Setting the Stage for Distance and Blended Learning

Tech tips
a preview of the IDEAL handbook cover
The IDEAL Consortium is dedicated to helping member states across the US establish quality, innovative distance and blended learning programs; IDEAL has served as a facilitator of collaboration and sharing of effective practice since its inception in 2002. IDEAL’s Distance and Blended Learning Handbook addresses both administrative and instructional issues at the core of successful blended and distance education programming.
The Handbook is informed by both current research and policy guidelines and observations of effective practice documented by IDEAL Consortium members, past and present, and affiliated state leaders. The Handbook includes collective wisdom of past and current members in order to understand how to best leverage recent technological innovations for the benefit of adult education learners. The Handbook does this by presenting content in chapters that address important programmatic considerations.
This three-part blog series begins with “Setting the Stage”, which provides historical and policy contexts. It is followed by two posts covering key areas of recruitment, screening and orientation, and finally a post on instruction and assessment

Setting the Stage for Distance and Blended Learning

In the United States, adult education programs enrolled 1,468,383 learners during program year 2016 – 2017 (Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education National Reporting System, n.d.). Yet, this is only a fraction of the estimated 36 million adults in the U.S. who have basic skills needs or lack a high school diploma (OECD, 2013). In addition to inadequate systemic funding to meet the need, individual barriers such as lack of transportation or competing responsibilities from work and family often prevent millions of these adults from participating in traditional adult education classes.

This disparity has occurred in an environment of technological ubiquity in our society. Current demands for use of online technologies in work and daily life have prompted adult education programs to integrate more technology use to provide opportunities for learners to build technology skills while simultaneously building basic academic skills (Jacobson, 2012; Newman, Rosbash, & Sarkisian, 2015; Rosin, Vanek, & Webber, 2017). However, programs still struggle to find opportunities for learners to engage with relevant technology with the potential to serve learners with barriers to participation. Adding blended or distance learning is a fine response to the reality described above. In this post I’ll offer some suggestions for how to get started.

What is distance or blended learning?

First you need to think about the sort of program you want to provide. It helps to first decide on language. Distance Education (DE) is defined in NRS Guidelines as follows:

Formal learning activity where students and instructors are separated by geography, time, or both for the majority of the instructional period. Distance learning materials are delivered through a variety of media including, but not limited to, print, audio recording, videotape, broadcasts, computer software, web-based programs and other online technology. Teachers support distance learners through communication via mail, telephone, e-mail or online technologies and software (NRS Implementation Guidelines, 2018, p. 48).

IDEAL uses the term to refer to programming a bit more broadly. Distance education describes all aspects of programming that allows a learner to continue learning beyond the walls of a classroom: recruitment, screening, instruction, assessment, and administration.

Murphy et al. (2017) arrived at useful definitions based on their study of digital learning in adult basic education programs across the country. They explored use of different online learning curricula in 13 programs by 105 instructors with 1,579 adult learners. Based on their observations on the use of curricula, they came up with following use models for the online products, which I think serve as useful definitions.

  • Blended Models are characterized by “tight integration of the product into a broader curriculum and instructional program” (p. E-S 5). In this case instructors consider both in-class and online instruction as part of a collective whole, making adjustments to their face-to-face teaching based on what they see as they monitor student work online and altering online assignments based on what they observe in class.
  • Hybrid models employ both an online curriculum product and in-class teaching, but though the teacher is checking it, the assigned work that students complete online may not be directly aligned to what happens in the classroom. Note that in Texas, hybrid also refers to programs that offer a period of in-class instruction followed by a period of online learning. Though in some places this term is used interchangeably with ‘blended’, I think it is useful to have language to make the distinction between them clear.
  • Supplemental models make use of online curricula outside regular class time, are not required, and may not even be checked by the instructor. This is extra work that is somewhat aligned to the goals of a course, but it does not require any extra effort on the part of the instructor.

Where to start?

Do consider all aspects of educational programming, using a holistic approach to
program development or improvement. It is not enough to buy a license to an online
curriculum and hire a teacher. The experience of the learner needs to be considered
from the time they express interest in learning through the time they are assessed.

  • Consider doing this work in small, managed, and highly focused and experimental projects. Establish a pilot with one targeted group of learners, choosing appropriate learning materials for those learners. Perhaps choose one core curriculum when first beginning. Teachers can then identify or create supplemental activities to fill in gaps and further address skills as they become familiar with the curriculum over time.
  • Provide the requisite number of staff with the support, training, and time they need to put your plans into practice.
  • Keep reinventing. Technology is a dynamic beast! Both the technological demands faced by your learners and the learning resources available are constantly changing

Be sure you are not just starting with the desire to try out a shiny new online curriculum or technology like a set of chromebooks. Before you make any decisions about technology, you need to know why you want to change your programming. Try to answer these questions before you even begin looking for technologies that will support the work:

  • What is the vision behind adding a distance education program? Do you want to reach new learners, increase the intensity of instruction by offering a blended model, improve students’ technology skills, prevent students from dropping out from the program when they can no longer attend face-to-face instruction, improve outcomes, or a combination of these areas?
  • How can the distance education program build on your program’s strengths?
  • How can it support achieving funders’ expectations such as meeting the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) performance standards?
  • How can leadership for the distance education program be shared?
  • What is a reasonable timeline for implementing the distance education program?
  • Since this is a new initiative, what are the goals for the pilot? What are the expectations at the end of the pilot?

Important decisions you’ll make along the way.

Are you going to build distance, blended, hybrid learning opportunities or some combination of them? The format of your program will depend on the learners and their goals and the vision, the resources available, the investments you can make, and goals for your program.

A second decision involves selecting instructional materials. Many programs choose to use a publisher-developed curriculum when first beginning a distance program as their core instructional resource. Teachers can then identify or create supplemental activities to fill in gaps and further address skills. States generally provide guidance on what curricular options are available for teaching at a distance and this guidance is generally in state policy.

Another consideration involves exploring the ways technology can support the expansion of services and what type of technology to use. Technology can be used to reach more learners as well as to motivate them, provide greater instructional flexibility, and increase resources for teaching and learning. Programs should consider what technology students have access to and what technology skills they need for their future employment and postsecondary education goals.

Finally, consider who is going to teach and how they will prepare. Making the change from classroom teaching to distance teaching or integrating blended learning is a major transition for teachers. Create an institutional climate that supports them in making this transition. Provide supports, such as conference calls, online chats, and websites for teachers where they can ask questions to help them think through the many issues they will encounter.

It helps if teachers are excited about the opportunity for professional growth and about what distance learning can offer their students. Even the most motivated teachers need adequate support; this generally means time to develop expertise and plan and meet with students.  Here are some concrete things programs can do to support teachers new to distance or blended learning.

  • Programs might provide mentoring groups in which experienced distance teachers can support and guide new teachers. This provides an opportunity for teachers to work together to address challenges and creates an environment that encourages professional growth.
  • Understand that to teach effectively, teachers must be familiar with the instructional resources. Because distance education programs may be individualized, students can enter the program at any number of points. Thus, the teacher can’t simply stay “one day ahead” of the class and be able to meet the students’ needs. Provide curriculum training and planning time for teachers.
  • Provide financial compensation and/or release time for teachers working with experimental distance education program pilots. Consider providing flexible working hours for distance teachers and compensation for the nontraditional hours they are likely to work. It is unreasonable to expect teachers to assume a task of this magnitude during the normal working day or on top of a full workload and be able to flourish as distance teachers.

Monitoring the success of your programs

A true shift to developing and sustaining effective distance and blended learning needs to be informed by data. Decide what you will measure, how you will collect the data, and what you will analyze to determine progress and implementation success.  What ratio of face-to-face to online learning will you ask programs to report? Several states like Minnesota, Arizona, and Texas have very strong data practices that help them know student progress and persistence results for learners engaged in online learning at 10 percent, 20 percent, and up to 90 percent online. These data practices help them make decisions about policy, professional development, and online product procurement at the state level.

Whatever your data practices, know that distance and blended learning can support WIOA performance outcomes: job attainment, job retainment, average earnings, secondary school and postsecondary credentials attainment, measurable skill gain, and effectiveness in serving employers.  Distance education can lead to improved outcomes by:

  • Increasing student persistence and preventing student stop-out.
  • Increasing skill attainment necessary for work and postsecondary education.
  • Modeling technology and independent work skills needed for the workplace and postsecondary education.
  • Incorporating academic skills with a training program to offer an Integrated Education and Training (IET) model.
  • Customizing instruction to provide sector-specific activities that prepare students for the workplace.

Read more!

This post has highlighted important considerations for setting up and administering effective distance and blended learning programs. Much of the information provided is further developed in Chapters 1 and 7 of the IDEAL Distance and Blended Learning Handbook (  I encourage you to check out the Handbook to learn more.

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