Monday, April 18, 2011

Converting Traditional Learning to a Distance Learning Format

A Guide for Best Instructional Design Practices

Scenario: A training manager has been frustrated with the quality of communication among trainees in his face to face training sessions and wants to try something new. With his supervisor’s permission, the trainer plans to convert all current training modules to a blended learning format, which would provide trainees and trainers the opportunity to interact with each other and learn the material in both a face to face and online environment. In addition, he is considering putting all of his training materials on a server so that the trainees have access to resources and assignments at all times. 

Pre-Planning Strategies

When considering a blended learning environment, the course content needs to be evaluated to determine what could best be presented online and what should be taught in the classroom. Course readings, discussions, written activities, and assessments can all be completed in an online classroom, while hands on activities could be completed in the classroom. A course management system needs to be selected that allows the instructor to facilitate the course and manage grades, assignments, distribute resources, and facilitate discussion forums (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009).

Distance learners require instructional activities that are clearly explained, well structured, engaging, involve higher order thinking skills, and are relevant. Activities that meet these requirements have a greater chance of motivating and engaging the learner (Simonson, 2009).
There are several important factors to consider when designing a distance learning course. Providing a course syllabus makes the students aware of the instructional goals and objectives as well as the learning activities they will participate in throughout the course. An orientation introducing students to the technological tools they will be using during the program and a forum for questions and answers will go a long way in reducing the stress of a first time distance learner. A collaborative classroom culture benefits the student and promotes learning. However, students who are not familiar with distance learning courses or had a previous bad experience will be hesitant to participate in a collaborative assignment. The course should be designed to gradually introduce students to collaborative projects (Simonson, 2009).

When designing instructional activities the designer needs to consider what the learner’s prior knowledge of the topic is and how to incorporate the different learning styles. Instructional activities need to meet the instructional goals and keep the learner engaged in the learning process (Simonson, 2009). Students are looking for educational activities that fit their individual learning style. The designer needs to keep this in mind and develop an array of resources that focus on the same concepts and present the information in a method the learner prefers (Dede, 2005).
Discussion activities can be a valuable learning experience for a distance learner. When developing a discussion topic needs to be sure the learner is able to analyze and synthesize the information from multiple sources and then create a response that includes both content and personal experience. Discussions engage the learner and help them feel part of a learning community. “Asynchronous discussions often become the heart of an online course, as they allow for reflection time and critical thinking, often resulting in more student involvement than in a face to face classroom discussion” (Freeman, n.d., p. 2).

Learning Enhanced Through Distance Education

The benefits of distance learning programs include individualized programs, self pace learning, flexibility, and interactive lessons (Moller, Foshay, and Huett, 2008). Online courses offer students access to the ‘classroom’ and materials anytime. Students are able to pace their learning while participating in activities that encourage active learning and involve multiple learning styles. (Simonson, 2009).

The Role of the Instructor

Distance Education Face-to-Face
Facilitate Synchronous or Asynchronous Discussions

Learner Center Activities

Available Throughout the Day

Select and Filter Content/ Information

(Simonson, 2009)

Participate in the Learning Activity

(Laureate Education, 2011)
Facilitate Synchronous Discussions

Learner and Teacher Center Activities

Deliver Lectures

Available during the Class Session

Transfer Information/Content to the Learner

(Simonson, 2009)

Lead the Learning Activity

(Laureate Education, 2011).
Encouraging Online Communication

Distance learning activities are more effective when they are student centered, so it is important that the instructor does not dominate the discussion forum and encourages students to participate frequently (Simonson, 2009). Instructor responses that encourage student engagement include questions regarding content, adding to another students post, posting additional resources or real life examples not included in the course resources, or offering opposing points of view. Discussion topics should be chosen carefully. Discussions will continue to develop when topic can be seen from multiple points of view and/or allows the student to connect the topic to their prior knowledge (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006). 

Rubrics or guidelines should be provided to the student prior to the discussion to ensure they are aware of the minimum participation requirements (Durrington, 2006). Student’s value the discussion experiences more if the activity is graded. Students contribute to the discussion by making an initial post responding to the topic showing a high level of understanding of the content and evidence of critical thinking. Students help to continue the conversation by responding to other student’s posts by expanding on their ideas or by posing feedback or questions (Simonson, 2009).


Dede, C. (2005). Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 28(1), 7-12. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Durrington, V., Berryhill, A., & Swafford, J. (2006). Strategies for enhancing student interactivity in an online environment. College Teaching, 54(1), 190–193. Retrieved from

Freeman, J. (n.d.). Using discussions in online courses: the importance of interactivity. Retrieved from

Laureate Education. (2011). Facilitating online learning. Retrieved from

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

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