Five Models for Online Distance Learning

This is the third in a series of articles about developing online distance learning programmes, leading towards a consideration of how much and what kind of resource is needed to do it successfully.  This article looks in brief at five different models for online programmes.

You can download a pdf version of this article, or read below.

When considering cost of development, we have seen that the cost of up-front development varies with the educational model chosen and the technologies we are working with.  To illustrate this, here is a very high level overview of five different distance learning models, with ascending levels of production cost.

Type Features Cost of Development
Conversation-led course The course is run on a simple discussion board.  There is little or no pre-made material.  The teacher works closely in conversation with a small number of online students, and the content is generated by teacher-student and student-student interactions. Very low up-front development cost.  The cost of teaching is high as it requires high level personalised interactions between teachers and students.
Mirror course This course mirrors a campus-based course, running alongside it.  As lectures are given they are broadcast in real time or recorded and uploaded immediately.  Discussion forums, assignments and supplementary learning materials are provided online for campus-based and distance students to share. Setting up the lecture recording involves resource, depending on institutional facilities.  Otherwise the online elements are shared between campus and distance students, providing efficiencies.
Adapted course This makes use of existing learning materials, but adapts them for the online medium, structured within a sequenced format that allows for multiple modes of students learning: suitable content, facilitated learning activities, feedback at multiple points, student-student interaction and reflective practice.  Traditional lectures may usefully be converted into shorter screencasts, with learning activities built around them. Developing this kind of course requires: a) expertise in online learning course design, b) academic authoring to repurpose materials, c) some technical expertise in mounting, structuring, designing the course. 

Costs will vary according to the readiness of existing content, levels of institutional support, and the technology being used, but it is typically a medium development cost in comparison with the other models given here.

Self-directed, open, resource-led learning Students are presented with a wealth of pre-packaged online learning content, including workbooks which guide a student through every step of the learning.  The educational model is largely information transfer, though with online coaching provided, and students may work at their own pace. High development cost as the learning is centred around students absorbing bespoke content written for self-directed learning.
‘e-training’ course A self-contained rich media package, with an interactive graphical user interface allowing multiple paths through multimedia content. Very high development cost. Still used for e.g. large scale corporate compliance training, or for direct skills-based assessment.  Typically involves working with specialist media design company.


The above are simplifications, but serve to illustrate a point: that the cost of up-front development (and indeed of ongoing commitments in terms of teaching time) will vary enormously with the model chosen.

All these models can also work well, depending on the purpose, the levels, and the student audience.

The next article in this series will look in more detail at the Adapted Model, as one which varies the modes of instruction, is realistic in terms of development cost, allows universities to convert existing courses while making good use of the medium and technologies available.

I welcome comments and feedback, here or on Twitter or elsewhere, and if you found it useful, do feel free to share it with others.

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