Key Words: distance learning, virtual environments, Internet, web, email, fax, surface mail, collaborative learning, forums, course development


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Virtual Sandcastles: Teaching and Learning at a Distance - Available Now!
Annette Lamb & William L. Smith (1999)
ISBN 1-891917-01-3
214 Pages
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Virtual Learning Environments allow students to learn when they have time, where they need to be, and how they learn best.
This book explores options for teaching and learning at a distance including surface mail, telephone, email, forums, web pages, live and recorded video, and computer software. Examines the design and development of virtual learning environments including projects and online courses and programs.
This book is currently being used in a course at the University of Southern Indiana titled Teaching and Learning at a Distance.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Teaching and Learning at a Distance
Chapter 2: Mail and the Telephone in Distance Learning
Chapter 3: Internet Communication and Distance Learning
Chapter 4: Internet Information, Instruction and Distance Learning
Chapter 5: Live and Recorded Video and Distance Learning
Chapter 6: Computer Software and Distance Learning
Chapter 7: Virtual Learning Environments
Chapter 8: Planning and Managing Distance Learning Programs
You don't have to go to a beach to build a sandcastle. You can make one in the sandbox of your own backyard and save a trip to the crowded beach. You could create a sandcastle using clay. Who says a sandcastle has to be made of sand? What about developing a magnificent castle using KidPix on the computer or visiting a castle in Germany through the Internet. What about inventing a gorgeous castle in your mind?

Not everyone has the opportunity to go to the beach, but with a little creativity everyone can enjoy some of the fun. By reading books, viewing videos, exploring web sites, developing projects, and sharing experiences over the Internet, it's easy to bridge the gap between you and the beach. Whether you want to play in the sand or explore the ocean floor, the tools of technology are the next best thing to being there (where have we heard that before?).

Purpose of the Book

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.
Attributed to Chief Seattle
Plants, animals, and people are all woven together in the web of life. The Internet is also a web. It's a web of communication connecting people with information, ideas, knowledge, and sometimes even wisdom. The Internet is not woven with information. The web is spun by people who are willing to reach out and communicate their ideas with others.

Although there are many technologies that can be integrated into distance learning programs, Internet may have the greatest impact. By combining text, graphics, video, and audio elements, students and their teachers are able share information around the world.

For the past decade, people have been talking about the "information age." Information is growing at a staggering rate and the Internet contains an endless supply. Unfortunately, only a handful of these information resources are used effectively. Why? The problem is not information, but communication. Web development requires skills in the art of communication. How can you organize and present your information in a meaningful way so your ideas can be easily accessed and understood by others?

This book explores teaching and learning at a distance. It is intended to help teachers develop effective learning environments for their students using a variety of technology resources ranging from email and web pages to videoconferencing. Whether you're a first grade teacher or a college professor, this book will help you design and develop effective, efficient, and appealing distance learning environments.

The Audience for the Book

This book will guide you through the process of exploring and creating your own distance learning projects. Whether you're interested in creating a cyberschool, developing an online course, or simply building a classroom project, we'll guide you through the process step-by-step.

The project possibilities are endless. Consider what you teach. What could you do better, more effectively, or with more appeal? How could students communicate their ideas in new ways? We'll use the tools of technology to help you build your resources, but the focus should be on learning, not technology.

The Internet is a reflection of our society, both good and bad. It's also a reflection of our web of life. We have the opportunity to build a strong web that reflects universal cooperation, but we must each play a role. We're consumers, contributors, collaborators, and creators.

Consumers. You're probably already a consumer of technology resources. You explore web sites, communicate with others, watch videos, use software, evaluate materials, and apply your findings to your projects. Good consumers are critical thinkers and make the most of what the technology has to offer.

Contributors. Once you've seen what's available, you're ready to become a contributor. What information, insights, or inspiration can you provide others? Can you find "threads" on the web that you could weave together? You could add to a web page that someone else has created or develop a set of links that help students organize their thinking.

Collaborators. Whether you're working with a group of students or collaborating with teachers around the world, your products come alive when you involve a diverse group of people and their ideas.

Creators. Without creators, there would be no television, no books, and no web. Internet is woven by people who have ideas they are willing to share with others. What do you have to share?

We'll assume that you're already a consumer and possibly a contributor to the ever growing technology-rich learning resources available. This book will help you become a collaborator and a creator of virtual learning environments.

Using the Book

Carefully reading the information provided on each page is important in your success as a distance learning developer. You'll find web addresses, activities, and questions throughout the text. You should explore the sites, complete the activities, and answer the questions to gain the skills you need for project development.

Throughout the text you'll find a sandcastle in the sidebar. These notes will provide web addresses and well as reminders and lists of key ideas.

At the end of each chapter, you'll find Build Your Castle activities that will help you explore topics, practice new skills, and reflect on your readings.

If the text or activity says Read, you should read the article listed because it's important for understanding the concepts being discussed.

If it says Skim, you don't need to read the entire online article. Look for those aspects that you think are useful in elaborating on what is being discussed.

If it says Examine or Explore, you should go to the site and conduct your own analysis. Look at the way the page is constructed, analyze the content, think about the usefulness and practically of the site. Be an observer. Be a thinker. Reflect on your experiences as a teacher and apply this insight to the site.

Pay particular attention to the Real World Considerations sections, these practical observations and discussions will help you in applying the concepts discussed in each section.


As you read and explore, keep in mind the purpose of teaching and learning at a distance. Virtual learning environments allow students the flexibility to learn when they have the time, where they need to be, and how they learn best.

In some cases, the "when" is within a traditional period of the school day, but it may be late at night or on weekends. The "where" might be in a school, but it could also be at home, at work, in a cafe, or at a hospital. Finally, the "how" could relate to the technology, the learning style, or the interests of the student.

With the wide range of possibilities now available, you can build exciting virtual sandcastles that fit the needs and interests of you and your students. Enjoy!

Sample Selection
From Virtual Sandcastles - Chapter 4: Internet Information, Instruction and Distance Learning, Pages 70-82
Ten Things You Should Know

Even experienced teachers with Internet skills will find developing and delivering web-based courses a challenge. Each learning environment has unique problems and frustrations. Although your classroom experience will be extremely valuable, you'll need to adjust how you think about student-teacher communication, class preparation, and many other things you may take for granted in your traditional classroom.

Whether you're planning a technology course for teachers or a business management course for MBA students, your mission is the same. You want to develop a course where all students will be successful regardless of their prior experiences with distance learning technologies.

The following ten tips review things you already know about teaching, but may not have considered as you plan for your web-based course.

Number 1. Students are Individuals

Each student and each class is unique. Never is this more apparent than in a distance learning environment. Each student brings a different level of preparedness for the class and you must be prepared for each individual.

There will be variations in technology experience, content entry skills, and preparedness for the unique characteristics of the distance learning environment. Some students will enter your course with few technology skills, while others will be webmasters, ready to expand their knowledge. As such, students who might excel in a traditional classroom may find themselves disoriented among web page readings and frustrated with online discussions.

Keep your web-based materials simple and easy-to-read. Figure 4-13a ( shows a screen from a high school American Politics course. An overview of the course is provided, along with easy-to-use links to course materials such as lessons and the calendar. Lesson 2 of this course involves learning how to browse information found on the Internet (see Figure 4-13b).

It's important to provide students with assistance in learning to deal with this new class environment. For example, during an initial face-to-face meeting, you might guide students through the online syllabus, calendar, requirements, and assignments. Demonstrate how they can use the calendar to access readings and requirements. Discuss strategies for exploring, skimming, and reading in a web environment.

Consider using a "textbook" like format for your web pages. This familiar format may help students who are just getting started in the Internet environment. The economics course shown in Figure 4-14 ( is organized like a textbook with a table of contents and chapters. Students can click on "hot words" in the text to explore additional information. These key ideas are also shown in a sidebar in each chapter. Graphs, charts, and photographs help a student understand the key concepts.

Talk with your students about the differences between live discussions and listserv interactions. A reassuring face-to-face meeting the first week of the semester can go a long way in making students feel comfortable.

Although most students have little difficulty getting used to this new method of learning, the adjustment period may be much longer for some students. The instructor must be ready to identify potential problems and respond quickly with appropriate, effective help. You may encounter a student who needs almost daily email support and encouragement, while others may work independently the entire course.

Be prepared to do some remedial work with students who lag behind right from the outset. Like all classrooms, there will be variations in the preparedness of the students to deal with the content of the course. These variations are magnified in the distance learning environment because one-on-one, face-to-face help sessions are not available. Consider a help listserv or web page where students can post and assist each other with questions.

Number 2. Technologies Change and Evolve

Be prepared to deal with a variety of technologies that are constantly changing. During any particular semester, new web browsers will appear, alternative versions of systems will be available, and advanced presentation formats may evolve.

Although you may be tempted to jump on each new technology as it comes along, consider your students, their skills, and access to technology. Make sure you and your students are confident in a new product before making a commitment half-way through a course.

Distance learning can take place using many different technologies. While the course may start out as a video-based course, it is likely one or more additional technologies will be available by the next time you teach it. You might add a web element and later a threaded discussion page or a live chat. There will often be pressure to use new technology, whatever it might be. You must make an informed decision about whether the new technology really contributes to the course and is worth the learn time, development time, and expense for you and your students. The best way to "Be Prepared" is to continuously monitor your learning environment to be aware of which new technology would be the most beneficial.

Number 3. Technology Fails

Be prepared for failure. Whether it's your net connection, printer cartridge, or a video projector, it will be down, out, or just plain dead at the most unexpected and inconvenient time.

Distance learning requires contingency planning. Think through what you will do when disaster strikes your class. This may be as simple as having a spare bulb handy, carrying a zip drive with a backup disk, or being prepared to postpone a due date if the server goes down. Another approach is to have an alternative plan, perhaps backup technology. Transparencies of a PowerPoint presentation, a print copy of your outline, or a fax machine are possibilities.

This type of planning is especially important for courses that are dependent on a particular technology. What will you do if the server is down for an extended time? For instance, keep a backup copy of your web class pages on another server or a hard drive. Figure 4-14b shows a link to a "backup copy" of the course materials located on a different web server.

Number 4. Planning Shows

Careful instructional design and development is critical for an effective distance learning course. The better the planning, the more successful the implementation.

How often have you been just one week in front of your students? Do you remember developing course materials the night before class? Have you ever run to the copy center five minutes before class to pick up handouts? This type of procrastination doesn't work in a distance learning environment. All details of the course should be fully planned and prepared before the course starts.

The distance learning environment tends to exaggerate both the positive and the negative aspects of all the elements of instruction. Anything left to chance will become a major pitfall. Any lack of planning will be exposed. Adhering to the basics of instructional design is essential to success in distance learning.

In an Internet-based course, it is essential to have the completed web pages including activities, projects, readings, and links in a final form from the beginning. Although in some courses the pages and projects may evolve and build as students make contributions, the skeleton must be ready to go from the beginning. In this case, an active announcement, discussion, or chat arrangement is essential in communicating changes, updates, and evolution of the site. If your site will be evolving, build in a mechanism to be certain that students are constantly working with the materials. We've found that some students will print out pages and not check the electronic bulletin board or announcements as often as we would like. Figure 4-15 ( shows the core page of a high school course on Shakespeare. Notice that all of the components of the course are well-organized and listed on a sidebar for easy access.

Good students will appreciate your planning. They like to be able to see the "big picture" before the course begins including all the assignments, projects, and requirements. The course will run smoothly and students will complete assignments on time with little difficulty.

Number 5. Students Procrastinate

Establish deadlines for each project and activity ahead of time. You can always waive or alter deadlines, but it's difficult to add requirements later.

It's probably not surprising that a disturbingly large number of students will not do assignments until they are under pressure from a firm due date. Again, this situation is exaggerated in the distance learning environment. Because you are not able to see students regularly, look them in the eye, and remind them to get the work done on time, even good students wait until the last minute. E-mail reminders do not have the same impact, even if you take the time to send them on a timely basis. Also, students will not always read your messages when you expect them to.

Use a course calendar as the core page of your course and include reading and requirement links as well as specific due dates. Encourage students to turn in projects early rather than on the due dates. Use guilt and competition to your advantage by praising good work on your discussion list. When students do good work, include a quote or sample of their work in an online discussion. Encourage students to conduct peer reviews and share their experiences. This type of interaction encourages students to get their work in on time.

Although a web-based course is a great opportunity for a truly self-paced individualized learning environment, we've found that very few students have the self-discipline to set their own deadlines and complete a course in a reasonable amount of time. This is particularly true when they are taking other courses that contain firm due dates and requirements. It's easy to put the "flexible" course on the back burner and it never seems to get promoted to the front burner.

Number 6. Track Them or Lose Them

Monitor each student's progress regularly. Because you do not see each student in person, it is essential that a planned process be established to monitor students at some specified interval.

If you do not receive an assignment on time, you will have an additional reason to check on the student, to be sure they are still there and doing okay. Students will "disappear" for a variety of reasons. Illness, personal difficulties, and work schedules are common problems. A student might even move and not notify you of the change. The more regular your contacts, the more likely you are to hear from the student in these unusual situations. In addition, it is helpful to have multiple ways to contact each student. At the beginning of the class, be sure to get their phone numbers and a mailing addresses.

Consider using electronic post cards as a way to maintain contact with students (see Figure 4-16). Greeting cards companies like Blue Mountain (, authors such as Jan Brett (, and companies such as Troll ( provide this free service that can brighten a student's day and encourage them to stay on track.

Number 7. Students Appreciate Feedback

It's a student's responsibility to get assignments in on time. In return, it's your responsibility as the instructor to provide prompt, useful feedback.

A process for quick response and appropriate feedback should be planned into the course. This lets students know that you are concerned about their progress and pleased to get their assignments on time. This communication may be through email, fax, snail mail, phone, or posted on a web page.

If students are posting their projects on web pages, you could remote open a student's web page and provide feedback right on their page. You could even highlight ideas in red or green text. Some instructors like to post general feedback for the class to see. For example, you might indicate that Susan has cool clip art on her page that everyone should check out or that David's article review contains some important points that everyone should read.

There are at least three common options for communicating with students through email about their progress. One approach is to respond to student input and inquiry as soon as it is possible and practical. This option applies the time management strategy of dealing with paper immediately rather than letting it stack up. In other words, when an email assignment arrives, grade it on the fly, reply immediately, record the grade, and delete the message. You only have to deal with the message once and it's gone. Some instructors find this difficult because they need to get in a particular frame of mind to "grade." Others find it difficult to mix tasks. In other words, personal, professional, work, play, and class email is all mixed together. It may be hard to move from reading a forwarded joke to grading a student project.

Another approach is to set a particular time each week to respond to all accumulated student input and inquiries. For example, you might find that Sunday night is a good time to quietly go through and respond to all student assignments. The problem with this approach is that it lacks timeliness. A student may have to wait for six days for a response to a simple question. Instead of one day, you may choose three days such as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 9AM. If students are aware of your "virtual" hours, they can plan for feedback during these times.

A third option is to use a separate e-mail account or folder for student assignments. This way you can grade projects as they come in, but they aren't mixed in with other mail.

You must decide which approach best meets the needs of your students and yourself during each term. The important thing is to set a standard for each class, communicate it to the students early, and follow through during the course. This way, the students will have realistic expectations regarding feedback.

Number 8. Technology Takes Time

Whether it's developing the course, reading a web-based article, doing an assignment, or grading a project, it will take you twice as long as you think. Although there are many times when technology can be time-saving, at least in the beginning, technology can be a time drainer.

Students can get bogged down with reading off the screen. They complain about "all the reading", when the articles are actually no longer than traditional paper reading. Prepare students by discussing the differences between web and paper reading.

Distance learning students seem to lose a lot of time trying to solve problems that could be answered immediately in a regular classroom situation. Provide students with time-saving strategies. For example, some students don't realize that they can have the web and a word processor open at the same time for taking notes. If they're having trouble it may not occur to them to email another student for help. Encourage students to develop a cohort group and coordinate weekly online study groups.

Number 9. Active Learning Is Critical

Active involvement, student interaction, and varied activities are important for all types of learning, but they are essential in working with students at a distance.

Active involvement is critical in learning. Rather than just assigning a reading, get students to do something with the information they've read. One option is to provide web pages that contain study guides, web quests, and other activities that use class materials.

Figure 4-17 ( MarineEcosystems/lessons1-15/lesson9.html shows a high school course in Marine Ecosystems that requires students to read an online article from the Sierra Club site, then write a short response related to the kelp forest community. The student's writing is then emailed to the instructor for evaluation.

Rather than requiring each assignment to be graded by the teacher, use self evaluation, peer evaluation, or selective grading. For example, students might complete ten "idea exploration" activities, but only be required to submit their favorite five activities for a grade.

Keep students interacting through the use of a class listserv, threaded discussion, or other communication tool. Figure 4-18 ( shows a discussion board for students studying MacBeth.

Try to get students to choose to participate rather than requiring participation. In other words, if the discussions are helpful to their assignments, projects, or learning, they will participate without an assignment that requires them to "send at least three message to the listserv." Start with nonthreatening discussions that help students get to know each other. Consider developing a web page(s) that contains the names and pictures of students so that visual learners can "see" their classmates. Another way to encourage interaction is through the use of peer evaluation, help sessions, and collaborative projects.

Vary your class activities. Email messages, a listserv discussion, a threaded web discussion, web page development, and a PowerPoint presentation may all be assignments within a business management course. Each assignment would focus on a different aspect of the course. The listserv and threaded discussions might be used to synthesize the course reading materials and the web page and PowerPoint projects would be used to focus in on a particular topic of interest.

Number 10. Students Have Great Ideas

Listen to students. They have great ideas for your course. Encourage them to constantly evaluate the course and provide suggestions. For example, an activity might take twice the time that you planned. Why? Ask your students. Be prepared to trim one assignment, expand another, or cut an activity entirely later in the course to meet their needs.

Let students take a leadership role in the class. When things are going well, encourage them to go in expanded directions. If the course is getting off-track, ask students to help refocus activities or assignments. You'll be surprised at how motivated they'll be when they see that you care enough to involve them in decisionmaking.

SpringNet ( offers a series of short courses for health professionals. At the end of each module, students are asked to complete a short evaluation. The results of this feedback can be used in course revision (see Figure 4-19).

Sample Activity
Explore a Sample Activity.

Updated by Annette Lamb, November 1998.