical, social, and multi-tasking situation, with new variables that need to be experienced. Talking about them just doesn’t do it.

Training Instructors for the New Interactive Experience

The principles that we use in working with instructors in the distance education interactive environment are grounded in seven key areas that we have found essential to consider in the distance education development and design process. The seven areas are discussed in depth in The Essential Videoconferencing Guide: 7 Keys to Success (Lehman, 1996).

 Principles in Key Area 1 – Understanding the Learner

Research and our training experiences tell us that instructing via technology is most fruitful when a learner-centered approach is used. The first step in this type of approach is to get to know the learners. This is relatively easy to do in the traditional classroom, where you are face-to-face. It is more difficult when learners are at a distance. In this instance, instructors need to create ways to compensate for the loss of personal contact. Since learners will be geographically dispersed, this can take the form of a survey, phone calls, or biographical forms. The purpose is to find out about individual characteristics, past experiences, special needs, and course expectations so that an optimum learning experience can be designed.

During a videoconferencing course, large name tags and site seating charts help to personalize the learning experience, enabling the instructor to call students by name and check off the chart as learners respond, making certain that everyone has an equal chance for involvement. Site identification signs are also important in multi-site situations. In audiographics sessions, an instructor would use site charts that list the participants at the individual sites. In computer courses, instructors would take advantage of e-mail, chat room tools, and the telephone.

Principles in Key Area 2 – Knowing the Environment

Understanding the components of the new environment, discovering the differences between it and the traditional classroom, and practicing with the new tools are essential activities for instructors. This helps them feel comfortable with the technology, media, and software that they will soon be using. Assist instructors in gaining this understanding by having them actively experience the environment, introduce them to the many options they have, and then let them practice. More and more, a distance education course will emphasize one technology but integrate other technologies and media. Teaching via all types of technology incorporates intellectual, physical, and social skills. All of these skills need to be accommodated through training, giving the instructors a certain level of comfort.

Principles in Key Area 3 – Being a Team Player

Instructors are often surprised to find out that they need to depend on a team of people in order to develop their sessions and have them run smoothly. Working with a team is not always easy for instructors who have been a "one person show" in the past. But as instructors experience this new environment they are grateful for the additional expertise and support. Remember our French instructor’s statement above, about the importance of support staff? "Without them, this just wouldn’t happen." Team makeup varies and is dependent on the type of technology used, the complexity of the course, the budget, and the available personnel.

Principles in Key Area 4 – Developing Formats and Strategies

At the very core of training for this new interactive experience is the development of appropriate formats and strategies that work for the specific learning situation. When using the learner-centered approach, it is critical to have learners first gain a very thorough understanding of the content area and then to have them construct knowledge in a way that is meaningful to them. This process encourages "deep learning" (Gibson, C. 1998a). To develop formats and strategies that will accomplish this, instructors need to:

Principles in Key Area 5 – Creating Interaction Activities, Visuals, and Print Materials

Interaction and involvement are key to thoroughly understanding a subject and to deep learning (Gibson, 1998a). This can be accomplished in a number of ways:

Instructors have the knowledge base and have already, in the majority of cases, done an excellent job of structuring that base for the traditional classroom. Now, having worked through the formats and strategies for this new experience, they must make a concerted effort to consider carefully the technology and media they are using to decide on how they can best motivate the learners, engage them, and encourage them to interact and construct knowledge that will be meaningful to them.

Interaction can take place within a number of areas: 1) learner-teacher interaction, 2) learner-learner interaction, and 3) learner-content interaction (Moore, 1989), 4) learner-medium interaction (Hillman, et al., 1994), and 5) learner-context interaction (Gibson, 1998b). Types of interaction, and variations on them, are limited only by the instructor’s imagination. We’ve identified five separate categories with our Spectrum of Interaction Activities. Types of interaction selected will depend on the course content and the technology and media used.

Spectrum of Interaction Activities (activities vary from simple to complex)

Present Personalize Show Participate Question
mini-lecture name use objects readings Q&A
expert guest(s) postcards pictures fax/e-mail black box
interviews bio form trigger video groupwork debates
case study bio booklet particip. video field trips quizzes
storytelling dialogue simulation lab sessions fish bowl


Thinking visually in course preparation is also important. It means thinking about what your learners are seeing at all times during the course and also developing appropriate, meaningful, and well-designed visuals. Visuals are often a part of the interaction process and can be specifically designed to be an interaction activity (Cyrs, n.d.). Print materials are also an important component to all distance education courses.

Principles in Key Area 6 – Integrating Support

Support in distance education takes many forms: 1) instructor support, 2) learner support, 3) site support, 4) resources support and 5) special needs support.

Instructor support begins with full support from the instructor’s organization through:

Site support includes both technical and site coordinator support to make the course happen. Resources support is another support area. While traditional courses also require resources, distance education -- with its geographically dispersed sites and learners -- requires special support to work with libraries and media personnel for easy and equal resource access. Equal access also means that special needs support must be taken into consideration when those needs arise.

Principles in Key Area 7 – Monitoring for Quality

During the past few years, there has been an increased interest in evaluation, including continuous feedback sheets, projects, practical experiences, portfolios, and group evaluation. These occur along with, or as components of, the standard essay and multiple choice exams. In the evaluation of interactive distance education experiences, it is important not only to evaluate learner outcomes, but also to evaluate the effectiveness of the distance education experience and its long term impact. This type of evaluation is in its infancy. What we do know is that if appropriate technology is used and courses are well designed, they are as effective, if not more effective, than traditional classroom courses.

Following the Principles for Best Practices

As instructors become more and more comfortable with creating interactive experiences in distance education, they are refining their skills and creating effective practices that, for these early days of distance education, can certainly be called "best practices." As they share their stories with peers who are embarking on the distance education experience, their understanding of this new process continues to grow.

We’re confident that the instructors you heard from earlier in this article are on their way to developing best practices. They are enthusiastic instructors committed to working with the technology and learning to use it effectively. They have a good understanding of the principles and have planned well and practiced both alone and with multipoint critiqued rehearsals. They also have strong institutional support, excellent site support staff at all of their thirteen sites, a listserv for communicating with each other, a growing list of resources on their new web site, the support of technical and instructional design personnel, and a growing network of peers with whom to share information.

While these instructors are in the beginning stages of developing and implementing their courses, there are a growing number of best practices in the UW System that have already proven themselves and are being emulated by other institutions. For example:

At Instructional Communications Systems, we have a unique opportunity to assist in the design and support of many of these courses and to watch them as they are developed and refined. Through these observations and experiences, we are convinced that effective courses start with a strong instructional content base, an instructor who is willing to venture into new areas, an understanding of the technologies and media that are selected, a commitment to follow underlying distance education design principles for distance education experiences, and the support of institutions to make all this happen.


Cyrs, Tom. Teleclass Teaching: A Resources Guide. 2nd ed. Las Cruces, New Mexico: Center for Educational Development, New Mexico State University.

Gibson, Chere. Audio presentation as part of the "Beyond the Keypad" session at the ITCA EXPO98, Boston, Mass., 1998.

Gibson, Chere, ed. Distance Learners in Higher Education: Institutional Responses for Quality Outcomes. Madison, Wisc.: Atwood Publishing, 1998.

Hillman, D., Willis, D., and Gunawarndna, C. "Learner Interface Interaction in Distance Education: An Extension of Contemporary Models and Strategies for Practictioners." The American Journal of Distance Education, 8 (No. 2, 1994): 30-42.

Lehman, Rosemary. The Essential Videoconferencing Guide: 7 Keys to Success. Madison, WI: Instructional Communications Systems, University of Wisconsin-Extension, 1998.

Moore, Michael. "Three Types of Interaction." In Readings in Principles Of Distance Education, No. 1: 100-105. Pennsylvania State University: American Center for the Study of Distance Education, 1989.

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