Is distance education training appropriate for our target audience?

Respondents agree that distance education training is indeed appropriate. Moreover, it will continue to grow in importance for both large and small school districts as relevant technologies continue to be installed and made available throughout the Greater Denver area. Urban and rural teachers alike realize that no school district can afford to offer every class to every student who wants it.

Denver Public Schools regularly runs workshops in audioconferencing. The rural areas currently use distance education courseware, provided by Red Rocks Community College, especially for advanced placement high school classes.

PMN and UCD, with cooperation from DPS, should begin with a series of workshops related to methods and strategies of distance education. The target audience should be those teachers who plan to use distance education in their curriculum, or who would like to become more comfortable with distance education technologies. The needs of site facilitators and teachers of bilingual students should also be addressed.

What kind of training is favored, by whom, and for whom?

When asked if they would participate in a pilot program, teachers were generally enthusiastic. Most respondents stated that professional development courses would have to be scheduled in such as way as to fit into their extremely busy schedules, and that they might participate in one or more courses rather than pursue an entire certificate program.

What content should be included in distance education training courses?

The following nine areas were all considered important by the respondents, and should be addressed in a curriculum development program: distance education technology access and usage, media selection, enabling participants to become comfortable with new technologies, instructional design issues, learner support systems, adapting traditional courseware for distance delivery, developing a distance education team, managing a high-tech classroom, and policy and management issues.

Technology access and usage.

Hands-on practice and training should be appropriate for the mix of technologies which is either currently in use or planned for the near future. Technologies of interest include audioconferencing, videoconferencing via satellite, microwave, and compressed video, and digital technologies.

Media selection.

Respondents were evenly split on the issue of media selection. Many considered media selection to be a question of media assignment or accessibility. Since media selection is not up to the users, they need hands-on training in whatever equipment the district provides to individual schools and classrooms. Their opinion was that students will learn the subject matter, regardless of the medium. However, it is important to consider the medium's strength and limitations when designing courses.

Others were definitely interested in media comparison. In particular, they wished to know if digital technologies are practical, cost-effective, and can facilitate distance education better than analog technologies.

Becoming comfortable with the technology.

Unfamiliarity with and fear of distance education technologies represents the single biggest problem in distance learning today. Teachers need to become comfortable with the hardware, to understand how the signal flows through it, to become familiar with media production, and to have guided, hands-on practice designing and delivering courseware in a non-threatening environment. Then, they will be able to focus on the learners rather than on the technology itself. They are also polarized on the issue of finding resources and providers, with some teachers desiring outside resources, and others requiring complete autonomy in the classroom.

Site facilitators feel that anticipating equipment problems and planning alternate strategies represents a major issue for them, though they consider that maintaining the equipment and troubleshooting hardware problems are the job of technical support personnel or service providers.

Instructional systems design.

Respondents were scattered with regard to the various stages in the instructional systems design (ISD) process. Site facilitators who deliver pre-programmed courseware and distribute and collect ancillary materials are not at all involved in the design process. Administrators who acquire equipment, as well as technical support personnel who maintain it, are primarily interested in the technology rather than the design aspects.

Teachers, on the other hand, are interested in specific areas of the ISD process, such as deciding how much content to put into a single lesson, diversifying types of presentation and course activities, designing ancillary materials, developing courseware, assessing teacher effectiveness and student learning, and revising learning modules to increase student relevance. They are of the opinion that developing courseware for collaborative work is more important than for independent work. Surprisingly, they showed less interest in designing effective feedback and remediation. They felt this should be part of a normal teacher training program and a prerequisite for a professional development certificate, rather than an instructional design consideration.

Learner support systems.

This area deals with both synchronous support (tutoring and mentoring, telephone conversations, online chats, audio and video teleconferencing) and asynchronous support (electronic and surface mail, BBSs, computer-based conferences and discussion groups) for new distance learning students. Most respondents discussed this topic very enthusiastically, and indicated that they were very interested in it. Those who had never heard of a learner support system recognized its various aspects once they were presented, and considered all of them to be important. They also felt it was necessary to have a varied mix of learner support systems, because some students readily participate in asynchronous communications such as electronic mail and bulletin board systems (BBSs), whereas others prefer telephone conversations and other synchronous technologies.

Teachers wished to find out which students don't participate and how to encourage them, and how to use facilitators and aides effectively for mentoring and support at the distant site. They also wanted to learn how to implement telephone-based and computer-based teacher-student and peer-peer networking and support systems. Site visitation was considered important, because when the distant students meet the studio teachers for the first time, they get an entirely different impression from what they have seen on television.

One respondent related an experience in which some students did not participate in interactive videoconferencing until they were required to carry on a telephone conversation with the studio teacher. Suddenly, one student perceived the studio teacher as a "real person" rather than a "talking head", saying that "real people talk on the telephone; talking heads don't".

Adapting traditional courseware for distance education.

Teachers expressed a general interest in methods and strategies for either developing new courses or adapting current courses for delivery at a distance. These include adapting teaching strategies for delivering instruction on-camera, using advance organizers and study questions before participating in a distance learning lesson, organizing and managing support materials to be used at distant sites, and problems of timing.

For audioconferencing or one-way video, dealing with the lack of visual cues from distant students is an important issue. One experienced teacher consulted with a blind professor before adapting his mathematics class for one-way video, two-way audio, because he wanted to understand how the blind professor guided the discussion around certain key questions and elicited responses from reticent students.

Developing a distance education team

This is an area which has been emphasized by many other Far View educators, as well as by those respondents who were already serving on distance education committees. The following areas were considered important by the majority of our respondents:

Managing a high-tech classroom.

This is an area which has been cited by ACOT researchers (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, 1992) as being a major stumbling block in the diffusion of new technologies. However, our site facilitators felt that they were both experienced and comfortable with managing their distant classrooms. Teachers indicated that dealing with discipline problems may be a critical area for new distance education teachers, but diminishes in importance with experience.

In some districts, because of lack of space, students are assigned to distance education classes on a competitive basis. Because of this, students who lack motivation, inner discipline, or time management skills are automatically eliminated. Though this does tend to facilitate classroom management, it could bring about a class distinction between those students who either lack or are denied access to advanced placement courses via distance education, and those who are enrolled in such courses.

One technical support person agreed with one of ACOT's findings: requesting student assistance in troubleshooting equipment problems helps those students to become more comfortable using the equipment and more involved in the class itself.

Teachers, too, are often assigned the dual role of technical coordinator and subject matter teacher. They have limited time to manage resources, deal with equipment problems, and still prepare effective lessons. They need assistance from LAN administrators and technical support personnel. They feel that their job is setting up guidelines and procedures for the distant classroom, enabling students to feel more comfortable with new communications patterns, making effective use of site facilitators and aides to help the lessons run smoothly, and keeping up student enthusiasm, motivation, and responsibility.

Policy and management issues.

Management issues often become policy issues, such as cost-effectiveness of different media, acquiring dedicated telephone lines in the classroom, and dealing with videotape copyright issues. Assessment is an especially important area, because authenticity of student work cannot be verified when assignments are uploaded, and because evaluation is often the job of the site facilitator rather than the studio teacher. For distance education, student portfolios, papers, projects, class discussions, postings on class bulletin boards, and teacher-student audioconferences become more important than tests.

Scheduling is an issue of paramount importance, especially when each school in the district has a different schedule, and within the same school, each teacher is given the freedom to set up his or her own schedule. Some schools follow a 4-day week, yet they are expected to match their classes with a 5-day satellite program. Also, since there is always teacher turnover at the beginning of the school year, a teacher who has been trained to use the courseware may not be available at the time a course is to be offered.

How should the proposed curriculum be arranged?

As originally proposed, an approximate 50-50 mix of practical and theoretical courses would be advisable. Teachers are interested in learning about all types of distance education technologies. Since these are site-specific, hands-on training courses would come under the jurisdiction of DPS, leaving UCD to provide the theoretical framework. Issues such as team building, training facilitators, developing site-specific learner support systems, and dealing with administrative issues can be handled more appropriately through partnerships with district administrators and technology coordinators, service providers, and local community colleges.

Presently, UCD and DPS are cooperating to develop a professional development certificate in multimedia, with additional certificates under consideration for distance education and Internet communications. A mix of these courses could represent a starting point for formulating a Distance Education Professional Development Certificate.

Denver Public Schools

Teachers need time to experiment and get to know the equipment, time to prepare templates and computer-based lessons for delivery, some basic video production and editing skills, and plenty of practice using all of these to deliver instruction in a non-threatening environment.

To begin, teachers need to learn some multimedia fundamentals such as using computers, digitizing sound and images, and working with state-of-the-art software. By learning how to use presentation graphics, animation, and simple authoring tools, as well as by designing templates for lesson modules, teachers would be able to generate materials for on-air and on-camera use. They could prepare presentations, graphic illustrations, introductory screens, and some animated sequences for lessons they would actually teach in class, and then practice using them over the existing DPS distance learning system.

University of Colorado at Denver

The UCD programs in multimedia, distance education, and Internet communications are currently in the preliminary design stages. Therefore, the scenario presented below is only one of a number of possibilities for the theoretical courses in a Professional Development Certificate program:

The following checklist has been developed to serve as a resource for planners of distance education training programs:

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