Considerations for Effective Distance and Blended Instruction and Assessment

May 28th, 2019 | Blogs


This three-part blog series began with “Setting the Stage”, which provided historical and policy contexts, and was followed by “Support Distance Learners from the Start”, which introduced the importance of developing strong recruitment, screening and orientation practices in your distance and blended learning programs. In this final post, I share some important approaches and characteristics to support your success teaching and assessing learners in distance and blended learning.

A common misconception in distance education (DE) is that the instruction and formative assessment are handled entirely by an online curriculum. While there are several very effective online curricula for which programs can purchase licenses, teachers must still play a vital role in providing instruction, feedback, and support in DE and the online part of blended learning. Teachers guide learners, assign supplemental instructional activities as needed, ensure comprehension and skills, and provide encouragement as learners work toward their goals. We call this approach involved instruction.

Involved Instruction

Early research in online distance learning in adult education showed that DE requires a continuum of instruction “ranging from high engagement in social interaction to individual independent learning opportunities that may include some minimal electronically mediated instructor to learner and one to one learner interactions” (Askov, Johnston, Petty, & Young, 2003, p. 67). The amount of instructor involvement positively impacts the quality of the student experience and increased involvement means increased student success (Zhao et al., 2005).

A cover preview of the New Models for Distance Classes in Adult Education.In 2013, an IDEAL Consortium (then, Project IDEAL) instructional strategies study group convened to explore the state of adult education distance education instruction and to describe effective practices. We interviewed teachers and looked for similarities in their work that illustrated effective practice, which we came to call “involved instruction”. The full report, New Models for Distance Classes in Adult Education, showed these common effective characteristics:

Use of blended or hybrid models

Sometimes called “hybrid,” these learning opportunities blend classroom and online instruction.  Blended and hybrid models extend the amount of time spent learning and allow teachers to intensify learning by differentiating instruction, providing differently leveled activities to suit the knowledge and skills of different learners.

Use of one primary curriculum 

Making use of a core online curriculum (e.g., Cell-Ed, Essential Education’s GED Academy, or USA Learns) makes it possible for students to become familiar with one online environment and, through actively using it, build skills and confidence using web-based resources. Teachers can become local experts on the curriculum, deepening both their knowledge of it and their skill tying it to classroom instruction in a blended model. Explore this new repository for edtech resources to learn more about different core curricula.

Provide supplemental learning activities and resources

Even the most robust curriculum cannot cover all of the learning needs of a learner or classroom of learners or provide all of the content required to address required standards. Supplemental resources fill the gap. An excellent new source for finding OER is CrowdEd Learning’s new Skill Directory, which links to OER in these areas:

a diagram with 21st century workplace competencies

Because they are free and often adaptable, they are ideal supplemental resources for either blended or fully distance instruction. Any resource should be evaluated using a Achieve’s OER rubric before a teacher uses with learners.

Use a digital homeroom to links to all learning activities

Learners need to be able to access all learning resources (e.g., links to the core online curriculum and key complementary online resources) and support documents (e.g., instructions for logging in, program information, and teacher contact info) from one place. Teachers or program can build one using free website building tools like Google sites, Weebly, or even WordPress. This example of a digital homeroom constructed to support computer skill development shows how you can use Weebly to link out to other instructional resources.

A preview of the Digital Skills homeroom showcasing the various topics learners can engage,

Use a computer lab when possible

Making use of an on-site lab allows learners to become proficient with online learning with the support of lab attendants, even volunteer tutors. The support helps learners develop computer skills while they are working on their academic content.

Mobile Learning

A goal of implementing distance or blended learning into adult education programming is to extend the time and space where teaching and learning can occur. Since 95% of adults in the US have some sort of mobile device, success will be boosted if learners are able to access learning materials on mobile devices.

From now until the end of August 2019, learners can access four learning apps available at no cost through the Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition. The goal of the initiative is to extend access to learning through four field-tested apps designed for low-literacy adults and English language learners. To learn more about the apps and access other helpful mobile learning resources, visit the Team WorldEd webpage.

Infographic detailing assessment activities and examples


Assessing student work on a regular basis provides both the teacher and the student with a sense of the student’s progress, indicates strengths and areas for improvement, and helps the teacher plan appropriately to meet the student’s needs. This formative assessment is part of the process of a learning sequence (Bakerson, Trottier, & Mansfield, 2016; Popham, 2011). It is valuable for students, as it provides a mechanism through which they can gauge their progress toward meeting goals. For teachers, formative assessment provides guidance for instructional planning. DE teachers need to use different tools and technology than a classroom teacher.

Reviewing student online work. One way for teachers to assess student progress is to regularly review the work the student completes and provide feedback to the student on that work. Another option would be using tests and quizzes to assess distance students; this may make distance assessment more parallel to classroom-based assessment. These quizzes could be completed using online websites, posted in a learning management system, or emailed to the student.

Culminating activity. Teachers may also have students work on a culminating activity to show mastery of skills. Culminating activities may include participation in online discussion, longer writing assignments, presentations, or projects. Presentations could be given using online collaboration tools such as webinars or video conferencing. In a blended learning scenario with a learning cohort, use of these collaboration tools can support group or collaborative activities where it will also be possible to assess interactional skills and participation (Herr et al., 2015).

Portfolios. Students and teachers can maintain a portfolio of student work to track and demonstrate progress. Although portfolios do not meet National Reporting System requirements, they can provide additional evaluation information to guide instruction. Portfolios could include samples of student work, self-reflection tools (e.g., inventories, checklists, or logs), or performance-based products (e.g., a resume).

Interaction with students. Distance teachers often meet with distance students using the telephone or online tools, like Skype or Google Hangouts, for consultations where they review work and ask students questions to assess their understanding of concepts. These meetings may also be held in person for blended students.

Progress checklists. Skills checklists may be part of a goal plan or a standalone tool used by teachers and students to document skills attainment. Documenting student progress can support persistence by changing a student’s beliefs about their capabilities and achievements.

If after reading this you suspect that your DE program relies too much on one means of instruction or one approach to assessment, select a strategy or two from this list and pilot them. Over time and with adequate resources devoted to support the change, the ideas you pilot will take root in your program. What you’ll likely notice is a new richness and robustness to your program.

Written by Jen Vanek

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