Dimensions of Distance/Asynchronous Instruction


Distance or asynchronous instruction encompasses a wide variety of situations differing along multiple dimensions. The critical aspect of the instruction can be the fact that students and teachers are separated in space and/or in time. The distance or asynchronous component can represent the whole course or it can complement a more-or-less standard 'face to face' course. The activity can be defined as a course taught formally by a teacher and given credit by an educational institution or it can be an independent collaborative learning community.

For the working group, we propose limiting the subject matter to be something within computer science education. However, the students can still vary considerably as to their level (high school, traditional age undergraduates, adult learners pursuing their initial college degrees, graduate students, high school teachers or others seeking continuing education). Screening students for this form of instruction may or may not go on and this is a critical area to investigate. One possibility involves testing. Another approach is to rely on self-selection. The validity of either approach deserves study.

 The specific topics for instruction can vary. In many cases, the topic for instruction is the technologies being used. Another common topic is teaching using distance/asynchronous instruction. Other topics are technologies not directly involved in distance learning, conceptual material including traditional topics in computing, mathematics, and so on, a mixture or something else.

The technical infrastructure supporting the distance or asynchronous instruction can vary from standard mail to the basic facilities of the World Wide Web to special commercial packages to the latest technologies coming into affordable use. It is important to note that distance, asynchronous education is not a totally new idea. A question is whether or not its current manifestations supported by Web and multimedia technologies represent something distinctly different from situations in the past? What is the contribution and role of the different technologies?

 The institutions and organizations involved in distance and asynchronous instruction vary widely. Our focus will be on the application of these methods to academic education. However, we should not ignore that for-profit distance education is now viewed as a growth industry. A related issue concerns the infrastructure required to support this form of instruction. What is common practice today and what is ideal? What technologies are critical for supporting ancillary activities such as student advisement, social interactions and testing?

 A formative assessment of the instruction can feature the outreach to under-served populations, service to a population defined by market forces, or it can assess courses as 'traditional' sources are or, perhaps, should be assessed. For example, does the course result in substantial engagement and learning on the part of students who would not necessarily learn on their own?

Working Group Objective

The objective of this working group would be to reflect on the many aspects of distance and/or asynchronous instruction and to raise the level of discussion on this trendy topic to serve our profession. The strategy will be to gather real examples from educators around the world and then define dimensions or frameworks of consideration relevant to computer science education. We will survey studies performed on distance and/or asynchronous instruction. One product of our work will be a set of questions for further pedagogical research.

 We propose that the working group gather a set of descriptions of examples of distance/ asynchronous instruction and then define and refine a set of critical dimensions or frameworks. The next step will be to reflect and also speculate on the relationships among these dimensions, focusing on questions such as application to topics in computer science and information systems education, significance of technologies, and assessment. We will also suggest experiments or studies that could be done to increase understanding of the critical factors in distance and asynchronous teaching and learning.

Working Group Leaders

At Pace University, the authors and their colleagues have been involved in several distinct activities involving distance and/or asynchronous education. These include: Stuart Varden was active in the design of a system of testing for the associates' degree program. He is also the coordinator for the research seminar component of the doctor of professional studies program. He can put current activities in context of several programs involving industry-university partnerships.

Jeanine Meyer designed and will co-teach the intensive, mostly asynchronous programming course and regular supplements all her courses with on-line, threaded conferences and Web publication of student work. Several years ago, she was a guest lecturer at a real-time chat discussion on a course on electronic mentoring.

Stuart and Jeanine have collaborated on an on-going study of attitudes and experiences relating to computing expressed at the start and the conclusion of a introductory course in computer information systems. They are also starting a study on students' views on what is easy and what is difficult in learning programming. The experience focusing on issues of learning would be beneficial to the working group.

Working with the conference organizers, the two will recruit a team of educators to address this important issue in order to produce a white paper for use by educators in the computing field.