Teaching Using Distance Learning
William G. Huitt, Ph.D.

Source: Huitt, W. (1994). Teaching using distance learning. Paper delivered at the National Conference on Successful Teaching, Orlando, Florida, February 26-28.

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The purpose of this paper is to report on my experiences teaching a graduate-level course in educational psychology through distance learning. I must admit that even though I am normally enthusiastic about using new technology, I was initially reluctant to teach this particular course using distance learning.

The course (PSY 702: Conditions of Learning) is a service course for all students in M.Ed. programs at Valdosta State University (VSU) and is generally considered to be one of the more difficult courses in the M.Ed. program. One of the most common statements by students on course evaluations is "course content should be covered in two courses." I had taught the course for 8 years both on- and off-campus with reasonable success, as measured by student evaluations, passing of comprehensive examinations, and similar criteria. For the past several years student grades for the course averaged between 88 and 90 for both on- and off-campus sections; 50% to 60% of students earned a grade of A. Grading for the course is fairly comprehensive and includes objective tests, essay tests and a 10- to 15-page paper. In addition, only a few of the hundreds of students who had taken the course from me have not passed comprehensive examinations for content covered in the course and I am unaware of any students who have failed the Georgia Teacher Certification Tests (TCT) on areas covering content taught in the course.

Naturally, I was hesitant to modify a successful course. However, I was aware that students who had taken the course off-campus from part-time instructors were not as successful on comprehensive exams and the TCT as students who had taken my sections, and that scheduling problems made it difficult for me to teach more than one night course per quarter. Therefore, I agreed to teach the course through distance learning.

Arranging for Teaching the Course

At the time I began teaching the course, the VSU distance learning facilities included one on-campus site at the main campus and four off-campus sites throughout south Georgia (additional on-campus and off-campus sites have since been added). Each site is equipped to send and receive audio and video signals. It was initially proposed to have one on-campus and four off-campus sites with 25 students at each site. I did not believe I could assist students to achieve at previous achievement levels under those circumstances and expressed my reservations. After several discussions it was decided that I would teach the course for three consecutive quarters in order to iron out any difficulties and to give the process an adequate test. I was to have one on-campus and one off-campus site with a limit of 20 students per site during the first quarter; during the second quarter the number of students per site would be raised to 25; during the third quarter the number of sites would be raised to three.


Table 1 shows a summary of the course averages as well as the components from which those averages were developed. First, it appears that the final achievement of students in both courses was essentially equivalent. Students both on- and off-campus had an average of 88 with a standard deviation of 5. Over the last several years the class average for on-campus sections of this course had been 88 with a standard deviation of 6; for off-campus sections the class average had been 90 with a standard deviation of 5.

Looking more closely at the grade components, the averages for the objective tests given in the course ranged from 76 for off-campus students in the distance learning sections to 79 for on-campus distance learning students and off-campus traditional instruction students. The averages for the essay test component ranged from 89 for the on-campus traditional instruction students to 93 for the off-campus traditional instruction students. The averages for the 10-15 page paper ranged from 91 for the off-campus distance learning students to 93 for the off-campus traditional instruction students.

Table 2 shows the percentage of students making an A, B or C in the course. The percentage of students earning an A ranged from a high of 62% for off-campus students in traditional instruction to a low of 41% for off-campus students in distance learning classes. The percentages of students earning a B changed proportionately while the percentage of students earning a C was 7% or 8% except for students in the off-campus traditional instruction classes where 3% earned a C.

Discussion of Results

It appears that teaching the course using distance learning had only at best a slight, if any, impact on students' grades.  Reflecting on the high percentage of off-campus students who had earned an A under traditional circumstances, I realized that 2 of the 3 most recent off-campus sections were composed of some of the best students I have had since coming to VSU. One section was taught on a Naval base and included many high-ranking Navy personnel. The other section was composed of some of the best students from an off-campus Guidance and Counseling Program, who had already completed over half of their coursework for an M.Ed. The students in these sections were simply not typical and the grades reflected that.

However, I am concerned that a lower percentage of off-campus students earned a grade of A (i.e., had an average of 90 or better). Students in the on-campus distance learning sections were more reflective of the norm in that 51% had a course average of 90 or better, whereas only 41% of students in off-campus distance learning sites reached that same criterion. I believe the lack of personal interaction and my inability to provide detailed, immediate feedback on tests and written papers contributed to this difference. During the first two quarters I did not have students take a test on-campus until the final exam. The third quarter I had students come to campus to take both the midterm and final. I was able to promptly grade the objective part of the test and provide immediate feedback which seemed to help students do better on the final exam.

Issues and Recommendations

There are five major areas that I believe need to be addressed when developing and implementing a distance-learning course. These are 1) Faculty ownership of the course; 2) Developing courses materials; 3) Support/assistance at off-campus sites; 4) Getting course materials (handouts, etc.) to students; and 5) Running equipment on-campus. Each issue is discussed below.

Faculty Ownership of the Course

A major issue for me was maintaining control over the classroom experience. I was initially reluctant to teach this course using distance learning because students were experiencing success and I was uncomfortable with the proposal of working with 125 students spread out over 5 sites. I did not believe I could provide the same learning opportunity under those circumstances.  A normal class size is 25 for this course. Even if I had a normal teaching load of 3 sections that would only be 75 students and the original proposal was for me to teach an additional 50 students. I am confident that had I attempted to teach the course under these conditions, the results would have been quite different.

Reaching an agreement limiting the number of sites and number of students per site addressed the concern of having regular faculty deliver the course as well as the concern of delivering the same instructional quality. I was able to continue using essay examinations and assigning a paper which, though important to me as assessment tools, I would have had to discontinue with so many students. In addition, this was a relatively new endeavor and I believed, correctly as it turned out, that there would be equipment failures, problems in accessing library materials, problems with my learning to use the equipment while trying to teach the course, problems with staff support at off-campus sites, and so forth. Being allowed to teach the course using the same format for three consecutive quarters in a row allowed me time to "get it right," to feel that I had mastered the new technology, and to work towards resolving the "bugs" in the system.

Developing courses materials

A second issue relates to the difference in materials used for a regular course and one taught through distance learning.  One must be extremely well-organized when teaching a distance learning course. Since I had developed a set of course objectives and had arranged my lecture notes and support materials in two three-ring binders, I was ready on that point.  I had also developed a set of handouts that students purchase a the bookstore along with the textbook. This greatly facilitated getting materials to students. Unfortunately, there were still newly developed handouts and handouts for class exercises that I had to get to students in the middle of the quarter. This issue will be discussed below.

I had also developed a large number of color transparencies that I use to help structure my course lectures. A major difficulty for me was the necessity of my using these transparencies for distance learning. The glare produced on camera when using them was a problem that was never satisfactorily resolved. Time was simply not available (approximately one-half hour per transparency) to reprint the overheads on paper using the available plotter. I found it was possible but prohibitively expensive to pay to copy the transparencies on a color copier. An alternative would be to purchase a color copier that would allow faculty to produce color overheads on paper from color transparencies.

I believe it is most efficient to have a color printer and software that will allow faculty to produce transparencies or paper overheads in an efficient manner. Since most instructors will teach their course both through traditional and distance learning arrangements, a method is needed to easily produce materials that can be used in the two different environments.

Another difficulty with respect to materials related to the quality of some of the videotapes I use in this course. While the quality is fine for classroom usage, the broadcast quality was substandard for the distance learning format. If videos are used extensively by other faculty, money must be budgeted to replace those that become wornout.

Support/Assistance at Off-campus Sites

Probably the most frustrating issue that I and the students faced was the lack of support at the off-campus distance learning sites. The only available assistance came from individuals at the off-campus site who had responsibility for our distance learning students added onto what I am sure was an already heavy workload. The courses I taught were at night or on Saturdays when regular personnel were not scheduled to work. This led to a number of situations where assistance was needed, but none could be found. A person on the main campus payroll needs to be at each site to handle difficulties that may arise. Students at one off-campus site complained that staff were extremely rude and inhospitable when students needed help or when there was an equipment problem. While this may be an extreme case at a particular site, the main campus needs to have its own staff at the off-campus sites who are knowledgeable about the equipment, and whose loyalties are to serving our students.

A main-campus-owned copy machine at the off-campus site would also be helpful. This would allow materials to be faxed and copied on-site without the necessity of sending copied materials through the mail. Twice during one quarter materials were sent directly from the our departmental office one week before they were needed, yet failed to arrive on time.

Off-campus students also need to be provided with the same access to library and reference materials as can be accessed by on-campus students. This has been a major problem for traditional off-campus courses, but when I was traveling to the off-campus site each week I could carry materials back and forth. At a minimum a computer that can be used to access Internet needs to be available at each off-campus site.

A final issue relates to the need for a power-backup strategy to be implemented at each site. A momentary disruption in the power causes the system to crash, which requires valuable class time being used to reboot the system. This was particularly true during the summer, as there were power problems on at least four occasions, causing disruptions of up to one-half hour.

Course Materials To and From Students

In a distance learning course there are times when materials must be sent to and received from students. The first time I taught the course, I required students to come to campus only for the final exam. The second time I taught the course I required students to come on campus for the first meeting and the final exam. The third time I required students to come for the first meeting, midterm and the final exam. The latter requirement worked best. On the first night I met all students personally. I was able to have students complete an information card allowing to me get to know students better, to hand out the syllabus and course objectives and any extra handouts students would need before midterm. At midterm and final exam times I was able to score the objective section of the test promptly and provide students immediate feedback. At midterm I was also able to provide any extra handouts that would be used for the remainder of the quarter and to meet personally with students having a problem.

Having students come on campus requires a room accommodating 50 to 75 students. I recommend a room of this size be scheduled exclusively for distance learning courses so that instructors can access it with a minimum of scheduling conflicts. I also gave two essay exams other than the midterm and final. I simply projected the essay question onto the large monitor as I would normally do for an overhead. Students would answer the question and give their materials to the monitor who would then mail them to me. I found that using the regular mail simply did not provide adequate time to receive tests, grade them, and have ready for the next class meeting. The third time I taught the course each site was provided with a pre-paid overnight delivery envelope. The individual monitoring the test simply placed the test materials in the envelope and it was mailed the next day. This proved to be a viable solution to the problem.

Running Equipment On-campus

A fifth issue relates to the difficulty of fitting the use of the equipment to my style of teaching. One problem is related to my staying on-camera while I am teaching. I move around a lot and tend to use both cameras while lecturing. I also use overheads and transparencies extensively. This requires a lot of activity on the part of the person running the equipment. To this point we have relied on a student taking the course to volunteer to run the equipment. I have found this places a heavy burden on the student who must run the equipment and try to take notes at the same time (which proved to be an impossibility).  For faculty who require it, a student assistant needs to be hired to run the equipment on-campus rather than having a student volunteer for his assignment.

Summary and Conclusions

In summary, I found teaching using the distance learning technology to be both interesting and exhausting. Using the new technology provided me with an insight into the future of education. However, the extra emotional energy required to stay "on" for the camera left me drained for at least an entire day for the first quarter I taught the course. I must admit that it got better the second and third times I taught the course, but I was still somewhat lethargic for at least the next day (or in the case of the Saturday course, for the rest of the afternoon and evening).

A major advantage of teaching two sections at the same time is that I had more time to think about and prepare for teaching the course. As a result I have made and am continuing to make modifications in the course that I expect will improve it. I have also begun to consider how I might develop a multi-media version of the course. This would combine computer-based text and graphics with lectures provided via video or laser disk to provide an interactive learning experience. Linking such a multi-media based course with distance learning for discussion and question/answer sessions may offer an enhanced learning environment that is superior to our present lecture-based system.

A major disadvantage was the extra organization and administrative tasks. Some of these are simply a result of having more people involved in the delivery of the program. As we gain more experience and routinize the procedures, I am certain that many will be ironed out. However, as might be expected with a new program there were a number of difficulties that will have to be addressed as new monies become available. As related above, these have mainly to do with equipment and staff support at the off-campus sites. I would suggest that for an institution embarking on distance learning, this should receive due attention in a budget.

In conclusion, I must admit that I am still somewhat skeptical of the widespread use of distance learning technology. If there is a specific problem to be addressed such as too few students at a specific site to offer an off-campus course or not enough full-time faculty to cover instruction at off-campus sites, then there may be some advantage to using distance learning. However, the mode of instruction is still "industrial-age" in that large groups of students are still required to mass at a specific time to "receive" instruction. Using distance learning does expand the "walls" of the classroom, but it does not necessarily impact the content or process of instruction in ways more suited to success in the information age. An instructor can still be a "talking head" whether in a traditional or distance learning classroom. And using distance learning is not cheap. At least for the foreseeable future, I do not see any cost benefits, especially since off-campus sites must be upgraded with staff, equipment, and materials if the instructional process is to run smoothly. I believe we still need extensive pilot testing before we can claim any success for distance learning.

Table 1. Summary of Student Grades for PSY 702: Conditions of Learning

Traditional Instruction



Objective Essay Paper Average Objective Essay Paper Average
Average 77 89 92 88 79 93 93 90
St. Dev. 9 6 4 6 10 6 3 5
Distance Learning
(N=69) (N=44)
Average 79 91 92 88 76 91 91 88
St. Dev. 9 5 4 5 11 4 5 5


Table 2. Summary of Student Grades in PSY 702: Conditions of Learning

Traditional Instruction

Distance Learning

A 53% 62% 56% 49% 41% 46%
B 39% 35% 38% 43% 52% 47%
C   8%   3%   6%   7%   7%   7%