Ten Layers of expertise in developing distance learning

Photo of mountains-woodland-scrubWell-written and well-designed distance learning materials aim to provide learners with an interesting and seamless experience. If they are composed well, they seem to capture the audience effortlessly. Slips in coherence, even small ones, can draw attention to the material itself, rather than keep the learner engaged and absorbed in the narrative.

A major problem for authors, especially those new to this genre, is that it looks much easier than it actually is. Even for seasoned Open University academics, distance-learning materials undergo a multitude of iterations. Here, I explain about ten layers of expertise involved in developing these materials.

1.       Curriculum knowledge

2.       Knowledge of academic levels

3.       Knowledge of assessment

4.       Knowledge of the audience and all stakeholders

5.       Subject knowledge

6.       Skills knowledge

7.       Pedagogical knowledge

8.       Design knowledge

9.       Knowledge about online and print formats

10.   Knowledge about correct use of written English

1 Curriculum knowledge

As a consultant, one of the first things I do is to locate a set of learning outcomes, along with a broad outline of the intended subject content and skills development. It also helps if the assessment points are mapped against the intended content and skills. I like to get my ducks lined up ready! Seeing how a course or module fits within the broader offering of a qualification is also a helpful grounding exercise. What has already been taught, and what is to come next?

2. Knowledge of academic levels

The academic level of a course will guide the demands placed upon learners. Elements such as the complexity of ideas, length and difficulty of readings, expectations for originality of learning outputs, ability to collaborate, maturity of approach and learner autonomy, will depend on the level. Achieving this knowledge requires reference to national levels frameworks.

3. Knowledge of assessment

Assessment has close links with curriculum and levels. Are you applying the right method of assessment depending on the desired learning outcome? Distance learning can mean some limitations on mode of assessment – giving a presentation may not be practical, for example. Skills in writing assessments can stretch from writing essay questions and guidance, interactive computer marked assessments, project assignments, and exam questions. Knowledge of how to minimise plagiarism is also important here.

4. Knowledge of the audience and all stakeholders

Who are your students? Are they going to be putting their new knowledge into practice straight away? Will they be supported by a tutor? How much time will the tutor contract involve? Who else has stakes in your course? For this last question, consider professional groups and employers, and even service users. Think globally if appropriate. Consider asking for feedback from all potential stakeholders at the development stage.

5. Subject knowledge

Many academic authors focus on their subject expertise, and so they should. Finding ways of presenting your expert knowledge to ‘invisible’ learners can be greatly challenging. Any of the content needs to be relevant to the wider narrative of a course, so paying attention to the sequence is vitally important.  You also need to ensure that you support any claims you make with robust evidence – after all, you expect your students to do this!

6. Skills knowledge

How are your students going to engage with the subject? What skills do they need? How can you help them develop practical and academic skills? Thinking about these questions can guide your writing and assist you in constructing your students’ learning activity. All too often, academics tend to overlook the skills required for reading academic texts, navigating online databases, using search engines, engaging with audio-visual resources, engaging in social media, and writing in your own words.

7. Pedagogical knowledge

How can you teach an invisible audience who will be interacting with the learning materials at some point in the future? How can you engage their curiosity? The magic of learning occurs at the intersection between the distance learning materials and the engaged learner. If you get all the ingredients right, students will follow your instructions – read/watch/discuss/find/make notes – and bring their own life experience to bear on making this process and it outputs meaningful.

8. Design knowledge

Bringing together all the elements of a distance-learning course can require complex design skills. Visual design (logos, icons, images, page layout online navigation) and learning design (e.g. combining assimilative, productive, cooperative, interactive activities) are both important here. Good assessment design is also crucial for helping learners make sense of the learning journey.

9. Knowledge about online and print formats

You need to adapt your approach, depending on whether you are writing for print or writing for the computer or smartphone screen. Attention spans will be shorter on-screen, so limit long expanses of text to print resources. Of course, the boundaries are blurring with the burgeoning of tablets designed for reading books and long documents. Methods of annotating have also expanded with the introduction of new technologies. Keep up to date! In online formats, the reader can easily follow an embedded hyperlink, whereas in print it will be difficult for the reader to move seamlessly to a website. If your online materials are easy to update, make sure that any time-sensitive content is presented in this format rather than in print.

10. Knowledge about correct use of written English

You want your learners to develop good writing habits, so make sure you are modelling a good example. Paying attention to clear, plain language will also mean that learners are more likely to understand what you are saying, and reduce the risk of excluding people who are non-native English speakers. Correct use of English is also about ensuring you use non-discriminatory language. The input of skilled editors is invaluable! If you are writing your materials in any other language, the principles still apply!

No wonder great quality distance learning is highly valued and sometimes envied. It is not something to be rattled out over a weekend!

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