Distance Learning – Nuts & Bolts

In my previous post, I wrote about my very happy but very busy experience teaching an M. Div. course in a distance learning context. Here I want to talk about some principles I had in mind as I developed and taught this course, and then a bit about the tools I used.


Distance learning is different from face-to-face learning. At least, we expect it to be. And to some extent it must be. But how different? What kind of different?

A traditional course has a schedule that is centered around the class session, in which teacher and students meet together, gathered at the same time in one place. Typically, one of the major requirements of the course is attendance at this synchronous, in-person instructional period. If you miss class enough, you’ll find your grade dinged.

A DL course does not work that way. For the most part, it can’t. The instruction is typically asynchronous: teacher and students will participate in the course at different times. Course content is made available for students to retrieve on a somewhat looser schedule, and likewise submission of work (quizzes, papers, …) will take place over a period of time, up to clearly published deadlines.

Very often, people think of the traditional course, with its 2-3 hours of classroom time, as the ideal. Perhaps it is. But why? What is it about the face-to-face classroom session that is so important, educationally?

A lot can be said about that, far more than I will say. Let me offer simply this: the educational benefit of a traditional class session (synchronous, in-person) is that the instructor can respond quickly to the questions and pedagogical needs of the students. From an instructional perspective, that is what is of principal value with the traditional setting. It is also one that is harder than other values to translate into a DL context. In a DL setting, the responsiveness is made a bit more complicated. You simply cannot respond as quickly, in the same way. But that doesn’t mean that responsiveness must be dropped as an important pedagogical value. Rather, it must be sought after in a different way.

Given all that, I taught this course believing that the learning experience of the students would be impacted by how responsive I was, and that such responsiveness would be demonstrated through the tools available to me and the DL students.

What were those tools?


The primary tool Western Seminary instructors and students use for DL is “Canvas,” a “Learning Management System” developed by a company called Instructure. Such gobbledygook basically means that there is a pretty nifty web site that students and instructors use as the primary access point for all course content. Here’s what one of the pages looks like:


Pretty much every kind of interaction between professor and student can be handled through Canvas: lectures, quizzes, discussions, submission and grading of papers, correspondence, even “office hours”: all of these were accessed and managed through Canvas.

A good example of this is the submission of papers. Canvas makes that word a bit obsolete: “papers.” I never received nor printed any pieces of pulp product from my students. A student would submit the assignment, and I would offer a summary comment on the piece plus (when necessary) specific comments in the margins of the document. If I wanted, I could attach an audio comment, althought I never did that.

But I did use audio, extensively. For 12 out of the 14 weeks (“modules”) of the course, I recorded lecture material and put it on the web site. Most of those modules had two recordings: a short (10-15 minute) “intro podcast” released at the beginning of the module, and a longer (30-55 minute) “lecture” released about mid-week. The intro podcast would offer some wrap-up to the previous module, address housekeeping issues, and provide an orientation to the new module. The lecture goes into depth on the readings and the doctrines for the module, and often delve into practical outworkings of the doctrines.

My main software tool for the recordings was Audacity. This very fine program gave me a lot of control over the production of those podcasts and lectures. I typically would record in snippets of varying lengths, as I would sometimes get tongue tied or drop something or say a bad word. Or maybe I would have second thoughts about the substance of what I had just said. So, all I would need to do is hit “undo” and record that piece again. Most of my recordings were built this way, by segments. Indeed, one segment was a selection from a choral recording, which I copied and pasted into the mix.

When I was done with recording, I would simply export the file to mp3, making sure that the bit rate was what I wanted. (I use a bit rate of 64kbps, and a sample rate of 44.1 kHz. My recordings are mono. Anything more is unnecessary for speech.)

Here a shot of Audacity in action:


Because these recordings were a fairly important part of my communication to my students, I did not want to subject them to poor audio. Using the built in mic on my notebook computer, or the one on my Logitech web cam, simply would not do! Instead I used a Shure SM57 cardioid dynamic mic and an Alesis MultiMix 4 USB mixer, although a headset mic would probably work decently.


Except for a few interesting hiccups early on, I think my audio was pretty good. Learning how to run the Audacity file through a compressor/limiter filter helped even more. And because I was judicious in my settings, the largest file was 25Mb.

Author: Dan Griswold

A good life is motivated by love. My loves: the Triune God, family, music, friends, parishioners, theology.

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