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: INFORMATIK FORUM, Vol 12, No. 1, March 1998, p. 18 - 23



Distance education seems to be on everyone's mind nowadays. The time seems to be ripe for the emergence of distance education for a number of reasons:

  1. There is a growing concern regarding the escalating costs of traditional education. Distance education seems to be (probably falsely) a means of controlling these costs.

  2. There is a growing need for new teaching/learning strategies to serve life-long learners and a significant portion of the population that do not have access to traditional higher education. Distance education appears to be a solution.

  3. Educational technologies (the Internet and World Wide Web, satellite and compressed video, etc.) have matured enough to allow us new teaching strategies and to overcome many of the communication barriers associated with distance education. It seems that every higher education institution (indeed, almost every discipline) is considering using distance education to achieve its mission and goals. Furthermore, often there is both political and economic pressure to do so.

But 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 Open and 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.

  4. Create a document which details the following:


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(1)

Week 3: Institutional Models of Distance Education - with Gary Miller(2)

Week 4: Theories of Distance Education - with Otto Peters(3)

Week 5: Technology of Distance Education - with Tony Bates(4)

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. Both seminar leaders had a wide variety of experiences in distance education to share with the participants. However, none of us (participants included) was expert in the use of virtual seminars, so many of our activities were experimental. Each weekly introduction, and summary were a result of consultation by email and overseas telephone. Each seminar leader also participated individually in the various discussions, both as an "expert" and as a colleague. In addition, the seminar leaders were individually in contact with various participants by email.

A significant part of the AT&T / ICDE grant was dedicated to evaluation. The main part of the evaluation was done externally by Helmut Fritsch of the FernUniversität in Germany, who has already published a report of his findings(5). A final report of the project will be published in 1998.


Evaluation Results

The evaluation report of Fritsch and the almost completed projectís final report detail the variety of data that was collected within the project. These data will be touched on briefly here and the reader is referred to the above documents for further expansion. However, there are several results which bear repetition here.

Participation: The participant activity data (number of participants contributing comments in a given week, number of responses per participant, number of words contributed, etc.) all suggested that there were three distinct components to the seminar.

  1. Organization and information (weeks 1,6,9)

  2. Foundational base with experts (weeks 2,3,4,5)

  3. Applications and projects (weeks 7,8,9)

As can be seen by Figure 1, each of these components resulted in different behavior on the part of the participants.

Figure 1: Number of participants appearing in each week of the Seminar


The rate of participation was highest within the "Organizational/Informational" weeks of the seminar, next highest within the "Foundational" weeks, and lowest in the "Application" weeks. These results were somewhat surprising to us because we initially thought that the participantís focus would be on the practical aspects of distance education. There are a number of possible causes of these results but it is likely that the possibility of interaction with a recognized expert was a strong motivator for most participants and the content of these weeks was, of course, also relevant in practical terms. The high rate of participation in the "Organizing/Informational" weeks (1,6,10) is most likely due to the seminar leadersí request for participants to "sign in" in order to indicate their presence. It is quite possible that the relatively low visible participation rate in the "Application" weeks is due to specialized interests of the participants. This needs further research.

The key ingredient of the Seminar, which had the most relevance towards the goals of the seminar and the final (positive) evaluation by the participants, was the participation and contribution of the four distinguished experts. Based on the selected readings participants and experts created voluminous dialogues and discussions.

The written contributions to the seminar discussions are easily measurable in their word-processed format. As can be seen in Table 1, there was a large amount of discussion generated which resulting in a relatively heavy burden of reading.



  Bernath/Rubin (as a team)






  Total Experts


  Total Leaders and Experts


  Total Participants


  Total for the Seminar


Table 1: Numbers of words contributed to the seminar


The volume of contributions to the seminar is somewhat intimidating. The seminar resulted in the equivalent of over 250 single spaced printed pages (assuming 500 words/page). This required a significant commitment from the active participant. As can be seen, the participants on the one side and the experts/leaders and the other side contributed approximately equally. This suggests that the overall discussion process was a two-way interaction and that the participants took an active and substantial part. The average participantís contribution counted around 200 words (which ranged from an average of 32 words up to 477 words per participant) and resulted in over 300 messages added by all participants during weeks 1-5 and 7-9.

The experts utilized several strategies when responding to participants comments/questions. Some of the experts responded individually to participantís comments/questions, usually addressing their comments to them by name. This personalized the interchange and resulted in a friendly and collegial atmosphere. The unique "one-to-one" teacher/tutor-student relation which Holmberg(6) stresses as above all typical of distance education, was borne out in these exchanges and was further extended to all participants as they were witnessing the dialogues. When the experts grouped the participantís comments/questions into categories and then addressed their comments to those participants as a group, it was less personal but resulted in a more organized response. No interaction method was proscribed and the experts interacted in the way they felt most comfortable. Both strategies appeared to have been effective.

In addition, the discussions within each week evolved using different processes. For example, in Week 2 (Foundations - Holmberg) the discussion trees or "threads" developed spontaneously, forming small group discussions, controlled primarily by the participants. Week 3 (Institutions - Miller) was an example of a thematically structured discussion process, where various themes were proposed at the beginning of the week. Thus, "threads" were somewhat predetermined. Week 4 (Theory - Peters), on the other hand started with a thematic structure and spontaneously developed free dialogues between the expert and the participants. What was clear was the fact that all of the experts were masters in their fields when communicating by writing. Their articles, which were used as the readings for each week, were classics in the literature. This carried over into the discussions, where the experts often expanded on their work as a result of questions/comments from others. All of this led to discussion of high and sustaining value. The data supports the conclusion that the participants made use of direct communication with the master practitioners, and that the amount of discussion went far beyond conventional seminars or conferences.

The experimental character of our seminar allowed the post-seminar face-to-face evaluation meetings with the 15 Marylanders and the 15 Germans. These face-to-face evaluation meetings resulted in a variety of interesting data. Essentially, these meetings, in Germany and USA respectively, resulted in quite similar data, with only minor differences. Analysis of the qualitative data from these meetings, as well as analysis of the Web Server logs indicated that the "activity" picture that exists on the surface of the computer screen and the hidden activities of the participants are not necessarily the same. Many of the participants indicated that they had been "present" in the weekly discussions (read the discussions), but did not contribute (add a visible comment) to them. Several participants further indicated that they had engaged in significant discussions with colleagues in their home institutions, but these too were not reported on the screen. The result of this was that as long as a participant did not have a physical presence (have a comment appear on the screen), nobody was aware that they were there. This is further supported by the data from the "Organizing/Informational" weeks, which showed high participation as a result of participants being asked to indicate their presence. Thus, the rather dramatic differences between the weeks in visible activity, as shown in Figure 1, were minimized when this "behind the scenes" activity was taken into account. This led us to reevaluate what we thought was "active" participation. It appeared that participants were often witnessing what was going on among their seminar colleagues, without being directly involved. Fritsch has characterized this activity as "witness learning" to describe its positive contribution to the overall success of a virtual seminar such as ours. Further research in this area should explore this concept of "active" vs. "passive" participation in virtual environments. Each may well have a positive value toward achieving the goals of the seminar.

In addition to the face-to-face evaluation meetings, 40 participants met once again in a follow-up computer conference in July during "The Seminar Revisited - Week 11", to discuss the state of the evaluation and to contribute further feedback. At that time we also learned about the practical applications of the seminar experiences that various participants has implemented within their various professional environments.

At the post-seminar evaluation meetings, several participants stressed a greater value of face-to-face meetings than the type of meetings within the virtual seminar. This was because they could now visually interact with their fellow participants and respond orally and emotionally in an accustomed manner. This points out the difference in the kinds of interactions that occur in face-to-face seminars versus virtual seminars. It was apparent that the participants missed the visual character and spontaneity of a face-to-face seminar. Yet when queried, they all replied that they would not have been able to attend a face-to-face seminar, even if it had been available. Moreover, the participants stated in the final questionnaire their overall satisfaction with the virtual seminar. They even stated that they Ągot in touch with each other". Never the less, there is no doubt that a virtual seminar can potentially benefit from a visual "real-time" component. In the future, interactive video can be an additional element which will allow for additional emotional and relational components, but the bandwidth requirements may make this option unavailable to some potential participants. It should be kept in mind, however, that the asynchronous character of the seminar was critical to achieving the objectives, given the other commitments of the participants.

There was also a meeting of the "experts" and the seminar leaders about 3 months following the end of the seminar. Some of the most interesting results of this meeting were the very positive reports of the "experts" regarding their own experiences in the seminar. They uniformly reported that the experience had been enjoyable and worth their time and this was supported by the fact they all agreed to participate a second time and further have agreed to be involved a third. This information is critical to the continuing success of the seminar as an ongoing professional development activity, since the "expert" model is at the core of the seminarís design.

There were several other issues that arose during the seminar. One was the issue of copyright. Participants approached the Seminar Leaders with their various intentions (research, training, etc.) to share the discussions with others outside of the seminar. We did not give permission for this since the participants had not agreed to release the ownership of their words. However, there was some evidence that this happened anyway, since small pieces of the discussion found their way to at least one listserv which was discussing distance education. The ownership of a personís words is an important issue in virtual seminars and should be addressed at the very beginning of such events.

A second issue was one related to technology. The seminar used a relatively low level of technology (distribution of primarily text via the Internet). We did not use bandwidth intensive technology such as audio, video or large graphics. Despite this, the technology is still fairly new, and several participants were barely able to get the required equipment and get connected before the seminar began. In addition, the technology is highly dependent on the efficiency of local and international networks. We found that there were times during the day that connectivity was problematic and participants had to learn when the ideal times for connecting to the seminar, depending on where they lived. Download times were sometimes significant. It is therefore interesting to note the persistence of a number of participants, despite these barriers.

A third issue concerns what we call "web civility." Anyone who has participated in a public listserv or Internet newsgroup knows that the concept of civility - acting in a civil way to fellow participants - is often foreign to some people. Web civility is critical for a successful seminar and we were fortunate that our participants always acted in a respectful way toward each other. We believe that this behavior is generated by example and that positive behavior occurs in goal oriented environments.


Discussion and Conclusions

A virtual Seminar is reading and writing and demands much of the participantís 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 oneís 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."(7)

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 participantís 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 studentís 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 begun and gives indications of being a self-supporting enterprise. In addition, the model has already been replicated in several other environments.




Ulrich Bernath, Dipl.-Ökonom, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Director of the Center for Distance Education (see: http://www.uni-oldenburg.de/zef/bernath.html)


Dr. Eugene Rubin, Ph.D., University of Maryland University College, (see: http://www.umuc.edu/~erubin)



  1. Börje Holmberg, The evolution of the character and practice of distance education, in: Open Learning, June 1995, pg. 47 - 53. (return to article)
  2. Gary E. Miller, Distance Education in the United States: collaboration amid diversity, in: Open Learning, November 1987, pg. 23 - 27, and optionally:

    Gary E. Miller, Distance education and the curriculum: dredging a new mainstream, in: Michael G. Moore (Ed.) Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education. Pergamon Press New York etc. 1990, pg. 211 - 220.(return to article)

  3. Otto Peters, Distance education and industrial production: a comparative interpretation in outline (1967), in: Desmond Keegan (Ed.), Otto Peters on Distance Education: The Industrialization of Teaching and Learning. Routledge London 1994, pg. 107 - 127, and optionally:

    Otto Peters, Distance education in a postindustrial society (1993), ibid., pg. 220 - 240(return to article)

  4. Anthony (Tony) W. Bates, The Future of Learning, First Presented at the Ministerís Forum on Adult Learning, Edmonton, Alberta, November 30 - December 1st, 1995, and optional:

    Tony Bates, Educational multi-media in a networked society, in: Open Praxis, The Bulletin of the International Council for Distance education, Volume 2, 1994, pg. 22 - 26.(return to article)

  5. http://www.fernuni-hagen.de/ZIFF/EVIRTXT.ZIP.(return to article)
  6. Börje Holmberg, ibid., pg. 51.(return to article)
  7. Otto Peters, Didaktik des Fernstudiums, Erfahrungen und Diskussionsstand in nationaler und internationaler Sicht, Luchterhand Verlag 1997, S. 199 ff.(return to article)