Research design

The purpose of our needs assessment research project was to identify the greatest training needs in the utilization of distance education for instruction. Over a period of three weeks, a telephone survey of forced-choice design was administered to a target audience of sixteen educators. A profile of the target audience is included in the section on identifying the target audience. In addition to structured questions, the participants responded with comments in a naturalistic, open-ended format.

The results section of this paper documents the findings which answer four research questions:

Before beginning the project, we contacted many distance learning delivery organizations throughout the world. We found that few, if any, had performed needs assessments prior to developing distance education training curricula. With few studies to serve as models, we returned to the literature and selected a needs assessment model.

We chose the needs assessment model developed by Rossett (1991), which was specifically designed to assist professionals in making data-driven and responsive recommendations about how to solve instructional technology problems or introduce new technology (p. 157). Rossett's systematic approach involves defining optimal performance, assessing actual performance, and identifying the gap separating the two.

Many factors may contribute to this gap: lack of skills or knowledge, lack of access to relevant technology, lack of incentives to change current pedagogical techniques, and lack of confidence that the participant can master necessary skills. Our task was to identify the relevant causes of distance education training deficiencies and to present a potential solution in the form of a professional training certificate program.

Four basic questions surfaced, which guided our research focus:

The following sections detail our answers to these questions.

Analysis of current and comparison programs

Of the various colleges, universities, and open learning agencies we contacted, two Canadian and one American institution were outstanding.

Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada, offers a Master of Distance Education via distance learning. Through five core and five elective courses, plus a 12 credit thesis or project, it enables educators to develop and evaluate theories and methodologies for the design, development, and delivery of distance education and training. The core courses deal with analyzing, planning, designing, developing, implementing, evaluating, and revising educational and training systems. Each student is assigned an academic advisor who ensures they receive necessary support and instruction in utilizing the electronic communications systems and have an opportunity to talk to someone about their concerns and problems, and act as the student's spokesperson within the institution (G. Crawford, personal communication, September 16, 1994).

McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada offers a Professional Development Certificate in Educational Media. It provides training in the design, creation, and applications of technology-based teaching aids and instructional materials, as well as in the sharpening of skills in photography, television, and audio-visual aids.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison offers a Professional Development Certificate in Distance Education, via distance learning. It addresses the conceptual framework of distance education, relevant technology, instructional design, evaluation, and learner support systems. In addition to four core courses and two electives, it provides audioconference seminars which link program participants with other instructors across North America to discuss areas of common interest.

Existing UCD/DPS Programs

The original UCD/DPS Distance Education Certificate proposal consisted of a set of practical courses to be taught by the Technology Academy of DPS and a set of theoretical courses to be taught by the Technology and Special Education Department of UCD. We found good correspondence between the UCD classes, the McGill program, and the University of Wisconsin program. The proposed UCD classes would be given at the Master's Degree level. They comprise:

The DPS courses involve hands-on practice with relevant technology. They would include, but not be limited to:

Inclusions and significant omissions

After an indepth exploration of the course syllabi contained within the two Canadian programs, we note certain general areas which they both address:

The University of Wisconsin program addresses all of the above areas, plus evaluation and assessment in distance education, and learner support systems.

We also noted certain important areas which were omitted in all three programs, but which were addressed in our review of relevant literature:

Survey of Educators

In this section we describe the method used in identifying and surveying practitioners in distance education. We chose our target audience from four local Far View sites: eight respondents from Denver, three from Mapleton, three from Clear Creek, and two from Gilpin School Districts. These sites were purposefully selected to ensure sensitivity to local conditions.

We started with initial contacts who had worked with PMN, and then networked to include other teachers and staff. We selected 16 educators who would represent partners in a distance education team: Eight educators had no formal training or experience with distance education, though some had used Channel 1 television, electronic mail, or some form of networking. The other eight were either trained through formal programs, attended workshops at professional conferences, or were self-taught. The respondents were almost evenly divided with regard to their confidence level using distance education technology: 9 high, 7 low.

Two teachers had adapted traditional courses in German or mathematics for distance education. One had developed a new high school course in Chinese, and another had developed new distance education applications courses. Four respondents were willing to serve as subject matter experts (SMEs) for a training program in distance education methods and strategies.

Develop assessment instrument

Our needs assessment instrument was designed to cover not only those areas addressed in the three successful programs, and those originally proposed for the UCD/DPS Distance Education Certificate, but also to include those omitted areas which were revealed in our review of relevant literature. Some of those omitted areas were teacher-mediated distance learning (Porter, 1994), learner support systems (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994), learning communities and peer-to-peer networking (VanderVen, 1994; Wolfe, 1994), learner characteristics in a changing environment (Johnson & Foa, 1989), strategies for delivering education at a distance with various mixes of media (Willis, 1993), technology adoption (Talab & Newhouse, 1994), developing distance education partnerships (Pacific Mountain Network, 1994), and new policy and management issues resulting from the new social dynamics of distance education (Holloway & Ohler, 1991).

The interview was comprised of 20 questions which covered demographics, distance education training or experience, technology access and usage, media selection, and specific distance education skills and strategies.

Conduct needs assessment

It was not possible to interview each respondent in person, since our target audience was scattered throughout the greater Denver area. Therefore, we decided on a telephone interview. This allowed us not only to ask a series of structured questions, but also to elicit detailed comments from each educator. We found that these narratives, which were based on each respondent's direct experiences with distance education and its underlying concepts, were as valuable as the quantitative data that we gathered concerning their interest level and training deficiencies in particular skill areas.

Use findings for decision making

Based upon Rossett's (1991, p. 168) decision making process, we constructed four questions to ascertain how our respondents stood on the issues of optimal performance, actual performance, priorities and confidence level, causes of problems, and potential solutions regarding distance education training. The results section links these research questions with the answers supported by our needs assessment findings.

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