A Virtual Seminar for International Professional Development in Distance Education


Ulrich Bernath
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg


Eugene Rubin
University of Maryland University College


in: Universities in a Digital Era. Transformation, Innovation and Tradition. Roles and Perspectives of Open and Distance Learning. Proceedings of the 7th European Distance Education Network (EDEN) Conference, held at the University of Bologna, Italy, 24 – 26 June 1998, Volume 1, European Distance Education Network: Budapest 1998, pg. 141 – 144



In the midst of an institutional rush toward distance education, some crucial issues are in danger of being forgotten. There are very few formal opportunities for faculty and professionals in higher educational institutions to develop knowledge of and skills in distance education. While there are a very small number of degree or certificate programs which grant certification in the field of distance education, most full-time faculty cannot reasonably attend these programs because they are either not easily accessible, require full time study for too long of a period, or are too expensive. Several institutions which offer distance education also offer faculty development programs, but these do not have formal recognition and often relate to specific technologies and skills. Distance faculty often end up learning how to develop and deliver courses through the trial and error method (getting occasional advice from their more experienced colleagues.) In fact, this is true of the vast majority of University faculty, distance or otherwise! They do this with almost no background in distance education theory, pedagogical models, or positive examples of good practice.

It was felt that there are two critical needs that emerge from this analysis:

  1. There is a need for a faculty development training program in which new distance education faculty can develop a broader perspective of the general foundations of distance education and can learn critical knowledge and skills in the field.
  2. There is also a need for a global perspective among distance education faculty so that they can benefit from the knowledge of how other institutions approach distance education and solve problems, particularly in cross-border and cross-cultural contexts.

Given that need for faculty development and training in distance education, the authors submitted a proposal in 1995 to participate in the "Global Distance Learning Initiative" of the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE), who, in collaboration with the AT&T Foundation, offered a series of grants for research/exploration in the area of distance education. They were awarded a grant for 1996/97.

The original objectives of this project for professional development in distance education were:

  1. Develop a 10 week course entitled "A Virtual Seminar for University Faculty and Administrators: Professional Development in Distance Education".
  2. Offer the course via the Internet to a maximum of 45 participants (15 from Germany, 15 from Maryland and 15 from various locations around the world) January through March 1997, as a pilot project, prior to a global implementation. The participants would consist of faculty and professionals working in a variety of institutions in higher education.
  3. Evaluate the seminar outcomes and revise the course.


The Structure of the Seminar

A decision was made early on to offer the seminar via the Internet using easily accessible and wide-spread computer-based technologies. Given the 10 week syllabus, the ongoing work commitments of the participants, and their location in different time-zones, it was also decided that real-time synchronous technologies were not appropriate. Asynchronous computer communication appeared to be the most appropriate mode of communication, and it was decided that web-based computer conferencing would best to support the structure and objectives of the Seminar. It was felt that with this decision, the method and the content of the Seminar were consistent. Both the Internet and the World Wide Web were coming to the fore, and were potentially providing great opportunities for distance teaching, as well as teaching in general. For us, the web-based seminar was a positive example of the environment for which the participants were being trained. The web-based conferencing system that was selected was HyperNews, which is a Unix-based "threaded" system (the titles of the various messages look like an outline or "tree", so that you can follow the "thread" of a particular part of the discussion.)

The general strategy of the Seminar was to encourage faculty development in two areas:

  1. Theory in distance education. By this we meant the foundations, history, theories, models and the technology-base of distance education.
  2. Practice in distance education. By this we meant the applications and the actual process of developing, delivering, supporting, guiding, evaluating and administering distance education courses and programs.

The syllabus for the Seminar was as follows:

Week 1: Introduction and practice with the conferencing system

Week 2: Foundations of Distance Education - with guest expert Börje Holmberg

Week 3: Institutional Models of Distance Education - with Gary Miller

Week 4: Theories of Distance Education - with Otto Peters

Week 5: Technology of Distance Education - with Tony Bates

Week 6: Introduction to Distance Education Applications and Project Planning

Week 7: Student Support

Week 8: Instructional Design

Week 9: Technology

Week 10: Summary and Conclusion, Project reports


In addition, the general Seminar environment was supported by :


The core professional development strategy of the Seminar was one of combining the idea of master practitioner with that of peer interaction. Each part of the syllabus was achieved by common discussion of a topic supported by interaction with a well qualified "expert" in the field of distance education. Thus, the design of the Seminar was one of a meeting of peers and not one of a relationship between students and teacher.


The Seminar Leaders were well aware that they were dealing with qualified professionals who were actively employed in academia, business or government. We were also aware that many of the academics were engaged in a regular teaching calendar. In other words, the participants were a group of working professionals who had commitments other than the Seminar. With that in mind, several aspects of the design of the Seminar are notable:


In addition, the core Seminar feature of visiting "experts" was a unique opportunity to interact (in almost real-time) with distinguished scholars and practitioners. It was reasoned that it would be a strong motivator for faculty to persist in the Seminar, since this opportunity would not normally be available elsewhere.

The seminar leaders jointly provided the overall frame for each of the weekly discussions.


The Conclusions of the Seminar

A virtual Seminar is reading and writing and demands much of the participant’s time. The written contributions in the asynchronous discussion process differ from a synchronous and flighty chat and are fundamentally different from a conventional seminar. Engaging in a virtual seminar and using computer conferencing is a much more reflective process than face-to-face interaction. One types out one’s thoughts, rereads them, often edits them or adds to them, and sometimes even spell checks them. After carefully inspecting what one has written, they are then submitted for others to read. The meaning of the written word is measured and sincere, and it persists. It can be read and reread by others long after the termination of the seminar. Peters therefore characterized the virtual seminar as an example of a "knowledge building community."

Conventional seminars do not allow all participants to contribute at once. They usually do not encourage a response from each and every individual. Moreover, it is difficult to attend to and keep track of a long sequence of oral contributions. A long list of written contributions is treated differently. You can stop when you wish and easily compare and contrast various contributions. You can go back and reread for clarification. The asynchronous computer conference is, in a way, a renaissance of reading and writing communication. We can now hope that it will bring us new and extended opportunities for teaching, training and learning, regardless of time and space constraints.

The positive results of the virtual seminar likely correlates with the interest of the participants in their own growth of knowledge and acquisition of skills. Clearly the relevance of the content is related to the participant’s persistence as well as their attitude. Our data clearly indicates a positive affect and a continuing involvement of the participants in the process of the seminar.

The discussion process in the virtual seminar needs leadership, direction and moderation to best use the opportunities offered by the media and the technology. In particular, it is important to get as much of the activities on the "surface" as possible. There is also an emotional component to the seminar. Participants not only reported a resultant positive or negative affect in the discussions, but also reported the establishment of varying degrees of personal relationships with fellow participants. We felt that this emotional component was critical to the success of the seminar.

The global aspect of the seminar was also important for its success. By being globally accessible via the Internet, the content and interaction allowed participants to generalize across cultural borders and among the diverse practices within the field of distance education. It gave depth to the learning and forced the participants to think beyond their own cultural and environmental constraints.

The seminar was also an example of distance education in practice. One of the primary goals of the seminar was to inform distance educators about issues related to the practice of distance education. We essentially "practiced what we preached." It even allowed some of the more experience participants to obtain a better understanding of their own student’s experience within distance courses.

Finally, we consider our virtual seminar to be an outstanding success. The extent of the efforts put into the experimental phase have contributed to the permanency of the offering. A new, redesigned 10 week seminar has already been successfully offered in 1998 and gives indications of being a self-supporting enterprise. In addition, the model has already been replicated in several other environments.