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students institutions faculty support

Carol Wright
Pennsylvania State University, USA


The term distance education is used to describe educational initiatives designed to compensate for and diminish distance in geography or distance in time. The introduction of technology to distance education has fundamentally changed the delivery, scope, expectations, and potential of distance education practices. Distance education programs are offered at all levels, including primary, secondary, higher, and professional education. The earliest antecedents of distance education at all levels are found worldwide in programs described most commonly as correspondence study, a print-dependent approach prolific in geographic areas where distance was a formidable obstacle to education. As each new technology over the last century became more commonly available, it was adopted by educational practitioners eager to improve communication and remove barriers between students and teachers.


Each developmental stage of technology incorporated elements of the old technology while pursuing new ones. Thus, early use of technology involved telephone, television, radio, audiotape, videotape, and primitive applications of computer-assisted learning to supplement print materials. The next iteration of distance education technologies, facilitating interactive conferencing capabilities, included teleconferencing, audioteleconferencing, and audiographic communication. Rapid adoption of the Internet and electronic communication has supported enhanced interactivity for both independent and collaborative work, access to dynamic databases, and the ability for students to create as well as assimilate knowledge. The rapid and pervasive incorporation of technology into all levels of education has been to a significant degree led by those involved in distance education. Virtual universities have evolved worldwide to offer comprehensive degrees. Yet, the technological advances are a threat to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

As distance delivery programs have increasingly incorporated technology, the term distance education has been used to distinguish them from more traditional, non-technology-based correspondence programs. As traditional resident higher education programs have adopted many of the technologies first introduced in distance education programs, the strong divisions between distance and resident programs have become increasingly blurred and have resulted in growing respect for distance education programs. In postsecondary education, technology-based distance education has gradually evolved into a profitable and attractive venture for corporations, creating strong competition for academic institutions. The involvement of the for-profit sector in the delivery of technical, professional, and academic degrees and certificates has, in turn, been a driving force in the renewed discussion of perennial higher education academic issues such as the nature of the learning and teaching experience; educational assessment; academic and professional accreditation; the delivery of student support services such as libraries, computing, and counseling services; and faculty issues such as promotion and tenure, workload, and compensation.


In the primary and secondary environment, distance education is a successful solution for resource sharing for school districts unable to support specialized subject areas, students with mental or physical disabilities who are temporarily or permanently homebound, students with difficulties in a traditional classroom environment, repeat students in summer-school classes, advanced-placement students who are able to access college-level programs, adults seeking to complete GED requirements, and the increasing numbers of families who choose a home-schooling option.

In the college and university environment, distance education is an attractive option for adult and nontraditional students, students who need to be away from campus for a semester, or those who have difficulties scheduling required courses in resident programs. Distance education delivery options have become a common dimension of almost all traditional institutions. For-profit entities are becoming a dominant force in the distance education arena as education evolves into a commodity, especially for advanced professional education and training, because of their ability to target the marketplace. With the certain need for continuing education and training across government, industry, business, higher education, and health care; the increasing affordability of technologies; and the growing demand for “just-in-time,” on-demand delivery, distance education promises to be the answer for those who want and need the learning experience and necessary content delivered to their desktops at home or at their place of employment.


Comprehensive evaluation must be an integral component of distance education programs. SWOT analysis, a critical component of the strategic planning process, is an effective tool that helps to identify resources and capabilities, and to formulate strategies to accomplish goals. SWOT involves a scan of the internal and external environment, and identifies internal environmental factors as strengths (S) or weaknesses (W), and external factors as opportunities (O) or threats (T).

Early efforts to evaluate distance education focused on the transfer of course content and found that, compared to traditional course delivery and face-to-face instruction, there is no significant difference.

Future evaluation should examine more substantive and fundamental questions, such as the success in meeting stated learner outcomes, student-to-student interactions, teacher feedback, the development of learning communities, the incorporation of various learning styles, the development of effective teacher-training programs, the degree to which courses and programs are recognized in professional and employment arenas, the transferability of coursework across institutions, and enrollment and course-completion rates.


Among the continuing challenges for distance education are online ethics, intellectual property and copyrights, faculty issues, institutional accreditation, financial aid, and student support services.

Ethics in the Online Environment

Ethical behavior and academic honesty among students is of concern in any educational environment, and the online distance environment lends itself to significant abuse. Strategies to discourage and identify such behaviors require advance planning and aggressive attention. Course design, teaching techniques, and subscriptions to online services that help faculty detect plagiarism can be effective. Some useful approaches include designing assignments that are project based and focus on a task resulting in a product, and that require some degree of cooperation and coordination among students. Such products should incorporate students’ own experiences and emphasize the process rather that simply the end result. Assignments can rotate across different semesters so that they are less predictable. Assignments that consist of small, sequential, individualized tasks can ensure that students keep up with class readings and respond to class assignments. High levels of instructor and student interaction, frequent e-mail contact, and online chats can ensure participation. An electronic archived record of all correspondence permits the tracking of content and variations in a student’s writing style. All courses should include an academic integrity policy. In an electronic environment where downloading and cut-and-paste are routine habits of information gathering, instructors must directly address ethical issues concerning the submission of such materials as a student’s own work.

Intellectual Property and Copyright

Internationally, intellectual property and copyright issues are regulated primarily by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the European Union (EU). WIPO, including 180 member states, aims to ensure that the rights of creators and owners of intellectual property are protected worldwide. EU is concerned with these issues with the objectives of enhancing the functioning of the single market and harmonizing rules to insure uniform protection within the EU.

In a traditional classroom environment, faculty develop course materials, select appropriate readings, and develop a syllabus and curriculum for which they correctly claim intellectual property rights and ownership. Occasionally, this work is translated to textbooks for which faculty likewise maintain intellectual property rights. Conversely, in the online environment, institutions often claim either complete or partial ownership of the intellectual content because the work, when posted on the Internet, goes beyond the confines of the classroom; because online courses are often commissioned separately from standard employment contracts; and because the infrastructure supporting the transmission of the content is owned by the institution. The question of ownership is a divisive one, and debate continues; a resolution may found in varying formulas that divide royalties among faculty, departments and colleges, and research offices.

Prior to the TEACH Act of 2002 (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act), using copyright-protected materials in a self-contained classroom in the United States was within fair use, but posting the same materials on a Web page with potential worldwide distribution exceeded fair-use guidelines. The limitation posed a severe handicap on U.S. distance education programs. In November 2002, the TEACH Act generally extended to non-profit, accredited institutions, for mediated instructional activities only, the same type of right to use copyright-protected materials that a teacher would be allowed to use in a physical classroom. TEACH expands existing exemptions to allow for the digital transmission of copyrighted materials, including through Web sites, so they may be viewed by enrolled students.

Faculty Issues

Whereas for-profit distance education institutions hire faculty with the express purpose of teaching specific courses, the climate and culture of traditional academic institutions often does not support distance education initiatives. Distance courses are frequently not included in a standard faculty workload, raising questions of faculty incentives and rewards. In cases where research institutions have promotion and tenure requirements that emphasize scholarship, service, and research at least as much as teaching, it is difficult for young faculty to commit to additional teaching assignments even if monetary compensation is provided. Even in universities and colleges where selected courses and programs are successful, limited institutional resources may prohibit program growth and diminish scalability.

Beyond the usual skills required of instructors, distance education faculty must meet additional expectations. They must develop an understanding of the characteristics and needs of distant students, become highly proficient in technology delivery, adapt their teaching styles to accommodate the needs and expectations of multiple and diverse audiences, and be a skilled facilitator as well as content provider. They therefore require strong institutional support for course design and delivery, technical support, and colleagues with whom to share common interests and concerns.

Financial Aid

Distance education students often have far fewer options for financial aid than do traditional students. Financial aid is often not available to students who are enrolled at school less than half time or who attend less than 30 weeks of instruction in an academic year; for courses that provide less than 12 weeks of instruction, examination, or preparation for examinations or that are not tied to standard course lengths such as semesters or quarters; or for courses offered by institutions where more than 50% of the students are distance learners or more than 50% of the courses are offered by computer, correspondence, or video. Such regulations, developed to curb abuses exacerbated by Internet diploma mills, are in direct contradiction to the flexibility and advantages offered by distance programs. In 1988, the United States amended the 1965 Higher Education Act to support a distance education demonstration program, still in progress, intended to study the factors that define quality distance education experiences and to test the viability of increased financial support.


Accreditation has long been viewed as the vehicle to monitor the quality of educational institutions. Accreditation in countries outside of the United States is normally handled by ministries of education or other government entities. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), in conjunction with other higher education groups, is working to maintain and expand international accreditation and quality assurance. U.S. accreditation is offered through regional bodies or specialized professional or programmatic groups, and is complicated by overlaps between federal, regional, and state accrediting agencies. The rise of distance programs has increased the number of nationally accredited institutions, generally for-profit colleges and universities, whose students find that their courses are routinely not transferable to regionally accredited institutions. Students are sometimes able to persuade other schools to accept distance credits, but many do not. The dilemma demonstrates existing prejudice against distance education and is a serious deterrent to students, slowing the growth of online education. Recent discussion has suggested that the entire accreditation process be reviewed and restructured by the U.S. Department of Education.

Student Support Services

Distance students require many of the same academic support services offered to traditional students. Primary ones include academic advising and access to library and information resources. The professional associations for each of these areas (the Association of College and Research Libraries/American Library Association and the National Academic Advising Association/Nacada) have developed standards to guide the delivery of quality service to distance students. Such guidelines assure equitable treatment and are a mechanism to measure quality for accreditation. The best designed courses and programs can fail without careful attention to executing the myriad details required for program success. Examples include application and admissions processes, student orientation, course registration processes, course drops or deferrals, placement examinations, computer technical support, financial-aid support, disability services, general student advocacy issues, materials duplication and distribution, textbook ordering, and securing of copyright clearances.


Distance education promises to become an increasingly pervasive and dominant force in educational delivery, accelerated by advancing communication and information technologies. It will help answer the demands for education within a digital information environment, the ever-increasing needs for continuing training on a global scale, and individual interest in lifelong learning. The expansion of distance education will likely force significant changes in the way more traditional education is delivered, and will in time be totally assimilated into the educational experience.


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