Critical Success Factors for Distance Learning:
In many universities throughout the world, instructors have incorporated Web-
based learning in their courses. Although complete electronically mediated courses
constitute a small percentage of courses offered, they are increasing every year. Is
distance learning a passing fad? Universities are now facing intense competition from
private institutions in the offering of courses, certificates, and degrees using distance
learning programs and with this teachers are developing new teaching strategies to fit the
many learning styles of the new type of student. The student body is now widely diverse
with those trying to get a college education. But is distance learning successful?
What is Distance Learning?
Distance learning consists of “all arrangements for providing instruction through
print or electronic telecommunication media to students in a place or time different from
that of the instructor” (
In a Department of Education survey in 1997-98, 20% of 990 institutions reported
market is in postgraduate education. These students can afford the costs, either
themselves or through their employeer, for $10,000 or more, for a postgraduate degree
(O’Hagan, 2002). The most desirable online courses being taken are in business and
information technology, skills to bring in staff with organizational, managerial, and
computer skills (Bale, 2001).
With its newfound popularity come higher expectations and greater scrutiny. If
distance education programs are to support their dramatic growth and outlive the hype,
they must demonstrate performance results.
much difficulty in reform. It has always been an authoritarian institution in many regards
(Yarger and Mallan, 1975). There was concern in the 1970’s that the education system
was ill prepared to deal with issues of the time and to accept change. Institutions wanted
to unleash resources and reduce unnecessary competition and undesirable self-interests
among its educational enterprises (Howey, 1975), and even today institutions want to
remain competitive by employing new models of instructional delivery (Schifter, 2002).
But is the educational system regenerative? Since the 1970’s there have been many ways
that educational institutions have tried to develop alternative ways to educate. With the
introduction of the affordable personal computer, the development of computer-based
classes was inevitable.
More people are going back to school than ever before. There has been according
to Black (1992, p. 16), a “transition from the elite to mass higher education, with
tremendous growth in the numbers of faculty and students from more diverse
backgrounds, which has led to a greater variety of notions about what university
education should be and whom it should serve”.
Both Internet-savvy younger students and working adult students now demand
integrated, comprehensive, and personalizable online self-service. Working adults and
their employers want the flexibility of anyplace-anytime online instruction (Morrison and
maturation also want self-service. Both these students believe the Internet to be an
everyday form of communication, and expect these services to be provided.
Distance education now reaches a broader student audience, better addresses
student needs, saves money, and uses “principles of modern learning pedagogy”
(Fitzpatrick, 2001). Public interest in distance education is especially high in geographic
regions where the student population is widely distributed (Sherry, 1996). Public policy
leaders in some states are actually recommending the use of distance education as
opposed to traditional learning (Tucker, 2001).
With this in mind, many institutions have developed student-centered online
administrative services, on-line courses, on-line tutors, and additional training for
distance learning professors.
But does distance education merit a university degree? If you ask the general
public what makes for quality in a traditional university, they will usually say:
Ø History. The older the university the better.
Ø Admission chance. Highly selective universities are thought to be better. Throughout history, quality of education has been associated with access.
Ø Effective people networking. Universities providing good person contact between students and faculty, as well as student to student, are thought to be better. Higher education focuses on human communication.
Ø Bundle of resources. Universities with large amounts of resources of money, buildings, and staff are thought to be better. This brings the other three together (Yeung, 2001).
Most can be obtained through the use of distance education. History of an
Admission chance is still the leading quality control measure for institutions
offering on-line programs. The admissions criteria for most educational institutions is the
same as for regular admission. This ensures that all students at the institution are eligible
to take regular face-to-face courses and succeed. This ensures that all on-line courses are
subject to the same standards as regular courses. In a recent study by Shelia Tucker
(2001), there were no significant differences in pre-test scores, homework grades,
research paper grades, and final course grades.
People networking in a distance learning environment can be obtained by on-
line communication with the institution, instructor, and students whether in the form of
bulletin boards, on-line forums, e-mail, or even on-line student services. These are
easy to use, effective, and contribute to the students’ learning.
Resources are becoming less important today with the addition of information
technology. Computers are making it easier to use limited resources and make the most
of them. Such is the case with distance learning. Distance learning courses are less
expensive to the institution and require less resources than traditional classes.
Quality assurance can also be defined as “the process whereby standards are specified
met” (Ellis, 1993). With this in mind there are procedures that can be followed to ensure
that quality is met.
For quality assurance and accreditation purposes, the guide lined and expectations for
electronically-mediated instruction are explicit. The guidelines include:
Possible balanced goals for distance education:
Improve Access- instruction for workers who can not enroll in traditional classrooms, are geographically dispersed, or economically challenged.
Individualize instruction- through blended course offerings and selection.
Lifelong learning- by sustaining learning experience beyond time constraints of the classroom.
Employer relations- improve employer perceptions of distance education degrees so that students with such degrees are perceived as just as qualified, if not more, than resident students.
Collaboration- provide educational opportunities, example-discussion groups, forums.
Delivery efficiency- to organize, update, and distribute content efficient and effectively through knowledge management systems.
Reducing downtime- what steps can be taken to reduce student-faculty downtime caused by technological constraints and system errors?
Scheduling flexibility- improvement in scheduling for faculty enabling them to leverage their time.
Innovate instruction- distance programs can act as testing grounds for performance-based assessments, new learning paradigms, and instructional strategies.
Faculty development- faculty must develop new medium-specific skills and may improve their overall teaching skills as well.
Operating Costs- reduce costs for the student, the school, and the faculty.
Profit- with for-profit organizations, this will inevitably be a measure.
All of these are used to establish quality in a new or existing distance learning
program, but value is determined by students and those seeking to use the education they
have obtained and each stakeholder, such as administrators, faculty, and students, are
likely to have different definitions of quality.
Faculty are the key to a successful distance education program. Administrators
order to maximixe efforts (Schifter, 2002). Research in the field of distance education
has recognized a need for a change and modification of the faculty role in teaching at a
distance (Wedemeyer, 1981; Beaudoin, 1990 Dillon & Walsh, 1992; Purdy & Wright,
1992) and research also indicates that many faculty are not enthusiastic about
participating in distance education (Olcott and Wright, 1995). Issues that have been
noted as barriers to faculty participation include insufficient training, lack of applicability
toward promotion and tenure, lack of release time, insufficient instructional and
administrative support, minimal monetary compensation, and an expanded teaching load
Wolcott, 1993). In order for faculty to support distance education, it must be considered
congruent with the beliefs and values already held about university education.
To make a successful distance program, faculty and administrators work together
to understand perspectives and make a program work. What may work for one type of
learner may not work for another. Learning style, defined by Canfield (1992), is the
moving component of educational experience that motivates students to perform well.
Recognizing the existence of alternative learning styles is helpful to the instructor in
developing a strong structural theory (Tucker, 2001). There is a match of critical learning
factors to environment and instruction. There should also be a relationship between
learning style and the satisfaction and completion of distance learning programs.
Instructors take this into consideration when planning distance education classes.
Intelligences theory, all human beings possess at least eight forms of intelligence, which I
call linguistic, logical-mathematical, (the two favored in school), musical, spatial, bodily-
kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.” Online education is truly
effective when all learning options are addressed. Students are given instructions on how
to create solutions and then be able to choose the best to represent their learning style.
Technology has evolved to a point where all learning styles can be addressed, and many
current systems depend too heavily upon the question and answer or multiple-choice
method of instruction. Curriculum asks students to be both creative and critical thinkers
when solving curricular challenges. When a student makes an electronic representation
such as a chart or a spreadsheet, far greater commitment is made to the solution than a
quick one-line sentence answer (G. Wilson, 2001). This is an expression of learning,
which gives students ownership and pride.
Instructors emphasize self renewal, as far as coping strategies, and
problem resolution (Howey, 1975). In a distance-learning environment, a modular,
disaggregated course scheme is essential for enabling credit transfer, clear progression,
student flexibility to put together the right mix of knowledge and skills, and motivation
through accumulation of credits.
Research indicates many faculty are not enthusiastic about participating in
distance education (Olcott & Wright, 1995). It is not the distance education technology
that drives the instruction but rather the primary changes in teaching style, technique, and
motivation that must take place for instruction of the present and future to function
effectively (Purdy & Wright, 1992). Many studies also cite faculty resistance to
instructional technology as a primary barrier to the continued growth of distance
education. How faculty perceive and react to these technologies is more important than
the structural and technical obstacles affecting the use of technology in distance
education, and for some faculty who teach distance education the lack of direct
interpersonal contact and feedback from students is a problem, given the fact that most
faculty teach face-to-face, or hand-to-hand. But with newer faculty possessing the skills
and self efficacy to integrate the technology, less training is needed (Dooley &
Most faculty actually prefer convential face-to-face courses over distance
teaching due to the degree of interpersonal contact. But, less interaction with the students
leads to less interest on the part of the faculty to participate (Seay, Rudolph, and
Chamberlain (2001). This is only the view of some. Many faculty actively
participating in distance education feel that distance education is successful. Most of
those not involved in any distance programs feel that the educational experience is
cheapened with distance education (Schifter, 2002). But the faculty role is changing
from being a content expert to a combination of content expert, learning process design
expert, and process implementation manager (Manicas, 1998). With this in mind,
distance education programs pose a challenge for educators.
As talked about earlier, the student body at the college level is becoming more
diverse, and the demand for distance education is becoming mainstream. Students have
challenges to face when choosing an online degree plan. So how can a student succeed at
an online degree?
“To be a successful college student one must stress time management and
is all too true with many students dropping out their first two years of college. This is
especially hard for those students going back to school while working a full time job, or
for those with conflicting school schedules. Students determine the flow and
direction of their own learning without having to be dependent on the instructor. They
also know what is expected of them and direct their efforts in a purposeful manner
toward the attainment of learning goals (Unknown, 2002). In order to be a successful
student these goals must be met.
Students find personal satisfaction from distance courses offered. They are
favorably with classroom-based instruction and distance learners actually perform as well
or better than traditional learners as measured by homework assignments, exams, and
term papers. Also, students in distance learning courses earned higher grades than those
in the traditional classroom setting and actually scored five to ten percent higher on
standardized achievement tests than students in the traditional classroom setting
(Gubernick & Ebeling, 1997). Only theories, not proof, allude to the fact than distance
education students’ education is not worthy of a degree.
The best way society has of coping with the worldly change is the development of
system needs to be dynamic and should change with society needs. Distance education
emphasizes readiness of person at the administration, instructor, and student level.
Those universities in the 21st century that have the capacity to break with 19th century
traditions of higher education that still dominate most of the world’s universities today-
that is, research-led, residential, lecture-based, content-driven model of education- are the
new world leaders in the online environment. They develop reputations for relevant,
high-quality learning, with efficient and effective support for students. Those hanging on
to the past find a few niche markets among mainly rich students looking to take classes
just to spend money. Forward-looking institutions are characterized by student-
centeredness, manifested in a demand-led approach and the provision of a
high quality learning experience; broad portfolios of vocational and professional
qualifications; and the ability to uncouple units of learning to provide programs oriented
to each student’s cultural and employment context (O’Hagan, 2002). There is de-
Even if distant education is a passing fad, any discussion about enhancing
campus. But, perhaps one of the most important questions in distance education is
whether or not the cost of purchasing a computer and maintaining software will be
prohibitive for a substantial number of students, and access is a hollow concept if
students experience difficulties they normally wouldn’t on campus.
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