Distance Learning: A Conceptual Framework

Is there a design or model we can define to provide a conceptual framework for distributed learning?
Figure 1

PART FOUR:

In part one of this series we lamented the sorry state of course management technology and our inability to use the existing technology. In part two, we argued that the use of technology in education was driving the definition of important new roles. In the third editorial, we called upon managers and trainers to focus on learning objectives and insist upon technology to support the learner in achieving these objectives. But, is there a design or model we can define to provide a conceptual framework for distributed learning?

We believe that technology development and instructional design can be guided by a simple, constructive model. The model is a simple representation of the surprisingly few data objects that make up a learning management environment: Learner, Team, Class, Course, Topic, Reference, Assignment, Instructor.

Here are our working definitions: 

Learner 
(a.k.a. Student, Participant) Everyone working to achieve some instructional objective. 
Team 
(a.k.a. Group) Two or more Learners supporting each other in some learning activity. 
Class 
(a.k.a. Section) A time specific instance of a Course with a list of Learners and an assigned Instructor(s). That which is listed in a semester schedule. 
Course 
A collection material and content. That which is listed in a course catalogue. 
Topic 
(a.k.a. Learning Module, Unit, Lesson) A chunk of instruction. A unit of a Course. That which is listed on a course outline. 
Reference 
(a.k.a. Book, Article, Case Study, Video Sequence, Audio File, Slide Presentation, etc...) Any resource used by the Learner to gain knowledge and skill. 
Assignment 
(a.k.a. Quiz, Exam, Project, Practicum) Any work performed to demonstrate competence and mastery of a Topic(s). 
Instructor 
(a.k.a. Teacher, Professor, Facilitator) Any person taking the responsibility to instruct, guide, and facilitate the Learner''s exploration of the Course Topics. Any person given the responsibility of evaluating a Learner''s performance.

We divide the model into two views, one from the Learner''s perspectives and one from the Instructor''s or Instructional Designer''s point of view.


Figure 1 - The Learner''s Perspective


Team
--  Member -> Learner <- Enrolls -> Class
 
 / 
/ Submits /
 / 
|
Explores
|
  |
Offered
|

Assignment
<- Experience -> Topic <- Consists -> Course
    |
Support
|
   
   
Reference
   

The Learner is at the center of the model. 


Figure 2 - The Instructor''s Perspective


Course
<- Maintains -> Instructor
/ Designer
<- Teaches -> Class
   

|                  |

   

Topic
<- Designs ---> |                  |
|                  |
|                  |
<--- Interacts -> Learner
(Team)
    |                  |    

Reference
<- Supplies ---> |                  |
|                  |
<--- Evaluates -> Assignment

Figure 2 illustrates the roles of Instructor and Designer. These roles may be assumed by the same person, or they may be performed by individual specialists. 

Evaluating Learning Management Tools 

These models help define an abstract dynamic learning environment. But their value is best realized in evaluating current and proposed practices and technology. Consider the following scenario. Your organization is currently using an internally developed web site for your training program. You are considering licensing a popular course management system that promises to improve your learning environment. If you agree that the model makes sense, it becomes a convenient framework for evaluating the capabilities of your own system against the proposed system.

Looking at Figure 1, you should ask questions about each box and each arrow. You can compare how well the two systems support Teams and how easily Learners can be assigned as a member in a Team. A major criticism we have with many learning management tools is the lack of support for team interaction and social learning.

You should compare the procedures for enrolling a Learner in a class and whether the environment supports multiple offerings of the same Course. Many environments with which we have worked make no distinction between a Class (the group of learners and their instructor) and a Course (the collection of Topics, Reference material and Assignments). 

The Learner''s Perspective 

The environments should be compared on way each supports the Learner''s exploration of a Topic. Another criticism we have of current learning environments is the way they organize the material. An environments that presents a syllabus on one page, an undifferentiated list of References on another, and a list of Assignments on a third might make sense to the programmer, but to the Learner it is unclear which references go with which topics and which assignments.


 Figure 3 - Fragmented Structure  

Pages

After looking at these three pages, 
the user would probably ask: 
"Which article should I read for Topic 3?"
Course Syllabus
Topic 1 - Sept 20
Topic 2 - Sept 27
. . .
Topic N - Nov 8
   
  Readings
Article X
Chapter Y
. . .
Article Z
   
  Assignments
Essay - Week 2
Quiz - Week 3
. . .
Project Due - Week N

The Learner wants to be given an objective (i.e. the Topic), the References to read and explore, and activities to support his mastery of the Topic and to provide evidence of his success. 


 Figure 4 - Improved  Structure  

Pages

Organizing the pages around the Topics 
creates a clearer design: 
"I read article X in preparation for the Essay?"
Course Syllabus
Topic 1 - Sept 20
Topic 2 - Sept 27
. . .
Topic N - Nov 8
   
  Topic 1
Article X
. . .
Essay - Week 2
Quiz - Week 3
   
  Topic 2
Article Z
Chapter Y
. . .
Project Due - Week N

The Instructor''s Perspective

Looking at the other side of the model (Figure 2), you can devise questions about the proposed system''s support for the Instructor and Designer. To what extent does the system support the development and maintenance of Courses. Is it easy to define the Topics of a Course and record the Reference material? Is it convenient for an Instructor to set up a Class based on a Course? We often complain about the needless work imposed upon us by many learning management systems. Days are wasted reloading material when a Class begins and maintaining copies of resource material in multiple Classes.

The Instructor''s ability to interact with the Learner and project Teams is a critical factor. While all learning management systems provide some form of discussion, most require that the instructor and the student sign on to the environment to find out if there is anything new in the discussion. Systems that provide some form of email notification would reduce the frustration caused by spending time signing on only to find there is nothing new to review.

Another critical factor is the ease with which Assignments can be evaluated. Quizzing facilities are nice and grade books for standardized tests are convenient, but are no substitute for evaluating larger more significant efforts. The evaluation of projects and assessment of the level of discourse is still a mainly human enterprise, and far more complete indication of subject mastery. Any system aiding an instructor on this level of evaluation would be valuable; as far as we know such a system does not yet exist.

What The System Should Be

The dynamic learning model is an important frame of reference with many constructive uses. It should act to facilitate discussion and debate about distance learning among instructors, administrators and system developers. It can assist in evaluating and comparing proposed technological solutions. Rather than allow glitz and flashy appearance drive our decisions, we should be asking - "to what extent does the technology support the learning model?"

Questions formed by reading Figure 1

To what extend does the system support...?  How easy is it...? (How effective is it...?)
Teams to define a Team?
to assign a Learner as a Team member?

Learners

to add a Learner to the system?
  to enroll a Learner in a Class?

Class

to offer multiple Classes of the same Course?

Assignments

for Learners to submit an Assignment?

Topics

for the Learner to explore a Topic?

Reference

to access Reference material?

 

Questions formed by reading Figure 2

To what extend does the system support...? How easy is it...? (How effective is it...?)
Courses to add and modify a Course?
for two or more Designers to work on the same Course?

Topics

to record a Topic in a Course?

References

to post a Reference to a Course?

Class

to set up a new Class session?
  to teach a Class? (i.e. present information, monitor progress, etc.)
  to update Course material to multiple Classes?

Learners

to interact with a Learner?
to provide guidance to a Team?

Assignments

for the Instructor to know when an Assignment has been submitted?
  for the Instructor to provide feedback and assessment?

 

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