Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Different Definitions of Distance Learning

Last week I attended meetings with the Southern Regional Education Board. I spoke about Web 2.0 usage in higher education and there were several other presentations related to teaching with technology and online learning.

One interesting session was led by John Opper of the Florida Distance Learning Consortium. I'm working on another post about some of the things that are happening in Florida, but this post will focus on some of the info that is available at the website related to a legislature-mandated task force regarding distance learning in the Sunshine State.

They are looking at special fees for distance courses, which begs the question about how to determine whether a course is a distance course that should have the fees applied. We deal with very similar issues here in Minnesota where a per credit fee is charged for distance courses (but not hybrid or web-enhanced courses) and also where most schools charge a higher tuition rate for online/distance courses.

What they found in Florida was that different schools were defining distance ed differently. For example, one school might charge the extra fees for any course where 50% of the work was done online, but the next school would only charge extra if 75% of the work was done online, and so on and so forth. Before the task force could make recommendations about the fees to be charged, they needed to decide which courses would have any extra fees attached.

As part of their research, they looked at what some other states have decided with regard to a definition of distance learning. As you might suspect, the answers are all over the board. I find it somewhat surprising that most of these definitions allow for a fair amount of required campus seat-time and they still can be called distance courses. My experience in this matter tells me that students signing up for online (distance) courses expect there to be NO seat time whatsoever. Here's what the Florida group found from eight different groups, and I've added the MnSCU definition at the bottom. Please share if you know how this is being defined in other states. (My comments are in italics)

State: Georgia
Definition of distance learning: More than 50% of instruction is delivered through one or more forms of technology in which the instructor of record and student are separated by time and geographical location.
(But up to 49% campus seat-time would apparently still count as a distance class. I like the description "separated by time and geographical location," but not the time percentage.)

State: Illinois
Definition of distance learning: Instruction is offered mostly online. (Super vague.)

State: Kentucky
Definition of distance learning: A course when technology is the primary mode of instruction and more than 50 percent of the course content is delivered electronically.
(50% is a very low threshold.)

State: Maryland
Definition of distance learning: Education or training delivered off campus via educational technologies, including video, audio, and computer-based instruction, where the students and the instructor are separated by physical distance and/or time. At least 50 percent of the instruction/interaction had to occur utilizing a distance education technology in order to be included in this collection.
(Not a totally thorough laundry list of delivery technologies, and 50% required seat time is not distance ed.)

State: Ohio
Definition of distance learning: Course where 70 percent or more of instruction is offered away from the institution. Can be offered through the Internet, by satellite, or via correspondence.
(30% seat time could still mean that a student could be required to come to campus once a week - definitely not a distance course.)

State: Texas
Definition of distance learning: A course where technology is the primary mode of instruction and more than 50 percent of the course content is delivered electronically.
(Low threshold, again.)

State: Washington University System
Definition of distance learning: An academic degree credit course that is delivered predominantly through prerecorded media, surface-mailed correspondence, the Internet, interactive television technologies, and/or broadcasting.
(Does predominantly mean what I think it means? Anything over 50 per cent?)

State: Washington Community & Technical Colleges
Definition of distance learning: Courses are categorized as completely online, i.e., there is no mandated class time and they have a technological component.
(This sounds more like what students are expecting. However, Even in the same state they can't agree on what distance ed is and what it isn't.)

State: Minnesota (State Colleges and Universities)
Definition of distance learning: No more than two time and place requirements for the semester, such as campus visits, labs, proctored exams, etc.
(This has worked fairly well at least at my school where there are very few required proctoring situations, and almost no required campus visits at all. Not all schools in the system have almost no time and space requirements as we do at LSC.)

This pretty much confirms that e-Learning in higher ed is an ill-defined product. No wonder so many people don't understand what we're talking about. We're all talking about different things.


Mike Condon said...

hmmm ... a related topic that begs ooohhh so many questions:

How does one (an institution, a system, an instructor) define "attendance" in (the ill-defined) online education sphere?

Particularly, in the context of auditing for financial aid purposes?

Yah, there's a can o' worms, eh?


Britt Watwood said...

I like how the SLOAN-C annual report breaks it down, even though they are defining online learning and not "distance ed" per se. In their breakdown, an online class has between 80-100% online (either synchronous or asynchronous), a face-to-face class can be web enhanced with up to 20% online instruction, and hybrids/blended courses are the middle 21-79% online.

Travis Johnson said...


Thanks for the comparisons. It's very useful to see how other states are perceiving what distance learning is contrasted to what students are expecting. From my own perspective, any course that has a definition indicating an on-line component should be strictly on-line, as it can be very confusing for students expecting, for example, an on-ground course, but come to realize it is a hybrid course. I'm very comfortable with on-ground instructors using an on-line shell to post grades, but I believe that should be the furthest extent to which such a course should be taken to the on-line level. However, the steps to making the definition of distance learning can only be improved upon, so this is definitely a great work in progress. Thanks, again, for the information.

Julian said...

Thanks for the comparisons. It's very useful to see how other states are perceiving what distance learning and also it is useful for us to have this knowledge when going to take an admission there.