No two distance learning programs are the same.

While many institutions have borrowed and utilized similar ideas from each other, each institution is doing distance learning a little differently.

If you're an institution or instructor trying to figure out how to set up your distance courses for success, you might be wondering, "What should my distance learning program actually look like? What features, technologies, or pedagogical methods should I use to ensure all distance learning courses are as effective as traditional classrooms?"

With these questions in mind, here's our round up of what the ideal distance learning program and courses should be like, including:


  • Types of courses to offer
  • Tips for making courses more engaging
  • Technologies to use
  • How to support remote students outside of class 

14 Must-Haves for Any Distance Learning Program

Type of Courses to Offer: Flexibility is Key

Some online courses are self-paced and do as you go. Others follow a traditional classroom calendar. When it comes to implementing an online program, which should you choose?

Just like no two students learn the same way in a traditional classroom, the same is true for distance learners. When designing a distance learning course or program, flexibility is key. Try to offer a mixture of learning or course types, including:


1. Self-paced

Many online students prefer self-paced courses that they can complete on their own terms. Make sure these courses still include interactive elements like recaps, quizzes, and projects the student can complete.


2. Module-based

Module based learning is essentially a way of organizing a class by subject. Think of it like a table of contents for a class. By dividing classes into modules or "segments," students can work through content based on section, take assessments on that material, and then move onto the next section. These methods are often incorporated into traditional classrooms, so make sure to include them in online offerings as well.


3. Semester-calendar based

Self-paced courses can work for some students. For other students, they need the structure of a traditional semester and calendar to keep them motivated. This may be especially true when students are pairing online coursework with in-person coursework. Don't just stick to self-paced. Instead, offer video conferencing or hybrid classes where students can follow along a semester schedule while completing the work from a distance.


Classes Shouldn't Feel Stagnant: Ensuring Every Class Is Interactive

No matter how the class is set up, the best online courses are engaging and thought-provoking. The best way to create an engaging distance learning course is to add interactivity into the online classroom. Examples of how you might add interactivity are below:


4. Group work

Students can use teleconferencing software, like Zoom, to make group projects at a distance happen. Don't be afraid to include group work into online courses.


5. Tests and assignments

While it might sound like a given, student knowledge needs to be tested through traditional tests and assignments. Instructors should make them as challenging and comprehensive as they would in a traditional classroom.


6. Discussions

Engagement can be fostered through peer discussions in the classroom either in writing or via video. Many instructors post discussion questions in message boards for students to interact. A better way to create discussions is to pair your video conferencing camera and a video conferencing software so that students can engage easily and directly engage with one another without technology getting in the way. 


What Technology Do You Need to Use? A Combined Approach

One thing is clear: distance learning programs are only as effective as the technology used throughout. Make sure you're using the best technology, designed with remote students in mind, to make your distance programs more effective.


7. Video conferencing

Video conferencing software is the key to make synchronous distance learning possible. Without it, online programs are limited to self-paced programs without individual-to-instructor interaction. Popular tools include Zoom, Webex, and Skype.


8. 360-degree intelligent camera

You need a camera in order to record classrooms and run video conferences. Why not use a camera that actually fosters engagement and is built with the remote student in mind? Check out the Meeting Owl -- a smart, 360º classroom camera that can help make distance learning classrooms more engaging and interactive than ever before.


9. Learning Management System

Use an LMS like Canvas or Blackboard to make sure students can easily access all class materials in one place. Many types of LMS also have interactive features, like message boards, to increase the effectiveness of your classes.


10. Scheduling platform

Students need access to their instructors and advisors just like traditional students. Invest in a scheduling platform so students can schedule time with faculty and staff based on their availability. 


Don't Leave Students in the Classroom: Incorporate Student Services

For students (both traditional and online), it's not just about the coursework itself. A variety of student services are necessary to help students be successful. Online programs and courses shouldn't skimp on these services for their remote students. In our roundup of the top online accredited learning programs, student services are often central to the mission. But too often, the following services get left out of the equation.


11. Math and Writing Tutors

We love that Brandman University has a special math and writing tutor program just for online students. Using video conferencing and chat systems, this has never been easier to implement at your own institution.


12. Career Services Support

Online students need access to job shadowing, career counseling, and career interviews just like traditional students. Whether you set up a separate service for remote students to make your traditional career services available to remote students, make sure remote students can easily schedule meetings, ask questions, and seek help.


13. Library Resources

Many distance programs, like Purdue Global, started as a way to give global access to a higher education's vast library resources. Make sure distance students have the same opportunities to research and find materials that traditional students do.


14. Access to the same classes as on-campus students

In this day and age, classes don't just have to be "online" or "in-person." The best courses, in fact, are a hybrid. In an ideal world, online students should be able to access the exact same courses as traditional students. The trick is getting the technology right to make it happen. Again, this is where video conferencing and the right camera can help.


Over to You

Interested in learning more about incorporating technology into your distance learning classroom? Start off by checking out how higher education institutions like MIT and Penn State are using the Meeting Owl, the 360-degree classroom camera, to create more engaged distance learning and work better together. Then, if you're interested in learning more, register for Owl University, a four-week email course that teaches education professionals about technology and remote work can play a role in the evolution of higher education.

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