Distance Education Components
April 16, 2001
This paper was prepared as a group assignment for OMDE602, Distance
Education Systems, by a study group consisting of Ellen Blackmun, Paula
Hubble, and Ken Tercero. This was this author's first experience with
collaborative study group work. Each member of the team took responsibility
for certain aspects of the content, and everyone participated in consolidating
the pieces into one overall view of the components involved in organizing
a distance education department or organization.
The administrative functions of a distance education (D.E.) program provide
the glue that keeps the system together. Perraton (1991) states that "a
distance-teaching institution needs a well-staffed and well-run central
administration which can undertake the planning and scheduling of its
programmes in such a way as to ensure that teaching and support services
are available to students when they want them” (p. 9). Specific
functions under the umbrella of administration are described below.
The Human Resource component of a distance education organization is
similar to that of any business or organization. It is responsible
for hiring staff, managing payroll, administrating benefits and providing
training. Moore and Kearsley (1996) state that members of the academic
development team are often part-time or contract staff while administrative
staffs tend to be permanent, full-time positions. Hiring a large number
of part-time and contract instructors, course developers and counselors
provides some unique recruitment challenges. Rumble (1992) points out
that while there will be different criteria for employment, all candidates "need
to have an interest in and commitment to distance learners and, in
many cases, adult students" (p. 72). Moore and Kearsley (1996)
echo this point and suggest that it is a good practice to hire people
who have taken distance education courses.
A large number of records need to be maintained to support a distance
education program. Student records with basic identification information
as well as courses taken and grades received must be kept. The organization's
financial records are maintained to monitor revenue and expenses. Records
to track the production, storage and distribution of teaching materials
are also required. Interestingly, Perraton (1991) says, "records
on materials need to include information both about their educational
strengths and weaknesses and about their production and storage" (p.
The admissions and registration department is responsible for assessing
the capability of a prospective student to succeed in the distance
education program. This information is applied to admission policies
and the applicant's registration is approved or denied. This department
should be staffed with employees who have superior customer service
skills and attention to detail. Reid (1996) points out that "many
students need ready personal contact and interaction at this stage" (p.
The management of an organization is responsible for the operation
of a distance education organization at its highest levels. These managers
are accountable for the "bottom-line" of the organization
whether it is the number of successful graduates or return-on-investment.
They are accountable to the stakeholders of the organization such as
the public, government legislators, or traditional shareholders. Managers
develop and administer the policies and procedures that guide the organization.
Daniel and Snowden (1979) point out that effective management requires
planning, organization, coordination, and controls and measures. Effective
management utilizes human and material resources to achieve the organization's
objectives. Below are descriptions of several functions typically found
in the upper management system of an organization.
The outcome of planning is a strategic plan that outlines goals and objectives
for the organization. Daniel and Snowden (1979) suggest that such a
plan should cover a 3-5 year future. A detailed action plan should
cover the 2 years immediately ahead. Perraton (1991) states that committees
of eminent academicians, educationalists and other stakeholders such
as business leaders, trade unions representatives, and legislators
are often responsible for the planning of a distance organization.
Keegan (1996) makes the point that distance education planners must
forecast changes that will affect their operation. For example, they
need to assess the cost-effectiveness and educational-effectiveness
of the range of telecommunication technologies in distance systems
now and in the future. Further, Moore and Kearsley (1996) state that
planners need to assess changes in student, business, or societal demands
and project future resource and financial needs.
Policies and Procedures
Similar to the planning committee, an academic policy committee may be
appointed at the highest levels to set the policies and procedures
for the organization. Broad policies may be set for admission standards,
grading, graduation requirements, code of conduct, etc. Moore and Kearsely
(1996) identify a host of policy issues to be addressed including "teacher
credentialing, and program accreditation; equivalency of course offerings;
and conforming with state and federal initiatives in distance education" (p.
196). Daniel and Snowden (1979) suggest, that "the formulation
of policy should involve a maximum of participative democracy" (p.
A research department is necessary to keep abreast of developments in
distance education including telecommunication technologies, demographics
of potential students, data on relevant course and program offerings,
instructional design, etc. The results of research will service many
of the other departments in the organization. For example, Rumble (1992)
states that managers and planners need market research on needs and
likely demand for courses in particular areas. Researchers can gather
Marketing is a function that serves the needs of many of the other functions
in the organization. Marketing will produce advertising, recruiting,
and admissions information that adequately represent the programs,
requirements, and services available. Materials produced by the marketing
department may include print, audio, video, and web-based information.
The communications side of this function is primarily concerned with
internal communications. Distance education organizations are usually
decentralized with remote locations. It is important that management
ensure that tutors and counselors in these locations are kept up-to-date
on developments within the organization. This is most likely accomplished
through e-mail, web sites, telephone, and video teleconferencing.
The administration of the organization is responsible for measuring quality
and taking action to improve it (Moore and Kearsley, 1996). Daniel
and Snowden (1979) identify three steps in the evaluation process:
measurement, comparison and correction. Moore and Kearsley (1996) suggest
several factors that can be assessed, including number and quality
of applications and enrollments, student achievement, student satisfaction,
faculty satisfaction, reputation of the program and the organization,
and the course materials.
There may not be a department within the organization that performs
quality assessments. Tate (1986) states that in some countries, the government
may commission an independent body, such as a university or educational
research organization, to conduct the evaluation. Larger private organizations
tend to enlist the help of outside quality assessment consultants to
ensure the integrity of the evaluation.
III. Academic Services
The Academic Units department includes determining which courses to offer,
developing the courses and distribution of the course materials. As
Tate (1986) states “The success of a particular course may be
jeopardized by poor production, inefficient distribution, [or] inadequate
teaching” (1986, p. 84).
Teaching and Instruction
Teachers of Distance Education must be trained in the successful facilitation
of teaching online. This department must make sure that teachers have
the skills they need to provide successful asynchronous learning. These
skills include: coaching, guiding and providing empathic communications
and feedback to the students. (Homberg, 1986 p. 6)
Instructional Design and Course Development
The most effective way to design D.E. courses is with a team of people
each with their own specialty. The design team may include: the facilitator,
the subject matter expert, the technology liaison and an instructional
designer. The academic team is very important since the quality of
the courses is of vital importance. The course design team must be
aware that designing for D.E. courses is not the same as designing
for face-to-face courses. The courses must be designed in easy to follow
units and must be written clearly and easily for students to understand.
This is of the utmost importance if a D.E. course is going to be successful.
Learning objects must be developed for asynchronous learning and the
success of the course needs to be measured from the student’s
point of view.
Its is very important when planning the course to keep the target audience
in mind (Holmberg, 1989, p. 37). In addition, the objectives and goals
should be detailed and communicated to the students prior to them enrolling
to ensure they fully understand what is required of them and that the
class meets their goals. What topics work and what topics do not work
need to be considered when selecting courses for distance learning.
Production and Distribution of Course Materials
Class schedules and course catalogues must be distributed to students
and perspective students in a timely manner. As Rumble states “[the
purpose of] planning and scheduling is to ensure that material is in
the students’ hands when they need it.” (Rumble, 1992,
p. 61) This department is responsible for developing, printing, mailing
or e-mailing all class-related materials. This includes getting the
information to the person who maintains the school’s web site
to ensure that it is promptly updated.
IV. Student Support Services
In traditional distance education, student support services are comprised
of the range of activities that complement the mass-produced materials
that are generally identical for all learners. The key to constructing
student support services is to “acknowledge the identity of the
learner” (Tait, 1996, p. 234). It is primarily through student
support services that communications are established between the learner
and the institution, the learner and teachers and tutors, and amongst
learners themselves. Making student support services available is an
essential feature of distance education that distinguishes it from “publishing
houses or other producers of learning materials” (Keegan, 1996,
p. 156). Many institutions are concerned about minimizing attrition
rates of students. In a distance learning environment, learners need
services of a more personal nature than just general support services
Student support services can be delivered by mail, telephone, face-to-face,
at students’ homes, or at a local center. Services may be delivered
asynchronously (for example, by mail or e-mail) or synchronously (for
example, face-to-face or by telephone). Services can either be generalized
and available to all students, handled routinely by using standard procedures,
letters or forms. At the same time, the student support system must be
prepared to handle individual issues and support needs, tailored to the
particular student (Rumble, 1992).
Current and prospective students need to know what is expected of them,
in terms of their commitment to the institution (Rumble, 1992). They
need up-to-date information about the courses and programs of study
available, fee payment, obtaining tuition assistance, obtaining course
materials, the media requirements for particular courses, the time
requirements for completing courses and programs, and who to contact
at the institution for more information (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). All
such administrative requirements and basic information should be covered
in standard publications available prior to enrollment or registration
(Moore & Kearsley, 1996; Rumble, 1992). There should also be an inquiry
answering service to receive inquiries by mail or telephone and provide
answers, either verbally or by sending information by mail or email (Rumble,
Advising includes career counseling, academic guidance, student advocacy,
learning support, financial advice, and specific one-on-one tutorial
assistance (Reid, 1996). Students also need advice about what to study,
course choice related to career choice, and study techniques (Rumble,
1992). Advising may be provided by means of an orientation program designed
to address administrative issues and problems, advice about particular
courses and whether they meet particular academic needs, media requirements,
and the delivery format of the course. Moore & Kearsley (1996) believe
that a teacher or tutor should provide this kind of guidance, but it
can also be provided as part of the orientation process. Advising services
may be provided by telephone, fax, or correspondence. In any case, students
need to be advised about the right person to contact
for a particular problem. Ideally, the student will have a single person
they can contact for administrative problems. Advisors should be trained
to recognize situations that call for more specialized advice and counseling
Counseling refers to help with more personal problems and special needs.
Specifically, counseling services should be designed to assist students
in considering the potential effects of their study on other members
of their family. There should be ways to identify students who are
having job, family, or health-related problems that require special
guidance, and to offer support if the student does not voluntarily
come forward. Such intervention may prevent the student from dropping
out (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Counseling services should be limited
to addressing those personal problems that make it difficult for students
to study, but should exclude counseling
on psychological, health, and marital problems, for which professional
guidance should be made available (Rumble, 1992).
Tutoring within the context of student support services includes all
those activities that facilitate interaction in a total system (Moore & Kearsley,
1996). It excludes the more traditional academic tutoring that is provided
as part of the academic services of the institution (Rumble, 1992).
The particular aspects of tutoring that are included under student
support services include: student interaction with each other by telephone,
mail, fax, or computer messaging (Moore & Kearsley, 1996); student
interaction at a remote student learning or tutorial site (Moore & Kearsley,
1996); and other peer group support activities that provide opportunities
for students to work together, consider the content and test out its
presentation in exchanges with other peers (Moore & Kearsley, 1996;
Tait, 1996); and social interaction (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).
Bookstore and Materials Distribution
Once teaching materials have been designed and developed through the
academic process, they must be reproduced and distributed to students.
This includes physical distribution of printed materials and cassettes,
and providing access to broadcast materials via air time (Perraton,
1991). Whatever the method of distribution, the institution is responsible
for controlling procurement and availability of materials, scheduling
distribution, and ensuring that students receive materials
on a timely basis (Dodd; Perraton, 1991; Rumble, 1992).
Students need convenient access to library and various other instructional
resources to support learning, including textbooks, reserve readings,
various research resources, and other independent study materials (Molenda,
2000; Reid, 1996). Many distance learners and their institutions have
traditionally relied on public libraries for library resources. However,
institutions are increasingly forming “explicit partnerships”,
and providing the materials needed on a collaborative basis (Moore & Kearsley,
1996, p. 178). Some open universities have provided libraries with “book
boxes” containing the necessary library materials (Moore & Kearsley,
1996, p. 178). None of these solutions is adequate for the more advanced
programs or institutions; particularly those involved in graduate programs.
As distance education has developed, a number of new solutions are
becoming more commonly available, including online access to library
resources, microfiche or CD-ROM, circulating collections, and faxing
articles (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Library materials may also be
made available through a decentralized study center (Tait, 1996).
Accessibility Support Services
Student support services include providing appropriate advice and support
to disabled students on equipment, technical support, and other aids
that may enable them to study at a distance. Some institutions have
developed considerable expertise in this area. The institution’s
advisors need to be particularly alert to situations that might call
for assignment of more specialized advisors specially those who have
experience and expertise in meeting the needs of disabled students.
Similar kinds of specialist advice may be called for with incarcerated
students (Rumble, 1992).
V. Information Technology Services
This department focuses on the effectiveness, evaluation and testing
of new technologies. This includes the delivery, maintenance and support
of technologies. The staff must be technology savvy and work closely
with the course designers to ensure the interface with the student
is effective. The technological media delivered must fit the desired
learning. Some technology that has been, or is currently being used
to teach distance education include:
Computer based training (CBT)
Web based training (WBT) or Web-Based Course Management
Infrastructure-Hardware and Software
Every technology is not optimal for every learning situation. The technological
media delivered must fit the desired learning, be cost efficient and
easy to navigate. The staff must ensure that the hardware and software
infrastructure is functioning. The hardware must be maintained and
if a technical problem arises it must be fixed promptly. The staff
must provide the technological requirements needed to use Web based
course management systems or other technical media. This department
is also responsible for designing and maintaining the school’s
web site. Students must also have access to databases, web sites and
other technology as needed.
With new technologies emerging constantly this can be a daunting task.
Because of a lack of money, according to Schmidt (2000, p. 369), the
material is made to fit the current technology, rather than looking at
new or integrating old technologies with new. As Moore and Kearsley points
out, simple, inexpensive technology can be very effective if it is “well
designed and delivered (1996, p. 67).
The interface between the student and the course must be well designed.
If it is not, then students and, for that matter, teachers will be frustrated
and disillusioned with D.E. As Molenda states “the technology personnel
have an interest in establishing hardware and software protocols with
the lowest probability of error and fewest complaints (2000, p. 304).
Technology Training for Teachers and Students
Technology training for both the teachers and students is a must. Teachers
must be skilled in the following: (Schmidt, 2000, p. 373):
Effective teaching strategies
Instructional design and assessment
Pedagogical attributes of video, audio, computer and print media
Economic and logistical attributes of integrating various technologies
Students must also know how to use the technology prior to taking their
first class. This may include a computer based training tutorial or printed
Help Desk and Technology Support
This department is responsible for the technology help desk. The students
must have a 1-800 number that they can call 24 hours a day to get technological
support. The Help Desk staff must be trained on troubleshooting and
walking the student through the problem until reaching resolution.
If the Help Desk personnel cannot help the student, there needs to
be an escalation process to fix the student’s problem. The escalation
process must not allow students to fall through the cracks and it must
inform the students when their problem was fixed.
V. Financial Services
Financial services includes establishing the capital requirements for
the distance education institution, programs, and or courses, developing
and monitoring a budget for expenses related to the institution’s
programs and courses, financial accounting and control systems, and
revenue from tuition, fees, and other funding sources.
Capital expenditures include various startup capital costs, such as expenditures
to provide office buildings, equipment for printing, broadcasting,
computer hardware and software, and replacement of equipment (Perraton,
1991). In a startup operation, the costs of initial course development
may also be capitalized.
Budgeting includes deciding how much to spend on course development,
technology, academic staff including teachers and tutors, student support
services, decentralized learning or study centers, central facilities,
administration, and the marketing and promotion of the institution
and/or its programs. The major question is the relative allocations
to each of these categories (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Fixed costs
include capital investment and full time staff, while variable costs
include costs related to course development and delivery of courses
(Perraton, 1991). Front-end costs will be high for course material
development, transmission and duplication expenses for video systems,
and teaching costs (Keegan, 1996). As more students enroll, per student
teaching costs go down, while the costs of producing learning materials
goes up (Keegan, 1996). Provisions should be made to determine if sufficient
resources have been allocated to particular activities through reviewing
to costs of planning, developing, producing, storing, distributing, retrieving,
and recycling resources (Tate, 1986).
Financial Accounting and Control Systems
Finance and accounting systems for a distance education organization
are different from conventional education, specifically because a “contact
hour” means very little in distance education (Perraton, 1991,
p. 9). Financial systems should account for control of materials, procurement
and availability; control over costs and revenues; controls of debtors
and creditors; and control of capital expenditures and financing (Rumble,
In a distance education organization, there are four basic sources of
funding: grants and loans, government funds, student fees, and payment
by employers (Perraton, 1991). Student fees may include any charges
assessed, including registration fees, course fees, study schools,
examinations, home kits, and other facilities (Friedman). The administrative
system should record student charges (liabilities), bill the student,
record payments received, and extract data for administrative and accounting
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