Distance Learning: Principles for Effective Design, Delivery, and Evaluation


Chandra Mohan Mehrotra, C. David Hollister & Lawrence McGahey

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    View Copyright Page


    In preparing this book, we have drawn on the ideas, theories, and research of colleagues from a variety of colleges, universities, institutes, and organizations who have developed creative ways to help students learn at a distance, raised important questions about effectiveness of instruction, and identified issues that need to be addressed. But most immediately, we are indebted to our own institutions, The College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota, for the continuing opportunities to design and offer distance programs, to assess their effectiveness, and to use the findings for program improvement. Without these experiences, we could not have even thought about writing this book.

    We are grateful to the members of the library staff at The College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota. They demonstrated exceptional competence in providing us a large variety of reference materials in a timely fashion. The peer reviewers, Charles R. Geist, Betty Elliott, and Sharon B. Johnson, who read and critiqued the manuscript offered us valuable suggestions and pedagogical advice. We did our best to incorporate many of the ideas, suggestions, and insights they gave us, although by no means all; any remaining errors are ours alone.

    Our families and friends offered us encouragement and assistance in many ways. Chandra Mehrotra wishes to acknowledge Indra Mehrotra, his wife and best friend, for her enduring support. He thanks their two children, Vijay and Gita, for their continuing interest in his work. He also thanks Nancy Bois for typing a substantial portion of the manuscript. David Hollister expresses deep appreciation to Georgiana Hollister, his wife and best friend, for her continuing support. David also wishes to acknowledge their three children, Patrick, Jonathan, and Martha, for their interest in his work on this project.

    We had the good fortune to work with dedicated professionals at Sage. Jim Brace-Thompson initiated discussions about this project at the 1998 American Psychological Association convention where Chandra Mehrotra had organized a symposium on distance learning. This support and interest has been most gratifying throughout the process. It has been a pleasure to work with him. In addition, we appreciate the thoroughness of copy editor Alison Binder, whose knowledge about good writing enhanced the quality of the book.


    Distance learning, or distance education, is not a future possibility for which higher education must prepare—it is a current reality creating new opportunities and challenges for educational institutions; a reality offering students expanded choices in where, when, how, and from whom they learn; and a reality making education accessible to ever larger numbers of persons. Indeed, during the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of colleges, universities, and other providers offering distance education courses, workshops, and programs. A U.S. Department of Education report indicates that from 1995 to 1998, the number of institutions offering distance learning increased by 33%; during the same period, the number of distance courses and enrollments doubled (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999). Many observers believe that this growth is likely to continue. Why? Properly implemented, distance education can enhance the learning experience and increase access to higher education for a wide variety of potential students, especially those who have not been able to take advantage of the traditional on-campus experience.

    Background and Audience

    Although many institutions consider distance education a means of expanding their service area, addressing the needs of underserved populations, and developing new sources of revenue, it is the faculty's responsibility to make courses and programs available in new ways that are both effective and efficient. This effort requires rethinking the course design, selecting appropriate modes of delivery, creating strategies to engage students in active learning, maintaining contact with the students, and assessing student performance. In short, ensuring an effective learning environment in distance courses places new demands on the participating faculty, although many faculty members have had limited experience designing such courses. Likewise, college administrators need information to help them create the context and supports essential to deliver high-quality programs to remote students. The special demands that distance education imposes on faculty and administrators prompted us to write this book. Our goal is not to offer a comprehensive review of research on the subject but to provide a helpful guide for those with limited experience in designing, delivering, and evaluating distance learning courses and programs.

    The book derives mostly from our individual struggles as teachers. We are always experimenting and trying to expand our repertoire of approaches to distance learning—sometimes successfully, sometimes not We do not view ourselves as experts in technology. Instead, we are users of technology with a continuing passion for enhancing student learning—both in campus-based and in distance programs. When we are not sure of which technology would best help students achieve a given outcome, we draw on the expertise of technology specialists available at our respective institutions. Given this background and the continuing advances in technology, the book emphasizes principles, rather than details about specific pieces of equipment or software. The underlying assumption is that once instructors know what course content they plan to cover, what student population they expect to reach, and what learning outcomes they desire students to achieve, they can make technology-related decisions in consultation with the specialists who have the knowledge and experience related to a wide range of technologies. In other words, this is not a book on technology; it is a practical guide offering tips on launching a distance learning course or program We intend this book to assist educators and administrators who are contemplating their initial involvement in distance education, discerning the extent of their commitment (from occasional courses to full degree programs), and choosing the modalities for delivering distance instruction.

    We trust that this book will appeal to a variety of readers, from those already engaged in distance learning who want to further strengthen their current efforts to those who need background, guidance, and encouragement as a prelude to launching distance courses. The main audience for the book is faculty and administrators who are interested in exploring the implications of starting a program or are addressing an institutional mandate to launch a new program. Considering the increased interest in fostering student-centered learning, the isolation that many students experience in large classes, and the potential of technology to engage students in active learning, however, much of what we offer in this book can be applied to on-campus courses and programs as well. The challenge in both on-campus and distance programs is the same: how to put together an appropriate combination of activities, resources, and technologies to help each student achieve intended learning outcomes.

    Overview of the Contents

    Chapter 1 defines distance education and examines why many institutions of higher education are entering the field. We have elected to organize the remaining chapters of the text by considering what must happen before students enroll in a distance education course or program, what takes place while students are enrolled, and what transpires once students complete a distance course or program. With this organizing principle in mind, we offer an overview of the remaining chapters below.

    Chapters 2 through 6 examine the planning and preparation stages of a distance education course or program. What needs to be done before students enroll?

    Chapter 2 addresses strategies for attracting students to enroll in distance education courses and programs. Chapter 3 describes how we apply principles of good educational practice to distance education, including a discussion of strategies for improving communication, providing feedback, clarifying understanding of difficult concepts, and increasing student motivation. Chapter 4 focuses attention on designing a syllabus for a distance learning course, noting helpful features not typically found in the traditional classroom syllabus.

    Chapter 5 describes and discusses the various distance education modalities more fully, including print, radio, audio conference, audio-cassette, television, satellite conferencing, interactive television, video-cassette, CD-ROM, Internet conferencing, and the World Wide Web. Chapter 6 enunciates various principles to consider in selecting the modes of delivery for distance education.

    Chapters 7 through 9 examine implementation of a distance education program. What must occur while students are enrolled?

    Chapter 7 explores ways to provide support services to distance students that are equivalent to those available to students on campus, such as library access, advising, tutoring, financial aid, and career services. Chapter 8 suggests strategies and tips for attaining high completion rates in distance courses without compromising educational standards. Chapter 9 focuses on assessing learning outcomes—ways to know whether students have actually learned through distance instruction.

    Chapters 10 and 11 examine quality control in distance education What must be done after students complete a course or program?

    Chapter 10 explains how to monitor and evaluate distance programs to improve both implementation and outcomes. Chapter 11 addresses issues regarding accreditation of institutions offering distance learning programs and provides suggestions to help program administrators meet accreditation criteria.

    To complete the text, we offer some concluding thoughts. The conclusion also addresses issues that were not included in earlier chapters and speculates about future directions in distance education.

    Our Companion Web Site

    Given the continuing growth of new knowledge regarding different aspects of distance learning and the level of detail that the constraints of available space place on a publication of this nature, we have included a number of references to Web sites throughout the book. We believe readers will find this information useful in keeping themselves abreast of new developments specific to their area of interest. Mindful of the rapid pace at which Web addresses change, new sites are created, and others become obsolete, however, we have opted to place most such information on the Web site accompanying the text, hosted by Sage Publications at http://www.sagepub.com/mehrotra. We trust this approach allows us to demonstrate better many points covered in the text. At the end of each chapter, we provide a general description of the pertinent topics that readers can expect to find at the Sage Web site. Examples of the material presented on the Web site include sample syllabi for distance courses; assessment strategies; updates on accreditation guidelines; links with relevant sites; and references to new articles, reports, and publications. This Web site will be updated at least twice a year for 2 years following publication of the book. We will appreciate receiving feedback regarding all aspects of the site; in addition, we invite readers to suggest resources for inclusion on the Web site.

    National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). Distance education at postsecondary education institutions: 1997–98 (NCES 2000–013). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
  • Conclusion

    Distance education continues to grow at a dramatic pace. The expansion is driven by several factors, including

    • The development of new computer and Internet technologies
    • The increasing performance-to-price ratio of available computer technology
    • The societal need for more educated and technically sophisticated employees
    • The decreasing percentage of traditional-aged college students seeking higher education
    • The emergence of for-profit educational enterprises

    Some overly enthusiastic proponents of distance education have predicted the demise or withering of the traditional university or college. This will not come to pass. The cocurricular elements of a traditional on-campus undergraduate education (athletics, parties, dormitory life, and theater and musical performances, to name some) cannot be experienced any other way. But as we have seen, not all students seeking higher education desire, need, or can afford the cost of a traditional college experience. Hence, distance education makes it possible for institutions to fulfill their mission by serving an even wider population of learners. At the same time, the technology used in distance education is invigorating the on-campus experience as well. E-mail and Web-enhanced courses now afford instructors and students alike even more opportunities for interaction. Effective use of Web sites, chat rooms, and bulletin boards actually may increase the service that instructors can provide to students in large classes. Hence, we predict with some confidence that distance education will develop not as a competitor to traditional on-campus education but as another facet of it. At the same time, advances in distance education technology will enliven the on-campus classroom and provide instructors with even more tools for creative teaching.

    Undoubtedly, new distance technologies will emerge and be combined with current ones. For example, as it becomes increasingly inexpensive to transfer large data files rapidly via the Internet (i.e., as the cost of increased bandwidth decreases), streaming video of high quality will come into wider use. It combines some of the advantages of video technology with Web-based technology and provides additional options for instruction.

    The rapid rate at which delivery technology changes influenced the approach we took in writing this text. Our presentation has concentrated more on concepts, principles, and methodologies than on specific details about a given piece of equipment or instructional software. We believe that some of these principles will be more enduring than specific technologies. We hope that our exposition will help readers in designing, implementing, and assessing new ways of enhancing student learning. For us, learning includes engagement with peers and with the instructor—interaction that is fundamental to the educational process. Whether students are enrolled in an on-campus course or are taking the class at a distance, what matters is their engagement in reading, writing, discussing, and reflecting—the building blocks of active learning. It is less important what combination of technologies is used; what matters is the effectiveness of instructional strategies in fostering student learning. Although the quality assurance of distance learning programs tends to rely heavily on assessment of outcomes rather than on processes, outcomes depend on the processes. As we have emphasized throughout the text, the key ingredients in promoting student learning are the availability of the instructors and the intellectual engagement of the students. Thus, all accrediting agencies expect specific evidence not only regarding the learning outcomes but also regarding the interactions among the learners and between the learners and the instructors.

    Distance education inevitably depends on technology for providing access to learning resources, for delivering instruction to learners, for promoting students’ interaction with each other and with the instructor, and for facilitating communication between learners and support staff. Therefore, an institution starting a distance education program must allocate adequate resources for acquiring, maintaining, and upgrading the technology infrastructure. Also essential is an institutional commitment to providing the technical support that faculty and students need to make effective use of technology. Neither the technology nor user support is inexpensive, although both can be provided efficiently.

    Higher education faculty differ widely in their knowledge of information technology and in their skill at putting it to work in the classroom. Indeed, a large fraction of today's college and university instructors received their graduate education when the current technology was not an integral part of their daily life. This is especially true for faculty members who earned their graduate degrees before the 1980s and the advent of personal computers. At the same time, the median age of students who enroll in distance programs is higher than for traditional on-campus programs: One recent report indicates that 25% of all undergraduate students are over age 30 and that 23% of all graduate students are over age 40 (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997, Table 175). In addition, many of the nontraditional students are place bound, do not have access to postsecondary education in their communities, have not had adequate exposure to technology in high school, and have limited resources to purchase and maintain a computer and the needed software.

    In light of the above demographics, faculty members teaching a distance course for the first time need to be provided appropriate training related to both technical and curricular matters. If new technologies are added at a later date, further training will be required. Similarly, students must have the needed equipment and training required for a particular program and continuing access to technical support. Without such institutional commitment and support, it is simply not feasible for faculty to offer distance courses and for students to achieve the stipulated learning outcomes.

    Distance learning places new demands on the faculty beyond the technological issues just described. The faculty role changes from being mainly a content expert to a combination of content expert, learning process design expert, and process implementation manager (Massy, 1997). The instructor also serves as a mentor, motivator, and interpreter. In addition, he or she also needs to be an “expert learner” who leads the learning process by personal example. What are the implications of this new set of expectations? We have already noted the need for providing continuing training and support related to technical and curricular matters. In addition, distance courses usually require instructors to spend substantial time preparing materials such as the syllabus, study guide, instructional units, reference lists, links to Web sites, assignments, and assessment procedures. Although this is not an exhaustive list of all the tasks instructors need to perform before they offer a distance course, it indicates the need to plan ahead and to budget adequate time in anticipation of making the course available to students at a distance. Recognizing that development of distance courses requires substantial time and effort, a number of private and federal agencies often make grant support available for innovative efforts. Because space constraints do not allow us to discuss grant-seeking strategies, we refer the interested reader to The Distance Learning Funding Sourcebook (Krebs, 1999), now in its fourth edition. Most agencies do not fund technology purchases; they fund content development, the curriculum.

    The labor-intensive nature of teaching at a distance does not stop once the course has been designed. It continues once students start taking the course. Given the wide range of differences among learners, the individualized nature of their interactions with the faculty, and the need for personalized feedback on their assignments and exams, faculty must allocate adequate time to address student needs throughout the course. Because faculty members teaching distance courses are expected to maintain contact with all learners; provide students with detailed, personalized, and timely feedback; and offer individualized consultation and guidance, these activities create additional time demands. Administrators should take these increased expectations into consideration when determining class size and teaching load.

    We have highlighted above some important challenges distance learning presents to an institution, its administrators, and its faculty. But why should academia make an effort to address these challenges? We believe that the underlying motivation is to serve students from different social, cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds who for one reason or another have not been able to participate in post-secondary education. Although providing increased access to a full range of students is certainly a worthy goal, the question remains whether the higher education community has been successful in reaching those segments of the population that have been underrepresented in the past. To the best of our knowledge, the evidence in this regard is not conclusive. As we reported in Chapter 1 (Figure 1.2), in the United States only 6% of 2-year private colleges and 22% of 4-year private colleges offered distance learning courses in 1997–1998. Because many of these colleges serve a large number of minority populations (all the colleges located on the Indian Reservations are private 2-year colleges, and a large number of historically black colleges are private 4-year colleges), these statistics indicate that many members of minority communities may still have limited access to postsecondary education. A recent report from the College Board and the Institute for Higher Education Policy titled The Virtual University and Educational Opportunity: Issues of Equity and Access for the Next Generation (1999) also targets access as its theme. Focusing primarily on Internet-based distance learning courses, the report argues that information have-nots are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to taking courses online. A major barrier for those who are underrepresented in higher education—African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans—is the lack of computer or online services both in homes and in schools. The report recommends that government policymakers take steps to ensure equality in distance learning. Fortunately, a number of initiatives are currently under way to increase minority students’ access to courses offered via distance learning.

    One possible approach to promoting widespread access is the development of statewide or regional consortia of traditional institutions in which several colleges and universities jointly offer distance learning programs. Examples include the Education Network of Maine and the Southern Regional Electronic Campus. In addition to making education accessible to larger audiences from a wide geographical area, such arrangements have the potential to spread the initial development costs across many individual users. In other words, a collaborative arrangement may be an efficient approach for designing and offering distance programs because of the inherent economies of scale. At the time of this writing, such arrangements are still in their infancy, and hard data about their effectiveness and efficiency are not available. We do know, however, that a large number of other such arrangements and their variations are being developed to offer professional programs in fields such as engineering, business, nursing, and teacher education.

    In addition to the consortia, community public libraries are beginning to play an important role in providing increased access to Web-based courses. Because many academic institutions are providing learners with access to scholarly journals, monographs, and other full-text resources in a networked environment, linking the public libraries with these institutions may make it convenient for place-bound learners to participate in distance programs. Furthermore, library reference and instructional services are becoming available electronically. In time, audio and video elements will enhance these services by bringing together the best aspects of face-to-face and electronic communications. Staff members at many libraries in the United States are exploring creative ways of providing learners with reference and research services electronically. Let us hope that as a result of these efforts, learners with limited resources will also be able to participate in distance programs of their choice.

    Distance education has seen its greatest growth in wealthy, industrialized countries. The personal computer revolution and development of the World Wide Web have the potential to make distance learning truly international; unfortunately, the Third World is now finding itself on the other side of another wall, this time a digital one. Internationally, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Division of Basic Education is supporting an initiative to bring together nine high-population countries to meet basic learning needs of those presently lacking access to educational services, to offer teacher training programs, and to reinforce the quality and capacity of formal education. In addition to UNESCO's work, a number of U.S. universities and colleges are making postsecondary education available through cooperative arrangements with institutions from other countries. The development of high-quality wireless communication networks offers even remote areas a chance to access the Internet, but substantial capital investment will be required to make computers and cell phone technology available to the poorer countries. For us, distance education will have fulfilled its potential when people all over the world can access the tools for learning. We trust that that day does not lie in the distant future.

    College Board and Institute for Higher Education Policy. (1999). The virtual university and educational opportunity: Issues of equity and access for the next generation [Online]. Retrieved April 19, 2001, from the World Wide Web: http://www.collegeboard.org/policy/html/virtual.html
    Krebs, A.(1999). The distance learning funding sourcebook. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
    Massy, W. F.(1997). Life on the wired campus: How information technology will shape institutional futures. In D. G. Oblinger & S. C. Rush (Eds.), The learning revolution: The challenge of information technology in the academy. Bolton, NY: Anker.
    National Center for Education Statistics. (1997). Integrated postsecondary education enrollment, 1995 survey [Online]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved April 19, 2001, from the World Wide Web: http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubs/digest97/d97tl75.html

    Author Index

    About the Authors

    Chandra Mohan Mehrotra is Professor of Psychology and Dean for Special Projects at The College of St. Scholastica. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and is the recipient of several awards for teaching and service. He is a Consulting Editor for Teaching of Psychology and serves on the editorial board of Educational Gerontology. He has published numerous articles, edited Teaching and Aging (1984), coauthored Aging and Diversity (1998), and served as guest editor for a special issue of Educational Gerontology (1996). He has designed distance learning courses in introductory statistics, research methods, program evaluation, and aging and diversity and provided leadership in the development of a master of education program that is offered via distance learning. He has presented papers and symposia on distance learning at annual meetings of the American Psychological Association, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Gerontological Society of America. His activities related to teaching improvement, faculty development, and program evaluation have been supported by major grants from the National Science Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Blandin Foundation, and the Kellogg Foundation. He is currently directing a research training program for psychology faculty, with support from the National Institute on Aging in the National Institutes of Health.

    C. David Hollister is Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota. Since 1993, he has been actively involved in the development and accreditation of the school's master of social work distance education program, and he teaches distance courses on community practice methods and on substance abuse. He has published a number of articles evaluating distance education and has presented papers on distance education at meetings of the Council on Social Work Education, at the annual University of South Carolina Conference on Educational Technology in Social Work, and at international conferences. He is Associate Secretary General for the Inter-University Consortium for International Social Development and is a member of the editorial board of Social Development Issues. In addition to distance education, his research interests include the evaluation of welfare reform, the evaluation of substance abuse treatment, and the use of geographic information systems in neighborhood revitalization. His research and teaching activities have been supported by the Blandin Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Bush Foundation, and the National Institute on Alcohol Addiction and Abuse.

    Lawrence McGahey is Associate Professor, Chair of the Chemistry Department, and Chair of the Natural Sciences Division at The College of St. Scholastica. He has been involved in the development of St. Scholastica's distance education program as a member of the Graduate Council and Graduate Curriculum Committee. In addition, he has experience in developing and incorporating Web-based instructional materials into science courses. His research and teaching efforts have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Research Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Education. He is also a manuscript reviewer and annotator for the Journal of Chemical Education.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website