Distance Education: Taxonomy of Course, Educational Aims And Teaching Strategies

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Distance Education: Taxonomy of Course, Educational Aims

And Teaching Strategies

Posted By: Teachingonline.Net

A radical innovation in education was made by establishing the British Open University in  1969, which was based on use of effective teaching technology. Text, television and radio were the main media of delivery. The core courses were provided through the text material, television and radio were to provide support for  the texts. Now, with the fast developments in technology, there is a proliferation of new media which raises a number of issues. Are some media more effective than others? Should new media be used to replace existing media? or should they be used i n addition to these? How should academic staff of open universities of the world be made aware of the potential and limitations of new media?

The three original media, i.e. text, television and radio were not chosen by accident for the Open University. Virtually every home in England could be accessed through these media. Thus, no one in Britain should have been prevented from enrolling for the open university because of difficulty in getting the teaching material. But how the following two things have happened in the last 17 years? The principle of universal access regarding broadcasting at the Open University has been eroded, because not all students can  watch or listen at the times at which  programmers are broadcasted. Secondly, most alternative media (Video-cassetes, cable TV, CAL, etc.) are not universally available in all the houses. The problem in India is more acute. Here, even the television is not available to every part of the country. Should distance teaching institutions use those media which are not commonly available to all? Should students share the equipments available at the local study centers to reduce the costs? If so, to what extent should distance teaching be home-based or local centre-based?

Thus, the new problem to educationists posed by the advancements in educational technology is to decide which teaching methods and channels of communication are to be used in order to achieve a given set of educational aims. This question does not simply relate to new ways of teaching traditional subjects but it relates to kinds of audience, different kinds of subject matter, different kinds of courses, and different forms of access to education as well as to different study patterns amongst those who want to learn. The use of distance teaching methods to facilitate the education at home brings into consideration all those students who would not, or could not, attend full­ time or part time (evening) classes as well as the many different kinds of courses they might want to take simultaneously. Distance teaching methods, as compared to the more traditional face-to-face teaching, involve quite different costs in terms of both money and manpower. Similarly, for students it is very cost effective in terms of money and time both.

This chapter deals to discuss how to choose appropriate technology for distance education? All the factors discussed above can be taken into account only after designing the successful course contents. Here, main focus is on the pedagogy part, including the problem of motivation of both students and teaching staff. Other factors such as costs and access have been considered earlier. The main aim is the provision of specific courses or materials of one kind or another, rather than the various forms of student centered open learning systems which now exist. Efforts have been made to discuss how best to achieve successful teaching at a distance, assuming that the students are motivated to learn, have access to the courses they want, and can afford what they cost. This has also been compared with such courses as the more traditional face to face teaching provided by universities and colleges.

Within the confines of pedagogic considerations, there are five main dimensions to the specification of courses for all types of education. These are:

(a)  The subject matter (e.g. physics, chemistry, etc.)

(b) The type of course of material (e.g. academic, practical, etc.)

(c) The levels (e.g. undergraduate, postgraduate, adult, etc.)

(d) The methods of presentation (e.g., face-to-face, video cassette, audio cassette, computer, cable/satellite, TV, text).

(e) Students study patterns (home based, work based, verbal, visual, slow or quick on the update, etc.)

Traditional universities have been clear about where they stand on each of these areas. As regards subject matter the range Of academic subjects offered has a strong traditional academic core with a few more recent innovations added on to it. The subject titles change only slowly, even though the content of each subject might be well changed considerably. Universities have created strong demarcations between one subject to another, so that, subjects are difficult to encompass. Also university courses are in the main academic subjects for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The more practical subjects, professional courses like medicine and engineering are taught in the colleges specially meant for them.

As regards to presentation and study patterns, it is taken almost for granted that lecturing, tutorials, and laboratory work are the main components of the activities by which students are expected to learn. These present reasonable variety of methods and therefore cater quite well to variations in students’ learning methods and study techniques. None of these methods, however, transfers directly into the field of distance education although a comparable variety is likely to be needed for some kind of courses.

At present higher, advanced and continuing or especially such type of education which involves eaching at a distance, demands a widening of the field in all directions beyond that which occupied by university courses. Further, the capabilities and limitations of different teaching methods, especially those using advanced technology, depend very much upon the subject matter to be taught. Distinction between different kinds of course to be made.

Specification of Courses

The various dimensions of course specification referred to above are discussed in turn.

In every institution and teaching style, the type of course, its levels and the needs to attend college have been more or less standard. Most students have registered for the purpose of obtaining qualifications in a particular course.

Now-a-days, in distance teaching naming the subject is only a part of the matter, even though it is considered as an important part. The variety of types of audience, and the greater opportunities for access they have, brings about a demand for a much wider range of subject matter, from subjects that are related to professional courses through academic and practical inputs to community interest. Evidently courses aimed at examinations are very different from general interest courses, and this fact is reflected in the topics offered. Thus the title or subject matter of a course needs to be accompanied by a syllabus, to show the area covered, together with educational aims or objectives that indicate the type of courses and the depth to which each topic to be taught.

Types of Courses

Most of the universities place teaching “students to think” high on their list of educational aims. Therefore, much of university education is directed in one way or another, towards this rather imprecise cognitive aim. But even this has different aspects to it, ranging from intellectual skills, like analysis and design, to making rational decisions and solving problems. The teaching strategies appropriate to each cognitive aim are not in general the same. Therefore, the methods to be used to achieve them have to be chosen carefully. So “the ability to think” is a portmanteau phrase that needs to be broken down.

Its main ingredients seem to be “understanding” and “intellectual skills“. Learning to understand is concerned with conceptual development, becoming familiar with new concepts, and the words used to refer to them and with being able to explain events in tens of these concepts. Intellectual skills on the other hand are concerned with applying knowledge and understanding to practical problems of one kind or another. So “thinking” is being able to successfully apply one’s understanding to new situations.

The implication of this is that “knowledge” (e.g. of facts or processes) is a different cognitive category from “understanding” and should be kept apart from it. When it is possible to know the actions appropriate to given situations, it is not possible to about new situations. These require thought. Understanding provides the frame 01·k or structure of knowledge, a kind of interconnected matrix of conceptual elements or pigeon holes. Knowledge is what pigeon holes contain. Indeed it is very important to appreciate that knowledge can only be acquired if some measure of understanding already exist-even if this is only being able to understand everyday language. Specific knowledge presupposes some specific understanding.

There have been several taxonomies of education beginning with Bloom’s classic work ( 1956). But for the purpose of the theme of this chapter let us distinguish between three kinds of learning in the cognitive domain, namely knowledge, understanding and intellectual skills. These three ingredients, however, can be combined in different ways to produce different sorts of courses in the cognitive domain, in all of which are of particular relevance to adult education.

only comprehensible to the appropriate specialist. An awareness course is also factual but is intended to inform people about fields outside their specialization, and, therefore, must be in a language which is comprehensible to non-experts. Thus ‘assumed entry behavior’ is a fourth important factor to be taken into account in the design of a course. A better phrase for this would be ‘assumed prior understanding’.

Assumed prior understanding also makes the difference between upgrading courses and the so-called interface courses. Both courses aim to increase the knowledge and understanding of the students but do not aim to produce skilled practitioners.  While upgrading courses are intended to extend a students’ understanding of their specialization, while interface courses are intended to develop understanding in areas, outside to their specialization. For example, interface courses are for managers and supervisors who have to work intelligently with practitioners. Thus the two types of courses, even if they are dealing with the same subject, must differ greatly because of the prior understanding in the students that can be assumed.

Levels of Courses

The concept of level applies primarily to academic courses, and refers, essentially, to the depth of understanding being taught. Since other types of courses also teach understanding it applies rather more closely to them too.

Again, a simple model of what is meant by depth of understanding is helpful. Understanding means familiarity with the general principles and concepts of a subject. Three levels are worth distinguishing. At the most superficial level are simple generalizations about objects and events (e.g. all bodies tend to fall, all ‘workers’ vote Congress). There are usually exceptions to every generalization, (including this one). At a deeper level there are theories about, and explanations of, these generalizations, often in terms of abstract concepts (such as gravitation, equality, freedom, etc.). Note that explanation can take many forms: casual, historical, teleological, etc. At the deepest level of the theories lie explanations about the interrelationships between abstract concepts. Thus, in general, in the academic hierarchy,  10 level.

Educational Strategies and  Methods

Before considering the educational strategies appropriate to the three main ingredients of courses, namely knowledge, understanding and skills, we must first  consider the concept of feedback.


The main purpose of feedback, whether i n education or in engineering or elsewhere, is to remove error in the overall operation of the system, and ensure that progress is being made in the required section. Deviations and errors in learning can occur for a variety of reasons. For example, the teacher may make mistakes or be misleading; the transmission method (e.g. printing, telephone, computer, TV, etc.) may be faulty and noisy; students’ utilities and prior understanding vary; therefore, some may misunderstand or forget quite clear instructions and explanations. Feedback can be between student and teacher, among students themselves or between student and computer. If properly used, it can correct or at least detect many of these errors. So i n general feedback methods are needed in education. As we shall see, however, the form of feedback should differ considerably.

The Teaching of Knowledge

Knowledge is easy to present but is learnt only by those who are motivated to learn, who have good memories (e.g. not too old), and who have acquired sufficient prior understanding to make sense of the information being offered. Specialist knowledge say in medicine or engineering, requires appropriate academic courses as pre-requisites. Motivation is rarely a problem in adult education. Students who undertake courses in their spare time usually want to learn as per their convenience. However, it is quite a different matter in case of full time secondary or tertiary education where students are forced to complete their course in stipulated time. For the later it may be necessary to make the teaching “relevant” or “interesting”. With adults it needs only to be effective, since it is already relevant and interesting.

Student who already posses a good deal specialist knowledge and understanding, often need to ask questions from their expert teachers, and to explain their particular problems. For example, doctors might need to describe a particular set of symptoms before expert “advice on the latest diagnosis and treatment” that can be given:

  • For such “question and answer” sessions use telephone conferences, TV or radio phone-ins, face-to-face classes, or expert (computer) systems.
  • For information on request use encyclopedia (or other forms of printed information), teletext or dial access.

The Teaching of Understanding

The two basic strategies which are being used in teaching of understanding

 the use of redundancy; the use of discussion; or both. Either method achieves the all-important necessary operation of driving the new concepts and thought processes through the learner’s and several times mend in different contexts. Understanding, unlike knowledge cannot be learnt by earth; it needs a much deeper mental grasp.

The use of redundancy simply means teaching the same ideas in several different ways : for example, analyzing them in terms of other concepts, by analogy, by applying them in different contexts, by contrasting them with alternative ideas, by repetition but in different words, by the use of different media, etc.

The use of discussion involves clarifying the ideas and concepts, once they have been presented, through discussion with other students, with a tutor or teacher, with a computer programmer, even with oneself  (through self­ assessment question), by tackling  problems and, where necessary, by reference  to textbooks.

These strategies are not exclusive alternatives. Obviously aspects of each can be welded together in effective courses of several cost-effective kinds. The following are some examples:

(i)   Traditional University/College Face-to-Face Teaching

This involves tutorials, library consultation, students’ interaction, lab-work in addition to lectures. Note that lectures are often regarded as a basic teaching method. They teach knowledge and sometimes they teach in the affective domain, but they only provide one component mainly as a discussion based strategy for teaching of understanding. Most of the learning of understanding takes place outside the lecture theatre. The lectures are mainly explanatory statements of what has to be learned; the learning occurs in the “mulling over” that follows. Thus universities present their courses using a mixture of strategies; redundancy is provided by lectures, libraries and labs. Discussion is encouraged by residential accommodation and tutorials and small group teaching. The lectures play quite a small part in the learning process. The discussion strategy is applied in its purest form in good school teaching. Here, the classroom is the place where learning takes place. Homework concentrates on intellectual skills. Much more time is spent in school classrooms than the time spent in university lectures.

(ii)  Multimedia Teaching and The Open University

 Difficult concepts are best taught using several selected appropriate media, from (i) structured teaching text; (ii)T.V. (preferably on cassettes);  (iii) audio cassettes with or without visual additions (e.g. Cyclops); (iv) home kits. This use of redundancy can be augmented in distance teaching by discussion strategies, using telephone conferences, face-to-face tutorials and tutored video instruction. As the function of learning, teaching and understanding is often misunderstood, it is often regarded as remedial too with teachers and it is presumed that its purpose is to correct or reveal students’ misunderstandings. Tutorials, of course, achieve this to some extent but not very efficiently. Misunderstandings and errors in learning are normally very personal, so they are not well dealt within a group if everyone’s time is to be well spent. (Individual errors are best dealt with by individual attention, often quite brief, by a tutor or a fellow student). The tutorial or teleconferences in teaching-understanding should be regarded as a way of teaching through discussion than remedial.

Tutored Video Instruction (TVI)

This method involves the playing of a video-taped lecture to a group of students but with many interruptions to allow discussion of the topics being presented. The taped lecture states in orderly and explanatory manner what has to be understood; much of the learning takes place during the frequent discussion sessions into which the taped lecture is broken down. Thus the tape is a guide and a source; text-books, the tutor and other students provide the discussion of the ideas in different contexts and so bring about the learning. Alternative guides to study and sources of material, such as structured text or audio tapes do not provide the same rich focus for common student experience as a video tape does. For a TVI to be appropriate, it is essential that distance students are able to assemble frequently in small groups with a tutor. It is not a home-based learning method at least not until some advances in information technology have been made to allow simultaneous viewing and interruption of TV tapes in student’s homes.

Note that it is part of the strengths of the first two methods that they can be used for teaching knowledge and for demonstrating skills, as well as for teaching of understanding. TVI is more limited, but for teaching of understanding at a distance, it is an almost ideal use of the discussions strategy.

The three methods (face-to-face teaching, multimedia teaching, and TVI) are what might be regarded as pedagogically optimal, but none of them is cheap. The first and third are expensive in manpower where large student numbers are involved, since cost increases with student numbers. The second is expensive in production so becomes cheaper per student as student’s number increases. Less expensive methods can also be fairly effective-depending a good deal on student’s motivation, and on subject matter. For example, successful courses that teach some understanding as well as knowledge or skills can be taught by:

(a)      Highly structured teaching texts on their own;

(h)      Teaching text and home kit (e.g. microprocessors);

(c)       Television and radio (e.g. economics); and

(d)       Audio vision or Cyclops (e.g. mathematics) .

The Teaching of Skills

The teaching of skills consists of two parts, and, in principle is quite straightforward, although the implementation of the second part in distance teaching which is quite difficult.

The first part comprises of instruction and demonstration. For this, video tape is the most versatile, and for any skill with a manual component (even doing mathematical calculations) it is probably the most effective method. This is even more effective than face-to-face demonstration owing to its replay capability. Seeing someone doing what has to be done always communicates best. However, it is expensive. Less expensive but effective methods include:

(a) Audio visual for mathematics, engineering, science;

(b) Instruction books for most skills;

(c) Computer aided instruction for problem solving, simulations and calculations; and

(d) Audio tapes and books for languages, interpersonal skills, etc.

The second part consists of providing students with opportunities to practice their skills and to have their work monitored. This is difficult to achieve whenever students number is large, particularly in distance teaching. For particular purposes the following are effective:

  • Intellectual skills that result in written work can be handled by correspondence;
  • if responses are sufficiently well modified they can be wirelessly monitored through CAI programmers, with a tutor’s help called up by telephone or chatting through computer whenever needed;
  • Audible skills (including music) can be observed and corrected by tale conferencing.
  • A number of intellectual skills, such as electronic circuit design, can be self-checked by the application of standardized test procedures. Indeed, before long, home-based microcomputers will be able to simulate many electronic signal processes so that self-checking of circuit performance characteristics could become highly sophisticated;
  • Many more practical skills, however, require face-to-face supervision and so, at least until home-based two-way television transmission using the cable network is available, are not suitable for distance teaching.

Teaching in the Affective Domain

Probably the only fairly well understood “teaching activity in the affective domain is advertising or salesmanship”. Its role in education might be to convey to students the importance or delights of particular courses of fields of study. In other words, to increase students’ motivation to study, through motivational factors to study and work long hours usually lie too deep to be much affected by any story inputs.

Generally, television seems to be the most effective form of communication for affective teaching, although writing and lecturing (or public speaking) can also be successful. The essence of the process seems to be to appeal to the emotions as well as to the intellect. The ability of television to show disturbing aspects of reality gives its extra strength, even as evocative writing.

Much affective teaching however emerges with time over long periods of study, especially for degrees or other qualifications. The activity of study develops habits of diligence, self-reliance, etc., & thus changes students’, attitudes and values. But these changes occur as by-products of the teaching. They are rarely the overt educational aims.

The Quality of Teaching and Teacher Motivation

If technology can make study more acceptable and convenient to students, it may not be able to do the same for teachers. Yet it is essential, in the long term, even if not initially, when enthusiasm to experiment, is high, to ensure that the methods used are supported by the teachers who have to use them. So, a further factor in education is the problem of ensuring that teachers feel that their time is well spent using educational technology, and that good quality materials and effective teaching is achievable.

An important parameter affecting both these characteristics is the number of the teacher’s man-hours spent in generating one hour’s worth of student’, work. Table- 3 shows some representative figures including some teaching methods used for face-to-face teaching. The larger the student audience in each case the less expensive is the student audience in each case the less expensive is the method per student taught. Some methods however are effective only with small numbers to student.

These data clearly have relevance to the cost of each system, but they are also of significance pedagogically. It may be mentioned here that educational methods that require very substantial investments of time by the teachers soon fall into disuse, once the initial pioneering zeal has passed unless there are extra motivations for keeping it at such. I’m proved educational effectiveness may well not be enough to persuade teachers to spend 200 hours for each student hour (even if I 000 students benefit) when by using face-to-face methods only 2 to 10 hours would be needed. Effective motivations include (i) extra payment; (ii) seeing one’s work in print-as with writing teaching texts; (iii) appearing on television programmers (effective with broadcast TV though not with video-cassettes). Without such extra incentives the quality of the teaching using technology is likely to fall away, or die, if too much time and effort is demanded of the staff when face-to-face teaching is so much easier.

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