Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings


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.

I. Administration

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.

Human Resources
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.

Record Keeping
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. 9).

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. 265).

II. Management

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. 219).

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 this information.

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.

Quality Assessment
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.

Course Offerings
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 (Reid, 1996).

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).

Information Dissemination
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, 1992).

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 (Rumble, 1992).

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).

Library Services
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:
• Satellite
• Television
• Audio tapes
• Video tapes
• Computer based training (CBT)
• Web based training (WBT) or Web-Based Course Management
• Video conferencing
• Chat
• E-mail

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 materials provided.

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
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 data relating 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, 1991).

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 purposes (Friedman).


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