Providing alternatives for distance education students

David Cardnell, David Jones, Sharonn Stewart, Scot Aldred, Providing alternatives for distance education students, in Where is IT&T at? Proceedings of the Australian Computers in Education Conference, Wing Au, Ruth Geer, Bruce White (eds)


As emerging technology creates new and different learning opportunities for educators and students it is all too easy to be seduced by the technology and neglect the basics. The appropriate and integrated use of various media to facilitate a style of flexible learning that is seamless and transparent to the student is often overlooked. Cuskelly, Purnell and Lawrence (1995) highlight distance education students’ search for alternatives for the delivery of subject content, generally as a supplement to print materials rather than a substitute.

The authors of this paper comprise a team who have undertaken the challenge to provide alternative, educationally refined, interesting learning materials for distance education students. The subjects involved in this project are ‘Computer Hardware Fundamentals’ and ‘Systems Administration’. The newly augmented materials currently in circulation follow two years of cultivation and provide the basis for this paper. The authors present a complete list of alternatives incorporated in the learning materials of these subjects and discuss the educational rationale of each.


The recent rapid development in education technology has resulted in a virtual smorgasbord of teaching and learning options available to universities around the world. However, when we examine the evolution of traditionally accepted teaching modes and styles, we notice that the choice of content delivery has, in the past, depended on the following factors:

  • writings of educational theorists of the time;
  • findings of current educational research;
  • availability and cost effectiveness of educational technology of the time; and
  • tradition.

Teaching models that were generally accepted in the 1950s are no longer considered acceptable, largely because of:

  • low cost effectiveness;
  • greater access to new technology;
  • awareness of the advantages of a more ‘student centered’ approach to learning,
  • a growing market for more flexibly delivered and technology based courseware, and the corresponding reduction in demand for ‘on-campus’ delivered courses.

Back in the 1960s few universities were interested in delivering learning programs that deviated from a traditional teacher centered model. Now with the end of the millennium drawing to a close, technology has the potential to substantially alter the face of university education.

The changing face of distance education

In 1996, 53.8% of students at Central Queensland University (CQU) were distance education students (Holgate 1997). With such a high proportion of the student population studying via this mode, teaching and learning strategies used for these distance students must be up-to-date, educationally sound and innovative in order to maximise their performance. In the past the differentiation between distance education and on campus studies have been obvious. Print based delivery for distance students and lectures, tutorials and practical sessions for on campus students. Now emerging educational technology provides opportunities to use enhanced learning materials that are interesting and educationally refined alternatives for the student who prefers to study via distance education. However, as Sherry (1996) claims:

“too often instructional designers and curriculum developers have become enamoured of the latest technologies without dealing with the underlying issues of learner characteristics and needs, the influence of media upon the instruction process, equity of access to interactive delivery systems, and the new roles of teacher, site facilitator, and student in the distance learning process.”

In 1978 CQU began to expand into a multi-campus institution and today has campuses located in Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Mackay, Emerald, Sydney, Melbourne, Dubai, Fiji, Singapore and Hong Kong. In order to deliver cost-effective learning programs to all these venues the University has, since 1987, filmed lectures on the Rockhampton campus for Video Assisted Learning (VAL) and distributed these videotapes to all campuses and libraries. More recently, video conferencing technology has been used to deliver synchronously and interactively, lectures and tutorial classes to many of its’ campuses.

CQU has also embarked upon learning programs that are project and resource based. This means that students are given more responsibility for their own learning and as a consequence, spend more time in self-directed learning sessions. Distance education is of course no longer limited to print based materials. Video, CD-ROM and Internet delivery are all viable options today. It is now conceivable that on-campus and distance students could end up studying in similar ways using the same media.

The project

The authors of this paper comprise a team who have undertaken the challenge to provide alternative, educationally refined, interesting learning materials for distance education students. The subjects involved in the project are ‘Computer Hardware Fundamentals’ and ‘Systems Administration’.

Computer Hardware Fundamentals

This subject is compulsory for first year students in the Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) and is available as an elective subject to other courses offered by the university. The students enrolled in this subject have a range of backgrounds from novice to some years of experience in the information technology industry. Students may also be on the local campus, a regional campus, international or at a distance. A problem therefore exists in trying to match the subject to this broad-spectrum student population and yet still be meaningful and informative. In the end, the subject may look like a "committee’s horse" (the camel!).

The objectives of this subject are to enable students to gain an understanding of computer hardware operation, and how each part of the system interacts. A secondary objective is to introduce students to the literature search and review process essential to maintaining an awareness of current technological developments, as well as presenting that review in a professionally structured format. The PC is examined as the fundamental computer system. Through a number of laboratory exercise students work their way through the PC equipment and overcome the fear of the black box mentality so often associated with computer systems. The objectives of the subject cause a number of problems as a result of the students’ geographical location and access to the university. Forty nine percent of students are studying this subject in distance mode, and their average age is 34 years (Stewart & Cardnell 1997). Although 99% have access to computers only 85% have CD-ROMs. Alternatives implemented in Computer Hardware Fundamentals to meet the subject objectives include:

Flexible study media:

  • study materials is available in print, on CD-ROM and on the world wide web (WWW) and students continue to receive the study material in print form;
  • the study material is augmented by student controlled animations (that contain an audio commentary) to overcome split attention problems (cognitive load theory) (Chandler and Sweller 1991);
  • students have access to the study material, and links to other WWW sites through the subject’s Web pages;
  • an email forum has been established for students to discuss various aspects of the course and share solutions to a problem (e.g. Web sites with relevant information on the assignment question);
  • results of assignments and exams are posted to the Web page;

Hands-on practical components

  • students are required as part of the laboratory exercises to open a system unit and extract an interface card. The component layout of the card must be sketched;
  • Other exercises which examine the computer system are carried out (On campus students are required to change a PC’s mainboard (motherboard) and locate deliberately introduced faults);

Beyond the fundamentals

  • one assignment is a technical review of a current computer hardware "component";
  • one resource material booklet contains a collection of the best assignments presented by past students;

Systems Administration

Systems Administration has been taught entirely via the World Wide Web since 1996. Of approximately 120 students per semester, 60% of which are studying by distance education throughout Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The development of the Web-based approach was in response to problems experienced previously with traditional approaches (Jones 1996). The new Web-based approach was designed to increase student/student and student/teacher interaction, and decrease the cost and effort involved in annually updating the material.

In 1997 students raised concerns over the difficulties and cost involved in using online resources. The alternatives/differences being implemented in this subject for 1998 include:

  • new pedagogy;
    The pedagogy is built around constructivist/problem-based learning (PBL) foundations and attempts to encourage students to gain a deeper understanding of the material and especially to develop the problem solving capabilities essential for a good Systems Administrator.
  • a real world scenario;
    “You have been hired as the Systems Administrator of a small university department” This scenario is used throughout the subject to place the material in context and provide the student with real world problems. The use of an academic environment (an environment very familiar to the subject designer) makes it easier to produce a realistic scenario. The "real world" project is an attempt to give students a feel for what they will do in the real world. A collection of past Systems Administration students, who are now working as Systems Administrators, are asked via a mailing list, a number of questions about their professional life. Their responses are then placed onto the Systems Administration Web site for students to read.
  • new assessment methods; Institutional pressures to move away from traditional exam-based assessment, perceived shortcomings of that approach and the adoption of the constructivist/PBL pedagogy, have resulted in a departure from the traditional two assignments, final exam assessment model common to most computing subjects at CQU. The new assessment methods require the student to work continuously throughout semester on relevant, real world tasks and to discuss and assist other students.
  • opportunities for interaction; One of the characteristics of second generation distance education is the lack of student/student and student/teacher interaction (Jones 1996). The Internet and Web offers a medium that provides numerous advantages which can be used to promote interaction (McCormack and Jones 1997). All students are placed in small groups and required, as part of the assessment, to discuss, argue and explain concepts from the subject. Online discussion forums facilitate this interaction.

    The following student comments from previous offerings of the subject demonstrate the benefits of interaction for distance students:

    “I think I have gained a lot more from this subject than just UNIX, especially. with the interaction for first time in 8 years of external study!”
    “….last semester I gained an Email buddy (What do you call someone you do not even know, but communicate with on Email on a friendly basis?). Who has been a God-send in helping point me in the right direction at times and lending me books!”

  • appropriate mix of media ;
    Originally all text for this subject was delivered online. This caused significant problems for students both in time, money and readability. In 1998 the main Systems Administration text will be distributed as a print booklet. We found that the increased delivery flexibility offered by a totally online subject (the text could be updated during semester in response to changes in technology and student understanding), did not provide sufficient benefits to overcome the problems students encountered. In particular, providing the text each week during the semester did not match the study habits of many distance students. Many distance students do not study week by week. Instead they will do nothing for a number of weeks but then take time off from work and cover large quantities of content in a short period of time.
  • collections of resource material;
    Linux, the platform used in Systems Administration, exists and continues to develop because of the Internet. There is a large amount of information and software for Linux freely available via the Internet. Obtaining that information and software via a dialup connection to the Internet can be both time-consuming and expensive. As a solution to this problem, many of the major Linux resources are mirrored on the subject’s Web site and have now been placed onto the CD-ROM. This provides students with simple and economic access to a large amount of Linux information.


These subjects incorporate alternatives to traditional distance education materials including a choice of alternative delivery media. Both subjects are delivered via the web, or CD-ROM (the CD-ROM is designed to supplement the printed study guide). Bull, Bull and Sigmon (1996) argue that while the Internet is a powerful and expanding educational medium, there are times when another medium may be more educationally appropriate. Even if you have access to the Internet, web materials that have been transferred to a CD-ROM can be useful for the following reasons:

  • high speed delivery of graphics;
  • no online connection charges;
  • materials can be used even when there are no Internet connections.

Additional alternatives to traditional distance education learning materials that are incorporated into these subjects focus on solving shortcommings found in previous systems and include audio interviews, animations, and an apprentice approach.


Our development process and combined associated teaching and research project over the past 12 months, has led us to favour an approach that provides students with options in learning, and makes no differentiation between on-campus and distance students. We have maintained and integrated all the previous learning materials while developing more technology based opportunities for learning. Our rationale for doing this stems from the myriad of student learning styles and the overarching requirement for flexibility of delivery and use. Our concern with the present trends in electronic delivery is that the ‘baby is often thrown out with the bathwater’. We have adopted an approach of enhancing existing media with appropriate use of emerging educational technology and theories.


Bull G Bull G Sigmon T 1996 Mixed Media in Learning and Leading With Technology September 1996 pp54-56

Chandler P Sweller J 1991 Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction in Cognition and Instruction (US) Vol 8 No 4 pp293-332

Cuskelly E Purnell K Lawrence G 1995 Student Experiences of Distance Education at Central Queensland University: Findings from Focus Group Research ISBN 1875902198

Holgate E 1997 Extent of non-print media used for distance education at CQU in 1996. DDCE seminar presentation September 1997.

Jones D 1996 Solving some problems of University Education: A Case Study in Proceedings of AusWeb96 Southern Cross University Press Gold Coast Roger Debreceny Allan Ellis pp243-252

Jones D 1996 Computing by Distance Education: Problems and Solutions Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education Assocaition for Computing Machinery Barcelona Gordon Davies pp139 – 146

McCormack C Jones D 1997 Building a Web-based Education System John Wiley & Sons

Sherry L 1996 Issues in Distance Learning in International Journal of Distance Education Vol 1 No 4 pp337-365

Stewart S M Cardnell D Electronicfication: controlled versus mass digitising of a physics unit. in Proceedings of the 14th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) Curtin University of Technology ISBN 1 86342 623 x

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