A Quick Start Guide to Distance Learning

A Quick Start Guide to Distance Learning

Sudden campus closures are happening all over the country due to the COVID-19 virus. Colleges and universities are scrambling to set up distance learning as the only available alternative for continuing classes until the pandemic recedes – and there is no telling when this will happen. 

The suddenness of the crisis has created confusion and uncertainty, as the educational establishment struggles to design and implement a workable and useful distance learning delivery:

  • Technology staff is working to establish a system that is adaptable across departments.
  • Deans and department chairs are working with faculty to determine content selection, delivery methods, and testing protocols. Many faculty have never employed these techniques, so the learning curve is steep.
  • For their part, students are expressing uncertainty over how all of this will work, as they return this weekend from spring break.

While all of the important issues get sorted out, it occurs to me that there may be an opportunity to immediately engage the students in a distance learning effort that can be launched in a day, will be easy to implement from a technology standpoint, and prove to be immensely beneficial to all of them, regardless of their major areas of study. Additionally, it will help them to develop a communications skill set that will be critical for them after graduation.

Let me explain. I worked in the international chemical industry for thirty years, and then had the good fortune to teach business courses for an additional thirteen years on the faculty of a well-regarded liberal arts college.

In trying to meld my work experience into the international business course curriculum, I always assigned a series of four position papers over the course of the 15-week semester.

These papers were each designed to address a specific contentious issue, one that had ramifications in both the business and political spheres. The students were challenged to research the issue from all angles, assemble the most valid arguments on all sides, frame their own positions on the issue, and suggest a path forward. 

For example, one paper posed the question “Is Wal-Mart Good for America”? Obviously, there are entrenched positions on both sides of that question. The students were expected to research opposing views, to identify the facts that supported or undercut perceptions, and to develop their own reasoned positions and conclusions – not always easy, to be sure.

The papers were graded on the basis of quality of research, clarity of thinking, organization, and letter-perfect presentation: spelling, grammar and word selection. The conclusions themselves were not as important as the way they were developed and presented. 

It frankly surprised me how unfamiliar the students were in writing these types of position memos, which many of them will be required to do in the careers that lie ahead of them. I have always recommended that such papers be a part of all college courses, focusing on research and writing that is targeted for the worlds of business and government, rather than academia. 

The more practiced the students become in critical thinking, solid research and flawless presentation, the more success they will have in their careers, and the country as a whole will benefit.

In my teaching experience, it never failed that the students made great strides in learning how to think critically and write professionally, and the fourth position paper of the semester was always substantially better than the first. It took a lot of my time to closely grade the papers, making detailed suggestions on all of the key components. But it paid off.

College and university departments need to remember that every curriculum is a gateway to business. Ask a doctor if he works in a business, or a writer, or an artist. Of course they do, and they are constantly beset by political and economic forces that sometimes seem to be out of their control. What the world needs are graduates who can understand the underlying forces of complex issues, put forth sound recommendations and do so in a highly cogent and professional way. This is how individuals can influence events, rather than to be buffeted by them.

The best part is that this module can be implemented immediately. Let’s get a jump-start on distance learning in all departments, with all students. Each professor can pose a question that is related to a particular discipline, but is topical and vital to them. Have the students develop position papers along the lines I have suggested. The insights the students develop may be very surprising, and very useful.

To ensure that this process becomes closely aligned with classroom learning, the students will work collaboratively on-line with the professor – and each other. At every stage of the process (research, identification of key issues, position development, organization of the document, and professional delivery), students critique each other’s work, receive feedback in return, and the papers get stronger as they are written. The professor moderates the dialogue, and contributes his suggestions as needed.

There may well be different conclusions among the students, and that’s ok. What’s important is that each one of them tackled a tough issue, developed a sensible position, and were prepared to defend it. This is the way business works, all business. This is the type of skill set each student needs to develop.

All that is needed to kick off this off today is an Internet connection, shared email addresses of the students and professor, and a word processing program. Everybody is copied on every stage of paper development, and every critique. The students are graded on the strength of both.

Implement this now, while the technology staff and deans sort through all of the many other important distance learning implementation issues. 

Don’t wait. Do it now. 

Vic Brown is a writer and author of the book “Welcome to College – Your Career Starts Now!”