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Theory to Practice in Instructional Design

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Theory to Practice in Instructional Design

Rick L. Shearer and Eunsung Park
With the fourth edition of the Handbook of Distance Education, we are on the cusp of the third decade of the online movement in distance education and within our traditional resident instruction
courses. Much has changed since the late 1990s, and as online learning has matured, we find ourselves
moving beyond the hype and once again asking very deep questions about distance education at
the institution level and at the course level. Our experience has grown and our technologies have
matured, and the notion of materials and content has changed. Thus, more than ever we need to look
at our designs and how they interact with our faculty, students, institutions, and society in a systems
view. There are many questions that are emerging around distance education and our course designs.
Some of the key questions include the following notions.
Design Team vs. Individual Faculty: Our tools now allow our faculty to easily craft an online
course in a learning management system (LMS) and integrate other third-party tools. Although
some faculty may not be versed in the pedagogical principles, the template approaches can
guide them through a well-thought out approach. Without a design team approach, however,
this may impact accessibility requirements in the design and the ability to integrate rich media
that is original and produced for the course.
Personalization vs. One-Size-Fits-All Cohort Model: We see more examples of trying to
move to a more personalized model that is likely outside of the LMS. These include adaptive
learning models, competency-based models, and institutional models like that of Western
Governors University. However, we need to weigh the pros and cons of our personalized
models against our notions of the social construction of knowledge, autonomy, and scale of
our distance education operations.
Content-Centric vs. Learner Control and Ability to Negotiate Learning Objectives:
Over the years, content has been the main focus in distance education. From our correspondence days, to education radio and the first two decades of online learning, content was king. It
was what we focused upon to assure scalability and a standardized learning experience. Today,
with publishers moving away from traditional print-based models and with the proliferation of
content on the Internet, is this still where we should focus in terms of our designs, and should
we allow more learner control in terms of negotiating the content students select to meet the
learning outcomes (group-based or individual)? So while content may still be highly valued as
discussed in the study by Miyazoe and Anderson (2010), is it central to our designs?
Theory to Practice in Instructional Design
Breadth vs. Depth: Should our courses and designs continue to follow the traditional 10-week
quarter or 15-week semester formats, where we tend to move to a new topic each week, or
should we narrow the focus and go for depth of understanding and more engaged open and
trusted dialogue that spans two or three weeks?
We find ourselves faced with many questions and opportunities centered around how we think
about our distance education courses and our designs. While the key design factors that have been
highlighted in previous versions of this chapter remain, and the relevance of our theories and
models of distance education continue to be the underlying framework for our design discussions,
we have many concepts to consider within a systems view. Further, we must take a hard look at
whether we should continue to replicate the face-to-face experience online or reconceptualize the experience. In this chapter, we will explore these questions within the framework of the
theory of transactional distance and the Community of Inquiry model, and also challenge some
of our previous thinking around the ideas of structure, autonomy and teaching presence. We will
also continue to explore how the five key factors that have emerged in previous versions of the
chapter may change, and if other key factors have emerged. However, central to distance education
and to the design of our courses is the audience we serve. While we are seeing younger students
migrating to distance education, our primary audience continues to be the working adult who is
balancing their career, family, and other life obligations with their desire to further educate themselves. Also, in distance education there remains an underlying acknowledgment or understanding that a particular technology or group of technologies is being utilized to bridge the distance
between the student, the instructor, and learning organization. Key to any one of the technologies
chosen is how it allows or does not allow the other elements of the course to behave in a systems
environment. Further, it is important to understand that online learning is just a subset of the
distance education world and it should not be automatically assumed that the technologies used
in distance education will be Internet-based, or that any of the students will be located in the
same physical location as the instructor. We must also realize that there is no single technology
that addresses all the needs of learners or the results expected by the constituents involved in the
distance education enterprise.
Theoretical Framework
Without going into a full review of the theory of transactional distance (see Chapter 3), it is
important to review the theory in order to form a framework for the key design factors. Moore’s
(1980) theory of transactional distance remains one of the theories central to the field of distance
education (DE) and has a profound impact on instructional design for distance education courses.
However, we need to continuously examine the constructs of the theory to see if they continue
to hold true in today’s distance education learning environments. Similarly, the Community of
Inquiry model/theory by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (1999) provides an enhancement to
the theory of transactional distance framework in terms of social presence and cognitive presence within online learning environments. As we explore these theories/models it is important to
remember that the theory of transactional distance emerged during the independent study days of
DE (print, educational TV, radio, computer-aided instruction [CAI], etc.) from the early 1970s to
the early 1980s, and thus its focus was that of highly individualized or personalized learning experiences. Later, the community of inquiry was introduced during the early days of online cohort
courses, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and thus it has more of a group-based focus—although
this does not mean that both theories do not have value across the vast spectrum of distance education learning experiences.
Rick L. Shearer and Eunsung Park
Transactional Distance
Moore explored his ideas for the theory of transactional distance throughout the 1970s, as he examined numerous distance education courses. The resultant outcome was a proposed system of linkages
between three key variables: (a) dialogue; (b) structure; and (c) learner autonomy, with transactional
distance being the outcome of the interplay between the variables. The interaction of these variables
plays out differently for each individual as one finds the balance from lesson to lesson that works for
them. At one moment, they may desire more structure and less dialogue and autonomy, and at the
next stage they may want more autonomy and less structure to allow for personal exploration of a
topic. The interplay between these variables will determine the level of transactional distance that
any one student is experiencing at a particular point in time or within a lesson of a course.
As Shearer (2010) states in his work on dialogue in transactional distance, “transactional distance
in learning environments is an educational exchange that happens at a distance. The effectiveness
and efficiency of the exchange depends on dialogue, structure, and autonomy, and is affected by a
psychological dimension of connectedness” (p. 2).
Dialogue, at the time the theory was introduced, was viewed as a subset of the communications
between the student and the instructor that led to the construction of knowledge or advancement
of a student’s understanding of the material being studied. Although Moore (1993) added the idea
of learner-learner interaction/dialogue later on, the overall impact of dialogue across the spectrum
of interactions was still personal in how dialogue helped lead to knowledge construction. Structure, within the theory, was viewed as the amount of freedom a program provides the student in
determining pace, sequence, learning objectives and outcomes, and assessment strategies; learner
autonomy looked at the degree of dependence the student needed with the learning organization or
learning environment to be successful.
In general, the theory of transactional distance is the resultant of the interaction between the three
variables, dialogue, structure, and autonomy (Figure 19.1).
On one dimension, the theory looks at how structure and dialogue interact. As diagrammed by
Saba (1989), in a systems model, as dialogue increased, transactional distance—or the psychological
separation of the learner from the instructor and decreased effectiveness of the transaction—increased.
Or simply stated, the more efficient the dialogic exchange, the lower the perceived distance in the
educational transaction, and the possibility for miscommunication is reduced.
High TD
D = Dialogue
S = Structure
A = Autonomy
High TD
Low TD
Figure 19.1 The three dimensions of transactional distance
Source: Reprinted with permission from R. L. Shearer
Theory to Practice in Instructional Design
Also, as shown in Figure 19.1, it may be possible to have high learner autonomy and low dialogue, and still have low transactional distance based on the reduced need of the student for dialogue.
This ties into the concepts of self-directed learning (SDL) and independence discussed by Garrison
(2003), and Anderson (2013) in previous editions of the handbook.
Thus, the theory of transactional distance outlines three key design factors that interrelate and
impact our designs for distance education courses. However, as stated earlier, the interaction of these
variables plays out at the individual level, so when we are designing for a cohort experience, we have
to consider an ideal case that may involve a heavy dialogic exchange, but also realize that it will ultimately be different for each learner. Further, when we think of autonomy, there is a multitude of factors that come into play: motivation, prior learning knowledge, self-regulation, and metacognition.
All of these will impact the amount of learner control a student wishes to have. This particular aspect
of the theory is further highlighted in the work by Saba and Shearer (1994), where they looked at a
system dynamic model for transactional distance whereby the ideas of learner control and instructor
control emerged as key levels in the systems model.
Community of Inquiry
The Garrison et al. (1999) model of the Community of Inquiry presents a means of analyzing and
planning online learning, and presents three key factors: social presence, cognitive presence, and
teaching presence. Garrison and Anderson (2003) in their first edition of the book E-Learning in
the 21st Century depict the Community of Inquiry model as three overlapping circles of presence,
with the area that is common to all three circles representing the “educational experience.” Garrison
(2017) in the third edition of the book continues to support the original definitions of the three
presences as put forth by Garrison and Anderson (2003) in the first edition. The three variables or
presences are defined as:
Cognitive Presence: The extent to which learners can construct and confirm meaning through
sustained reflection and discourse in a critical community of inquiry (p. 28). The indicators of
cognitive presence are based on the practical inquiry phases of triggering event, exploration,
integration, and resolution.
Social Presence: The ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves
socially and emotionally as ‘real’ people (p. 28). Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) introduced
the idea of social presence in their work on the social psychology of telecommunications and
looked at the impact of different media on the construct of social presence. Further, Gunawardena (1995) indicates that in the absence of face-to-face non-verbal cues such as head
nodding, smiling, gesturing, etc., participants in an online learning environment make up for
the lack of these observable cues by increasing “overt social-emotional expressions such as
greeting, and paralinguistic cues” (Gunawardena, 1995, p. 155).
Teaching Presence: The design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes
for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning
outcomes (Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p. 29). In describing teaching presence, they state
“teaching presence brings all the elements of a community of inquiry together in a balanced
and functional relationship congruent with the intended outcomes and the needs and capabilities of the learners” (p. 29).
When comparing the key variables of the theory of transactional distance with the constructs
presented in the Community of Inquiry model, there is some apparent overlap. For example, cognitive presence is similar to the idea of dialogue and is related to the development of knowledge;
however, within the CoI model, it is focused on the group interactions within an open and trusted
Rick L. Shearer and Eunsung Park
community of inquiry. Even within this structure, however, the creation of knowledge is still a very
personal experience through reflection and dialogue with the community. The question that arises
within the model is: if it assumes that individual knowledge creation is constantly shared back with
the community, with the element of teaching presence providing the optimal condition for moving
everyone along the knowledge construction path for the topic.
Social presence, while not a part of the theory of transactional distance, has been shown to have
a major impact on dialogue as it helps create trust that is important to an open dialogic exchange.
This is highlighted in studies by Swan (2002), Picciano (2002), Tu (2002), Shearer (2010), and others. Further, it is an element of online learning in distance education that is important in terms of a
sense of psychological connection that may lead to increased motivation and increased satisfaction
with an educational experience.
Teaching presence is unique to the CoI model compared to the theory of transactional distance,
as it is about the facilitation and coordination of the other two processes that help find the balance
for the overall educational experience (the overlap of the three presences). While one could argue
that this type of facilitation and coordination is similar to helping a learner find the balance between
dialogue, autonomy, and structure that lead to the feeling of connectedness or reduced transactional
distance, this may not be accurate and requires more investigation to examine teaching presence and
the elements of the theory of transactional distance. Key, as mentioned previously, is that the theory
of transactional distance if very much focused on the individual and the Community of Inquiry
model is focused on the interaction of a group of learners within a learning community. Thus,
this makes comparison tricky. Further, it is important to remember that neither theory implies the
achievement of learning outcomes. However, the variables that are highlighted in both set the stage
for a successful learning experience.
Thus, the underlying theoretical frameworks of these models are critical to understanding how
the variables impact our designs and how they may lead to the right balance which will provide
the educational experience to allow one to reach the educational goals. However, the theory and
model do not predict the attainment of learning outcomes, and how they are related or not related
to increased learning outcomes needs to be studied.
Design Factors
The theory of transactional distance and the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model present an array
of key design factors that instructional designers need to explore as they approach the design of a
distance education course, whether online or through other delivery modalities. Primarily, they are
focused on understanding the audience and what the desired outcomes are for the learners, both
personally and institutionally. Whether the learner is a novice or expert in the particular field, and
the overall context of the course and the goals, forms the basis of whether the learner will be able
to negotiate any aspects of their learning experience. In other words: what level of autonomy does
the student want, and what level of learner control will/can be allowed? What is the level of interactions/dialogue with peers and others that is required to succeed, and are there any access issues
(technological or personal)? These factors and others come into play in our design decisions, and
the following will highlight five key factors that instructional designers should explore in the design
phase and prior to any development. These design factors will be tied back to the main variables/
constructs that make up the theory of transactional distance and the CoI model.
Learner Autonomy/Learner Control
Students involved in distance education are, in general, isolated geographically from the instructor
and institution, and must behave more autonomously in order to meet their learning goals and those
Theory to Practice in Instructional Design
of the institution. The amount of control that the design of a distance education course provides
these learners is critical to their successful completion. If one provides too much structure within
pacing, sequencing, and timing of assessments, then the learner, with competing life demands, may be
forced to drop out. If a student is provided too little structure, then the learner may feel cut off and
flounder through the course. Also, the type of control referred to here is not simply the control over
how one interacts with the course and the instructor, but as Garrison and Baynton (1989) argue, control is a dynamic balance between independence, power, and support. While power is a psychological
dimension of the learner and involves the learner’s motivation, cognitive style, emotional maturity,
and attitude, support refers to the support of family, financial support, the administrative processes of
the institution, and so forth. Further, within our institutional structures, what level of learner control
can be negotiated with highly autonomous self-directed learners? Can each learner negotiate their
learning path, outcomes, and assessment strategies, or does everyone need to follow the same path as
the course may be a prerequisite to others, and it is essential that everyone must demonstrate mastery
around a core set of content? Also, does the institutional structure allow for various time frames for a
course depending on one’s individual path (i.e., adaptive learning approaches)? In the exploration of
the course design, the examination of learner autonomy and learner control is a critical starting point
as it will dictate interaction strategies, ideas of social presence, and the need for the self-awareness of
one’s metacognitive skills.
The variables of structure and learner autonomy in the theory of transactional distance are in play
when we consider learner control. If we assume that they are negatively correlated, then as learner
autonomy increases, structure decreases, which correlates to a high level of learner control. Thus, as
one thinks about course design, the designer needs to think about the students they are trying to
serve. Are they independent adult learners who are highly autonomous, or are they more traditionalaged students? Or is the course design trying to meet multiple audiences, which is never an easy task?
In Moore’s (1983) work on the theory of transactional distance, he developed a table that examined
the types of programs in relation to the idea of learner autonomy and dependence or independence.
In the table, he looked at who determined the learning objective, who decided what material to
use, and who set the assessment strategies. He also depicted a learner as being in less control of the
learning environment if all three of these aspects of dependence or independence were set by the
teacher or learning institution.
How learner autonomy and learner control play out with the CoI model is a bit harder to discern,
as the model is heavily based on the idea of the learning community in online learning environments. Thus, if a student is highly autonomous and desires a higher level of learner control, what does
that mean to the three presences? If a student wishes to negotiate their own learning path, teaching presence still remains very important, but what about cognitive presence and social presence?
Although research has shown that reflective learners and introverts may make the best online learners
(Battalio, 2009), there is still the need to have dialogue with others to validate your mental schemas
around the new knowledge. Thus, the idea of cognitive presence remains, and to some degree the
concept of social presence remains, although possibly on a reduced level between fewer students.
So while the construct of learner control may seem subtle, it is vital to reflect on the construct
in terms of how one designs courses for distance education. When thinking about how courses are
structured today in higher education, how many leave it up to the student to determine objectives,
material, and assessment? The answer is few, which leads one to consider that even if our audience
is one of highly autonomous learners, we have traditionally taken away the ability for them to act in
an independent fashion. Even with the adoption of a variety of Web 2.0 tools in our designs, control
and autonomy remain limited. While they allow for some flexibility in tools to use for journaling,
working collaboratively on projects, or contributing content to a course, on their own they fundamentally do not provide a great deal of learner autonomy or learner control in terms of negotiating
one’s learning path.
Rick L. Shearer and Eunsung Park
Also, the question of who sets learning outcomes is a difficult one. Within coherent curricula,
the designer must assure that students meet stated objectives in courses in order to perform well at
the next level. Thus, it is unlikely to observe many courses wherein the student determines all the
learning objectives. If a course was conceived in a manner wherein structure was very low, in terms
of the setting of objectives, one would likely not even have a traditionally designed educational event,
as the instructional designers would have difficulty knowing what to include or how to assess the
material that will be included in the design at a later time. Further, the concept of social presence
needs to be examined within learner autonomy and control. While social presence is tied closely to
motivation and a sense of being there, it may be heavily related to age, gender, and cultural characteristics of the learner.
Another consideration around learner control is the selection of content. Who decides, and is
all content existing in a predetermined form, or can it be co-constructed during the course by the
students or between an individual student and the instructor? As with many of the design factors,
this depends on context, course level, and whether learners are novice or more expert in a field of
study. Technically, there now exist different paths through which content can appear and collaboration can take place. Content can be curated through open education resources, sites like Wikipedia,
or through visual forms such as videos on YouTube. Further, we have a host of avenues through
which students can collaborate to create content, although not in the traditional sense. Platforms like
Twitter, online communities of learning around specific topics, or other non-formal platforms like
xMOOCs provide access to a wealth of content. The challenge for the learner is determining the
authoritative voice in the various channels of content available. Further, some content when using
Web 2.0 tools appears in permanent form, as in blog reflections, while other content is less permanent if it appears in wikis or within synchronous tools, so the idea of permanency becomes a question for the learner and the instructor as they negotiate content. The ability provided by these tools
and platforms shifts control as sequence and pace are not as easily defined or prescribed. However,
students still need guidance and a sense of how to navigate through the course so they don’t become
lost in the vastness of content being presented and created.
Thus, there is a balance between structure, learner control, and autonomy that must be looked
at in our designs. But what is the balance, what is self-paced and what is structured, and what are
exploratory features for discovering content vs. what is necessary core content?
The constructs of learner control, autonomy, and self-directed learning highlight the personalized
nature of the theory of transactional distance and support much of the current discussion within
higher education around the concepts of adaptive, mastery-based, and competency-based learning.
These concepts all highlight the individual and personal paths through a learning experience. It is
beyond the scope of this chapter to delve into these concepts, but they highlight the desire to move
to a more individualized approach.
However, if we value the ideas of Vygotsky (1978) around the concept of socially constructed
knowledge, how do we design to combine the notion of personalization with the concept of a community of learners in order to provide both in our designs? In essence, this is bringing together the
key elements of both the theory of transactional distance and the Community of Inquiry model.
While these constructs appear to be on opposite ends of a design spectrum, it will be important to
find a way to bring them together in our designs. This will take a fundamentally different approach
than what is provided today in our learning management systems and within adaptive learning platforms. Our designs and subsequent technologies will need to marry these ideas such that students
can negotiate their own learning paths, but at the same time be connected to communities of learners (broadly speaking) that form a unique community of inquiry. Further, these communities will
Theory to Practice in Instructional Design
need to be very dynamic in membership, and in how they form and stretch across time. They will
also need the ability to split into sub-communities as the need dictates. This is very different from
our current thinking of an online distance education course that in many ways has tried to resemble
our existing classroom models. Also, as we think about personalization and the concept of adaptive,
it is important to reflect on what may appear as a subtle difference—adaptive picks the path for the
student, whereas in a more learner-controlled or autonomous setting, the learning path is selected by
the student in negotiation with the faculty.
Design Factor: Interaction
Interaction is often thought of in terms of verbal communications between two individuals or a
group; however, there are several forms of interaction—some verbal and some nonverbal. Moore
(1989) has discussed interaction within distance education in terms of learner-instructor, learnerlearner, and learner-content. Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena (1994) have discussed interaction in
terms of learner-interface, while Moore (1980) and Saba and Shearer (1994) have discussed interaction in terms of dialogue. In essence, all of these forms of interaction come into play during a distance education course, including interaction with the learning organization. How to accommodate
and provide for these different forms of interaction is a function of the technology chosen to deliver
the course to the distant student. The amount of interaction provided in a distance learning environment also contributes to the degree of isolation a student may feel, or the amount of transactional
distance that exists between the learner and the instructor. Further, as online distance education has
evolved, interaction/dialogue has emerged as a key element in helping students reach deeper levels
of learning. This is explored by Garrison (2017), Garrison and Akyol (2013), and others through the
PIM (Practical Inquiry model) framework and by Shearer, Gregg, and Joo (2015) in their designbased research study that expanded on the work of Schreck (2011). Within this body of literature,
group size within discussions and projects emerges as another key element in our distance education
course designs related to interaction. While deep learning and small groups may lead to higher levels
of dialogue, and thus reduced transactional distance and increased social presence, research needs to
be conducted in this area to determine the impact of these design strategies.
Learner-interface interaction as discussed by Hillman et al. (1994) has been explored by researchers across several modes of distance education. In the fields of computer-aided instruction (CAI) and
computer-based education (CBE), a solid body of literature exists in terms of interface design and
the need for a user-friendly and intuitive interface. This body of literature has dealt with navigational
aspects of self-contained courses, and the ease with which an end user can navigate through the program and understand what is to be accomplished to meet the learning objectives. There also exists a
newer body of literature concerning interface design for Web-based courses, and recent literature has
looked at interface design for mobile applications (Koole, 2009). While interface design is extremely
important for assisting the student in navigating through the course and the course requirements, and
may enhance or inhibit one’s feeling of control or transactional control (as discussed by Anderson
[2013]), the three levels of interaction described by Moore (1989), and the newer design approaches
around collaboration and small groups are perhaps more central to what we view as interaction and
dialogue in a distance education course.
Learner-Content Interaction
The interaction between the learner and the content goes well beyond pure navigational and directional concerns and implies what Holmberg (1983) discusses as a guided didactic conversation. This
type of conversation or interaction between the student and the content refers to the way the author
writes to the student when describing the intricacies of the subject matter, the way that examples
Rick L. Shearer and Eunsung Park
are presented and discussed, and how the author may write to the student in the first person. For
students in a traditional print-based correspondence course, this type of interaction is essential, as it is
through the printed word that they hear the author’s or instructor’s voice. Not unlike a well-written
novel where the author speaks to you through the characters and not simply at you, it is this conversational form in the distance education course where the author brings him/herself into the course
and goes beyond the simple presentation of content. As Bates (1995) states:
A text is not a neutral object; its meaning depends on the interpretation of the reader. . . . If
the reader is to obtain meaning from a text, there has to be an interaction. What differentiates distance learning texts from other kinds of printed material is a deliberate attempt to
structure explicitly a student’s response to the material.
(p. 120)
Even today for many distance education students, studying in an asynchronous mode, the learnercontent interaction is the primary voice they hear through their studies. Even when coupled with
other forms of interaction, this guided didactic conversation is the design feature that they rely on
to get them through the course. It is this type of internal dialogue that is essential to helping analyze
and reshape existing mental schema around a topic. This is likely a key element for reflective learners, who as Battalio (2009) discusses, tend to be most comfortable in online asynchronous learning
Learner-content interaction is also seen in video and audio lectures, when well-written scripts
have the presenter or instructor engaged in a conversation with the learner about the content. Here
the content is not simply presented and discussed as if giving a lecture to someone, but the program
script has the presenter pose questions and provide insights. As one can imagine, writing in this
style, whether for print, educational television/radio, or the Web, is not something that comes easily to many. It is also in the development of these guided didactic discussions that the design team’s
editorial staff and production staff contribute greatly to the effort. However, if we move to a more
personalized approach, these concepts around student-content interaction will need to be revisited.
Content may not be pre-produced as in previous eras of distance education. Content may be chosen
from open education resources (OERs) and other sources; thus, we must question what becomes of
the author’s voice in the content/narrative.
Learner-Learner and Learner-Instructor Interaction
Moore’s other categories, learner-learner interaction and learner-instructor interaction, are likely
what most of us think about when we think about today’s online distance education courses, and
over the years much has been written about the use of email, bulletin boards, listservs, and message
boards in providing the opportunity for discussion between learners and the instructor. These categories, however, existed in many forms prior to the Internet. Interaction between the learners and
the learner-instructor occurred through the postal service, by means of the telephone, by means of
learning centers, and synchronously for students enrolled in two-way interactive video courses or
audiographics courses. What has become key to the idea of interaction between learners and the
instructor is timely interaction.
This idea of timely interaction or dialogue ties into Moore’s (1980) concept of transactional
distance and the Garrison et al. (1999) idea of cognitive presence in the CoI model; however, what
designers and faculty must strive to understand is what counts as dialogue. Some, like Neff (1998),
have argued that in the asynchronous online world, dialogue only exists if a message or posting
is responded to in a timely fashion. Further, Hillman (1999) states that if a posting on a message
board does not have a logical sequence of post-respond-conclude, then it is open-ended and not
Theory to Practice in Instructional Design
dialogue. Therefore, while no one will likely argue that dialogue—whether guided didactic, synchronous, or asynchronous—is not important, one must understand what should be considered as
dialogue and when it should be used. Saba and Shearer (1994) conducted a study using a prototype
desktop computer video system to explore this idea. They proposed a typography of interaction
categories in order to examine speech acts that occurred during a 30-minute lesson. Categories
such as classroom management, passive, active, direct, and indirect emerged. Important in this study
is the attempt to separate conversation and classroom management discussions from instructional
dialogue. Shearer (2010) further explored the construct of dialogue in relation to transactional
distance and defined dialogue in an online environment to be “an educational exchange or transaction [that] is guided by a spirit of discovery and is toward improved knowledge, insight, or sensitivity of the students” (p. 93). Key in Shearer’s work, which draws heavily upon the work of Burbules
(1993), is not just what dialogue is, but what is not included as dialogue. Shearer in his classification
scheme of dialogue provided a framework whereby speech acts, as defined by Searle (1969), were
either dialogue toward understanding, or dialogue toward conversation. A key component of the
classification scheme that appears under the dialogue toward conversation category is the idea of
social presence in online forums that contributes to motivation and a sense of being there for the
Further, as discussed by Hirumi (2002), it is important to analyze how each required interaction
or dialogic sequence will lend support to the obtainment of the stated learning outcomes. To have
discussion for discussion’s sake is not good instructional design. The discussions within an online
distance education course must be well orchestrated to enable the learner to meet the learning
outcomes, and build knowledge and insights. Further, if the discussions are not well grounded in
how they contribute to the stated learning outcomes, then one runs the risk of students seeing the
required discussions as busywork and not engaging in a deep dialogic exchange. Instead, they will do
the minimum required, per a grading rubric, and just check it off as being completed.
Interaction is, however, as complex in distance education as it is in face-to-face learning environments (Shearer, 2003). Much of the original thinking about the introduction of the Internet into
learning environments was about the democratization of interaction between people, and that the
Internet was going to have a great leveling influence on all who participated. However, research
(Tu, 2001) shows that the same cultural, gender, and class issues that one witnesses in face-to-face
classes still exist online. Therefore, designers must know the course audience and help the author(s)
understand the complexities of a diverse audience participating in the course. Further, Web 2.0 tools
add complexity to the design factor of dialogue and interaction as they allow for more immediate
forms of communication and dialogue, but possibly less reflection. Also, as discussed by Carr (cited
in Anderson & Dron, 2011, p. 90) and others, some of today’s communication channels can lead to
groupthink, which can be dangerous. Not only can this lead to incorrect understanding, but it can
cut out the dissenting voices as people might choose only to follow those they agree with. To better
understand how these newer channels of communication fit into our designs and their impact on
dialogue and transactional distance, a research agenda needs to evolve to explore the impact.
Thus, learner-learner interaction and learner-instructor interaction need to be examined not
only for how it occurs, but also for the frequency of occurrence, timeliness of interactions, and in
terms of the intent and form of interaction (inquiry, debate, instruction, or conversation), within the
PIM framework. Designers and faculty also need to examine how to account for passive observation
of course dialogue and interaction, and for cultural influences. This ongoing analysis of interactions
and dialogue will assist in answering questions posed of online courses: the appropriate level of interaction to include in a course; if micro-blogs like Twitter are really dialogue, or if they are another
form of interaction; and how—and if—social media networks should be integrated into online
learning environments. These questions tie back to the idea of transactional distance and cognitive presence, and how dialogue toward understanding and dialogue toward conversation should be
Rick L. Shearer and Eunsung Park
woven into our course designs in support of social presence and how they assist students in meeting
the stated learning outcomes.
Collaboration/Group Work
Collaboration and group work in many ways have become a cornerstone of online courses. Likely,
this is for several reasons including: small groups allow students to get to deeper levels of learning
in the course through open and trusted dialogic approaches, the ability of faculty to manage workloads in courses, or in terms of group work to simulate real-world scenarios in how projects will
be approached. Whatever the design reason, group work adds a different element to our interaction design factor than just thinking about learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner
interactions. Further, some group work will be truly collaborative, while other groups will move in a
more cooperative fashion. These elements in our designs will have all of the above interaction types
but on a smaller scale per group and will require a higher level of engagement by the instructor. Also,
if we think about the ideas of learner control, how do these projects play out if one can negotiate
their own learning path? How can we provide greater learner control while also providing a rich
environment for socially constructed knowledge at the individual and group level? This may require
a variety of group activities that students can choose from, and that are aligned to certain learning
paths. For example, a finance course may have projects around personal financial planning, international finance, non-profit finances, and others. These would align with a set number of paths students
could choose from and students would be grouped depending on the path they choose. It is assumed
that students with similar interests would be more engaged and a richer dialogue would develop in
discussions around the projects. There is no doubt that in today’s current LMSs, this would greatly
increase the level of faculty engagement required and it would be complex to design effectively.
However, would this also address some of the group dynamics experienced around group work and
projects in online courses? An approach of this type calls for good design-based research studies to
explore whether this leads to deeper learning and a reduction in the organizational dynamics often
seen in group work (partial group involvement, some working collaboratively while others work
cooperatively, etc.). Studies such as those conducted by Lee, Huh, Rice, and LaPrairie (2017) start to
explore how changing the expectations in groups may provide some answers.
Design Factor: Social Presence
The concept of social presence, especially within online distance education courses, is an important
factor in the design of distance education, and it is essential that it stand as its own design factor, as
represented in the Community of Inquiry model. Although it can be seen as a subset of dialogue
toward conversation as described by Shearer (2010), it is the sense of connectedness that social presence speech acts, written or spoken, bring to the environment that may be responsible for the reduction in transactional distance as it relates to psychological presence.
The perception of presence in a computer-mediated experience is core to a student feeling
psychologically or emotionally connected with the educational event. In a broad sense, presence
in a computer environment as defined by Lombard and Ditton (1997, cited in IJsselsteijn, Ridder,
Freeman, & Avons, 2007, p. 2) is the feeling of “perceptual illusion of non-mediation.” This idea
of presence for an individual in an online environment can be achieved through visual illusion
or through a social aspect where one is drawn into the environment through conversation and
engagement. As referenced earlier, Short et al. (1976) introduced the idea of social presence, and
they indicated that it is “the capacity to transmit information about facial expression, direction of
looking, posture, dress and non-verbal cues [that] contribute to Social Presence of a communications
medium” (p. 65). While their work examined which media enhanced or inhibited social presence,
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as they defined it, they did recognize that social presence is as much a factor of the individual as the
media, as it is “a perceptual or attitudinal dimension of the user, a ‘mental set’ toward the medium”
(p. 65). Gunawardena’s (1995) later work advanced this line of reasoning around the individual and
indicates that one’s perception of social presence is related more to what participants do to promote
interactions and a sense of community than to the characteristics of the medium. She concludes that
“even though CMC is considered to be a medium that is low in social context cues (as defined by
Short et al., 1976), it can be perceived as interactive, active, interesting, and stimulating by conference participants” (p. 147). Thus, in asynchronous models of online distance education whereby we
often have an absence of face-to-face non-verbal cues such as head nodding, smiling, gesturing, etc.,
participants in these online learning environments make up for the lack of these observable cues
by increasing “overt social-emotional expressions such as greeting, and paralinguistic cues” (Gunawardena, 1995, p. 155). The work of Gunawardena (1995), Gunawardena and Zittle (1997), and
Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer (1999) helped focus the construct of social presence on
the relational aspect of what can occur in online learning environments and away from the media
characteristics argument presented by Short et. al. (1976) in early studies on social presence.
Two key dimensions of social presence discussed in articles by Gunawardena (1995) and Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) are the constructs of intimacy and immediacy, and their relationship to
social presence. As defined by Gunawardena and Zittle, intimacy “depends on factors such as physical
distance, eye contact, and smiling” (p. 9), and are related to characteristics of the media and what is
communicated physically; and immediacy “is a measure of the psychological distance that a communicator puts between himself or herself and the object of his/her communication” (p. 9). Immediacy
in this sense is not a measure of time to respond, but the idea of comradeship or aloofness that an
instructor may bring to the learning exchange (Gunawardena, 1995). Short et al. (1976), drawing
upon the work of Wiener and Mehrabian in 1968, discussed that immediacy manifest itself in ways
like “Let us . . . or We. . . . As opposed to I . . . or You” (p. 73). Where the first two types of utterances
represent a form of closeness and the latter two represent a sense of separation.
In today’s courses, the addition of video for faculty introductions, student presentations, synchronous collaboration through Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, or other Web 2.0 tools
provide for an enhanced sense of presence not previously available to students in many distance education courses. This enhanced ability to be “real” in a virtual environment may provide for increased
satisfaction and a perception of reduced transactional distance as it is related to psychological separation in our asynchronous courses. Whether it reduces the possibility of miscommunication, which is
the other key factor in decreasing transactional distance, still needs to be explored.
Further, the idea of immediacy in social presence is closely related to the idea of psychological
distance/connectedness presented in the theory of transactional distance. This construct leads credence to the postulate that it may be social presence speech acts that reduce individual psychological
separation or transactional distance instead of the construct of dialogue as discussed in the previous
design factor section. However, more research needs to be conducted to examine these relationships.
Social presence, however, plays out differently for each learner depending on if they are highly
autonomous and reflective learners, or if they prefer more structure and are global learners as discussed by Battalio (2009). Also, Garrison and Akyol (2013) expand upon the idea of social presence
by incorporating the idea of group social presence where they discuss that “social presence has been
revised as the ability of participants to identify with the group or course of study, communicate
purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively
by way of projecting their individual personalities” (p. 107). This expanded definition of social presence ties back to the earlier discussion of group work and collaboration, and further highlights the
importance of social presence at the group level for successful group work. Further, as discussed by
some students over the past three years in an “Instructional Design for Distance Education” course at
the Pennsylvania State University, social presence also has cultural aspects and is not something that
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can be forced by the instructor; it must occur naturally. Each student must decide to engage or not
to engage in an overt manner. Thus, what we observe is the manifestation of social presence from an
observer’s perspective which may not actually indicate that a student feels connected or distant from
others. Also, as referenced earlier where Tu (2001) discussed that we see the same cultural, gender,
and class issues online as we do when face to face, these behaviors can also impact the sense of social
presence. If a student feels bullied or disadvantaged in some way, it can impact their feeling of connectedness, and thus their overall feeling of transactional distance. Therefore, instructional designers
must assure that there are multiple avenues for establishing social presence and that an instructor,
as a facilitator, is engaged and helps assure students feel connected at least to them and the content.
Design Factor: Access
Making learning opportunities available to the disenfranchised has been a primary goal of distance
educators and adult educators for over a century; however, access has many attributes. For example,
throughout the first decade of this century, there was no shortage of articles and news stories on the
technology aspect of the digital divide, but this is just one way of looking at the concept of access.
Access issues in education can be viewed in terms of gender, culture, finances, geography, supply
and demand, disabilities, preparedness (entrance exam qualifications), motivational (self-esteem), language, and a number of other ways. To view access strictly as a concern of geographic separation,
or simply as a concern of technology access, is too limiting a view. To design distance education
courses and curricula of study without acknowledging the variety of access issues that the intended
audience may face can lead to the exclusion of many who may otherwise be interested in or need
the course of study. Further, when we think of access and distance education today, we should not
automatically assume online or digital. There are populations where Internet access via traditional
landlines, satellite, or through cellular service is still limited, so we need to think more broadly about
our distance education approaches.
Traditionally in distance education, we have thought of access primarily as an issue of geographic
separation of the learner and the instructor. In many ways, the technologies we have employed in
the delivery of courses have been used to address this concern; however, technologies such as print,
radio, and TV (with closed captioning) have also addressed a range of disabilities, as well as cultural
and financial issues of access. These are technologies that can reach broad audiences, are relatively
inexpensive to receive, are often readily available in most countries, and can address the needs of
those who have special visual or auditory needs. Today in countries across Asia and Africa, where
traditional access to the Internet is limited, studies are highlighting the broad adoption of cell phones
(Motlik, 2008) as a necessary means of providing access to information and education. In the Philippines and Mongolia, there has been considerable work done with the use of SMS (short message
service)/ text messaging to expand access to education and informal learning (Libero, Ranga, &
Lambert, 2007). The adoption of cell phones, which have a huge market presence in these countries at a low cost of entry, is expanding the reach of education in the same way as radio did in the
past. However, it brings up questions of access for those with disabilities or language barriers. While
some smartphones like Apple’s iPhone have proven to provide access to those with visual disabilities
(American Foundation for the Blind, 2017), it cannot be assumed that everyone has access to these
high-end phones.
Internet and Technology Access: The United States
According to the Pew Research Center’s “Pew Internet & American Life Project” report “Digital Division” (Fox, 2005) and the recent “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet” (Pew Research Center,
2017a), American adult Internet use increased from 68% to 88% since 2005. A similar study by the
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Pew Internet and American Life Project (Smith, 2010), indicated that the growth in the number of
American adults with high-speed Internet access had slowed down, and the “Internet/Broadband
Fact Sheet” (Pew Research Center, 2017a) report from January 2017 shows that 73% of American
adults are now identified as home broadband users. Overall, the reports indicate a leveling off of
high-speed Internet adoption within the United States. Further, in the 2010 report, 31% of respondents believe that the lack of broadband access is a disadvantage to learning new things, while 63%
do not. Also, a report by Anderson and Perrin (2016) indicates that 13% of adults still do not use
the Internet. While this is down from the 21% reported in 2010 (Smith, 2010), the percentage is still
highly correlated to demographic factors including age, education level, and household income. In
other “Pew Internet & American Life” reports (August 9, 2011; August 26, 2011), the data showed
that 92% of American adults use the Internet primarily for email and searching, with 6 in 10 doing
so daily. From 2005 to 2016, usage of social network sites has grown from 5% for adults to 69%,
although this is an increase of only four percentage points since 2010 when the usage was reported
at 65%. Also, usage of social media continues to be heaviest among women, young adults younger
than 30, and parents. Women and young adults between 18 and 29 remain the power users with
72% and 86% of these demographic audiences using social networks, respectively. Among the social
media users, 76% use Facebook and 51% use Instagram daily, according to “Social Media Fact Sheet”
(Pew Research Center, 2017b). However, the data does not reflect how the uses of social networks
are related to any educational purpose. Further, the “Pew Internet & American Life” report (Smith,
2017) indicates that 77% of adults now use smartphones within the United States, which has doubled
between 2011 and 2016, when compared to the Pew Research Center (July 11, 2011) report, and
the United States is now seeing a 95% adoption of cell phones.
Thus, over the past decade (2005–2016), there has been a narrowing of the gap between the
haves and have-nots in relation to Internet access, although a significant percentage of the growth is
through cellular networks, as the growth in smartphone ownership and usage has grown from 35%
in 2010 to 77% in 2016/2017. However, we must be mindful that access to broadband Internet is
not universal, with only 73% reporting home broadband access and 77% reporting access via cellular networks. Thus, we still have approximately 25% of our population that may need to depend
on local resources like the library, high schools, or community colleges to access online courses that
contain material that requires a high-speed connection to view. However, this will depend on their
cell phone network and whether they have access to the newer 4G and 5G service. Also, wireless
access is more prevalent than in the past, so access to traditional broadband may not be as important
as it was in previous years.
Internet and Technology Access: The World View
Internationally, a report by WRI Research (Wired Digital Inc., 2000) indicated that 80% of the
world population was being left out of the global communications system, and a report by the Commonwealth of Learning (2005) stated; “millions of children in commonwealth countries lack access
to basic education.” Recent reports from Miniwatts Marketing Group (2017) indicate that Internet
penetration in Africa is still low at 31.2%, in Latin America/Caribbean it is 62.4%, and in Asia it is
46.7% (with Asia representing 55.2% of all Internet users worldwide). Compared to six years ago,
when the data was pulled, Internet penetration has grown to almost double among these regions. In
contrast to 2011, when many countries in Asia fell below 10% of penetration in their populations,
only two countries now fall below 10%.
In regard to overall access to educational opportunities, Africa still accounts for more than 43%
of the world’s out-of-school children (grades 1–12), and 22% of the adults aged 65 years and older
still lack basic literacy, which is one of the highest gaps between young and elders (UNESCO, 2017).
In the 2015 “Education for All Global Monitoring Report” (UNESCO, 2015a), it estimated that
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774 million adults worldwide still lack basic literacy. Further, there have been consistent gender differences. Since the UNESCO 2007 report, data still shows that 64% of adults lacking basic literacy
are women, and gender equity issues remain high for women’s access to education (UNESCO, 2017).
For designers and faculty, national and international statistics on Internet access continue to be
critical to consider when undertaking the design and development of courses offered at a distance.
If the institutional mission is to extend access to an international audience, then it is important to
understand the technology restrictions that these audiences may face and what traditional technologies may be more appropriate to integrate into our designs. It is also important to consider the
impact of a new technology. It is possible that when some technologies are integrated into distance
education courses, they may actually disenfranchise a large portion of the population and/or increase
the cost of education to the students. This increase in cost is not only through the need for information technology access, but is associated with the cost of developing technology-rich courses, which
may drive up the fee or tuition structure for these courses.
As designers look at incorporating new and innovative technologies into their course designs,
they need to examine how or if the technologies provide greater overall access to education, or if
they limit it due to cost structures and technology access challenges. Further, if we add a technology,
what is the pedagogical purpose? For example, is dialogue enhanced through SMS or other social
networks, and what is the impact on social presence? As learning management systems add social
media capacities within courses and across curricula, researchers will need to explore the impact
on dialogue/cognitive presence, and on social presence and locus of control, as new tools become
Beyond technology access, it is also important to consider issues of access related to disabilities.
The idea of universal design, or Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, is extremely
critical, especially as distance education has become more mainstream. With more nontraditional
students turning to distance education to meet their educational goals, institutions continue to see
an increased awareness and scrutiny by entities like the American National Federation of the Blind,
which are actively exposing institutions that do not approach their course designs with an eye to
disability compliance.
Design Factor: Costs
For many years, costs of designing and developing courses for distance education have been associated with high fixed costs of development and low delivery (variable) costs in order to fulfill the mission of making education opportunities broadly available to the general public. This has essentially
been the rationale behind the high expenditures that distance education providers have put into the
production of education television and radio broadcasts, as well as traditional print correspondence
courses; however, each technology used in delivering a distance education course has its own unique
cost structure.
For designers, it is important to understand the unique cost implications for each technology for
both the student and the institution. As technology is added to a course, it not only drives up the
costs of development, but potentially drives up the costs to the students for delivery. If one reviews
the cost analysis that has been conducted at the Open University of the United Kingdom and other
distance education institutions (Hülsmann, 1999), it highlights that print is the benchmark media
other distance education courses were measured against. This is not surprising, as print has a relatively
low cost for production per hour of study usage, and distribution of print-based courses tends to be
low. Also, courses developed in this medium have a long shelf life before they are in need of revision.
Once one moves up the technology continuum, development costs are added. Changing the
printed narrative of the course author(s) into audio, video, or a host of other interactive technologies increases production costs. The studies presented by Hülsmann (1999) which used a measure of
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“development cost per student learning hour by medium,” indicate that other technology costs are
measured in terms of a ratio to print. Development for educational television is roughly 180 times
that of print, CD-ROM 40 times that of print, and audio (cassette tapes) is 34 times that of print.
What is important to note is that all these technology forms are canned productions meant to have
long shelf lives and to be accessible by a large student population.
Class size and revisions also have a major impact on costs, and Shearer’s (2004) report “The Distance Education Balance Sheet” presents a series of tables that illustrate the impact on a course’s bottom line when class size is altered, or yearly revisions are required, when compared to a traditional
rolling enrollment course. This analysis highlights how the mission of the institution and how an institution implements distance education can impact a unit or organization’s return on investment (ROI).
The concept of long shelf life and delivery to a large student audience is what allows for economies of scale. What is unclear since the adoption of Internet technologies and the World Wide
Web is whether one can design a course that will have a long shelf life and be available to a large
number of students. Most distance education institutions now incorporate Internet communication
technologies into their courses in order to provide a greater sense of connectedness between the
learners and the instructor and institution. With the addition of these tools, it is hoped that a greater
sense of community, timeliness of feedback, and a sense of social presence is provided; however, what
is not clear is to what extent this limits the number of students who can enroll in a single section of
a course. As designers add greater interactivity between the student and the instructor, this limits the
number of students a faculty member can effectively interact with. For institutions that have moved
to semester-based online distance education courses, or what Inglis (2013) has defined as the classroom model, this aspect of connectedness can be quite limiting in terms of the number of students
who can take an individual section of a course; and obviously, the more individual course sections
an institution needs, the greater the variable costs in terms of instructor salaries and course section
setup costs. Thus, while increased interactivity is positive in terms of transactional distance, it may
have negative consequences in regard to costs and scale.
Flexibility of design must also be examined in terms of impact on course shelf life and ROI.
Learning management tools like Canvas, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and others, along with open
education resources (OERs), allow faculty and authors a great degree of flexibility in terms of
updating and revising courses. With this flexibility and ability to make minor revisions each time the
course runs, we lose a degree of shelf life that will dramatically impact the economies of scale. If an
institution is constantly revising courses, then additional development costs are incurred that reduce
even the positive monetary impact of a large student audience. This logic, however, assumes that a
traditional relationship between the design team and the faculty author continues to exist after the
initial development of the course. If, after the initial development, the task of maintaining the course
and integrating changes falls to the individual faculty members, then the ROI equation changes
depending on faculty pay model. In a scenario like this, the added faculty time might not be captured
as an ongoing cost, and the impact of the constant tweaks and revisions will be viewed as minimal to
the unit’s or organization’s bottom line.
With the vast array of technology tools available to instructional designers in today’s highly digital
and connected world, it is more difficult to achieve a long shelf life for distance education courses.
The constant need to remain current with technologies makes it hard to maintain a standard course
over more than a year. Further, the integration of rich media is increasing the cost of production and
truly requires a design team with specialists in media production. Thus, as production costs rise for
online distance education courses, scale may actually be decreasing. Also, if we move away from what
many have viewed as a replication of the face-to-face learning environment, or classroom model, and
to more personalized learning paths and adaptive learning, then what does the cost equation look
like for our courses in terms of development and delivery? Do we further lose scale and economies?
Do our fixed costs drop further, while our variable costs increase? Or do we adapt new design
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strategies that move us away from our historical view of costs around distance education? We likely
do not have enough data around these new approaches to our distance education courses, and it will
be a while before we truly understand the costs.
Billable Hours and ROI
Understanding your costs associated with design and development is difficult and time-consuming.
Only when an organization makes a concerted effort to track all the costs, and approaches each
course from a cost accounting view, can one develop a picture of the overall costs associated with the
design and development of a distance education course. This is also something that needs to happen across time as each course is different depending on course level, content, and objectives. So it
can take the review of time tracked to courses across 2–3 years to develop a solid estimate of what
is required to develop a course. Knowing hours of effort is the first step. An institution then needs
to determine what its billable rates will be for each staff in each functional area, and how they will
account for multimedia or other costs that may need to be outsourced for development.
An institution can approach billable hours in one of two ways. They can use a direct cost approach
whereby billable rates are strictly based on salaries and fringe (benefits) associated with the staff
working on the project/course, or they can use a full cost recovery approach whereby not only salaries, but all the costs associated with the design unit, are incorporated into the total annual cost of
the unit. This would include their share of overhead (costs associated with administration, marketing,
IT support, etc.). The billable rate is then the total annual costs (excluding direct costs to outside
consultants and companies) divided by available billable hours. Available billable hours is normally
a percentage of all design staff hours that accounts for a reduction in hours associated with general
administration time (meetings, email, professional development) and allowable vacation and sick
time. For example, if an average year provides 2,000 individual staff hours, then possibly only 65% of
those hours are actually available for direct effort on the design and development of courses.
Knowing a design unit’s billable hours and rates can assist designers in understanding what design
features and technologies can be incorporated into a course. If an institution’s billable hourly rate is
low, this may provide for more latitude in our media chooses and still allow us to stay within budget.
However, if one has a high billable rate, there could be limits based on the individual course budgets
that are set. Further, a designer may have more latitude if the course will have a long shelf life and
the costs are spread over 3–5 years.
Instructional designers also need to take into consideration the ROI goals of the institution or the
distance education unit. If the model is one whereby the design team handles all initial development
and revisions, and the institution is looking for a strong ROI, then they want to strive for content
presentation that can be stable for 3–5 years to ensure a certain degree of shelf life. The degree
of shelf life one achieves will depend on establishing a balance between the desire for continuous improvement of academic quality, the integration of new technologies, and the need for ROI.
Therefore, a decision needs to be made between what content can exist in a fixed form for 3–5 years
and what aspects of the course can be updated each semester or each year through other technology means such as electronic postings to the LMS discussion boards, the use of asynchronous tools
like Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate, or newer tools like Zoom, or integrated social media
tools. The instructional designers must also weigh the impact of high levels of interaction between
the students and the teacher on the ROI. The more interactive the course, the lower the number of
students a faculty member can effectively communicate with. Other factors that may impact costs are
associated with new government regulations for tracking and monitoring progress, and for adherence
to accessibility requirements for students with visual or other disabilities.
The analysis of costs associated with delivering courses at a distance is complex, as demonstrated
by Keegan (1996), who examined several formula-based approaches to the topic. There are several
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factors in the cost equation, and each must be viewed systemically, as there is no simple cause-andeffect relationship. For designers, it is important to be cognizant of how decisions about distance
education course design impact both development and delivery costs—which affects the bottom
lines of both the students and the unit or organization.
It is important to note that the focus here has been at the course level, but there is a host of
other costs associated with distance education. These include marketing, advising, counseling, help
desk/student support, registration, finances, and administrative overhead. An analysis of these costs is
beyond the scope of this chapter; however, designers need to be aware of these costs as decisions they
make at the course level can impact costs across the spectrum of the distance education organization’s budget.
Since the third edition of this Handbook, the pace of technology advancement has continued and
possibly increased. As many of the new tools are versions of existing technologies, there has been a
renewed focus on pedagogical approaches that have been used in previous generations of distance
education. These include adaptive learning, competency-based education, and use of existing content or OERs (open education resources). What is different this time is the sophistication of the tools
and underlying algorithms. There has also been an enhanced focus on artificial intelligence or what
was once viewed as expert systems. Further, the field has seen a renewed interest in immersive learning with the introduction of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. All of these present
new options for how we look at the design of distance education learning environments, but the
key factors that are highlighted in this chapter remain salient, especially our underlying theoretical
frameworks. This is not to say that we should not continue to examine the theories and consider if
they continue to stand up under possible new design approaches, and examine possible modifications
of the theories, but as designers, we should not ignore the theoretical frameworks. Also, while these
new technologies may alter how we think of learner control, interactions, and social presence, these
key design factors remain primary to our thinking around the design and development of distance
education courses.
Instructional designers of distance education courses and programs must make a series of conscious choices each time they design and develop a course to be delivered to distant students. In
some cases, the decisions are made for pedagogical reasons; at other times, the decisions are made for
access reasons; and yet at other times, the design decisions are based on costs. Each time a designer
decides to use a particular technology or combination of technologies, they need to be very clear on
why the chosen technology is being used, and for what purpose. Knowing and understanding the
strengths of each technology, whether the latest virtual reality tool or an old faithful such as print,
is critical to defending and implementing our design decisions. It is critical that designers, faculty,
and institutions take a systems view of how the technologies chosen impact all the components of a
distance education delivery system.
In the development of distance education courses, it is important to remember that there is no
one best technology, and it is usually a combination of technologies that produces the best course to
assist the student in meeting the educational objectives. Also, delivery and production costs must be
in the forefront of instructional design decisions, for if as designers, the design decisions are driven by
the goal of reduced delivery costs to an international audience, then one may decide to provide the
content so it can be viewed on mobile devices by means of a downloadable PDF (portable document
format) file, or a short video podcast. It is also important to understand when technology adoption
adds value or simply passes a cost onto the students.
It is essential, therefore, that designers of instructional material for distance education courses
understand the strengths and weaknesses of a vast array of technologies and how the older technologies
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have been deployed in the past to address the multitude of design factors, and how their decisions
are supported by the literature and underlying theories and distance education models. How and
why we integrate certain technologies and pedagogical approaches into our designs is the key to the
success of our distance education students, courses, and institutions.
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