Distance Education/Dispersed Learning

In the current digital age, information is available in greater volumes and with faster access than in any prior time in history. Harnessing this information effectively can be a challenge and an opportunity for counseling educators and students. Technological innovations are changing the educational environment and allowing for a wide array of flexible education opportunities. Many universities are offering options to traditional face-to-face, on-campus education programs and continuing education opportunities Distance education can be a cost-effective mode of instructional delivery, accommodating the schedules of a nontraditional student (i.e., older adults with job and family responsibilities). On many college campuses, on-campus students are also opting to enroll in distance education courses and distance delivered course sections to take advantage of flexible scheduling and the opportunity to study when their work and nonschool schedules allow.

Universal Design for Learning and Best Teaching Practices

The underlying premise of distance education is that educational opportunities are available anytime, anywhere, and are designed for everyone (universal design for learning). Underlying the concept of universal design for learning is that a curriculum includes alternatives that make the learning accessible and applicable to students with different backgrounds, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities. When an instructor varies the way a lesson is taught, be it in-person or at a distance, more students benefit.

Universal design for learning (UDL) is defined by Bremer and colleagues as an environment and course materials that allow all students, regardless of their abilities and backgrounds, the same access to academic success. The principles of UDL propose adapting instruction to individual student needs through the following:

  1. Multiple means of presentation of information to students (e.g., digital text, audio, video, still photos, images, and all with captions as appropriate)
  2. Multiple means of expression by students (e.g., writing, speaking, drawing, video-recording, assistive technology)
  3. Multiple means of engagement for students (e.g., choice of tools, adjustable levels of challenge, cognitive supports, novel or varied grouping)

Learning increases when different methods, such as slides, videos, music, role-playing, or small group activities are incorporated into the classroom or instructional materials. Flexibility is essential in the learning process. When the design of instruction takes into consideration the many different types of learning styles, the classroom setting, local events, and the students’ personalities, the classroom environment is enhanced, and everyone benefits. UDL builds upon educational traditions and best teaching practices that are very well established in practice and documented in the research literature.

Best teaching practices stand the test of time and are enhanced with technology innovations. The seven principles of best practice, as identified by Chickering and Gamson, are as effective in a distance education environment as they are in a traditional face-to-face classroom. UDL provides a blueprint for creating flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that accommodate learner differences.

Distance Education Development and Delivery

Distance education can be developed and offered using a variety of tools and methods. Today’s available technology tools for delivering Web-based learning and developing Web-based learning materials can include systems for content and learning management (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT) and designed Web sites (e.g., live, dynamic-interactive). There are as many reasons for choosing one learning management system or delivery method over another as there are systems and methods. Blackboard and WebCT are similar and operated by the same organization. They both allow for secure administration of a wide array of online instructional units and materials and for student information management across the PC and Mac hardware platforms. Both products allow for faculty or instructional designers to develop online instructional units using the templates, tools, and components of the learning and content management system. eCollege is a very similar product to Blackboard and WebCT, but the online instructional unit development is often handled by the company using the contracting institution’s or faculty’s content. The integration with student information systems is similar in Blackboard, WebCT, and eCollege. For a contracted fee with the delivering institutions, most content and learning management systems can manage and deliver HTML, flash, and multimedia instructional materials as well as share content through file exchange tools and manage communication as e-mail redirection portals. There is a wide variety of proprietary learning management systems, developed within educational institutions, that perform similar functions.

Principles for Designing Web-Based Learning Materials

Regardless of the tool or vehicle for distributing educational materials, successful Web-based learning materials are based on solid cognitive theory and instructional design theory. Morrison, Ross, and Kemp ask critical questions to frame the instructional design process: What is the purpose of the instruction? What can learners do to demonstrate they understand the material? How can you assess whether the learners have mastered the content? What type of content and performance are specified in the objectives? What is the best way to implement your instructional strategies? How do instructional objectives dictate the selection of evaluation methods? These questions need to be answered taking into consideration how they affect the cognitive domain. Effective learning objectives address information or knowledge, naming, solving, predicting, and other intellectual aspects of the learning process. When these questions have been considered, the real work of developing effective instruction begins.

Materials should be organized in such a way that the learner can easily understand the instructional procedures and policies of the course. The instructor should set clear communication guidelines and expectations. All course information that is delivered orally in a traditional classroom needs to be explicitly listed on the course Web site. Deadlines for the course should be established and published to encourage regular participation from the students and to alleviate procrastination on the part of the student or the instructor. When developing course materials, consider putting the content in modules to break up the information flow into manageable chunks—quite often the course textbook will guide this process, as many textbooks are developed in units, chapters, or sections.

An effective instructional design model encompasses the instructional problem, learner characteristics, a task analysis, development of instructional objectives, sequencing of content, strategies of instruction, message design, instructional development, and evaluation and assessment tools. By taking into account the principles of UDL, counseling educators designing educational materials for in-class, traditional, or distance environments will be preparing materials that will serve the programs, students, and future clients well.


  1. Bremer, C. D., Clapper, A. T., Hitchcock, C., Hall, T., & Kachgal, M. (2002, December). Universal design: A strategy to support students’ access to the general education curriculum [Information brief]. Addressing Trends and Developments in Secondary Education and Transition, 1(3). Retrieved from http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=707
  2. Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991). Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., & Kemp, J. E. (2004). Designing effective instruction (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  4. Summers, J., Waigandt, A., & Whittaker, T. (2005). A comparison of student achievement and satisfaction in an online versus a traditional face-to-face statistics class. Innovative Higher Education, 29(3), 233-250.

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