Critical Success Factors for Distance Learning:

For educational institutions, teachers, and students



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” (Moore, 1990). 


In a Department of Education survey in 1997-98, 20% of 990 institutions reported


that within three years they planned to join the 1,680 post-secondary institutions


that are offering online distance education courses (Prestera, 2001).  The current


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. 



Educational Institutions


            Education in the United States has always operated from the “top down” with


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. 



New Client Base and The New Society


            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


Graves, 2002) and younger students choose residential experience for its personal


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.



Administrative Quality


            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


institution can be a hard obstacle to overcome to improve an institution’s quality.  But


many institutions are now willing to go global because of either fear, or the possible


generation of new income.  This is becoming more so with the emergence of


private institutions offering degrees. 


            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


for a product or service and steps are taken to ensure that these standards are consistently


met” (Ellis, 1993).  With this in mind there are procedures that can be followed to ensure


that quality is met. 


  1. Set standards for a product or service;
  2. Organize the production or delivery of a product or service so the standards are consistently met;
  3. Create confidence in the client or recipient that what is promised will happen (Robinson, 1994).


For quality assurance and accreditation purposes, the guide lined and expectations for


electronically-mediated instruction are explicit.  The guidelines include:


  • Using a balanced approach to goal setting. Learning, operating efficiency, customer satisfaction, and financial success are major goals to achievement.



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.

Learning Goals

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.

Financial Goals


Operating Costs- reduce costs for the student, the school, and the faculty.


Profit- with for-profit organizations, this will inevitably be a measure.


(Prestera, 2001)


  • Assessing the needs of distance education stakeholders, which includes potential and existing students, faculty, administration, and the IT department.  Assessing the demand for these courses should precede any distance education enterprises (Prestera, 2001).
  • Communicate goals and measures.  These are inline with the institution’s mission, and are communicated with support from the top and from the community (Prestera, 2001).
  • Process goals. Without clear process goals and documented workflows, consistency, accountability, and collaboration are jeopardized (Prestera, 2001).
  • Benchmark workflows.  There are benchmarking reports available in the form of case studies, and guideline recommendations.  Benchmarking includes measurements of staff performance in development and delivery, how to exceed student expectations of an online course, and resources needed to get optimal performance from staff (McIsaac, 1998; Evans, 1999).
  • Worker goals.  Competencies are reexamined in the context of job descriptions, performance standards, and feedback mechanisms.  There are re-writes of job descriptions including roles, competencies, and performance outputs, compared to current skills.  This may involve new hiring, re-engineering existing ones, or developing skills through training, mentoring, practice, or other developmental activities (Prestera, 2001).
  • Link goals to rewards.  At many universities, faculty are evaluated, promoted, and rewarded based primarily on research, and to a lesser degree on classroom teaching.  Few schools offer rewards for teaching distance education courses.  If faculty value rewards, then they are motivated to teach distance courses, if they are offered.  There is more weight to the development and delivery of distance education courses as a criteria for tenure (Prestera, 2001).
  • Aligning structure of the department with goals and resources.  Distance education requires three to four times more dollars to develop and three to eight times more faculty time and support services (Wilson, 1998).  Establishing a separate distance learning department is a possible option.
  • Empowering faculty.  Sachs (1999) says that by giving faculty a sense of ownership in the course development process, distance education units reduce faculty turnover, improve design flexibility, increase the credibility of their program, and reach a status of ‘accepted’ in the institutional culture, with the help of designers, and technologists. 
  •  Structuring of jobs to optimize quality and efficiency.  This may vary with the history of a distance learning program (Prestera, 2001).
  • Managing the organization.  Administrators set milestones, measure performance, and ensure consistent alignment with the institution’s mission.  Contributions to the organization are assessed and weighed against costs and organizational needs (Prestera, 2001) to fit the institution. 
  • Identification of benefits/goals to be achieved.  There are benefits to both the institution and the students.  Flexibility is the biggest reason to implement distance education.  Community needs and obligations and state or national priorities also are met (Evans, 1999).
  • Use of feedback mechanisms.  Feedback helps with “goal refinement, documentation, determination of impact, and program improvement” (Hawkes, 1996).  There are clear roles, responsibilities, performance expectations, and performance results either in the form of reports, peer evaluations, student comments, etc. (Rothwell, 1996).


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


must understand what motivates and inhibits faculty distance education participation in


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


(Clark, 1993; Dillon & Walsh, 1992; Koontz, 1989; Olcott, 1991; 1992; 1993; and


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. 





New attitudes, new teaching strategies


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. 


According to Gardner, there are eight different ways to learn.  “According to Multiple


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. 



Instructor Quality


            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 &


Murphy, 2000). 


            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? 



Personal Time Management and Discipline


“To be a successful college student one must stress time management and


discipline” are words often heard by freshmen students on their first day of classes.  This


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.



Quality in Personal Learning


Students find personal satisfaction from distance courses offered.  They are


intellectually challenging.  Most research concludes that distance education compares


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  


educational alternatives so society can better deal with these changes.  The education


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


teaching/learning processes can be beneficial to improving how students are taught on


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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