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Best Practices for Distance Education


In-person and traditional classroom education are slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past. Advancements in technology, broader access to internet service, and a surge in remote workforce have all accelerated the effectiveness of distance education. Here to speak with us on best practices for distance education is Dr. Fred Saba, Professor Emeritus of Educational Technology at San Diego State University.

Dr. Saba he has been involved in the field of distance education since 1973, first as the Managing Director of Educational Radio and Television of Iran (1973-1978), and then as the Director of the Telecommunications Division at the University of Connecticut (1979-1984).

Dr. Saba has authored more than 100 articles and chapters in books. He has the distinct honor to be the first winner of the Charles A. Wedemeyer award given to scholars who have made significant contributions to research and theory building in the field of distance education.


Host – Steven Maggi: You might’ve heard the phrase “distance education” in the past. Well, it’s been around for a long time. And as technology continues to grow and develop, it’s becoming more and more a part of American technology and American business in the 21st century. So the question is, what are the best practices of distance education?

With us, we’ve got an expert: Professor Emeritus of Educational Technology at San Diego State University, Dr. Fred Saba. Dr. Saba’s been involved in the field of distance education since 1973 and was the first winner of the Charles Wedemeyer Award, given to scholars who have made significant contributions to research and theory building in the field of distance education.

Dr. Saba, welcome. When we talk about distance education, it’s really a lot more than knowing how to use Zoom.

Dr. Fred Saba: Yes. Thanks. Thanks for that introduction. I appreciate that. Yeah, as you said, distance education has been around for many years in the United States. By distance, we mean two different things. There is a physical distance, a geographical distance obviously between the teacher and the learner in distance education, which normally is bridged by some kind of a technology, and these technologies have changed over the years from the good old book to radio television to the internet.

There is another distance, and that is the psychological distance or, in a more technical term, transactional distance between the teacher and learner. And best practices refers to how do we bridge that distance? How do we make it more interesting for the student, bridge the psychological gap, as well as the geographical gap between the two?

Steven: It seems like the psychological side has to be changing nowadays because more and more people realize, with all these technical advances, plus some of the issues that have just come up recently, distance education is here forever and it’s going to be a bigger part of American business.

Dr. Saba: Yes, we are making more use of distance education these days in the corporate world, in higher education, and in K-12 education. I think we are focusing more on the corporate world in our conversation today, and best practices refers to how do we integrate distance education in the work of a corporation so that learning among the employees would be maximized, and distance among the teacher and the learner in a corporation would be minimized.

Steven: So the first thing, I guess, is really to assess what those learning needs are of the employee in relation to what they do in that organization.

Dr. Saba: That is a great start. A needs assessment is a very good start to make sure that what is presented to the learner is really related to the strategic goals of the core question.

Quite often, in my professional life, I was sent to training sessions. And as I was sitting in that training session, I was wondering, “Why am I here? This is an interesting subject. It is great to know these subjects, but it really doesn’t relate to what I do during my day-to-day life.”

Steven That makes a lot of sense because, boy, if you lose somebody there, then it becomes a time where the mind wanders, and really, that’s a lost opportunity.

Dr. Saba: Exactly. And you put your finger on another excellent point. And that is that, quite often, we take the employee out of his or her normal workflow and we will send that person into a training situation. So another way to bridge the distance, bridge the gap, is to integrate that learning process in the workflow of the employees. So training wouldn’t be an abstract event out of the normal workflow of the employee.

Steven: It seems like we even see that on the college front, because I know a lot of distance education programs now, the work around employees will try to coordinate the efforts for the class to do something that they also do at work, which makes a lot of sense because it’s going to be more relevant to the employee.

Dr. Saba: You know, most educational organizations, universities, colleges, are more and more becoming sensitive to what their graduates do when they enter the workforce, and are becoming more and more sensitive to that.

Now, obviously there is a base level of education that everyone should have if you go to college, but then, at some point, you graduate and enter the workforce. And there is that dynamic in universities and colleges between what the learner really needs to know when you are in college as a base level of education and what he or she needs to know when that person enters the workforce.

Steven: This all gets back to the distance education in the industrial setting or in the work setting, and that is establishing learning objectives, right? And you’ve got to be able to establish the right things because it gets back to, what do we want to see after this training is done or this learning is done?

Dr. Saba: That refers to the first point that you brought up and that needs assessment and setting up objectives that directly relates to the aim of the learner, not only in his or her immediate environment, but long term life objectives of that learner.

In the older days, we used to go from maybe two to three professions in our careers, but now, people change careers all the time because when they start school, the career in which they may end up has not even been invented.

So we need to be sensitive, not only to the immediate learning needs of the individual, but also to the long term needs of that person. And that’s where the baseline education comes to fore, that’s what everybody needs to know in order to navigate through the very complicated, I shouldn’t say complicated, I should say complex environment of the future.

Steven: Let’s talk a little bit more about that because I think that’s really interesting. One of the things we’re trying to do when we’re establishing this then is really trying to see ahead a little bit and kind of see where we’re going to be, right? Because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen five, ten years down the line, but we want to start thinking about what skills are going to be necessary and jump on that so it’ll seamlessly move into that new time.

Dr. Saba: Exactly. I follow space exploration by private corporations, and I mean, all of what private companies have been able to achieve in space exploration. Only that part of the economy is going to introduce many jobs in the future, many careers in the future that we even haven’t named now. And so the future is going to be a lot more interesting than what we have now.

Steven: When you talk about maximizing an employee’s performance and so forth, you’re very careful to say that you can statistically show that it’s not just simply a subjective thing, right? There’s actually objective standards you can set up to show that development.

Dr. Saba: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, we went from needs assessment to establishing objectives, and the next step is to design a learning experience that is relevant to those needs and relevant to those objectives. And that’s how then you would be able to evaluate, if you have specific objectives, then you can show whether your employee, your coworker is reaching those objectives or not.

Steven: Right. So it’s also important then, I guess, to kind of know what you’re dealing with, right when you’re going in. In other words, what knowledge does a person have of the subject matter before they even go into this type of learning?

Dr. Saba: Yes, exactly. And you’re bringing up a very, very important point here, and that is we are moving from a industrial mode of education in which everybody received the same kind of education, the same kind of instructional message, if you will, into a post-industrial mode of education with distance education, where instruction is adapted to the individual needs of the learner.

Steven: That really is 21st century education. Because, as a lot of the people that want to reform education across the country say, one size doesn’t fit all. People learn differently.

Dr. Saba: People learn differently. People have different prior knowledge of subject matters that we present them. People have different characteristics, but our system is designed for not only the 20th century, but for the 19th century. If you take a look at some of the rules and regulations that are in place, not only for the K-12 education, but also for higher education, and in certain respects for the corporate world, those rules really go back to the 19th century when we were building an industrial country. Now you’re in a post-industrial country, but the rules are the same.

Steven: So when people say you can go onto YouTube and look at somebody do something, that isn’t what you’re talking about with distance education, right? Because that’s just that person’s way of doing it. It’s I guess good for procedures and stuff, but the type of education you’re talking about is much deeper and much more of a back and forth type of connection as opposed to just watching something, listening, and then applying it.

Dr. Saba: Exactly. You’re right on. And so, research that started in the 1970s showed that a passive observer really doesn’t learn as much as an active participant, and that active participation doesn’t exclude watching a sketch or something on YouTube. That’s included, but then, what is important is the design of the instruction that asks the learner to engage in certain learning activities that would minimize the distance that we talked about earlier, and maximize his dialog, his interaction with the instructor.

There is this idea that we can eliminate the instructor. Well, yeah, in certain subject matters, in certain areas, maybe we can exclude the instructor and relegate that role to artificial intelligence or other kinds of adaptive learning systems, but eventually, we have to have an instructor and a dialogue between the learner and the instructor.

Steven: And we’re getting back to some of these best practices. You say it’s really important that the program be well-designed because that’s important to have that rapport that you’re talking about with an instructor or whatever the environment is.

Dr. Saba: It is, yeah. Distance education is a phrase. It depends how you design it, and it depends on how you implement it, and as you said, it depends how you evaluate it. So those are the elements of a good practice. Those are the elements of best practices.

Steven: Right. And therefore, it doesn’t really matter if the learner is in the same room or even in the same city as the instructor.

Dr. Saba: You and I can sit face-to-face, and you may be talking about something that you really, really need to learn, and I may be giving you a lecture about something that I like to talk about.

Steven: Exactly.

Dr. Saba: So that face-to-face instruction really doesn’t mean very much if I am establishing a rapport with you and trying to really relate my presentation to what you really need to learn, and vice versa.

Steven: To wrap all this up, if we’re trying to put together these practices, and we’re starting from scratch, what do you recommend for the designer to kind of start with? What’s the best way? I mean, is it a trial and error thing, or obviously studying some of these best practices which are out in society already?

Dr. Saba: Yeah. We have many years of experience with distance teaching and learning. We have many years of research in the field. A lot of universities, as well as the federal government, has spent a lot of money researching best practices. So I would say for the corporate world, as well as for higher education and K-12 education, we need to integrate the design of distance education into the workflow of an organization. And if you have a good instructional designer on your staff, engage that instructional designer into designing your training program from the outset.

Sometimes managers decide what they want to do first, and then they bring in the instructional designer, and my suggestion is to bring that instructional designer into the design of your training program from the outset and design it well within the workflow of your organization to achieve the strategic aims of your corporation.

Steven: Great advice. And if people wanted to read some really good information on distance education, you’ve got a great website. Where do we go to look at that?

Dr. Saba: My website is at www.distance-educator.com, and I appreciate you bringing that up.

Steven: Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Saba.

Dr. Saba: My pleasure. Thank you.