Professional Development

Distance Learning and Early Childhood Education

Distance learning is relatively new to professional development in the field of early childhood education. This resource provides prospective students and instructors information about distance learning from both student and faculty perspectives. This discussion highlights effective practices that support successful professional development opportunities offered on-line.

by Chip Donohue, Ann Johnson, Pam Lucas, Chuck Lynd, Jhumur Mukerjee and Suzanne Thouvenelle

Student Perspective
Additional Information and Resources for Students
Instructor Perspective
Additional Information and Resources for Instructors


Distance learning is a relative newcomer to the early childhood professional development field. As a result, there are few research studies that identify effective practices for students or instructors who are new to distance learning. However, there are numerous recommendations from those in the field with experience participating in or teaching courses in early childhood education via distance.

This discussion of distance learning is organized into two sections: (1) a summary of issues for students to consider; and (2) a summary of issues for faculty. Each section includes multiple issues with implications for effective practices that are based on lessons learned from students and/or faculty, who are experienced users of distance learning. Further, each section provides additional information and resources for more in depth and expanded treatment of the issues and considerations of distance learning.

Section 1: Student Perspective

Motivation: Distance learning requires a higher level of internal motivation than traditional classes. There are personality types more suited to distance learning. Those most successful with distance learning experiences tend to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. Procrastination is not desirable for either traditional or distance learning, but is more of an issue for technology-driven instruction. If a student has a tendency to procrastinate, distance learning experiences will be a struggle. In addition to reading materials, students may be required to write papers regularly, participate in on-line discussion boards weekly, listen to instructors through audio-conferences, or watch a video lecture series. If learners are not effective organizers of their time, do not complete assignments as expected, or do not participate or contribute to the on-line community on a regular basis, distance learning may not be the right fit.

Implications: Take a self-assessment to determine the match between your learning preferences or style, and what’s optimal for distance learning prior to enrolling in a distance learning course. For those identified as “not yet ready” for distance learning, steps can be taken to provide support. These strategies could positively impact student motivation and expand their comfort with different options for learning.

Such support might include organizing small, face-to-face study groups for those taking an on-line course. Other strategies might include exploring distance education courses that offer a combination of on-line and classroom-based sessions. This helps students gradually adjust to functioning independently in a total distance-only experience.

Independent Learning: Along with expectations for self-motivation, successful distance learners need to be comfortable with a high level of independent learning. Problem solving and persistence are part of independent learning and decision-making. However, independent learning is not the same as learning alone. As discussed later, distance-learning students actively participate in creating communities of learners. As a member of a community of learners, students are expected to participate in on-line discussions and be an active member of work groups or project teams. Therefore, independent learners in distance education are not necessarily lonely learners.

Implications: Students who are considering distance education need to be highly aware of their own learning style and the type of learning environment that best fits their needs. A typical distance learning environment will require students to be autonomous, self-regulated, and independent, to maintain a sustained effort throughout the class. As students research distance learning programs, they should be mindful of their own level of need for community and autonomy as well as the availability of opportunities to learn in ways that are effective and personally meaningful.

Technology Sophistication: Distance learning involves interactions with instructors and other students through technology rather than face-to-face. When taking a course on-line, there is a basic level of technology knowledge necessary to be successful. Some of the basic computer skills that are needed include knowing how to open and attach electronic documents, how to create and save documents, and how to respond to e-mail. Generally, technical assistance with technology (help phone line) is available through the sponsoring institution. However, the help may not be suited to the needs of the student. For instance, a student accessing an on-line course through a dial-up modem would not be able to make a phone call for technical assistance while on-line.

Implications: Help the inexperienced student identify someone who is experienced and familiar with technology to serve as a mentor. Technology mentors need to be skilled in simplifying and clarifying technology jargon. Novice technology learners need clear, simple, jargon-free support and assistance.

In addition, distance learners can access basic tutorials to become more competent with technology. Such opportunities may be available at the school sponsoring the distance education courses, or perhaps at workshops/conferences offered by early childhood professional associations.

Literacy Expectations: Common to all distance learning is the expectation that a major portion of the course content is conveyed by the student reading as opposed to listening to course content relayed through the instructor’s lectures. Additionally in the distance learning environment, class discussions require written responses rather than spoken exchanges. Therefore, if students do not read and comprehend at a level expected for completing the distance learning course, remedial education experiences are recommended.

Many higher education institutions offer developmental classes designed to address the literacy needs of adult learners. Having a realistic assessment of the literacy levels of the students helps determine how meaningful the distance learning experience can be for students.

Implications: Identify community or institutional resources that can help to improve the adult learner’s literacy skills. In order to support better learning outcomes and avoid discouragement on the part of the student, if necessary, the student should participate in some type of literacy-related skill building. This should precede enrollment in distance education courses if a student’s literacy skills are not well-developed.

Prospective students, prior to enrolling in on-line courses, should identify the support and resources the college or university offers to meet their individual needs for literacy enhancement.

Professional Development / Institution of Higher Education Support: The institution of higher education offering the degree should have an understanding of the unique needs of early childhood educators and Head Start teachers in terms of resources available (computer, internet, etc.) to these students and the technology skills and experiences generally available in this population of teaching staff. For this reason, the technology support provided by the institution needs to be tailored for the students to help ensure success.

Implications: Students seeking to enroll in on-line courses or a degree program offered via distance education should identify the support and resources the college or university offers to meet their individual needs. It is very critical that the student become aware of articulation agreements between 2- and 4-year colleges in case they plan to pursue a 4-year degree.

Additional Information and Resources for Students

Student Perspective




Motivation & Independent Learning

Student self-assessment resources

What Makes a Sucessful Online Student?

Tips for Online Success

Is Online Learning For Me?

Survey - Are Online Courses For You?

Basic information for becoming a successful on-line student.

ELearners Advisor

Evaluation tool with 4 components 7 feedback:
  • Fit with on-line Learning
  • Tech Access & Personality
  • Tech Competency
  • Learning Style

Literacy Expectations

Adult Literacy Education*

Opportunities and Limits: An Update on Adult Literacy Education

Article reviews major milestones in Adult Education Res. & Practice

Multiple Literacies: A Compilation for Adult Educators

Multiple Literacies. A Compilation for Adult Educations

Article addresses the diverse faces of literacy – digital, environmental, health

Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles

A resource to assess skills of adult learners

Section 2: Instructor Perspective

Distance Learning Process: In order for distance learning experiences to be most meaningful for students, instructors need to be able to use the technology to create a sense of community. Since face-to-face interactions do not occur, instructors are responsible for creating circumstances and situations where learners interact with each other. This is accomplished through a variety of features and strategies-chat rooms, discussion platforms, cooperative learning assignments, and other intentional techniques that support group communication and interaction.

The capabilities of the technology and the skill of the instructor lead to the creation of a learning community where, as in traditional learning, contributions from every student are valued. Effective instructors are consistent and intentional in modeling appropriate technology-supported interactions.

In face-to-face situations, nonverbal messages are discerned through tone of voice. A “tone” can also be communicated in electronic messages through the use of punctuation and other symbols prevalently used in e-mail messages. Instructors of successful distance learning experiences view their roles more as guides or facilitators than as teachers.

Constructive feedback is critical for all learning situations. However, with distance learning, feedback is even more critical. Feedback creates connections between the instructor and students. Instructors establish expectations for when and how students receive feedback.

In order to be credible, instructors must provide timely feedback. If feedback from instructors is sporadic, this will send messages to students that it is acceptable for student participation to be sporadic or inconsistent. Providing comprehensive and responsive feedback to distance learning students is time-consuming. For distance learning courses, it is recommended that no more than 12 to 15 students participate.

Implications: Sponsoring institutions need to provide supportive environments for instructors of distance learning. This support includes the time to create, prepare, and implement on-line instruction. In addition, sponsoring institutions need to provide any assistance necessary for instructors to learn how to use the features of the technology platform used to deliver the course. Instructors need to learn to navigate the software and have available the hardware required for implementing distance education courses. Support from instructional designers who can help turn traditional course material into effective distance-delivered coursework is also valuable.

Course Content: As instructors make the transition into teaching on-line courses, it is important to remember the focus needs to be on the content of the course. The technology is a tool to be used to deliver the content effectively and efficiently. Extensive planning is required to ensure that the quality of the course work and principles of course development are not compromised when on-line teaching is used as a medium of delivery. The instructor may use a variety of multimedia tools for participation and sharing of information, such as listserv, discussion boards, etc. These tools provide students with the opportunity to interact with classmates and the instructor and create a collaborative learning environment.

Group projects are often a major component of early childhood education courses and should be included when applicable in on-line courses to allow students to learn about working in collaboration with other professionals. An on-line Early Childhood Education program should include courses with a field experience component. This provides students with the opportunity to work with young children, families, and other professionals.

Implications: Before students are enrolled in a class, the instructor should provide them with the syllabus, assignments, list of references, and, required readings. Access to this material permits the student to decide if the class meets his/her needs. In addition, specific information about minimum technology requirements, time estimates, and a description of what it is like to learn on-line should be offered to help students make choices about the fit between their learning styles, technology skills, and the course content and on-line delivery method.

Instruction and Learning: The students should be provided with on-line course materials and access to an electronic resource center. Prior to the beginning of the course, the instructor should provide registered students with the opportunity to become familiar with their new learning environment. Activities that promote familiarity include completing a browser test, checking hardware compatibility, examining the syllabus, and using the tools of an instructional management system such as Blackboard. This will allow students to ask questions, become familiar with the technology, and provide for more effective use of time during the semester. It is very important that instructors communicate with students, provide feedback, and be available to students. The instructors may set virtual office hours on-line or on the phone.

Implications: The instructor should provide the student information about the components of the class, resources provided by the instructor, opportunities to interact and collaborate with the instructor and other classmates, and the availability of the instructor.

Additional Information and Resources for Instructors

Instructor Perspective




Distance Learning Process

What Makes a Successful On-line Facilitator? 

Basic criteria for a person to be successful

Course Content

Evaluating quality in your On-line course

Six sections with a grid to assess quality

Developing an Effective Teaching Strategy for on-line Instruction for ECE course* 
Pub. Date: 2000[...]

Search for Author: Guha, Smita
ERIC#: ED453930

Article reports authors experience in developing an ECE on-line course.

Collaborative Course Development in ECSE through Distance Learning*
Pub. Date: 1999

ECRP. Vol 1 No 1. Collaborative Course Development in ... › hains

Article discusses issues related to the development of an ECSE distance education course in Wisconsin.

Instruction and Learning

What Makes a Successful on-line Facilitator?

Basic criteria for a person to be successful

Instructional Design

Multiple Resources for Course Design


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Chip Donohue, PhD, was the Director of Early Childhood Professional Development Programs at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Ann Johnson is a Head Start and Youth Program Specialist in the Region VII ACF Regional Office. ann dot johnson at acf dot hhs dot gov.

Pam Lucas is a Program Specialist at the Region VII ACF Regional Office. pam dot lucas at acf dot hhs dot gov.

Chuck Lynd was the Associate Director, Information Services for the Early Childhood Quality Network (Q-Net) at the Ohio State University Center for Special Needs Populations.

Jhumur Mukerjee was the Early Literacy Content Specialist in the Region VII Head Start TA Network.

Suzanne Thouvenelle is the Early Childhood Specialist for Head Start Knowledge and Information Information Management Services. suzannet at headstartinfo dot org.