Friday, October 28, 2005

Living Taxonomy Project

The Distance Education Course Taxonomy has been catalogued by
Living Taxonomy Project (LTP)
...though its structure differs from most of their other entries. The LTP is an ambitious project; note the following from their Web site:

"The Living Taxonomy Project is a collaborative effort aimed at creating a global set of open source, standards-based taxonomies for education..."

"In higher education, instructors and institutions are driving down the costs of textbooks by substituting their own digital learning materials. These materials are not only being shared across a given institution, they are also being placed in global learning repositories for evaluation and use by others. Finally, online learning is the fastest growing segment of the education market and its success is dependent directly on the ability to create collections of learning content that adhere to course structures that are also part of an overarching discipline taxonomy. "

In other words, their contribution is to augment learning object repositories with an overarching organization scheme by discipline, rather than the LO content.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Oh Boy, Another Taxonomy!

I'll admit it: I am starting this blog for selfish reasons, but there is some altruistic redeeming value to it. I am attempting to develop a very practical framework for approaching course design at my institution, Saint Joseph's College of Maine...

...and I'm posting a draft here for you to critique and use freely for your own devices. Sort of an "open source" model. If the model is useful to you, all I ask is that you post a comment saying so, and that you let others know about it. If you have critical comments, I would appreciate those, too.

Thanks very much for taking a look!
Narrative for the Taxonomy

Distance education can take various forms and be mediated by a number of technologies. The following simple taxonomy represents a useful way for us to distinguish among four key types of distance education courses. As with any model, the delineations of types are approximate and representative, not comprehensive (or infallible). Differences among the four types are exaggerated for illustrative purposes.

Two Course Dimensions: Structure and Synchronicity

Virtually any distance education course can be described in terms of how structured (Moore's Transactional Distance Theory) it is (degree of learner control it affords), and how synchronous it is (degree of synchronicity with which students and instructor interact). A highly structured course (low degree of learner control) can be considered instructor centered. A course with a low degree of synchronicity can be considered asynchronous.

Using the two-dimensional model described above, we can place a distance education course in a quadrant, according to these main characteristics:

  • High structure, low synchronicity
  • High structure, high synchronicity
  • Low structure, low synchronicity
  • Low structure, high synchronicity

Once we place a course in its quadrant, we can identify its format and list each technology that can be considered a hallmark for that type of course. In practice, some technologies, such as e-mail, discussion boards, and Web links are prevalent across the spectrum of distance education course formats. The differences among courses for such technologies may be in how they are used.

Faculty-directed independent study (top left quadrant)

A distance education course characterized by low synchronicity (asynchronous) and high structure (instructor centered) is the typical online Faculty Directed Independent Study course at Saint Joseph’s College. Though the learner can control when and how she studies, the course content, sequencing, and assignments are almost entirely set beforehand.

A primary goal of a highly structured, asynchronous course is to lead the learner through a sequence of instructional content and to impart “knowledge” as efficiently as possible. “Hallmark” technologies for this type of course include: text-based study guide notes (.pdf/.html), graphics, PowerPoint presentations, audio segments, and interactive self-tests.

Lecture-based real-time class (top right quadrant)

In a virtual synchronous classroom (Driscoll, 1998), in a highly structured course, students view live lecture presentations by the instructor at specific times. Depending on the capability of the software used to broadcast the presentations, the lectures may be archived and viewed on demand by students unable to attend the live events. The archival feature adds an asynchronous option to this course format, which blurs the asynchronous/synchronous dimension. Hallmark technologies used in this type of course are streaming audio/video, text chat, whiteboard, and PowerPoint slides. Some software provides a “polling” function, so that the instructor can get feedback from individuals in the class. An asynchronous discussion board may augment the live events to continue dialog “outside of class.” This course format may be the closest in the online world to replicating a traditional, lectured-based class.

Key goals of a real-time, lecture-based online course are: to move groups of students through a sequence of material within a given time period; and to connect students in time with the instructor and other students. The immediacy of communication in such a course can facilitate a rapid exchange of ideas and viewpoints.

Student-designed independent study (bottom left quadrant)

Practica courses or traditional self-designed “independent study” courses typically afford students a high degree of control over both course content and pace (low structure-low synchronicity). The instructor serves primarily as a guide to be consulted in setting up the course, and provides academic oversight for all aspects of the course. Such a course is likely to be the capstone of a curriculum, or an upper-level course option, and provides an opportunity for students to synthesize what they have learned in previous courses.

The centerpiece of such a course is often a detailed syllabus, with instructions and necessary forms for each step in the process from course design to final assessment. Students frequently keep a log or journal of their experiences as part of the assessment requirements. The quintessential online “journal” is a Weblog or Blog; or perhaps the newer phenomenon of “podcasting” will take root in this format. Some courses use a discussion board for this purpose, though Blogs afford more student control over their material.

Real-time online graduate seminar (bottom right quadrant)

A highly synchronous online graduate seminar is likely to be conducted via shared whiteboard space and text chat, affording students real-time communication, with direction from an instructor as an option. Broader based adoption of Voice over IP technology and the coming high-speed Internet 2 will eventually cause text-based communication to be supplanted by audio. It could be argued that will lead to a resurgence of audio conferencing.

In an online real-time graduate seminar, a primary objective is to engage students in a fast-paced dialog to brainstorm ideas, problem solve issues, or grapple with conflicting viewpoints. Real-time discussion can be augmented with an asynchronous discussion component for follow-up sessions to extend particular discussion topics.


The taxonomy presented here may contradict some aspects of the view that distance education should be used to design whole new ways of teaching and learning that transcend traditional models. While embracing the new paradigm, however, it is often helpful to begin discussions about design from among common understandings and familiar territory. So consider this model a “bridge” from the old to the new. If that is its only benefit, it will not have been created in vain.

The four distance education course formats in the taxonomy spring from an institution that ascribes heavily to an asynchronous, faculty-directed independent study delivery model. Certain other modes of delivery, such as asynchronous cohort, are considered “hybrids” in this model. In addition, the model assumes the presence of an instructor and so excludes strictly computer-based training (CBT). The model could be expanded to include other formats, however.


Driscoll, M. (1998). Web-Based Training: Using Technology to Design Adult Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.