In good distance education, it is the course rather than the educator that provides an appropriate learning environment for students. Rather than simply referring to a set of materials, however, the course is the structure of learning that is designed into the materials. It has three basic elements:
· Conceptual pathways to command of its knowledge, conceptualizing skills and practical abilities.
· Educational strategies to help the student find his or her way through these pathways.
· Summative and formative assessment, which should be integral to the learning process. The materials and presentation of the course as a whole must excite, engage and reward the student. Courses should be designed so as to involve students actively in their own learning and should allow them quick access and clear pathways through them. Although there is no need for courses to use advanced technologies, most, but not necessarily all, will make use of a variety of media. In designing courses, provision should also be made for the necessary practical work. In order to be as flexible and open as possible, courses should be organized in modules.
An essential component in the successful design of courses is collaboration. This can be achieved by using an approach where a group of people, each with particular skills and competencies, develop a course as a team. Although there is no golden mean, nor indeed an absolute minimum, a substantial ratio of staff course design time to student study time will be inevitable in developing courses. However, some of the better courses in more challenging subjects might have ratios of fifty to a hundred hours of design time to each hour of student study time. This has clear implications for courses designed for small numbers of students: they are simply not financially viable if collaborative design processes are to be used.
Distance education providers should make provision to advise and help individuals who would otherwise be isolated throughout the learning process, and in particular, to help them to make choices before enrolling in educational programmes. It should be made easily available through a variety of devices, including, most importantly, human intervention.
If students are to adapt to the special requirements of guided self-study, they require various forms of support, for example, satisfactory access to tutors and facilitators, opportunities to interact with other students and access to the necessary facilities.
This would involve administrative support on a number of levels, including enrolment procedures, payment of fees, delivery of materials and keeping channels of communication open. The aim throughout should be to keep administrative procedures few and simple.
Quality assurance should be an element of all learning programmes. Several mechanisms need to be established to ensure the quality of learning programmes and their capacity for self-improvement. One of the most critical of these is a mechanism which enables meaningful and reliable feedback from students and tutors into the ongoing performance of the institution.
As with all aspects of education, continuing research, evaluation and development are necessary for the improvement of distance education provision. Distance education providers also need to have effective research as the basis for improving the quality of their performance.
Effectively managing distance learning involves establishing performance criteria and targets for the institution, together with mechanisms for publicly and regularly evaluating performance and incorporating lessons learned into improved practices.