Theory and Distance Education: A New Discussion (Review)

Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Hanson, D. (1999). Theory and Distance Education: A New Discussion. The American Journal of Distance Education. 13(1), 60-75.

This article provides an older perspective on distance education, and is specifically situated in the American experience. It specifically proposes the theory that the distance education should be equivalent to that of the local educational experience. The authors review literature on the development of distance education and arguments about the lack of theoretical support for this development. The article pays particular attention to theories of distance education (theories of independence and autonomy, theories of industrialization of teaching, and theories of interaction and communication) as raised in Keegan’s 1986 book, Growth and structure of distance education, and summarises these from American and European perspectives. The authors argue that instructional designers should aim for equivalent learning experiences for all students, this equivalency being based on value for the student, even if the way it is delivered or how that experience looks is different. They ultimately argue that aiming for equivalency in learner experience would unify learning and teaching as acts.

I loved this article and felt that it was ‘speaking to me’ in a way. It provided theoretical underpinning to a point of view I already hold, in a number of areas. I suspect technology makes it easier to apply equivalency theory in practice today than it was when this paper was written. 

Stages of Course Design for Online Learning

This week (Week 9) of the course, we’re looking at course design, and one of the diagrams poses the design cycle as:

  1. Link the Course Outcomes
  2. with the Core Content
  3. to create Effective Learning Experiences
  4. that link to Assessment Tasks
  5. through Effective Assessment Tool

I, however, design differently because I prioritise assessment which is said to drive or motivate student learning (see Boud, 1988). When teaching in an online environment, considering how a student will be assessed needs to drive the design process because there are obviously a range of technical and logistical issues that may arise. Students with the online cohort are also traditionally mature age, already working, and have different demands on their time. So the assumption is made that students will only do that which is assessed (and lots of research supports this notion). I therefore need to consider very carefully what the student needs to be able to do, and work back from there.

So my steps would be:

  1. Establish the Course Outcomes that
  2. link with Assessment Tasks
  3. and Effective Assessment Tools
  4. to create Effective Learning Experiences
  5. informed by Relevant Core Content

In more simple terms, I think about what I want the student to be able to do or demonstrate, and then think about how this can be done in a way that is going to be engaging. Some might argue that in designing a course this way, you may miss important content, but there are ways to ensure that all relevant content is covered. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • ask students to answer weekly activities, and then submit those that they think were most relevant to their learning with a justification of why they thought this;
  • ask students to complete all required activities in the form of a reflective blog, or through a portfolio, whereby they have to present a case for their learning; and most importantly
  • ensure that all content is relevant to the final assessment task, which is summative, and ask students to reflect back on the content as part of that final task (this provides some useful feedback to me as well).

A potential issue here is ‘time on task’, but if you’re asking the students simply to engage with the materials and you’re assessing all aspects of their engagement with the course, that becomes justified. That being said, most of my courses have a workbook/blog/journal component of close to 50 per cent. These include practical activities, drafts of final pieces, reading summaries, and so on. They’re always the first assessment submission piece, because they are the initial scaffolding for the final piece, which in my courses are usually authentic tasks and/or practical submissions. Any quiz would be included in the workbook or journal, and I have never set an examination to this day.

An interesting reading about the need to consider assessment includes James Gee’s ‘Assessment Drives Learning: How to Drive to a New Place’. While recognising the very diverse range of approaches to assessment and content across disciplines, I actually find it interesting that the need for the argument is still current.


Boud, D. (1988). Developing student autonomy in learning. London: Kogan Page.

My ‘Seven Rs’

I’ve been working on my teaching philosophy, and came up with some principles for good practice of my own, all starting with R [forgive me, for I am a former editor and fan of alliteration as being an extremely useful and effective rhetorical device]. You’ll note that I don’t really talk or consider anything specific to ‘online’ education here, because I have difficulty in categorising ‘online’ as a defined and different mode of delivery. I have as many deep and rewarding experiences with students I have never (and will never) meet as I do with on-campus students. Students in my classes are the same in that they’re all different, and we’re all working together for the same thing – to have a rewarding experience that leads us to new places.

So my ‘Seven Rs’ are as follows:

Respect: Mutual respect between students and teaching staff should underpin the way in which we interact and view one another at all times. This is demonstrated by having empathy for one another, being polite, and demonstrating a high level of regard for how comments and critique may be viewed by the recipient and others ‘in the room’.

Relationships: A learning environment is one where positive and beneficial relationships must be maintained and sustained. This is underpinned by respect. It’s a fundamental element of many good teaching practice models (eg Chickering & Gamson, 1987). It also requires teaching staff to remain engaged at all stages of the learning process for the student (see MCracken, Cho, Sharif, Wilson, & Miller, 2011).

Relevance: Content must be relevant, or presented in a way that students can come to see the relevance from their perspective. In this, I draw on sense-making theory because it’s a theory that recognises the user as the driver of making meaning from information. In this context, sense-making is “the process by which individuals create an understanding so that they can act in a principled and informed manner” (, and this appeals to me because being principled and informed are great aims in education. As a theory, sense-making is most commonly used within information systems and technology, but its relevance in contemporary education environments is now being considered more widely (see for example Butcher & Sumner, 2011).

Reflection: Students and educators must reflect on their practice, and be given the opportunities to do so, at every opportunity. They need to be encouraged to reflect critically, and this must be embedded in aspects of learning design and teaching practice. There is a strong link between reflective practice, learning, and being an effective teacher (Kane, Sandretto, & Heath, 2004).

Repetition: Students should, where possible, be given the chance to do something again and build on their knowledge and improve their understanding. This requires drafting and feedback to be integral to course design. This is known to be effective, particularly in writing courses (Romova & Andrew, 2011).

Rigor: High expectations are required of students and educators, and assessment must be challenging. I believe that learning is through the doing and internalising, so it’s the assessment design that is the most important part of the learning journey. I don’t believe that content should be difficult to understand; rather, it’s my role to help interpret, define, and clarify concepts. At the same time, I expect students seek and engage with quality content outside that which is ‘delivered’.

Recognition: I believe that all students must be recognised and rewarded for effort and for what they do well.


Butcher, K. R., & Sumner, T. (2011). Self-directed learning and the sensemaking paradox. Human Computer Interaction, 26(1), 123-159. doi: Published, 01/2011.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7

Kane, R., Sandretto, S., & Heath, C. (2004). An investigation into excellent tertiary teaching: Emphasising reflective practice. Higher Education, 47(3), 283-310.

McCracken, J., Cho, S., Sharif, A., Wilson, B., & Miller, J. (2012). Principled assessment strategy design for online courses and programs. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 10(1), 107-110.

Romova, Z., & Andrew, M. (2011). Teaching and assessing academic writing via the portfolio: Benefits for learners of English as an additional language. Assessing Writing, 16(2), 111-122. doi: 10.1016/j.asw.2011.02.005

Reflecting on the ‘Seven Principles’

Chickering and Gamson’s ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education‘ (1987) are printed on my coffee cup. For the uninitiated, they stipulate that good practice in education:

  1. encourages student-faculty contact
  2. encourages cooperation among students
  3. encourages active learning
  4. gives prompt feedback
  5. emphasises time on task
  6. communicates high expectations
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning

I know some colleagues are a little dismissive of the type of this type of rhetoric, but I’m actually quite comfortable with these, because they are principles and accordingly, are quite timeless. The question posed to me this week is whether they are relevant to postgraduate students as well as undergraduate, and whether they can be applied across modes. My response is ‘yes’, and ‘yes’. The reasons are as follows.

The first two principles relate to relationship building and maintenance. Principles 3 and 7 recognise the need to be student focused. Principles 4 and 5 are based on respect for the student as worthy of attention and respect for the student’s time as being valuable. Finally, Principle 6 establishes a standard required, but is countered and balanced by the other principles, which are learner/student oriented. This is particularly important in the context of postgraduate study, which can be a very difficult experience for students because of the supervisor/student power balance, be it perceived or real. Too many students work with supervisors who are difficult to contact, have high standards that they don’t clearly articulate until the student hasn’t done what was expected, don’t give prompt feedback, don’t take into account different ways of learning…the list goes on. However, a good supervisor incorporates most of these principles within their practice. We can clearly see consistency with Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles and  ‘The Eleven Practices of Effective Postgraduate Supervisors’ by Richard James and Gabrielle Baldwin (1999).

As for being applied across modes, my response here is that mode is increasingly irrelevant, and that all education, regardless of how it is delivered, is effective if it remains based on human-experience, recognising the desire for relationship, recognition, and achievement.  The Seven Principles are a few decades old now, but remain influential because they’re simple and oriented to respect for the learner who as we know, vote with their feet, have high expectations themselves, and value their time. As they should.

Simultaneous stimulation

I’ve been asked to consider the benefit of stimulating multiple senses simultaneously, but I don’t know that this is a path I would want to take. Certainly, stimulating multiple senses is worthwhile in an education setting because different learners have different preferences: some respond better to visual prompts, while others prefer an aural approach, such as through storytelling. In a course I developed this past term, I used Prezi to guide students through a series of tasks on which they were assessed. The presentation included video as well as written support, and podcast. It was very time-consuming to create, and I had developed a simple one-page guide as an alternative for those students who had difficulty with internet access. I asked students about their preference through a simple poll on my Moodle site because I wanted to know the worth of creating a Prezi if in fact a written overview would work. Most responded that they wanted the written guide, and half said they also wanted the Prezi. Only two students indicated that they would be happy with the Prezi only.

The questions…



The responses…

The responses


This course was a speech course, and I had the opportunity to reflect this term on how much easier it is to explore interesting concepts, and illustrate examples of good and bad practice for students, courtesy of YouTube, YourListen, and SoundCloud. So in this particular context, stimulating multiple senses is important, but whether it’s effective simultaneously is debatable. More thought needed on this one…

Shovel ware and constructive alignment?

This week, we’re looking at instructional design, particularly the emergence of shovelware, and need for constructive alignment.

David Merrill’s discussion about instructional design struck a chord with me because he cites the three key elements of good instructional design as being demonstration, giving students the opportunity to apply what is being taught, and motivation. I have grappled with the principles of constructivism in online learning because it doesn’t appear to promote of support the notion of ‘demonstration’. This appears to be because there’s a sense of ‘shunning the expert’ view of the ‘teacher’. Rather, the opportunity needs to be given to the student to explore and find something for themselves. However, when designing an online course, I think efficiency of effort needs to be integrated into course design, and demonstration is key to that. However, this should be aligned with learning outcomes. If the learning outcome is aligned with information literacy, then it’s fair to ask a student to seek information which might require them to spend hours online finding appropriate sources. If the learning outcome is critical thinking, then that time may be better spent asking the student to critique a particular article. If the learning outcome is being able to ‘do’ a particular task, then demonstration (and this may include different approaches to the same task) might be a good approach.

An analogy I could consider is the making of fire. We could give students some implements – a rock, a few sticks – and ask them to make fire, walk away, and see what they come up with. Alternatively, we could show students different ways of making fire with the instruments, give them a chance to try a few versions for themselves, and ask them to assess which approach was best. The risk is, that in demonstrating, we prevent a possibly new way of making fire developing. Perhaps students may come up with a totally new approach to making fire – one we’ve never even thought about. Demonstration possibly prevents innovation. But then there’s the outcome. We simply want to make fire, and fire’s fire. Is it important that students come up with a new way of making fire? That depends on the learning outcome. If innovation in thinking is aligned with a learning outcome, then demonstration shouldn’t be part of the plan. That leads us to the concept of constructive alignment.

Constructive alignment is the integration of constructivist theory, which sees the learner or student as central, and instructional design, which focuses on learning objectives, performance levels, and assessment. Biggs (1996) argued that constructivism and instructional design should be integrated by stating learning objectives and levels of understanding to imply appropriate performance; that teaching methods place students in contexts to elicit those performances; and that assessment tasks address those same performances. In this particular course (Tertiary Teaching and Learning), the learning outcomes are as follows:

On successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

1. Develop and apply knowledge about learning theories, the premise on which they are based, and their implications for teaching practice and enhancing student learning;

2. Reflect critically and in a scholarly manner on their own practice as a tertiary teacher;

3. Identify, develop and articulate a shared understanding of core common terms and references relevant to tertiary education;

4. Describe the characteristics of your student cohort and variety of learning environs, and use this information to reflect on the implications for teaching these students in your context;

5. Articulate an informed philosophy of tertiary teaching and engage collaboratively in a professional community of practice;

6. Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of key institutional policies and practices in relation to your role as a tertiary educator.

I don’t know that some of these outcomes will be met, because of the small size of the group, but certainly the required levels of performance are clearly stated, and the assessment tasks appear to be specifically designed to meet these outcomes. Constructivism is evident in the ability of students to focus on areas of interest and apply content to professional practice, and the potential to work collaborative is embedded in the course. We’re not having to simply regurgitate facts and details; rather, we’re encouraged to consider our own practice at every step of the course. I feel a sense that I’m learning a lot, even if it is that I’ve been on the right track generally with my ‘teaching’ approach.


Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment, Higher Education, 32, 347-364.

Considering a teaching philosophy: ‘Talking to me’

It’s interesting (or concerning) that having been involved in tertiary education for over a decade, I have never really pinned down a teaching philosophy, although I have fairly strong views about my approach to teaching. I’m continuing my study in the GCTE, and this term we’ll have to articulate a teaching philosophy, so the time has come whereby I need to nail this down.

I’ve had to reflect where my educational philosophy comes from and I think there are three main sources: my experience as a member of the military where I have been exposed to competency-based training, leadership education, and informal mentoring for almost two decades; my experience as an educator over the past decade, trying different things that have worked (and not worked); and my experience as a learner, having been a continuous student for many years now through a PhD, this GCTE, and various military courses. I’ll touch on this first.

I find learning difficult, although I would say I’m keen. I have fairly poor eyesight, so find it difficult to read, and limited access to broadband internet, as I live on a rural property. I tend to only hear the second part of instruction, and find it difficult to engage with something unless I can see the relevance or the bigger picture. I am also easily distracted, and very time poor. I also have a very poor memory for facts and figures, and learn best through storytelling.

There are some consequences to this. I learn best if the following are present:

  • clear, direct writing, broken up into appropriate segments
  • clear instruction that is positively oriented [eg. if it's 'dont do this', I only hear the 'do this' component]
  • I can see the big picture – what something looks like in the end – before getting to that point is broken down into small parts
  • repetition is part of the learning
  • I am required to relate the learning to something relevant, not necessarily to me or my life, but to a consequence

I am an experiential learner – I have to ‘do’ to learn. I also learn for a reason, so if I’m there, I want to be there, and I’ll get there in the end, but need on occasion to manage myself and my time. Just give me a non-flexible deadline in the end.

This is, I think, why I have thrived in the military training environment, because particularly when I was a non-commissioned rank, the training was competency-based, and practically oriented. As I moved into the officer ranks, the training remained competency-based in theory, but was critically rigorous and always directly related to experience or explained in terms of its relevance as a leader.

As a tertiary educator, I have found that if I pitch my teaching to a student like me (possibly considered the ‘lowest common denominator’), then others will find my approach pretty easy to engage with. And I think that’s been my key. If I found learning easy, and didn’t understand why others found a concept difficult, then maybe I would have a different approach. However, if I take the approach that all learning is difficult for some, and needs some explanation prior to students taking on a path of independence (which I encourage), then it seems to work. Most of my students are mature age, and distance learners, so they’re juggling a lot of balls as well.

I teach practically-oriented courses, with a couple being a little more theory-based. I can’t conceptualise teaching a pure theory course without providing some framework as to how and why this is important in a practical sense, even if that’s explaining to students that this will ‘influence your perspective’ on something they might see. That’s because I’m ‘talking to me’. In my next post, I’m going to review some learning theories, and consider their relevance to my own practice.