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Manual for Faculty: Offering a Distant-Learning Course

Any teacher offering Heritage will face the challenges inherent in teaching a course based on television. However, some faculty members will be confronted with yet another twist on traditional teaching: they may be teaching a course specifically devoted to off-campus students. Generally speaking, these "distant learners" will view the television programs, read the books and complete almost all assignments at home. Conducting such a course presents responsibilities that may differ greatly from traditional teaching methods. It also demands an array of new tasks -- some clerical and some imaginative -- designed to substitute for the classroom experience.

This section will outline what this new teaching role consists of. For its contents, we are greatly indebted to the Coast Community Colleges, a leader in telecourse production and management for over a decade. Coast kindly lent us their manuals to learn and borrow from; we have done so lavishly. Thanks also to the PBS Adult Learning Service for their assistance.


You should first be assured that distant learners are serious students. According to surveys conducted by Coast and other institutions involved in television teaching, the average distant learner tends to be degree-oriented, though perhaps not interested in full-time study at this particular time. Most of your students are likely to have had previous college experience. Some may even have degrees in other fields and be attracted to off-campus study for professional growth or intellectual enrichment. Distant learners tend to be older than those enrolled in traditional courses, married and employed; many have children. The majority are women. You will find that most of your students show a strong capacity for self-discipline and a high motivation to learn, but they will need your help to succeed.


The Heritage course has been carefully designed to offer off-campus students a learning experience that is self-contained and almost self-sufficient. The television series and accompanying books were developed simultaneously and are thoroughly integrated. The Study Guide also serves the all-important purpose of tying the course elements together, reinforcing key terms and concepts, guiding students through each unit and helping them to assess their own learning. As one writer put it, the guide attempts to serve as "a freeze-dried professor."

Nonetheless, distant learners want and need the guidance of a real teacher as much as any other students. Your role is crucial in motivating students, in assisting their individual progress and in making them feel a part of an academic environment, not an impersonal correspondence course. While valuable learning is possible with only minimal contact with faculty members, distant learners who regularly consult their teachers are found to complete their courses and achieve at a higher level more frequently than those who do not.

It is up to you and your institution to determine exactly how much contact you will have with your students. You may function solely as a facilitator or "manager," responsible only for sending course materials to students and grading exams. On the other hand, you may communicate frequently with students by mail or phone. You may also hold discussions or review sessions, develop independent study projects, arrange field trips, assign research papers or administer and grade essay tests.

In the end, your role will be determined by the needs and desires of your students. Yet, however narrowly or broadly your role is defined, certain tasks are vital to the course's success.


Precourse preparation is far and away the most important phase of any off-campus telecourse. Such preparation means, basically, thinking the entire course through from beginning to end. It begins with previewing the TV programs and reading through the texts (when cassettes and books are available). The PBS Adult Learning Service can usually supply you with one or two segments of the series, and previewing these will give you a good idea of its general format. (Cassettes are not always available before the series' premiere.)

You must then decide exactly what you will expect of your students -- academically and procedurally -- throughout the semester. What are the course objectives, and how will you communicate them? What administrative procedures (relating to registration, withdrawals and so on) will students be expected to follow, and how can they be explained simply and without confusion? What kind of performance do you expect of students? What grading system will you apply?

Working with your school's administration, you must now decide when and where major examinations will be held, what portion of the course they will cover, how many quizzes, if any, you will require and what purpose they will serve. You must also choose what, if any, extra-credit activities to offer. Will you require or arrange seminars, review sessions, special papers, field trips and/or book reports? What support will you need from clerical and administrative staff?

Finally, there are the technicalities involved in ensuring that your students watch all the TV programs. You need to know the broadcast schedule of the series (including both its prime-time and repeat broadcasts, and possible repeats on cable channels), and should anticipate any quirks in the season -- such as preemptions -- that may affect the semester. This information is available from your local public TV station. Provisions must also be made for students to re-view the programs (usually at a campus library or media center) or to catch a program whose airing they may have missed.

Introductory Letter

All of this information will be incorporated into your first letter to enrolled students. The introductory letter, which should be mailed as soon after registration as possible, should set the tone for the course and anticipate all procedural questions. After introducing yourself and welcoming the students, your letter should cover the following:
  • What will be expected of students in order to complete course requirements.
  • A list of required texts, including their prices and instructions on how to purchase them. (You may include a mail-order form if your bookstore is willing to handle orders in this way.)
  • A course schedule, including a broadcast schedule and information on when and where series cassettes can be screened.
  • Due dates for papers, assignments and exams.
  • An explanation of examinations and grading policy.
  • The time and place of the orientation session, if any, and of any discussion groups or study sessions offered.
  • Your phone number and office hours -- and those of any other personnel assigned to assist your students.
  • Other college services available to the student, such as the library, media center and health center. (Include a map of the campus, if possible).
If you supply a list of optional readings, you may want to make these materials available at other local libraries in addition to the one on campus. Finally, your students will appreciate it if you distill all reading assignments, viewing schedules and testing information onto one sheet of paper.

Orientation Session

Many schools require or offer an orientation session at the start of an off-campus course. At these sessions the instructor can distribute a syllabus and clear up any remaining questions about telecourse study. Research indicates that distant learners prefer to meet the teacher in person at least once, and that the opportunity to do so improves their performance. It is up to you to determine whether this session is held off campus or on, and whether or not it is mandatory. (You may wish to offer the session more than once, at times convenient for working adults.) In any event, an invitation can be included in your introductory letter.


Once the course begins, your time will be mainly devoted to setting up clear methods of communication with students; establishing good support services; coordinating and supervising any additional activities, such as discussion groups; maintaining contact with students by letter and telephone; and arranging and administering exams and quizzes.

Usually the purpose of initial student contact is to get students committed to the course and help them to enjoy it. In this period, then -- roughly the first half of the semester -- frequent communication is recommended to assure students that a concerned faculty member is available to answer their questions. After the first quizzes and the midterm exam, most students may require only a few brief letters, an updating of course information or the projecting of a final grade curve. Thus you will be relatively free in the second half of the semester to help students who request it, hold review sessions, receive and evaluate any extra-credit projects and make solicitous phone calls to those students whose grades indicate they need assistance.

Telephone Hours

You should first reserve a specific time to receive phone calls from students. Since many of these calls will be requests for basic information, you may wish to set up an answering machine with a recorded message, or provide a separate number to call with any procedural questions. This will free you to spend your own phone time discussing content and the students' learning. If you wish, you can also make a phone call to the instructor part of the required assignment at various points during the course.

Many students seem to appreciate it if the instructor initiates the first phone call. A few students may also need to arrange for regular calls made at established times. A simple way of implementing these steps is to include a return postcard in your introductory letter, asking students to list phone numbers and convenient hours for calling.

Communication by Mail

Letters and cards can be sent to remind students of work due and of exam dates; they can also serve as progress reports and as a way to notify students of schedule changes. (Some telecourse instructors like to run off a set of mailing labels immediately after registration to ease this process.) In addition, you may want to consider developing a course newsletter. This periodic letter could contain information on course content, announcements about special events in the community that relate to the course, as well as comments from students themselves. It can also serve as a means to deliver a form of lecture.

Quizzes and Examinations

Short quizzes, either graded or ungraded, are beneficial to distant learners for several reasons: they encourage students to keep up with course work, provide valuable reinforcement of the subject and, if scheduled soon in the semester, give students feedback on their performance and an early sense of accomplishment. After quizzes are mailed to students, students can either mail in their completed quizzes and receive marked copies in return, or check their own work against answers mailed to them. Some schools utilize a computer system to offer students rapid feedback.

Midterms and final examinations, of course, are mandatory, and you will probably not wish to have students take them at home. A common practice is to offer the tests twice on campus and/or at extension centers. However, arrangements may have to be made to administer tests to students who are physically unable to travel.


The addition of various student support services greatly enhances the satisfaction and learning of off-campus students. You should work closely with the administrative staff of your school to plan and arrange these services. Such plans should be made soon after course adoption, since they have a direct effect on the course budget, the use of college resources and the level of staff support required.

In developing these services, simply remember that the fact that your course does not require on-campus attendance is precisely the reason most of your students enrolled. Any on-campus activities you arrange probably should be kept optional. If your district is large and your enrollment is high, you may want to consider an off-campus setting -- a community center or local business -- for the meetings.

Contact Sessions

Review sessions and group discussions give distant learners an opportunity to question the instructor directly and to share their learning experiences with one another. These sessions can take the form of seminars, question-and-answer periods or supplementary lectures. Many telecourse teachers like to hold at least two such review sessions, scheduled just before the midterm and the final exam.

To stimulate informal contact among off-campus students, some colleges provide a referral service for class members interested in discussing the course with one another. Those interested in forming discussion groups list their addresses and phone numbers in a special section of their registration form. Addresses are then listed by zip code and distributed to students, who contact each other to arrange meeting places and times.

Other Media

For those students who wish to participate more but who simply cannot travel, two methods are especially helpful. First, if your school has a radio station, it can broadcast a program in which you discuss the course and take phone-in questions from students. Second, a conference call can be arranged between a number of students and yourself.

Existing Campus Services

Distant learners should be encouraged to utilize all college services available to regular students. Soon after registration (possibly in your introductory letter), you might send a map of the campus along with information on library hours, student union privileges, activity cards and counseling and health services available.


Just as the instructor needs to think through an array of new tasks to make an off-campus course run smoothly, the administration needs to initiate new kinds of promotion, registration and support services to accommodate distant learners. Most of all, the school's administration must make a firm commitment to the course's success. Your responsibilities have only just begun when a distant-learning course is adopted and listed in the catalog.

Many institutions heavily involved in television teaching establish a special telecourse office, headed by a coordinator with sufficient rank and authority to assist these courses' faculty and students. At the very least, one administrator should be designated to oversee and coordinate telecourse instruction. The section that follows is particularly intended for those of you whose schools are new to this field.


Once again, the success of an off-campus offering lies mainly in thinking through its implementation well in advance. Obviously, the means of communication, testing procedures and supplementary activities your faculty members offer off-campus students will require close contact with your staff. But administration and faculty are not the only two groups who must be communicating clearly. Everyone on the school's staff should understand that off-campus courses -- a new breed of instruction requiring a new kind of effort -- are now available to students.

The Planning Committee

Since preparing an off-campus telecourse involves so many areas within an institution, you may find it helpful to form a committee to oversee the planning process and the deployment of resources required. Most schools prefer to have this committee chaired by a faculty member from the discipline offering the course. Committee members would represent administration, faculty and public information, with responsibilities falling as follows:
  • Administration: Registration and enrollment; faculty assignment; support services; financial considerations; contact with local public TV station on broadcast times; ordering printed materials.
  • Faculty: Reviewing course materials; planning and conducting the course; student support and evaluation.
  • Public Information: Informing the community of the course's availability; identifying specific target audiences; coordinating promotional efforts with the local public TV station.
These areas of responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Administrators, for example, will want to work with the public information staff in designing brochures with registration forms; faculty will need to know the mechanics of registering, viewing the programs and ordering books; and the public information office should learn how faculty will approach the course and what they expect students to gain from it.

Credit and Grades

Designed as a one-semester course suitable for three credits, Heritage can also be offered for fewer or greater credits, depending on how much work is required. The course can also be offered on a credit/noncredit basis or on a letter-grade or pass/fail basis. In short, any credit and grading policies normally followed by your institution can probably be applied.


Generally, colleges charge the same tuition and student fees for off-campus courses as for any other. Other fees, however, may be needed. For instance, if your students order printed materials by mail, you must determine in advance how much they will pay for shipping. Remember also that time is money to your students. Anything you can do to reduce the time spent registering, seeking information or commuting reflects a pricing decision by your college.

The Broadcast Schedule

In its premiere season, Heritage will be offered by most PBS stations on the same prime-time schedule. However, you should check with the Adult Learning Liaison at your local public TV station to confirm this schedule and to determine if the programs will have a weekly repeat broadcast. You should also discuss broadcast options for subsequent semesters. The station can repeat the series a certain number of times and may well schedule one of these releases during a semester when you wish to repeat the course.

Since unannounced changes in broadcast times can confuse students and disrupt the course, establish a procedure with your local station whereby they will advise you of changes in time to inform students.

Support Services for Faculty

The amount of support your faculty requires depends on the level on which the course is taught, the number of students enrolled and the extent of the instructor's involvement with students. Your instructors may simply help students work their way through the telecourse components; they may devote as much time to forms of lecture and discussion as a traditional teacher, but through different means. But whatever their role, your faculty will need support. In particular, they will need help arranging for large mailings and phone contact with students, administering tests and getting computer assistance for evaluation and feedback. Again, these services must be planned well before the course begins.

Institutions that regularly offer a number of off-campus telecourses often establish a separate office to provide and coordinate the support services their faculties require. Such an office would, for instance, maintain telephones with an automatic answering service, supply proctors for exams, schedule dates and facilities for tests and contact sessions, print quizzes and tests, process mail between students and instructors, and supply student questionnaires at the end of each course, then compile the results.

Recruitment and Registration

Institutions experienced in distant learning have found two keys to enrolling large numbers of students: an active, early and persuasive public information campaign on the benefits and availability of the course, and a simple registration procedure. Your public information officer and registrar should begin work on these efforts well in advance.

Public Information

"You cannot attract nontraditional students using only traditional tools," says the president of one college with great success in off-campus instruction. A number of techniques have proved effective for reaching these students:
  1. Start planning your promotion early. Combine information about off-campus courses with all publicity and advertising plans for your college. Continue your promotion through your late registration period, which should last at least until the second TV program is broadcast.
  2. Utilize all campus sources for promotion and publicity: class schedules, catalogs, bulletin boards, newspapers and magazines. Run spot announcements on campus radio or TV stations. If you have offered off-campus courses before, send all of your former students fliers.
  3. Treat the course as a news story in off-campus media, and make use of every channel of communication that reaches your community: articles in local papers and magazines, press releases to local columnists, commercial ads and public service announcements on radio and TV stations. (Be sure your PSA's give the times and dates of broadcasts and information on registering.) The PBS Adult Learning Service can provide you with sample print, video and radio promotional materials.
  4. Work with the Adult Learning Liaison at your public TV station and with other local colleges using off-campus courses. Plan joint promotional efforts whenever possible.
  5. Encourage your local public TV station to air the promotional spot that PBS will provide. This national ad for the telecourse will end with a blank fifteen-second "gate," during which local stations will explain how their audience can get further information about enrolling. You may want the station to mention your college on the air as a local adopter, and possibly run an on-campus address or phone number.
  6. Identify your target audiences and the ways to reach them most effectively. Look for groups of potential students in local businesses, government agencies and professional organizations who may take a special interest in the course.
  7. Emphasize the benefits of television courses in all promotional materials. Remember that the typical distant learner is particularly interested in quality education and convenience.
  8. Establish a single telephone number for all off-campus course inquiries. Staff this phone with someone who is friendly and smart. When potential students call, they need answers.
  9. Train your guidance counselors and admissions personnel to think about off-campus courses. Your staff's ability to articulate the benefits of these courses may be all that is needed to enroll a new student or to encourage an already enrolled student to take just one more course.

Many colleges enable distant learners to enroll in three ways: by phone, by mail or in person. Tear-out registration forms can be attached to all fliers, brochures and advertisements created for the course, along with a phone-in number. Make certain that the material accompanying the forms contains essential information about the course: which station will broadcast it, the broadcast schedule, course fees (if any), ordering information for required texts, any prerequisites or other requirements, and whether the course counts towards a degree and can be taken on a credit/noncredit basis. Immediately on receipt of a phone or mail registration, the campus registrar or instructor should send a letter confirming the student's enrollment.

On-campus registration can be facilitated by a special table for off-campus courses and, above all, by ensuring that registraton [sic - registration] staff understand the technicalities of distant learning. Finally, your guidance staff should be encouraged to consider off-campus options in planning all student schedules.


The means by which faculty members communicate with distant learners during the semester -- the essence of the course itself -- have been described in the previous section. Since your role is to help instructors implement these processes, simply keep in mind the following:
  1. Telephone Contact. Although the instructor will be setting aside specific office hours to talk to students, you may wish to set up a telecourse hot line, with support staff available to answer procedural questions, or a round-the-clock answering machine with a recorded message.
  2. Mailings. The faculty will need clerical help with periodic mass mailings -- letters, cards and possibly newsletters -- in addition to exams and quizzes.
  3. Contact Sessions. If your instructor wishes to hold discussion groups, seminars or other review sessions, you will need to help arrange space, whether on or off campus.
  4. Media and Learning Centers. Your telecourse license gives you the right to tape the Heritage series off-air. These tapes can then be made available at a library or media center, for the use of enrolled students only, for the length of the semester. Inform students of the location and hours of this center (remember that evenings and weekends are prime studying hours for distant learners), and encourage them to re-view programs, as well as to catch any program they may have missed on TV. If your district is large, you may wish to have tapes available in other media centers in libraries or at businesses throughout the community.
  5. Testing. If your course has a large enrollment, you might assign a teaching assistant to help grade exams. Some institutions also offer a computer-based system to provide rapid feedback on quizzes. Scored quizzes are returned with notes explaining which sections of the course materials cover questions answered incorrectly. The same system can be used for graded or self-help quizzes.

A questionnaire sent to students at the end of the semester can yield much valuable information about the characteristics of those who enrolled and their assessments of the course and its components. Remember to send the questionnaire to everyone who originally enrolled; the responses of those who did not complete the course can be illuminating. Naturally, the faculty members involved will also be a great help in evaluating the course's success and in planning future efforts.