A Distance Learning Checklist: Some Key Considerations

A Distance Learning Checklist: Some Key Considerations
Summary: This paper draws on extensive managerial experience in distance learning and Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) in higher education. The various key-issue assertions and recommendations that are made in this paper may resonate with a wide practitioner audience.

1.     ‘Raw’ Content Development: Some Thoughts

  • Assertion 1

The quality of the ‘raw’ content of your educational product at its most basic level without any technological enhancement will more than likely play a much greater role in determining the viability of your organisation in the long term than anything else.

Not so surprisingly however, educational institutions tend to be far more preoccupied with improving the promotion of their academic services or refining investment in infrastructure (physical and virtual) and human capital than financing the development of appropriate leading-edge learning content.

Bettering content however, is a far more critical thing to be doing, as the utility of the academic credential itself—in today’s increasingly accountability-driven educational world with snowballing concomitant price tags—‘should’, or rather ‘will’, be of the utmost relevance to the long-term success of the institution and, of course, the student.

Moreover, in Distance Learning, which is mushrooming in popularity, developers will also need to pay particular attention to creating effective content at its ‘raw’ level.

Such content should not only be up-to-date and relevant to current and anticipated future work-market requirements, but should also be:

  • laid-out and designed in the most effectual and suitable way for the various e-learning modes of delivery, range of said students and chosen course assessment methods. Clark and Mayer (2016), for example, describe evidence-based e-learning design in voluminous detail in their book ‘e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning’;
  • squeaky-clean copyright-wise and citation-wise. Furthermore, bearing in mind the arrival of the new EU Copyright Directive (Articles 11 and 13), it appears we are entering a much stricter environment of copyright adherence;
  • accessibility compliant: accessibility will not be discussed in detail in this paper, nonetheless, please note, higher-education accessibility lawsuits, complaints and settlements are now particularly widespread in the States—click here for many examples.

However, with regard to DL content development, unquestionably, it must be rare for educational institutions to undertake such a mammoth task, as it requires unyielding conviction, supreme organisation, considerable investment and research, and a long-term, quality-driven view to institutional success that may not be recognisable immediately or necessarily appreciated overtly by an increasingly financially-constrained and ostensibly credential-coveting student client.

Moreover, there is also a related risk that the combination of growing student work-focused pressure to ‘credentialise’ and growing numbers of (higher) fee-based, profit-orientated educational institutions (resulting doubtlessly from flawed government investment policies in higher education) may, if unchecked, have a tendency towards creating a more shaky diploma-mill end-product whose real value will ultimately be determined and (probably) rejected by the market place (sooner or later).

Recommendation 1

Quality Assurance mechanisms therefore need to be put in place to ensure that the DL lecturer is supported at this raw content-creation stage: the desirable output should be the generation of first-rate utilisable learning content—it is not enough to simply delegate this task to the lecturer.  Additionally, in the long term, educational-product points of non-parity can be achieved if first-rate utilisable content is complemented by first-rate methods of student-centred assessment.

Moreover, if necessary, there should also be DL quality-control content audits: such content audits should, for instance, comprise not only analysis of raw content, but also choice and usage-design of learning technologies, and content assessment methods in the virtual learning environment.

2.  The raw content enhanced-technologically

  • Assertion 2

Moving the ‘raw’ content effectively into DL is a complex science that requires a critical, well-informed and principled approach, moreover, it requires attention to detail and the drive, ability and confidence to make changes quickly when changes need to be made.

Therefore, subsequent DL developmental stages would involve designing a DL learning context for such ‘raw’ content; this would comprise negotiation, creation and implementation of a potentially effective Learning Design using various learning technologies, and analysis of the said Learning Design with a view to making improvements iteratively.

However, as large (and growing) educational organisations also commonly become more siloed in their mentality, raising awareness, changing priorities, and collaborating and implementing change successfully inter-departmentally will undoubtedly be extremely challenging.

  • Recommendation 2

A culture of collaboration in educational institutions needs to be prioritised and nurtured to ensure that technology learning-innovations will not be hindered or quashed: this evidently needs (somehow) to be instigated top-down, institutionally speaking. 

3.  Choosing Or Replacing The Component-Technology Bricks Of Your Learning Ecosystem

  •  Assertion 3

Even though there is a plethora of companies that claim to offer competitive educational technology solutions, migrating from what you ‘have and know’ to something that may be better is risky and stressful.

A to-be cutting-edge institution of learning will therefore be cognizant and very supportive of the above process.

However, it is more than probable that many educational institutions will be hesitant to innovate beyond a certain point, possibly citing stable or growing DL student numbers as the ultimate proxy of satisfaction with status-quo learning technologies.

This, of course (and unfortunately), is how the competitors usually short-sightedly beat you in the end.

Consequently, if the decision is to be ahead of the educational technology curve, when outsourcing educational-technology services (e.g. from the open LTI app collection), remember ‘all the glitters is not gold’. Webpages might look impressive, but be a ‘cynical detective’ too, and remember, companies that develop software (for instance, Microsoft) will not always tell you (immediately) about any ‘disaster-management’ backstage work they have been doing.

However, on the flip side—appertaining to the use of new learning technologies—being overly cautious doesn’t necessarily mean, ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don't know’. Rather, as innovation is mandatory in TEL (this was also discussed in my paper on a TEL framework), the organisation should consider issues such as:

  • How does/will the new technology comply with progressively stringent accessibility expectations? If it doesn’t/won’t, ‘forget it’;
  • Does the software really do what it claims to do for your needs?
  • Who is the company size-wise? How is it funded? What is the risk of failure? (Use Crunchbase too);
  • What is the likelihood of services being withdrawn (e.g. Office Mix)?
  • Is this a critical vendor lock-in technology? How easy is it to avoid vendor lock-in?
  • Can you contact company clients freely?
  • What are the known issues?
  • What are the costs and support services like?
  • How better is this service than the one you have?
  • Is there training support?
  • How easy/disruptive will it be to migrate?
  • Are there any data privacy/GDPR compliance issues? Consider, for instance, where institutional data is actually held and under what terms by companies offering remote-proctoring, anti-plagiarism or SAAS-based video-conferencing services;
  • What is the company’s terms-of-use policy? Are they actually liable for anything if they ‘mess up’?
  • Recommendation 3

With regard to innovation in DL, institutions should not be ‘resting on any laurels they may (think they) have’. Learning technologies need to be researched, tested and rolled-out in a way that is underpinned with supportive user training. Reflection and discussion on the way such learning technologies are being used and could be better used should then follow—and this process also requires unceasing effort and support.

Therefore, the price to pay for not implementing the above recommendation will assuredly be lower-quality and less-competitive DL services.

4.     Is Your LMS Fit For Purpose?

  • Assertion 4

Choice of LMS will play a significant role in the drive to streamline the component-brick interconnectedness of your educational institution’s technology ecosystem.

Accordingly, in a most competitive and specialised LMS market with literally hundreds of LMSs[1] ‘out there’, it is also advisable—apart from section 3 points—to be scrupulous when considering:

  • LMS content audit and search capabilities: how easy is it to audit and search all the LMS contents? Can this be done automatically? For example, can all learning content be copyright-checked and accessibility-checked automatically?
  • LMS range of engaging learning and assessment tools (including third-party compatibility);
  • LMS interoperability/compatibility with existing institutional systems e.g. integration of LMS gradebook with faculty course intranet system or trouble-free integration of LMS with institutional SIS, or integration of Office 365 tools with LMS and with SIS;
  • How easy is it to implement pedagogical models using LMS activity tools into courses (e.g. active learning models)? Does the LMS have a template library of well-known pedagogical models with explanations on how to use them in the LMS? Can empty-templates of such pedagogical models be imported into the course page for content filling?

Other pivotal LMS areas to contemplate encompass:

Learning Analytics’ capabilities Usability Accessibility compliance User training support
SAAS and locally hosted solutions Reliability Customer base Data privacy, GDPR compliance/GDPR terms of use
Customisability Responsive design Interfaces + compliance standards Ease of migration (to and from)
  • Recommendation 4

A specialised TEL team needs to review the way your LMS is being used and with what third parties. Also, satisfaction and Learning Analytics data will enhance such a review.

Some key LMS-related questions include:

  • Should it be SAAS or hosted by the institution locally or on the cloud e.g. Amazon Web Services (AWS) with possible local-IT bottle-neck dependency?
  • Should a more modern LMS be introduced to replace the current LMS (especially if your competitors are using a more modern LMS)?
  • How will a more modern LMS improve good practice, be more impressive for accrediting bodies or improve uptake and training?
  • To what degree will continuous in-house customisation of a more outmoded LMS (creating local-IT bottle-neck dependency) make it harder to migrate to a more modern LMS?

5.     You Need An Institutional-Wide Solution for Rapid E-Learning Software

  • Assertion 5

As 2D e-learning developmental software is a very competitive and specialised market [1], careful choice of reliable and institutionally-scalable software is crucial.

Incidentally, 3D xR (extended reality) educational-content creation is even less scalable and even more expensive than 2D high-end production. For example, creating VR-nugget components (programmatically e.g. with Unity or using a good–quality 3D camera) for experiential learning in DL or face-to-face, would be ‘quite’ an undertaking requiring significant expertise and organisation. However, even though VR has a definite ‘wow’ factor, whole-course VR uptake needs to be monitored carefully, as it remains to be seen how much long-term traction (over) exposure to VR course elements would have.

In most cases, training faculty to create high-quality 2D learning objects using state-of-the-art e-learning authoring software will be next to impossible, particularly in large institutions.

Additionally, note that many lecturers may not ‘perform sufficiently impressively’ in videos or even in audios; moreover, even though in today’s technology world, performance skills are essential, this, in the most part, was not something lecturers were trained in at college as students.

Moreover, creating a large-enough in-house developmental expert multimedia and Learning Design team or opting to outsource work will be prohibitively costly (possibly in the millions of euros for large institutions). In addition, maintaining, updating and researching the effectiveness of multimedia presentations (e.g. using Tin-Can/LRS engagement analyses) will be very time consuming.

Recommendation 5

Depending on lecturer capabilities, student expectations, IT support, available budget and accreditation committee stipulations, it may be worth having a scalable low-tech solution (e.g. PowerPoint hosted on Office 365 Stream linked to the LMS or other access-controlled video platform integrated with the LMS) and a more specialised, but less scalable, high quality solution (e.g. Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline 360, both of which have developed accessibility functionality).

Nonetheless, your end-product will need to comply with accessibility requirements (better sooner rather than later); for instance, there ought to be features such as synced interactive transcripts with text fall-back, on/off captions and audio descriptions which can be operated by the keyboard, optional keyboard operation for all important features, and videos should not start automatically.

Out of interest, PowerPoint 2016, which exports as MP4 at three standard quality levels, has audio-capture and screen-capture capabilities, and will (apparently) shortly have Microsoft Forms quiz capabilities too.

Furthermore, videos can be recorded, for instance, using the Microsoft video recorder, and imported into PPT. There are numerous assistive-technologies compatible with PowerPoint/MP4 too.

However, ‘exporting to video option in PowerPoint for uploading in Stream, depending on the quality option (i.e. 480p, 720p or 1080p), can take a lot of time and produce large file sizes. Moreover, uploading such video files to Stream can also take a lot of time (Alexander 2018).

Nevertheless, Microsoft Stream (which currently allows only people in an organisation to upload, view, organise and share videos securely) also permits the sharing of comments on a video, the tagging of timecodes in comments and descriptions (i.e. to refer to specific points in a video and discuss with colleagues), the generation of automatic captions, transcript mode, deep search, face timeline, and advanced accessibility.

But, relying on Microsoft services also needs deliberation ‘these days’: what is the likelihood that Microsoft, as was the case with Office Mix, will likewise ‘pull the plug’ on Stream one day thereby creating huge inconvenience for such DL providers?

6.     Some Pointers Regarding Other Technology Issues Relevant To DL

  • Assertion 6

Be vigilant of the way common flagship DL educational technologies are maintained and developed by software providers. Risks include vendor lock-in, subsequent increasing costs, possible insufficient investment in R&D leading to poorer quality services and less dependable or effective support (which perhaps ironically may be an outgrowth of initial product success and of larger numbers of clients expecting dependable or effective support).

  • Some Recommendations For Learning Analytics

Consider carefully the costs and capabilities of third-party Learning Analytics software versus in-house-developed software that could customise visualisations according to your requirements more precisely. I personally have found in-house is much cheaper and has the fundamental benefit of allowing you to expand into cutting-edge areas ‘when and how you want’ (e.g. into NLP with real-time ML provision) and also allowing you to gain competitive advantage.

Learning Analytics was discussed in some detail in my paper called ‘Trends In Learning Analytics: Educational Institutions Take Heed’ as well.

Furthermore, more LA-related technologies that could support institutional in-house LA development are also being developed, for example: Amazon Kinesis possibly for real-time LA of clickometry or Amazon Comprehend to investigate aspects of NLP.

  • Some Recommendations For Accessibility

In the coming years, accessibility compliance will ‘make or more likely break’ many educational technology companies.

Educational institutions should take accessibility very seriously and ‘should not wait to get sued!’

It is therefore of paramount importance to be up-to-date on accessibility (e.g. Section 508, WCAG2.0) and to research thoroughly the costs and capabilities of assistive technologies also bearing in mind many may be superseded by tech-giant assistive-technology solutions.

AWS, for instance, has some interesting tools that could have assistive-technology application e.g. Amazon Transcribe for captioning and transcribing of multimedia content, Amazon Polly for text into lifelike speech, or Amazon Rekognition for the identification of objects, people, text, scenes, and activities in your images or videos.

  • Some Recommendations For Video Conferencing

Video conferencing is a mainstream technology in DL but is also a potentially high-risk vendor lock-in technology.

With regard to choice of video conferencing (VC) software, specific considerations could include:

  • analysing how easy or risky it would really be to migrate to a different system, determining what the training implications for faculty and students would be, and assessing how well you have stress-tested the new system prior to launching its use widely;
  • the need to evaluate the synchronous and asynchronous accessibility capabilities of the software. For instance, Cisco Webex services appear to have a number of cost-based solutions e.g. transcriptionist captioning window in Webex Meetings, a media viewer window in all its VC services to accommodate an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, third-party service that offers streaming text live from a URL, or asynchronous closed captions/ transcription/ translation services. However, my feeling is Webex could be doing a lot more directly too, technologically speaking, and at no additional cost, to support accessibility—especially its own real-time generation of captions and transcripts;
  • choosing VC software that has its own LMS integration (i.e. and not VC software that is reliant on a separate and specialised third-party LMS integration). An integration would allow lecturers to book sessions freely and combine DL groups if necessary;
  • having live and recorded video universal formats for all devices and browsers;
  • scrutinising how powerful ‘any of the’ engagement analytics features actually are;
  • improved front-end user experience with video feeds for all participants.

 7.     Conclusion

Long-term success in DL can only be accomplished if an inordinate effort is put into understanding and then addressing its innumerable challenges.

This paper has distilled some of the key issues that need to be broached by a team of DL experts.

Ultimately, to really improve DL, you have to be passionate about it.

And if the right mix of people in your organisation gets infected with the ‘passion bug’, DL could go to the stars and beyond…

So choice of people in DL is actually really crucial!


[1]eLearning Industry cites over 300 LMS on its LMS review page: https://elearningindustry.com/review-learning-management-system-lms