K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 25/How can a K-12 educator create an effective distance learning environment?

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How can a K-12 educator create an effective distance learning program ?


Over the past decade there has been a sudden increase in delivering distance learning programs in K-12 education, defined as “learning experiences in which students and instructors are separated by space and/ or time” (Cavanaugh, Gillian, Kromrey, Hess, & Blomeyer, 2004, 5). In preparation for 21st century learning, traditional classrooms have been transformed by technology to allow students access to learning that is “anytime and anyplace” (SREB, 2003, p. 2). Distance learning programs provide a “significant and influential medium through which standards-based teaching and learning, online collaboration and acculturation to evolving norms for participation in virtual communities are quickly becoming realities” (NCREL, 2002, p. 1-2). Since this form of instruction is relatively new and rapidly changing, this article provides particular insight into those aspects of distance learning that currently lend themselves within the context of a K-12 distance learning program and offers a brief overview of supporting research.

Distance Learning Educators[edit]

An instructor is a key component in a successful K-12 distance learning program. Just as teachers engage students in discussion and learning in traditional classrooms, the same must be achieved online. However, distance learning presents certain new challenges as students often never actually meet one another or their teacher, and the nature of communication is often limiting and void of visual cues. As well, there are challenges in keeping tabs on individual students' learning when they are studying remotely. As a result, the role of the online teacher is pivotal for effective learning outcomes and experiences.

Increasingly, there has been an emphasis on creating distance learning environments where the teacher focuses less on on web content and more on interactive and collaborative structures that recognize the social and interactive elements of knowledge construction, and towards pedagogical approaches that enable student-centered (e.g. problem-based, inquiry-based, discovery, and authentic learning) which are found to be extremely effective for online learning (AFLN, 2003). .As well, teachers need to have much more than just technical competence if they are to be successful online. They need an understanding of the dynamics of online communication and interactions and need to learn effective ways of facilitating and teaching online.

One of the most significant aspects of distance learning is that teachers and students rarely, if ever, see one another. Distance learning teachers need to be able to use various technologies and approaches to get to know their students, lead and direct student discussions, evaluate students’ academic progress, and respond effectively to students’ needs. With the majority of communication between teachers and students being email and online discussions, online teachers must be able to write and communicate well (SREB, 2003). Instructors should spend some time getting to know their students and should have a repertoire of effective strategies to ensure that students are actively participating in their learning. In addition instructors should be able to manage both their own time schedule and offer scheduled assistance to students in need. Students should be given the opportunity to become familiar with their instructor. A personal background that serves as an introduction by both instructor and student is helpful in establishing a connection between teacher and student. Despite having never met their teacher, students in successful online learning programs report a familiarity and comfort level with their instructor, which they believe has assisted them in their learning process (Yang & Cornelius, 2004). Instructors should provide a means for students to contact them with questions, concerns or comments. This should include a scheduled “office hours” when students can contact their instructor directly, either by phone or an online chat session.

The ultimate goals of effective design of online teaching programs from a teaching perspective should be to facilitate learning, and "meaning making" (AFLN, 2003), and to meet the academic, social and pragmatic needs of learners (AFLN, 2003). Effective online facilitation should engage, guide and motivate learners, and provide a safe and conducive environment for learning and communication exchange for all learners regardless of their prior experience and predisposition or otherwise towards online learning technologies. It should not be assumed that teachers (or students for that matter) automatically know how to communicate or behave online (AFLN, 2003). Many do not and require professional development or mentoring in the skills and techniques of facilitating. Student Learners:

Another important characteristic of successful distance learning programs are the learners themselves. Their ability to have well developed autonomy and greater student responsibility (Cavanaugh et al., 2004) are important in achieving success with distance learning. Students should be motivated to want to learn, with the ability to take full responsibility for their own progress. This may be challenging for younger students and thus they need to be scaffolded as part of the distance education learning experience (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004). Virtual school teachers must be adept at helping young students acquire the skills autonomous learning and self- regulation (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004).

In addition, another characteristic of a successful distance learner is their “internal locus of control” (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004). Older students have a more developed internal locus of control than younger students which reinforces the need for careful design and teaching of distance education at different K-12 levels. Younger students need more supervision, fewer and simpler instructions and need more extensive reinforcement systems than older students (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004). It has been noted in the research that in the design of effective distance learning programs for younger students, there should be frequent teacher contact with students and parents, lessons need to be divided into shorter segments, coming about in mastery sequences so student progress comes about in stages, and rewards for learning such as multimedia praise and printable stickers or certificates. (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004).

Realizing that much consideration should be paid to the design of an effective distance learning program has in part to do with the age appropriateness of its design. Research suggests that this design in a K-12 context should reflect Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, in particular preoperational (2 to 7 years), concrete operational (7 to 11 years) and formal operational (11 years to adulthood). As these stages offer pedagogical guidance for delivering effective distance learning programs, which should focus on the major accomplishments of learners in these stages. Each stage is characterized by the emergence of new abilities and ways of processing information which should dictate specialized instructional approaches and attention to a child’s development. As a result, research indicates that web-based instruction for students in their formative years must include age appropriate developmental activities that build on the students’ accomplishments in and through the cognitive stages. An example from research suggests that “an online mathematics or science lesson designed for students at the preoperational stage needs to use very concrete methods, such as instructing the student to develop concepts by manipulating and practicing with real-world objects. This same concept can be built upon for students in the concrete operational stage using multimedia drag-and-drop manipulations and representations, or realistic simulations. Then at the formal operational stage, students are capable of using symbols, language and graphic organizers to continue to learn the concepts in more abstract ways” (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004).

Curriculum Delivery[edit]

Another critical component of distance learning is the curriculum, based on K-12 content standards, which should be designed under the philosophy that knowledge is constructed, rather than transmitted (Yang, 2005). Developmental theorist, Jean Piaget, makes it clear that student learning should be “holistic, authentic and realistic” (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 7) and that less emphasis should be placed on learning isolated skills aimed at teaching individual concepts that have little connection to the lives of students. But rather, students are more likely to learn skills when engaged in authentic, meaningful learning activities that are inherently interesting to the student. Thus, web-based technology offers a vast array of opportunities to expand the conceptual and experiential background of the student (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004).

In addition another developmental theorist, Vygotsky, implied through his theory that “cognitive development and the ability to use thought to control our own actions requires first mastering cultural communication systems and then learning to use these systems to regulate our own thought process” (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 7 - 8). He believed that for children, learning takes place when they are working within their zone of proximal development, where tasks within the zone of proximal development are ones that children cannot do alone and thus need or seek the guidance or assistance of their peers or adults. Therefore, when young students are using web-based technology, teachers must offer students activities that make use of the web’s powerful tools for collaborative learning, and are within the students’ zone of proximal development. An example of this being online communities that are used in distance learning programs where they provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences for students possible.

Additionally, constructivism, a learning theory that is widely used in distance learning, is founded on the premise that “by reflecting on our experiences and participating in social dialogical process we construct our understanding of the world we live in” (Cavanaugh, et al., 2004, p. 8). Further, we make sense of our experiences by constructing our own rules and mental models and learning therefore, is simply a process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate these new experiences. Because young students have not as yet had many experiences to construct their understanding scaffolding or mediated learning is important in helping young students achieve these cognitive understandings and are essential components of web-based learning experiences for children. Research points to the fact that “online learning environments, when designed to fully use the many tools of communication that are available, is often a more active, constructive, and cooperative experience than classroom learning”. As well, technologies that are easily employed in online environments, such as mind mapping tools, and simulations, are effective means for helping K-12 students make meaning of abstract phenomena, and strengthen their meta-cognitive abilities (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992).

Student learning should be designed with an emphasis on authentic and project- based learning activities. Learning assignments are tailored for individuals or collaborative groups, and assessment is based on learner outcomes that can be evaluated based both on content and execution (NCREL, 2002). The activities should be aligned with the various learning styles. A system for identifying and correcting inaccurate prior learning should be in place. Furthermore, the instructor should have the ability to modify and guide the overall process (Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, & Mabry, 2001).

Presentation is an important factor, especially for younger students. Graphics, audio, animation, video, text, and internet links should all enhance, and not distract from, the curriculum. The user screen should be arranged for easy online manipulation (Chang, 2004).Assignments, exercises, projects, simulations, games and activities should all complement, not distract from, the primary content (Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, & Mabry, 2001). Independent, group, and online and offline assignments, should be interspersed throughout the curriculum, as well as a feedback loop to assess and reinforce comprehension. Assignments should include a description and grading rubric (Odin, 2002). Grading rubrics and answer keys should also be available, where appropriate.

Online Learning System[edit]

The online learning system (OLS) serves as a means of delivering the online course and provides a direct link between the school, teacher and student. It is essential that great care is taken to select an OLS that meets the needs of school, student and teachers. Students should have access to the OLS at all times from any computer. Before coursework begins, the OLS should provide an orientation to online learning. The orientation should focus on the need for students to assume responsibility for their own learning, especially regarding communications with the instructor, personal scheduling and the proper installation and use of online courses.

Whether the course is completely online or supplemented with a textbook, the online interface should facilitate ease of navigation. Each student’s login should begin with a custom learning portal, linking to each aspect of the virtual environment and allowing for straightforward navigation. Daily assignments, instructional time log, and important updates should all be posted on this portal. As well, the choice of OLS should take into consideration the age of the distance learning students the course is being designed for use with.


Research provides evidence that interaction in distance education programs involves a “complex array of variables: social, instructional, and technological” (Rice, 2006, p. 438), a pivotal role in the effectiveness of any distance learning program. In the development of a distance learning program consideration should be given to the different types of interchange within a distance learning context: Learner-to-content (appropriateness of the course material and delivery vehicle considering objectives and learners), learner-to-instructor (types of communication and feedback, access and support, etc., ) and learner-to-learner (types of communication and feedback, support systems, and procedures for dialogue, etc.,) and learner- to-interface where instruction is related to user access and competency with the specific technology employed (Rice, 2006).

Online courses offer a variety of interaction types. Current research identifies two broad categories of communication: synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (delayed-time). Synchronous communication adds a dimension to distance learning within the K-12 context that is highly interactive and engaging for student learners. These include tools like the telephone, instant messaging or chat, and virtual classroom tools that allow file sharing, audio, and even video communications. While the majority of communication in distance learning programs is through email and discussion boards, asynchronous communication specifically, discussion boards play an important role in the effectiveness of a program in that they act as the primary means of communication amongst teachers and students. Providing the opportunity for teachers to introduce topics for discussion, invite students to contribute and dialogue about topics and provide a platform for students to introduce their own topics for discussion. The discussion board also acts as a record of conversation that a student can go back to when needing clarification or given the chance upon reflection can add to at their own pace. It has been argued in related research that “text-based, nonlinear characteristics of threaded discussions may provide increased opportunities for reflection and sense-making based on constructive cognitive foundations” (Rice, 2006, p. 439). Essentially, Rice (2006) cites research that this type of communication allows students to “write one’s way into understanding”. Specifically in the K-12 environment there are indications of a relationship between student-to-student interaction and learning in a study conducted by Frid (2000) that “increased interaction influenced motivation and engagement in activities that resulted in increased student persistence with a challenging problem” (Rice, 2006, p. 439). Additionally, online teachers need to review these communication channels frequently and respond to student questions and concerns in a timely manner (SREB, 2003).

Cultivating Community[edit]

It is also important to note the importance of the social dimension to distance learning for K-12 students. As cited by Rice (2006) “although interaction seems intuitively important to the learning experience, interaction should not be added without real purpose” and the focus should be on building collaboration and group interaction which may be more important than focusing on individual participation. Similarly, it can be surmised that ineffective practices used in traditional classrooms will also be ineffective in distance education. For example, translating a classroom lecture to the web will likely not generate the interest or motivation in students that a highly interactive course might.

Care must be taken to develop in younger students characteristics of successful distance learning students and it goes without saying that regardless of the use of enhanced computer mediated communication tools, they cannot substitute for well designed instruction and opportunities to engage students in age appropriate purposeful, interactive learning activities.

Cultivating an effective online learning community has many benefits, enabling students to more efficiently find solutions, share thoughts and ideas, ask for clarification, and promote accountability . Online discussion boards give students the opportunity to interact in a quasi-classroom environment . They should be utilized not only for problem or solution discourse, but for peer-support and to establish a sense of community within the work group. Discussion threads should be available for students to discuss frustrations, challenges, ideas and questions that are not necessarily within the scope of the course.

Online meetings, through synchronous means (e.g., video chats) should be made available to students on a regular reoccurring basis. These meetings should be fun, interactive, and frequent. Meetings should be educationally oriented, but not based strictly on direct-instruction. They should actively engage students, offering them the opportunity to lead a group activity, share relevant information, or present a project. Some suggested activities for building community include: collaboratively building a group identity, creating group rules and procedures, synchronous chatting, picture sharing, video conferencing, face-to-face meetings (when practical), and group projects. (Kennedy, 2000).

Time Management[edit]

The unique flexibility of an online course may create a problem of time management for K-12 students as not all students possess the self-regulation necessary for success in an online course. A system should be in place to assist students to establish and maintain the time management skills necessary for success. This may also require some form of daily accountability, such as an online status check, or a daily time log. A default work schedule and daily progress report should be implemented into the OLS. The individual learning portal should include links to cumulative progress reports, and a method for logging academic time . Thus both the teacher and student should be made aware of time spent online engaged in appropriate course work.


In order to create an effective distance learning program within the K-12 context, an online teacher must take into consideration a variety of characteristics. First, the use of clearly defined curriculum content and creation of an effective and easy to use online manner in which student learners can interact with and learn the content. As well, using an online design that attracts and further motivates student interest utilizes technology that enables the online teacher to customize each student’s learning experience through tools and formats such as video, interactive features, resources and links that are related to the course content and reflect the age of the student Additionally, it should be noted that “technology in and of itself may have no special powers to improve learning, but it has been argued that distance technologies could offer more powerful learning opportunities than their face-to-face counterparts when embedded with instruction that addresses the cognitive and social processes of knowledge construction” (Rice, 2006, p. 441). Thus the effectiveness of a distance learning program in a K-12 context lies within the quality of an online teacher who knows how to design and develop a distance learning program that engages students to become actively involved in their own learning and achieve success.

Online distance learning is still a relatively new concept within the K-12 context. Distance learning teachers are in a unique position to truly be educational pioneers. We can draw from the successes and short-comings of the many years of K-12 education and then apply that knowledge to the distance learning environment, in ways that have been previously unexplored. The challenge lies in shifting classical thinking into a new paradigm of learning. We have a new method of delivery, new curriculum and new information. This deserves thoughtful focus on a new way of teaching within the K-12 context. It needs to be more than simply uploading the classroom.


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