JITE v39n4 - Under Review - Evaluation and Implementation of Distance Learning: Technologies, Tools, and Techniques

Volume 39, Number 4
Summer 2002


Belanger, F., & Jordan, D. H. (2000). Evaluation and implementation of distance learning: Technologies, tools, and techniques. Hershey, PA: Idea Group. $69.95, 246 pp. (ISBN 1-878-28963-2) (Paper).

Nancy Pliska Robinson
The University of Georgia

As the power of computers has increased exponentially, so has the focus on using distance learning technologies in education and training. A number of educational institutions, learning organizations, and countless corporations embrace the benefits and potential associated with this highgrowth industry. The unprecedented degree of communication between individuals and the ease of access to information because of these technological advancements has opened up remarkable educational and entrepreneurial opportunities. In response to the increasing demand for delivering courseware with effective instructional design, this book provides the essentials for identifying factors that influence the successful implementation of instruction from a distant site to a widely distributed population.

The authors open by identifying the major objectives of their book: (a) highlighting factors that influence the successful delivery of distance learning, (b) examining design and operational issues, technology selection and adoption, and (c) considering content requirements and technical constraints associated with the delivery process in distance learning environments. The authors build their book around the concepts, tools, and techniques of effectively delivering distance learning instruction not only from an instructors' perspective but from a learner's perspective as well. Several appendices with useful forms, definitions, and on-line resources are also provided. Tables are used throughout the text to provide helpful and informative summaries of key concepts. The inclusion of case studies provides additional instances of the treatment of issues related to distance learning in educational institutions and commercial organizations.

Chapter 1 provides a solid overview of the terminology associated with distance learning. Distance learning (DL) represents a learning environment where students and instructors are geographically separated and some form of technology is used to deliver instruction or training. Differences between distance training and education, distance teaching and learning, and distance and distributed learning are clearly identified. Chapter 2 provides a review of learning theories and their application to distance learning. The authors emphasize the importance of interactivity in the delivery process and the benefits to learners in a synchronous or asynchronous setting. Synchronous refers to real time interaction between the instructor and learner whereas asynchronous learning can occur anytime or anywhere. The full range of computer technologies, including video tele-training, videotape, and teleconferencing, are evaluated with regard to each learning variable.

Chapter 3 details the advantages and disadvantages of instructional technologies for instructors, learners, and organizations. The authors define technology as "those tools that provide access to education or training, such as telecommunication networks, computers, or books" (p. 36). Each technology is rated according to its multimedia capabilities, user interface, document organization, design requirements, and learner interactivity. Belanger and Jordan astutely assess the challenges facing instructional approaches that use bulletin boards, web-based "chat" facilities, and electronic mail. A careful analysis of the benefits and problems encountered with each category is presented. For example, "Because bulletin boards are static, uni-directional, and asynchronous, it is believed that most instructors would prefer the use of Web pages for information dissemination" (p. 59). Even an older and less glamorous form of distance learning, video training, is offered as a viable alternative to more elaborate instructional delivery processes.

Chapter 4 focuses on the extensive procedures involved in analyzing a media conversion, the process of evaluating course materials and existing instructional systems for conversion to distance learning. Examination of course suitability, media selection, development time, cost/benefit estimates, and maintenance expenditures provide key information for executing an effective analysis. The authors apply the phases of the "ADDIE" model (analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation) to the instructional system design (ISD) process to determine the optimal distance learning environment. During every phase, Belanger and Jordan try to present different strategies for implementing each major type of conversion method. Particularly enlightening is the assessment of the challenges of suitability considerations in the design process. Factors such as learner throughput (the relationship between average class size and course frequency), physical risk, adaptation of hands-on activities, and group-based training are explored. Variables for consideration in analyzing delivery methods for distance learning include length of instruction, class size, geographic location of learners, and instructor feedback, to name a few. Even the complexities of calculating compression rates and development hours are presented for each type of media. This is especially informative since DL instruction is more compact and the amount of time required to deliver a course is "compressed" or shortened substantially. Along with the investment in time, return on investment (ROI) is also investigated in order to emphasize the importance of measuring improvements in learner performance in distance learning settings.

In Chapter 5, Belanger and Jordan examine the development of multimedia content. The different file formats, specifications, and software requirements are discussed. The level of interactivity and the importance of creating meaningful course content that engages all of a learner's senses are presented in several comprehensive, yet easy to interpret, tables. The authors elaborate on the development phase of the ADDIE model. From creating a plan to evaluating and testing a distance learning course, practical strategies that are essential in the DL conversion process are furnished. More notably, detailed evaluations of seven commercial off-the-shelf products are evaluated for their attributes and practicality. Consideration is given to the effectiveness of learner tools, instructor tools, technical/administrative tools, technical requirements, purchasing requirements, and web addresses. A table summarizing the characteristics of each feature is furnished at the end of the chapter. Examples of products featured are CourseInfo by Blackboard and WebCT.

It is in Chapter 6 that Belanger and Jordan present issues confronted in the final phases of developing a distance learning environment— implementation and evaluation. The authors are quick to point out that even though the benefits of developing and implementing DL courses are numerous, the technology in itself may not be the most appropriate method for delivering instruction. Therefore, Belanger and Jordan put forward an extensive discussion of the advantages of designing a strategic plan, linking budgeting and funding processes to the planning process, gaining commitment from multiple constituencies and stakeholders, preparing for change and innovation, and identifying administrative requirements. They also provide a comprehensive questionnaire to assist in assessing current infrastructure requirements for upgrading existing resources to support distance learning. Finally, different methods of evaluation are offered to determine the effectiveness of a DL program. Examples of models of evaluation featured are the Van Slyke et al. Framework, Marshall and Shriver's Five Levels of Evaluation, and Kirkpatricks's Four Levels of Evaluation. There is no perfect structure or compilation of processes that works in every situation; however, these models are representative of course requirements for academic institutions.

In the final chapter, the authors synthesize the major concepts of converting to distance learning. They offer three case studies that apply course design principles and attributes using practical analogies. The case studies emphasize strategic conversion and infrastructure analysis. The factors that influence successful delivery in each unique situation along with recommendations and suggestions for either total or partial conversion provide the reader several feasible solutions.

To its credit, the book does not adopt a utopian outlook of distance learning as likely to revolutionize schools and solve the multitude of problems inherent in the educational system. Neither does it see the rapid integration of computers into schools as a misuse of resources or dire predictions of the downfall of important educational processes and values. It gives scant attention to the issue of how the use of various kinds of distance learning applications changes student outcomes or pedagogical practices. In addition, this book is not a "how to" manual for educators interested in improving their computer skills or how to find practical advice about topics such as the best methods for integrating computers into their curriculum. It will not offer endless lists of web sites that are useful for teaching various subjects. Rather, this book discusses a wide range of more specific issues tackled by educators working in environments using distance learning. The book's treatment of these issues is especially valuable since most are not generally covered in any depth throughout technology-related pre-service or professional development.

In summary, this book should be required reading for every CEO, university president, senior VP, senior institutional administrator, midmanager, and faculty member who has responsibility for implementing and evaluating distance learning technologies. This book's incorporation of theory, practice, and challenges of the field is significant and should be a part of every graduate program for educators. The authors' scholarly approach to evaluation and implementation culminate in a wealth of information, experience, and practical strategies for all educators and professionals. Corporate training managers and government administrators who are leading distance learning initiatives would also benefit greatly from this book. In conclusion, Belanger and Jordan have written a "distance learning handbook" for educators and professionals who want to be able to implement and evaluate effective DL systems the right way.

Robinson (nprobinson@mindspring.com) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Occupational Studies at The University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.
Tracy Gilmore