Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings


Contemporary Distance Education Issues
December 9, 2001

This analysis of contemporary distance education issues was written for OMDE 604, Distance Education Management. It reflects the author understanding of various issues and challenges facing distance education managers a few years ago, many of which are still relevant today.


For distance education managers and leaders to successfully guide their organizations, they need to attend to a number of key contemporary issues. These issues include external pressures, trends, events, and developments that could have an effect on the manager’s organization. The following issues and developments are considered particularly important for distance education managers, and are listed and discussed in order of priority.

Competition, collaboration, and the marketplace

As more traditional public and non-profit higher education institutions enter the distance education marketplace, competition for students has increased. Increasing numbers of for-profit organizations have also joined the fray, some with great success. In particular, the University of Phoenix, one of the largest for-profit systems of educational institutions, has placed increasing pressure on the more traditional institutions, as it continues to grow and to utilize nontraditional and more market-driven teaching and faculty models. As the July 2001 report by the Education Commission of the States demonstrates, for-profit, degree-granting institutions have grown at a significantly faster rate than their nonprofit counterparts (Borrego, 2001; Education Commission of the States, 2001).
While some private institutions have attempted to create their own for-profit distance education entities, such efforts have met with mixed results. For example, NYU Online, a subsidiary of New York University, has recently closed its doors, despite a well-publicized launch and a seemingly viable business model designed to deliver online courses to businesses and other clients out of the curriculum offered by the university (Carnevale, 2001).

In this progressively more competitive environment, institutions, corporations, commercial distance education developers and providers, and even the military are joining together to pool their resources and gain a greater share of the market. The creation of the Western Governors University was one of the more notable example of an association of institutions created to enable institutions to combine their offerings in a new competency-based model of distance education (see WGU Web site at http://www.wgu.edu/wgu/index.html). More traditional state-level consortia, such as the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, provide opportunities for students in that state to select from distance courses offered by a number of different providers (see CDLC Web site at http://www.ctdlc.org/). The U.S. Army’s University Access Online (AUOA) has gained a lot of media attention because it represents a major initiative by the U.S. military to partner with private industry (PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLC, Blackboard, Saba, and Peoplesoft), the Council on Academic Management, and educational institutions to provide distance education educational opportunities to servicemen across the world (see AUAO Web site at http://www.earmyu.com/).

Corporations are also getting into the business of providing distance education. While many corporations provide their own courses to employees, a significant number partner with traditional educational institutions. This may represent a real opportunity for traditional educational institutions, although there is also a downside. Corporations often demand that courses be quickly redesigned to fit their particular business needs and challenges, and may want their educational partners to provide many more services that are time-consuming and costly, including 24-hour-a-day access to instructors, mentors, and other students (Meister, 2001). As Meister (2001) points out, “[i]t all adds up to a fundamental shift: the end of ‘one size fits all’ corporate educational programs.”

Quality issues

As competition increases and as distance education grows as a potentially viable alternative to classroom education, concerns about the quality of the education provided also increase. Twigg (2001) points out that discussions of quality measurements in distributed (or distance) education tend to focus on the potential need for different quality standards for distance education, the perception that distance education has no or low standards, and the fact that there seems to be little consensus about what constitutes quality in distance education.

Traditionally, private accrediting agencies and governmental agencies have provided oversight of education institutions. As distance education offerings have grown, the traditional accrediting agencies in the United States have been forced to address new issues relating to the quality of courses offered at a distance. While the regional accrediting agencies have traditionally operated independently, under the umbrella of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and with some assistance from the Western Cooperative for Education Telecommunications, the regional accrediting agencies are beginning to develop common standards and approaches to providing the public with assurance that distance education programs meet acceptable quality standards (Eaton, 2001; WCET/WICHE). The issue of quality is complicated by the rising number of “new providers” identified by Eaton (2001), which include new institutions, consortia, corporate education providers and non-degree programs (pp. 5-6).

As Mende (November 2001) observes, “[t]he good news is that the number of reputable educational institutions offering bona fide coursework and degrees is growing by leaps and bounds. The bad news is that scam offerings from diploma mills and other non-accredited programs are also on the increase.” In response, Eduprise comments that “this mix of good news and bad is actually old news when it comes to distance learning” (Eduprise). Eduprise argues that distance learning, especially when offered via the Web, has made many regulations obsolete, like the correspondence courses of the past. Methods of distance learning may change more rapidly than lawmakers, regulators, and accreditors can react. In the long run, concludes Eduprise, “institutions and students will also need to protect themselves by becoming critical consumers of online offerings and by allying themselves with vendor-neutral experts who can provide trusted advice on the quality of new educational programs and services.”

Globalization and international issues

The US is by no means the first to offer distance education programs and courses, and may not even be the predominant player in the distance education arena. At the same time, many US providers view international expansion, in part through collaboration with providers in other countries, as their next opportunity. While information technology has expanded the number of organizations offering global distance education programs and courses, these organizations continue to face significant difficulties in terms of delivery of materials, student access to technology, structures, and consistency and quality of service (Rumble, 2000).
The National Committee on Trade in Education (NCITE) has identified a number of barriers to trade in transnational education that must be considered by any organization seeking to expand to the global marketplace (see NCITE Web site at http://www.tradeineducation.org). These barriers include:

• National legislation and policies that prevent foreign education and training providers from being recognized or licensed

• Difficulties with qualifications authorities – for example, students are unable to have degrees from foreign universities translated into national equivalents

• Customs regulations that limit the movement of educational materials across borders

• Restrictive telecommunications laws affecting the use of satellites

• Difficulties crossing national borders

The World Trade Organization has recently been considering a number of proposals designed to “free international education from most common restrictions,” while making the importing and exporting of higher education subject to complicated WTO protocols (Altbach, 2001). Altbach opposes the WTO’s involvement because he fears that higher education would end up added to the group of commodities controlled by the WTO. As a result, minimal restrictions on investment and expansion would apply overseas, nations whose students participate in education programs originating outside their boundaries would lose control over quality and standards of education, and universities’ autonomy would be severely compromised. (Altbach, 2001).

The tension between ensuring easy access to education across national boundaries and providing for adequate national controls over those providers within a nation’s borders is particularly difficult for distance education programs, and is not expected to be resolved soon.

Faculty issues

Faculty members and other teaching staff in traditional classroom-based teaching environments have typically been viewed as opposed to the expansion of educational opportunities at a distance out of concern for the quality of such programs. The American Federal of Teachers, for example, has expressed some skepticism about whether difficult material can be deeply understood when studied at a distance, whether distance education may be ineffective for certain types of subjects and students, and whether limitations on the availability of library and learning materials seriously impairs distance education courses (American Federation of Teachers). Nonethless, the AFT also points out that instructors who have taught at a distance agree that when they are given adequate training and support, they have been successful in their distance education classes (American Federation of Teachers).

Of perhaps even more importance in the faculty arena is the question of who owns courses and course materials (Twigg, 2001). Citing a number of cases, Twigg (2001) focuses on the need for a clear institutional policy, and on the various legal precedents that seem to govern the question of whether the institution or the employed faculty member actually owns the course materials. One alternative approach whereby faculty share in the profits from new course development by receiving royalties when other instructors use their online materials, much as they might for publishing textbooks, has been tried at the University of North Texas and other institutions (Young, 2001). The interesting result of this approach is faculty members are potentially encouraged to develop online course materials, and everyone gains, including the students who benefit from this course materials sharing.

Access to technology

Access to the technology needed to engage in distance education is a key issue for learners with disabilities or who because of socioeconomic hardship do not have access to the technology used in distance education.

In the United States, many distance education organizations are subject to the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), which in part governs the requirements that apply to educational institutions that receive federal funds, by far the majority of US educational institutions. Under ADA Title III, “courses and examinations related to professional, educational, or trade-related applications, licensing, certifications, or credentialing must be provided in a place and manner accessible to people with disabilities, or alternative accessible arrangements must be offered” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001). Furthermore, as Salopek (2001) points out, as the result of the 1998 Workforce Reinvestment Act, accessibility requirements extend beyond the realm of higher education. As part of that legislation, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities (Section 508, 1998). EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), a non-profit organization, has published and distributed extensive information to provide organizations with guidance on improving access (EASI).

Another accessibility issue concerns the ability of individuals in the lower socio-economic strata to have access to the equipment and services they need in order to be able to participate in distance education programs and courses. A great deal of discussion has centered on the so-called “digital divide” (U.S. Department of Commerce, October, 2000; U.S. Department of Commerce, undated; PBS, undated). Related to this are the efforts of poorer countries to expand educational opportunities to their citizens. A significant challenge for these nations is how to use online technology in countries where few people have access to computers or even phones (Bollag, 2001). The issue of accessibility in poorer nations also affects the globalization of distance education.

Summary and Conclusions

While these are by no means the only issues that distance education managers need to attend to, they are among those that are most important at this stage of development of distance education. Within each of these categories there are potentially several other important issues that managers need to understand, at least in general terms. For example, relating to both globalization and faculty issues are questions of developing standards for course sharing and sharing learning objects. While a manager need not be conversant in the technical language of standards, or completely knowledgeable in any particular area, he or she needs to understand the forces at work in the marketplace.


Army University Online, on the World Wide Web at http://www.earmyu.com/.

Altbach, P. (May, 2001). Why higher education is not a global commodity. Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2001.

American Federation of Teachers, AFT on the issues, retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.aft.org/issues/distance_ed.html.

Bollag, B. (2001). Developing countries turn to distance education. Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2001.

Borrego, A. M. ((2001). Study tracks growth of for-profit colleges. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2001).

Carnevale, D. (2001). NYUOnline will shut down. Chronicle of Higher Education, November 28, 2001. Retrieved at http://chronicle.com/free/2001/11/2001112801u.htm

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.ctdlc.org/.

Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (undated). Fact sheet #1. Retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.chea.org/pdf/fact_sheet_1.pdf.

EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information). Retrieved on December 2, 2001 on the World Wide Web at http://www.rit.edu/~easi/.

Eaton, J. S. (2001). Distance learning: Academic and political challenges for higher education accreditation. Council on Higher Education Accreditation, CHEA Monograph Series 2001, Number 1. Retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.chea.org/Research/distance-learning/chea_dis_learning.pdf.

Education Commission of the States (July, 2001). Meeting needs and making profits: The rise of for-profit degree-granting institutions. Retrieved on the World Wide Web on December 7 at http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/27/33/2733.htm.

Eduprise Need-to-Know Executive Newsletter. Retrieved at http://www.eduprise.com/public/news.nsf/id/-Need-to-Know.

Meister, J.C. (February, 2001). The brave new world of corporate education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 2001.

Mende, B. (November 2001). Will distance learning aid a stalled executive career? Career Journal from the Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2001. Retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.careerjournal.com/myc/school/20011113-mende.html.

National Committee for International Trade in Education (NCITE), retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.tradeineducation.org/.

Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Digital divide series (undated). Retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.pbs.org/digitaldivide/.

Rumble, G. (Winter 2000). The globalization of open and flexible learning: Considerations for planners and managers. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, (III), III, Winter 2000).

Salopek, J.J. (2001). Accessibility: What you should know. ASTD Learning Circuits. Retrieved on December 2, 2001 at http://www.learningcircuits.org/2001/oct2001/salopek.html.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998). Section 508: The road to accessibility. Retrieved on December 6, 2001 on the World Wide Web at http://www.section508.gov/.

Twigg, C.A. (2000). Who Owns Online Courses and Course Materials?
Intellectual Property Policies for a New Learning Environment. Monograph #2, The Pew Learning and Technology Program. Retrieved at http://www.center.rpi.edu/PewSym/mono2.html.

Twigg, C.A. (2001). Quality Assurance for Whom? Providers and Consumers in Today’s Distributed Learning Environment. Monograph #3, The Pew Learning and Technology Program. Retrieved at http://www.center.rpi.edu/PewSym/mono3.html.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) (October, 2000). Falling through the net: Toward digital inclusion. Retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn00/contents00.html. Also see http://www.digitaldivide.gov/.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) (Undated). Falling through the net II. Retrieved on the World Wide Web at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/falling.html.

U.S. Department of Justice (2001). A guide to disability rights laws. Retrieved on December 3 on the World Wide Web at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/cguide.htm#anchor62335

Western Cooperative for Education Telecommunications (WCET), Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) Web site at http://www.wiche.edu/telecom/index.htm.

Western Governors University, retrieved at http://www.wgu.edu/wgu/index.html.

Young, J.Y. (2001). At one university, royalties entice professors to design web courses. Chronicle of Higher Education, March 30, 2001.