Context: The Difference Between Success or Failure in Distance Learning Programs

What determines the success or failure of a distance learning program?  Writing in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Don Chaney and Elizabeth Chaney, both of the University of Florida, and James Eddy, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, contend that an understanding of context is crucial.  In their article, “The Context of Distance Learning Programs in Higher Education: Five Enabling Assumptions,” the authors argue that “the marginal success and/or failure occurs due to program planner(s) not viewing the design, implementation, evaluation, and sustainability of distance learning courses and programs in the context within which the distance learning will occur.”  They support their argument with five assumptions:

Magna Online Seminar-Five Ways to Improve DE Quality1. “The success of distance learning programs, on the individual level, is often a function of personal learning styles.”

The authors cite a number of studies that show that online learning is at least as effective as face-to-face instruction, and conclude that an amalgam of the two is probably best for student learning outcomes.  However, one’s belief in the superiority of one over another may depend on one’s place in the Diffusion of Innovation framework.

Innovators, the first to adopt a new idea or approach, cite the advantages of distance education.  These include the ability to reach out to students regardless of time and location, the opportunity for students to connect with scholars to whom they would not otherwise be able to connect, the ability to link students in various locations together for heightened discourse, and the ability to personalize the educational experience.  On the other hand, late adopters and laggards, the last to embrace a new approach, laud the advantages of face-to-face instruction.  These include an enhanced opportunity for group interaction, the ability to recognize and capitalize on teachable moments, the ability for instructors to respond immediately to students, and the ability for teachers to gain information through observing body language.

However, there is truth in both of these perspectives.  Students will tend to gravitate to the delivery method that best accommodates their learning style.  Therefore, the authors conclude that “the success of distance learning programs, on the individual level, is often a function of personal learning styles.”

Distance Education Report newsletter2. “Successful distance learning programs are driven by teaching and learning rather than technology.”

Often, in distance learning, the technology drives the pedagogy, rather than the other way around.  Because distance learning takes such great advantage of a number of information technologies, program developers often allow these to drive the design of the courses.  Often, the authors contend, “distance learning developers will charge the University’s Information Technology Services unit to select the course management system and other technology applications that will be used in courses, when in actuality, the choice of a course management system should be a function of Academic Affairs, after a thoughtful assessment of the needs of all constituents.”

For example, it is tempting to use conferencing technologies to require synchronous class meetings, but many students using distance learning have highly variable schedules that would prohibit attending a regular or a single synchronous meeting.  Requiring multiple meetings would place a great deal of strain on the instructor.  The authors contend that program designers should take a systems approach that takes into account the learners, the instructors, and the course.

The authors explain:  “The program designer, after a careful needs assessment, should have the ability to pick and choose the technology that best meets the needs and capabilities of their population of interest.  All too often, universities aim to select the one best way (or technology) to deliver distance learning and course programs.  Often, when we strive to meet the needs of all with one application, we meet the needs of few.”

3.  How you market your program is critical.

The authors contend that the marketing of distance learning programs, like that of goods and services, has evolved through a product mindset, a sales mindset, and a customer mindset.

“The product mindset,” the authors write, “purports that success will come to distance learning programs that provide students with the program and delivery method that the institution believes are needed by the students.  Faculty and departments (1) build courses and programs based on their own expertise, (2) using instructional technology that is available and convenient for faculty, and (3) schedules and delivers these courses and programs based on the needs of the faculty and department.”  The resulting product may not meet the needs of the students.

“The sales mindset,” the authors write, “holds that success will come to distance learning programs that persuade students to enroll in their programs.”  The authors explain that many perceive these efforts, whether through traditional or emerging technology means, to be synonymous with marketing.

“The customer mindset in distance learning,” the authors write, “holds that success will come to those distance learning programs that best determine and satisfy the needs, beliefs, goals, and technological capabilities of the population of interest.”  This perspective takes into account the needs of all constituencies when planning the program.

4. “Successful online/distance learning courses and programs meet the needs of multiple constituents (students, faculty, departments, professions, administrators, etc.).”

There is no “one best way to design and deliver distance learning,” the authors argue.  Instead, the quality of a program is related on the context, and programs will need to change as the context changes.  “Before the planning process begins, developers should take substantial time to assess the needs/wants of all the stakeholders, in terms of the distance learning program planning, implementation, and evaluation.  Representatives from each of these groups should be at the table when planning the distance learning courses/programs,” the authors write.

5. “A culture of support at all levels of the institution enables success.”

“The ‘culture’ of an institution is influenced by formal and informal policies and procedures or ‘norms’ that have been developed over time.  And because many academic institutions have an extensive history of providing face-to-face instructional programs to a traditional on-campus cohort of students, the culture and norms clearly support traditional instruction,” the authors write.  They further explain that even if upper administration is fully supportive of distance learning, well-meaning middle managers can make decisions that are counter-productive for the success of the distance program. 

Indicators of Quality Distance Learning Programs

The authors identify the following as indicators of quality distance learning programs:

  • Student-teacher interaction
  • Prompt feedback
  • Student support services
  • Program evaluation and assessment
  • Clear analysis of audience
  • Documented technology plan to ensure quality
  • Institutional support and institutional resources
  • Course structure guidelines
  • Active learning techniques
  • Respect diverse ways of learning
  • Faculty support services
  • Strong rationale for distance learning
  • Appropriate tools and media
  • Reliability of technology
  • Implementation of guidelines for course development and review of instructional materials

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Distance Education Report 15.6 (2011): 5,8.  The Distance Education Report newsletter is dedicated to helping you improve your online learning programs, from the "big picture" to the nuts and bolts.