Ethical Issues in Distance Learning




By:  Rosamaria Vazquez






Ethical Issues with Distance Learning


I.                    Overview of Distance Learning


II.                 Seven Principles of Distance Education

a.       Student and faculty contact

b.      Student cooperation

c.       Learning techniques

d.      Feedback

e.       Time

f.        Expectancy

g.       Respect


III.               Implementation

a.       Academic

b.      Fiscal

c.       Geographic

d.      Governance

e.       Labor management

f.        Legal

g.       Student support


IV.              Ethical concerns


V.                 Conclusion


     Advancements in technology have thrown learning into a totally new arena and brought with it a new educational technique.  The student bodies, as well as administrators are running to the chance of being able to expand their knowledge through the opportunities distance learning can offer.  ***With this excitement though, comes the intense task of developing a distance learning program that is attractive to the educators as well as the student body.   Items that need to be evaluated by both entities include such things as accreditation, established professors, credit transferability, and online services and above all cost factors. 

     Technology has jump started an exciting learning medium for everyone in the education field and "regardless of the delivery system…the technology often precedes planning and policy development" (C.E.T.U.S., 1997).  Before undertaking the task of implementing a distance learning program many different issues have to be addressed.     Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for good teaching practice is a vital tool in establishing what is thought to be an efficient distance technology program.  Though there is no concrete proof to demonstrate that using this pedagogical approach will ensure better teaching, it is thought these principles promote good learning techniques for the learner.   The Seven Principles for good teaching aide in fulfilling expectations of students and professors where demands of the professors are met with equal demands of the students.   The Seven Principles that need to be addressed are: 

1.      Encourage contacts between students and faculty,

2.      Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students

3.      Use active learning techniques

4.      Give prompt feedback

5.      Emphasize time-on task

6.      Communicate high expectations, and

7.      Respect diverse talents and ways of learning.


     Contact between students and faculty is a core necessity to make a distance learning program work.   Students who have taken distance learning programs have found that communication between students and professors is much more frequent, is much more open and more accessible than is the case with regular classroom type scenarios.  An institution that is looking to implement distance learning as one of their future programs

needs to develop this type of communication.


The Seven Principles for Good Teaching.

Principle 1:  Encourage contacts between students and faculty. 

     One of the principles that contribute to the success of distance learning programs is the first, requiring clear guidelines for interaction between the students and faculty.  Student expectations are clearly stated by establishing policies describing communication procedures.  For example, discussion forums can be a tool for weekly “class meetings”, and bulletin boards for open-ended questions.  Timelines for responses should be set to avoid students feeling ignored.   Implementing tools such as “CHAT” (C= contact information, H= How to Reach Me, A= Away, T= time when “live”) helps with students feeling more connected to the professor.  (Chizmar, 1996).   On-line devices such as email and bulletin boards are also helpful tools to keep professors accessible. 


Principle 2:  Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students. 

    The second principle requires there to be a sense of mutual cooperation between the students.  Small discussion forums are again a helpful, providing a way for students to discuss class topics, to evaluate each other, participate and as a place to contribute to projects.  In these sessions, students should discuss class topics and should be evaluated on their participation and ability to come to a final product.  These discussions need to be directed by expectations posted by the instructor.  Five evaluators from Indiana University’s Center for research on Learning and Technology (CRLT) undertook the task of evaluating four online courses at a Midwestern University.  (The authors of this research were required to keep the identity of the university confidential).  Their research revealed students had weekly class discussion forums where their requirements were met by mere “participation”.  To encourage meaningful involvement, the CRLT recommended the following guidelines:

  • Learners should be required to participate (and their grade should depend on participation).
  • Discussion groups should remain small.
  • Discussions should be focused on a task.
  • Tasks should engage learners in the content.
  • Learners should receive feedback on their discussions.
  • Evaluation should be based on the quality of postings (and not on the length or number).
  • Instructors should post expectations for discussions. 

(Chiti, Judith; Karlen, Janice M.)


Principle 3:  Use active learning techniques. 

      The third principle gives the students an opportunity to do a class project scenario.  By way of this practice, a student is required to individually accomplish a product and post it on the class site.  His/her peers are then able to be evaluate each project, make suggestions, and/or determine what merit should be given.  This process can be accomplished anonymously by posting it as a response to the class site.   Student community scenarios can also be accomplished by getting students to do group projects by way of e-mails, videoconferencing, chat rooms and by use of other media.  Common ways of adding interactivity that are unique to the online experience include:

  • E-mail correspondence
  • Short online quizzes with immediate individual feedback
  • Online discussions
  • Links to sites that encourage student inquiry and research
  • Group projects that make use of e-mail and chat rooms
  • Web pages created and posted by students
  • Newsgroups
  • Listservs

(Chiti, Judith; Karlen, Janice M.)


Principle 4:  Give prompt feedback. 

    The fourth principle is to address what seems to be the biggest problem in having a distance learning program.  How is the student to get a direct response from his/her professor?  Well, this principle sets up two possibilities.  The first of these is information feedback, where a question and answer scenario are established so that the student can get prompt feedback. Through this medium, assignments and grades can be distributed.   This type of situation also provides the students the sense of being in a traditional classroom setting where their questions have prompt answers.  Professors can designate a time period to log on and chat about specific topics.

     The second solution to obtain prompt feedback is that of email.  Through email correspondence students can obtain inquire about concerns in their syllabus, projects, chat sessions, and other classroom related issues.  The concern with this type of communication is that professors will receive an overwhelming number of emails that may not necessarily deal with the classroom setting.  To deal with this issue, professors need to establish clear guidelines stating what type of emails they will deal with and what type of emails should be referred to other departments.  For example, technical support problems should be referred to technical support departments and not to professors as they are not responsible for maintaining the technological aspect of a classroom.   Emails should include a clear statement, in the subject line, of the email regarding the students’ assignment / classroom issue in the subject line to inform the instructor of the concern.


Principle 5:  Emphasize time-on task. 

   The fifth principle is emphasizing time-on task.   By establishing distributed deadlines students are encouraged to spend more time on assigned tasks.  This type of organization allows students the flexibility to organize their time and lives to the distance learning program.  By use of tools such as calendars with posted start and end dates for assignments, discussion topics, chat events, students can make plans for school obligations to revolve around their daily life obligations.  Studies of distance learning programs have found that tools such as these can help students organize themselves; students have been found to procrastinate more in distance learning courses than in those of traditional courses.  Regular contact with instructors can aide in this procrastination to give students the feeling that they have timely tasks they need to accomplish and the feeling of “presence” is re-established. 


Principle 6:  Communicate high expectations. 

    The sixth required principle for the success of a distance learning program is the portrayal of high expectations to the student.  As Ms. Lau (the distance learning policy coordinator of San Diego State University) said, “A distance learning course should not be treated separately…it shouldn’t be lighter nor should it be used to go through some extra hoops.”  In order for the students of the program to accomplish the goals of the course, they must meet the expectations of the professor.   The professor should provide clear examples of the caliber of work they want, showing students a guide for what they should and should not do.  For example, in some courses, challenging assignments have been implemented that require that student to solve case based real-world problems and gather data for real situations. Expectations can also be displayed by pressing and displaying exemplary work done by the student.  The act encourages students to meet these higher expectations and guides them to what is expected.  Such tasks and rewards display to the student that they are expected to meet high standards, even though they are not in a traditional classroom environment. 


Principle 7:  Respect diverse talents and ways of learning.   

    The final principle for the success of distance learning that is vital in any student-teacher relationship is respect.  One prime example of this principle was put to use in a distance learning research project.  In this project, the students researched, presented and defended a current policy issue of their own choosing.  The freedom to choose their own topic allowed each student to display their distinct and diverse points of view.  Guidelines can of-course, be provided to assure that students do not go on extreme tangents.  This respect of the students’ unique talents and backgrounds allows for more enjoyment in the class and promotes the feeling of a strong student faculty relationship through feedback on each topic.  Respect among each party also encourages high expectations and encourages the students to do well in the course. 




     In their speech to the American Association for Higher Education Teaching Learning Technology Roundtable of 2001, Ms. Chiti and Ms. Karlen suggest the following steps to create a vibrant online community:

  • Promote continuity by answering E-mail promptly.
  • Define the purpose or objective of each discussion.  This will help members stay on a specific topic. 
  •  Make sure it is easy to identify participants.  Create profiles of members that can be found on individual web pages. 
  • Set rules to create a friendly environment.
  • Invite experts to participate in chats and bulletin board discussion.
  • Use a calendar to post start and end dates for specific discussion topics.
  • Make online discussions a part of the student’s grade. This can substitute for the usual class participation portion of the grade. 
  • Encourage reflective thinking and ongoing discussions by avoiding questions that lead to right and wrong answers.
  • Replay to student postings and prompt your students to go deeper than mere opinions or surface answers. Have students support their arguments with facts and supportive data when available. 
  • Bring the physical world into the virtual one.  Use graphics, sound bytes and digital video to create a sense of place and to appeal to the diverse learning styles of your students.  



Development Policy Issues.



    With every new educational program there are always hurdles that need to be overcome.  For distance learning, these concerns include policies for development and implementation strategies.   These policies include things ranging from use of copy written material to lobbyist demanding the right for course accreditation.  Areas that need addressing both in the national and local level include academic, fiscal, geographic, governance, labor management, legal and student support systems. 

Table 1: Policy Development Areas for Distance Learning

 Policy Development Area

 Key Issues

1) Academic

Academic calendar, course integrity, transferability, transcripts, evaluation process, admission standards, curriculum approval process, accreditation

2) Fiscal

Tuition rate, technology fee, FTE's, consortia contracts, state fiscal regulations

3) Geographic

Service Area Regional limitations, local versus out-of-state tuition, consortia agreements

4) Governance 

Single versus multiple board oversight, staffing, existing structure versus shadow colleges or enclaves

5) Labor-Management

Compensation and workload, development incentives, intellectual property, faculty training, congruence with existing union contracts

6) Legal

Fair use, copyright, faculty, student and institutional liability

 7) Student Support Services

Advisement, counseling, library access, materials delivery, student training, test proctoring


     When trying to design a distance learning program the institution, the professors and the students need to take into account many issues, ranging from eligibility requirements, the integrity of the institution, and the value and of a distance learning obtained degree.         

     An institution needs to be able to foresee what type of demand they will have for distance learning programs and plan accordingly.  In order to be appealing for students and professors policies have to be made stating clear guidelines on how to evaluate and classify the transfer of classes to and from the institution.  The overall integrity of a course is also an academic issue that also falls under the scrutiny of learners, campus curriculum and educators alike.  " The draft report of the University Distance Learning Panel at SUNY (Feisel et al, 1998) recommends that the responsibility for the quality of distance learning courses rests with the campus granting the credit”  (Carnevale 2000). Though there is no correct way to go about this decision, the distance learner needs to clearly assess these issues before entering into this education medium.   Any forum, traditional classroom or distance education will prove to be more successful if developed on a strong foundation set to benefit learners and educators alike.   A way to make certain that education is provided at it’s highest level of quality is to continuously review and evaluate the online classes by way of student and professor analysis.   

Distance learning has gone way beyond state and national boundaries and with it has come issues of which state, which nation regulates and maintains this type of education.  For students this type of study involves a lot of confusion ranging from tuition fees to state regulations.  Distance learning made students reevaluate studying abroad and the price they have to pay for it.  Policies need to be established that will give students reassurance and clear cut guidelines as to what institution will be paid. 


     Technology has made geographic boundaries obsolete.  There is no limit to countries distance learning can reach.  Through way of support systems, e-mail and chat rooms distance learning has opened the door to places that otherwise would not be able to get education. 






     Institutions and professors are the key element in the evolution of distance learning.  Such a new area of learning has been introduced into education that has not yet reach it’s peak and with the cooperation of professors and students alike the development of this teaching is limitless.  Compensation for students to suggestion should be established in a way of extra credit or projects in order to better the administration of such a study. 



One of the most prominent obstacles facing the global implementation of distance learning programs is that of accreditation with such a young technology, who should decide what standards should be met by a distance course.  Eventually, it seemed that this question could only be answered by Congress.  In June, Article 5.487 was passed by the Senate that allowed the accreditation commission of career Schools and Colleges of Technology to regulate the accreditation of on line courses.  Unfortunately, the bill was side-lined in July in the House of Representatives where matters of fiscal bills are heading the floor.  This derailing of the distance learning bill is in great part due to the events of September 11th which are bringing about more financing for anti-terrorism programs and government agencies.  Jane Wellman, a senior associate at the Institute for higher education policy, acknowledged that, “this is uncharted territory, but there is doubt on her mind of the government intention, “are they there to second-guess the judgments of quality?”  Advocators of the distance learning bill such as Kim Lully at the University of Maryland University College, said “the likelihood of legislation being passed is getting slimmer day by day… I haven’t completely written off, but there is going to have to be some lobbying”.   It is expected that the House will be able to address the bill before they recess in December. 


Student Support Services.

     A critical key factor in ensuring distance learning will be established is to instill policies to allow students to get student support services.  Items such as technical support, library support, and library resources need to be supplied to students in order for them to get a full feel of the classroom experience. 





     Distance learning has come a long way and with it advancements in this newly acquired learning technique.  Through newly found learning development and policy implementations students can nurture a better education and learn of different techniques throughout the world. 




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