"Professional Development in Distance Education"

– A Successful Experiment and Future Directions

Ulrich Bernath, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg,

& Eugene Rubin, University of Maryland University College;

in: F. Lockwood & A. Gooley (eds.), Innovations in Open & Distance Learning, Successful Development of Online and Web-Based Learning, London: Kogan Page 2001, pg. 213 - 223

The Virtual Seminar in Distance Education is an on-line, World Wide Web-based asynchronous discussion forum that was designed to provide university faculty and administrators with professional development in the field of distance education.

In 1996/7 it was a granted project within the Global Distance Learning Initiative sponsored by the AT&T Foundation and The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE).

In 1998 two further Virtual Seminars were run on a self-supporting basis.

Formal and informal evaluations of the Virtual Seminars took place externally as well as internally. During the course of the Virtual Seminars evaluation reports and experiences were published in various articles. (Fritsch, 1998; Bernath & Rubin, 1998a and 1998b)

A Final Report and Documentation of the first Virtual Seminar for Professional Development in Distance Education has also been published. (Bernath & Rubin, 1999a)

This chapter presents data and experiences that compare the three Virtual Seminars and provide some general evaluation of and conclusion to the overall project.

Table 1 shows that the three Virtual Seminars were similar in size in terms of numbers of participants. It was assumed that 40+ participants would form a group large enough to guarantee online activity in the Virtual Seminar and also to allow scalability. The first seminar was supported by the grant and was offered free of charge. One of the goals of the first seminar was a design that would be self-supporting and toward that end, a fee of US$ 580 was introduced for the second seminar. In the third seminar, a special rate for groups from one institution was implemented to try to encourage more group participation and thus encourage a synergy that would penetrate beyond the participants and into their institutions.

The evaluation process in the first Virtual Seminar was externally conducted by Helmut Fritsch, the director of the Central Institute for Distance Education Research of the German distance teaching university, the FernUniversität. One of the participation requirements in the first seminar was to participate in the evaluation. This explains the relatively high response rate in the final evaluation in the first Virtual Seminar. In both following Virtual Seminars in 1998, participation in the Pre-Seminar Survey as well as in the Final Questionnaire was voluntary.

Participants of the Virtual Seminars

The Virtual Seminars invited participation from anywhere. The endeavor was primarily marketed through ICDE as well as other professional networks. From the Pre-seminar Survey results we learned that there was a growing importance of the Internet as well as of colleageal networks for the marketing of the Virtual Seminars.

For experimental reasons the first Virtual Seminar was open for a maximum of 45 participants; 15 places were reserved for potential German participants, 15 for Maryland and 15 for various participants from around the world. The design was chosen to allow a face-to-face meeting for evaluation within the geographical area of each Seminar Leader.

The second Virtual Seminar was open without any restrictions, and participants were accepted on a first come, first served basis. In the third Virtual Seminar, 21 individual participants and 20 group participants from four institutions (one in Mexico and three in the U.S.) formed the seminar group.

The three Virtual Seminars attracted 127 faculty and distance education administrators from 24 different countries. A detailled breakdown of the participants‘ countries of origin can be found in Bernath & Rubin, 1999b.

The Syllabi of the Virtual Seminars

The curriculum of the Virtual Seminars was conceived as being a mix of both theory and practice. The concept of "theory" was a broad one, which encompassed the foundations of distance education (its history and formal educational theories), a broad conceptual look at national, cultural and institutional structures, and an overview of the effect of technology on the field. These were broad categories of discussion, and represented an attempt to get new distance educators as well as program directors in distance education to appreciate how distance education evolved and to identify the important influences and issues of the present.

The idea was to ask top experts within the field of distance education to act as an expert mentor in each of the four areas of "theory" (see the curriculum below). It was argued that the presence of such a distinguished mentor would act not only as a direct source of information and opinion within each topic area, but it would also act as a "motivator" for the continuing involvement of the participants. It was assumed that participating faculty and administrators would need a strong reason to continue in the Seminar and it was thought that the presence of these top "name" experts would be such a motivator. Our four experts were Börje Holmberg for the foundations, Otto Peters for the theories, Gary Miller for the institutional models as well as organizational trends and Tony Bates for the technology in distance education module of the Virtual Seminars. We learned that the involvement of our distinguished experts in the discussions (with their readings and their live participation) were the key ingredients of the seminar, and which had the most relevance to achieving the goal of both the students and the organizers of the Virtual Seminar.


Table 2: The Syllabi of three Virtual Seminars


1998 I

1998 II

Pre-Seminar Week


Introduction and practice with the conferencing system

Introduction to our conferencing system

Week 1

Introduction and practice with the conferencing system

Foundations of Distance Education

Foundations of Distance Education

Week 2

Foundations of

Distance Education

Week 3

Institutional Models of

Distance Education

Institutional Models of

Distance Education

Theories in Distance Education

Week 4

Theories in

Distance Education

Week 5

Technology of

Distance Education

Theories in Distance Education

Technology of Distance Education

Week 6

Introduction to D. E.

Applications and Projects

Week 7

Student Support

Technology of Distance Education

Organizational Trends in Distance Education

Week 8

Instructional Design

Week 9


Distance Education Applications;

Summary and Conclusion

Distance Education Applications;

Summary and Conclusion

Week 10

Summary and Conclusion, Project reports

Open Forum

week 1 - 10


Discussion of Seminar Experiences

Discussion of Seminar Experiences


The Seminar Experience

At the core of the seminar was an asynchronous online discussion among the participants, the seminar leaders and the experts. These discussions, which centered around the topics in Table 2, were structured to allow the participants and the experts to interact in a systematic manner. While there are a variety of software in the market which facilitates these kinds of discussions, we used HyperNews, which is a threaded conferencing environment, meaning that each comment submitted by a participant shows up in a outline which allows readers to follow the "thread" of the conversation. HyperNews was installed on the UMUC web site, and all worldwide participants had to access that site in order to read and contribute to the discussion.


Team Approach

The seminar was managed and taught using a team approach. This meant that the Seminar Leaders jointly developed and delivered their instruction as well as any other inputs for moderating and fascilitating the discussion process. Thus they were in constant touch via e-mail and telephone to agree on their postings . Occasional face-to-face meetings took place between the seminars for evaluation and revisions of the syllabi.

A typical seminar week usually started out the weekend before by an introduction to the coming week being drafted and sent to the other leader. The introductions usually outlined a structure for the discussion. After additions and revisions, these well thought pre-prepared contributions by the leaders were then posted to the appropriate HyperNews conferences. During the week, as various comments were made in the discussions, the leaders would either individually respond to the various participant inputs, or an e-mail or telephone consultation regarding an appropriate response would occur, resulting in a joint response. At the end of each week, a summary would be drafted and revised between the two leaders, and this too would be posted on Thursday evening so that all participants could read it on Friday regardless of where they were located. When a module ended, over the weekend the mainpage of the website would be updated with new announcements. In addition, access to the new readings was provided online in our password protected environment and the next module’s discussions would be enabled.

The experts were also crucial members of the instructional team. In the first seminar, the participants put forth comments for the first day or two and then the experts came into the discussion. This resulted in considerable interaction between the expert and individual participants and less among the participants themselves. In the second and third seminars, the participants commented on and discussed the readings for the first week of the module, and the expert came into the discussion at the beginning of the second week. The move from one week modules to two week modules seemed to accomplish several goals. First, it encouraged more extensive discussion among the participants that were often fairly elaborate. Second, when the expert came in, there was already a considerable amount of discussion and this allowed the expert to respond to broad issues rather than individual comments. Third, it allowed the experts to have more interaction time in the module, and thus have more elaborated and detailed discussion of issues. As a member of the team, the expert was in e-mail and telephone contact with the leaders before the start of their module and sometimes during their module.


The Cross-cultural Dimension and the Global Aspect of the Virtual Seminars

One of the goals of the seminar was to enable a cross-cultural sharing of experiences, ideas and opinions. This was deemed to be a potential positive outcome because

  1. distance education occurs in some manner in almost all countries of the world and in a wide variety of ways, and using a variety of levels of technology;
  2. distance education is increasingly becoming a world-wide enterprise in that courses are now capable of being delivered almost anywhere in the world; and
  3. the cultural and regional bias that each participant brought to the discussion would result in a broader and deeper learning.

Our three seminar experiences definitely supported the above supposition that the cross-cultural aspects of the seminar would result in positive outcomes. Not only was a broad variety of opinion expressed, but often these opinions prompted discussion that reflected a more comprehensive analysis and understanding of critical issues. This was particularly true of technology related discussions, where participants from nations that were not highly technology enabled often came up with innovative and useful solutions to problems that did not occur to participants from high technology countries.

By being globally accessible via the Internet, the content and interaction allowed participants to differentiate and 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 seminars were offered only in English and this inhibited some of the participants from fully engaging in the seminar. There was some evidence that a few participants were hesitant to contribute to the discussions because of their lack of confidence in their English skills. The Final Questionnaire results on the item "I had some language problems" indicate that only very few stated "I fully agree" (3,33%, 3,70%, 0.00% in each seminar respectively), but a reasonable amount stated "I partly agree" (33,33%, 18,52%, 22,73%). On the other hand, if the seminar was only offered in each participant’s native language, this would have diminished the benefits of the cross-cultural environment.

A Knowledge Building Community

One of our experts, Otto Peters observed that the seminar appeared to be a virtual knowledge building community. (Peters, 1998) While this is not a new concept in the literature about computer-mediated-communication, Prof. Peters’ observation summed up quite well the experience of most of the people involved in the seminars. Each seminar was a community in that the participants met, talked, agreed, sometime strongly disagreed, sympathized, empathized, and formed relationships (several of which have lasted beyond the end of the seminars). And like other types of communities, each seminar was different from the others. Each had its own "feel", its own pace, group dynamics and its own emphasizes on content matters. It was clear that the individual personalities of the participants and their backgrounds played a role in how the community functioned.

It is certainly true that our community was a knowledge building community. Both the experts and the participants built public as well as private knowledge structures from the discussions and readings. The open discussions forced people to think and rethink their ideas as well as to sometimes defend them. This kind of collaborative enterprise is being recognized as a critical component of online learning in the literature and needs to continue to be explored in a systematic manner.

The experts also gave positive reports regarding their own experience in the Virtual Seminars. They too felt stimulated by the discussion and enjoyed the give and take of ideas. The seminar experience became a milestone for significant research and program developments in the field of online education and training.


The Witness Learner

Our formal evaluator for the first seminar, Helmut Fritsch, looked at both the on-screen participation in the seminar as well as the questionnaire data and the face-to-face interviews with the participants. What struck him was the discrepancy between measurable, visible participation (appearing on the screen with a comment during the discussions) and the self report of many of the participants that they were "active," only they did not "say" anything. In other words, many of the participants reported that they regularly read the discussion (sometimes every day) but for a variety of reasons choose not to actively submit a written contribution. It was clear that if one only looked at the written contributions, the participation rate appeared to be only about 50% (and even then, not at all times). Yet, it also seemed clear that many of whom we thought were functional dropouts were not. At the end of the seminar these non-contributors reported that they learned a considerable amount from the seminar. Fritsch coined the term witness learning, to indicate that these "passive" participants were in fact active learners, and that they appeared to learn from witnessing the interactions among the "active" participants, leaders and experts. This is probably not unlike what happens in a face-to-face class where only a few students "speak up" while the other students appear passive, and just listen. This was a kind of revelation to the seminar leaders, who often thought that what they saw on the screen was the total reality. It turned out not to be so. Other online seminars and classes would benefit from using software that tracked student "reading" behavior (whether they looked at a particular comment) versus their "saying" behavior (submitting a comment), thus giving a more accurate measure of drop-out. There are software packages available on the market today, that supply this capability.

As Fritsch has observed the idea of witness learning was not previously prominent in distance education. This is because the one-to-one relation (Holmberg, 1995) that characterized correspondence education did not allow for multiple participants in the interactions. Helmut Fritsch related the setting of the Virtual Seminar and the notion of witness larning to distance education using online tutorials. Such new settings allow to overcome the limitations of the one-to-one relation between the tutor and the student in traditional correspondence education. (Fritsch, 1998)


The Ripple Effect

It was also observed (by Ulrich Bernath) that the asynchronous mode of computer conferencing allowed the the reader to think over the dialogue for a while, rethink it later or even sleep over the messages, before responding. It seemed to be much like throwing a stone into the water (the incoming messages) and seeing the ripples expand outward (the pondering on the content of the message). In direct modes of communication one usually wouldn’t wait and ponder before answering. In asynchronous discussion processes one can "work" on the answer to be given. This pondering allows to go in-depth and to raise new ideas and notions to the surface. Furthermore, the written contributions to the discussions remain and have effects on later discussions. As we moved from topic to topic, things we discussed earlier – still available in its written form – could be cited and therefore arose again and again in later discussions. With the ripple effect in asynchronous dialogues we gain the power of reflection which may substitute for some lack of spontaneity.



The participation data from the three seminars reveals interesting patterns. The data from the first seminar showed that the average length of a comment posted by a participant to the discussions with the experts was 187 words (with a range of 76 to 477 words). To give an idea of how much this represents, a typical single spaced typewritten page holds about 350 words. This means that the average contribution was about one half of a typewritten page. The 43 participants of the first seminar posted 250 comments and produced a total of 46739 words over the 5 weeks with the experts. This represents a total of 133 typewritten pages. When added to the 56 comments and 11796 words in the distance education application modules in weeks seven to ten the total was 58535 words or over 167 typewritten pages of discussion over a period of eight weeks. This did not include two weeks that dealt with introductions, administrative issues, etc., and represents only the discussion that was contributed by the participants. The experts and seminar leaders contributed almost an equal volume of discussion (61,178 words which equals 174 typewritten pages). Thus, any active participant had to read the assigned online readings (not included in the above data), and then read 340+ (167 + 174) pages of discussion. By almost any standard, the sheer volume of this task was formidable and thus the rate of participation is quite impressive.

Participation data can be quite deceptive. If one is told that a typical participant contributed an average of six comments over the course of eight weeks, each of which averaged 187 words, this seems to represent only a very small amount of activity. Yet these modest averages, when multiplied by 43 participants, results in over 46,000 words and the equivalent of more than 167 typewritten pages. The volume of participation actually increased across the three seminars from a total of 192 participants‘ contributions in 1997 up to 323 in 1998(I) and finally up to 375 in 1998(II). Thus, in the third seminar a participant (and leader) had to read an estimated 500+ pages of text.

This data clearly shows how the sheer volume of on-line activity can be overwhelming to both the teacher and the student, and why the workload of online faculty is often reported as significantly higher than face-to-face teaching. Our data certainly suggests that 40+ participants may be too many for the type of course structure and style of interaction of this seminar. It also suggests that similar systematic analyses of participant contributions should be done for other courses offered in the online environment to understand the effect on participation and workload. The data also suggests that the scalability of the seminar (the potential for reaching large number of faculty and administrators) is somewhat limited because the number of participants in each seminar needs to be limited to control for the high volume of reading (at least for this interactive seminar model). Thus, while the seminar potentially can be offered many times online, each seminar would need to be staffed and could only be offered to, say, 25 - 30 participants at a time.

This will work fine on a limited scale (e.g. within a particular institution), but is difficult to implement on a large scale (e.g. thousands of participants).

The compiled data on participation shows that on average 50 % of all participants contributed to the discussions and that these contributors were responsible of 60 % of the total contributions. This translates into over 52% of the total words written to the virtual seminar. This data suggest that in online professional development there can be significant involvement by the participants. The data we collected was helpful in allowing us to analyze the various aspects of participation. The data was less helpful to adequately analyze the phenomenon of non-participation. More detailled information about comparative participation data of three Virtual Seminars can be found in Bernath & Rubin, 1999b.


The Results of the Final Evaluation Questionnaire

Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire at the end of each seminar. As can be seen in Table 1, the response rates for the three seminars were 77, 63 and 54% respectively. While there were some differences between the seminars, the overall trends were quite similar. Participants were asked how important certain specific goals were for them, and whether or not they felt they achieved them. In summary, participants felt they have achieved most of their personal (professional and scholarly) goals as a result of the seminar.

When asked which elements contributed most to their personal success, participants indicated the seminar readings, their active participation in the discussion and witnessing other discussions. When asked to rate their behavior in the seminar, participants were fairly positive. For example, when asked about the statement: I think I reached the cognitive learning objectives of the seminar, 48% of the participants in the first seminar said they fully agreed and 42% said they partially agreed, for a total of 90% that indicated a positive outcome for this statement. The participants in the second (92%) and third seminars (91%) also indicated positive agreement. When asked about the statement: I would be able to formulate my own position on DE theory, 85%, 81% and 91% respectively, indicated a positive outcome.


One of the more intriguing outcomes of the virtual seminar is the joint decision of the two Seminar Leaders and their respective institutions (University of Maryland University College and Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg) to pursue the design, development and delivery of a Master of Distance Education degree. This decision came directly from the original intent to develop a means to train faculty and administrators in the area of distance education. While pursuing this goal, the Seminar Leaders began to see that, in fact, there was a broad range of content and skills that needed to be addressed, and that there was a serious need for more comprehensive education/training for those who manage and direct the distance education enterprise. The new Master of Distance Education program has been started in January of 2000.

There are other similar Masters program; for example, the Open Universityof the U.K., Athabasca University in Canada and the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, but it was apparent to the authors that the demand for such training was rapidly increasing and the providers were few and far between.

It is this first course on Foundations of Distance Education in the new Masters program that is the direct evolution of the Virtual Seminar, and the syllabus and teaching methods of this first course will be directly based on the syllabus and methods of the Virtual Seminar. As it stands, the Virtual Seminar is an ideal model for a broad look at distance education and would serve as an effective introduction to the field for beginning graduate students. We plan to continue the team teaching model and to continue to use a somewhat modified expert guided structure. For us, the Seminar Leaders, this was the perfect logical outcome of the Virtual Seminar.

It is worthwhile to mention that the seminar experience has proven to be applicable to the participants in other contexts. We learned this from participants who are now using HyperNews for their own teaching and from others who are applying the seminar concept and the experience to run their own computer conferences, virtual seminars and virtual tutorials.

We are glad that our participants of the experimental first Virtual Seminar agreed to allow a complete documentation of the virtual seminar process. (Bernath & Rubin 1999a). This documentation allows a deeper insight into the microstructure of our Virtual Seminar for Professional Development in Distance Education.


Bernath, U. & Rubin, E., eds.(1999a), Final Report and Documentation of the Virtual Seminar for Professional Development in Distance Education. A Project within the AT&T Global Distance Learning Initiative sponsored by the AT&T Foundation and the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), BIS-Verlag:Oldenburg, 434 pp.

Bernath, U. & Rubin, E (1999b), An International Virtual Seminar for University Faculty and Administrators: "Professional Development in Distance Education", Paper presented to the 19th ICDE World Conference in Vienna, June 23, 1999, available at http://www.uni-oldenburg.de/zef/literat/vienna2.htm

Bernath, U. & Rubin, E. (1998a), A Virtual Seminar for International Professional Development in Distance Education, In: INFORMATIK FORUM, Vol 12, No. 1, March, pp. 18 -23

Bernath, U. & Rubin, E. (1998b), Virtual Seminars for University Faculty and Administrators "Professional Development in Distance Education" - A comparative approach to evaluation, In: ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, 4th International Conference on Technology Supported Learning, Book of Abstracts, December 2 – 4, International WHERE + HOW:Bonn, pp.287 ff

Fritsch, H. (1998), Witness-learning. Pedagogical implications of net-based teaching and learning, In: Mechthild Hauff (Ed.), media@uni-mulit.media? Entwicklung - Gestaltung - Evaluation neuer Medien, Münster/New York/München/Berlin: Waxmann, 1998 (Medien in der Wissenschaft; Bd. 6), pp. 123 ff.

Holmberg, B (1995) , The evolution of the character and practice of distance education, In: Open Learning, June, pp. 47 - 53.

Peters, O. (1998), Learning and Teaching in Distance Education. Analyses and Interpretations from an International Perspective. Kogan Page: London, pp. 146 ff.