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Publications > Dateline Houston > June 2003 > Feature Article

Volume 42, Issue 10

June 2003

Components to Look for in Distance Learning Offerings

Distance learning programs continue to grow in popularity. They offer full-time employees an alternative to long commutes, geographic isolation, and traditional educational programs. This article examines available research on distance learning courses and identifies various components that contribute to quality in the content and delivery of distance learning instruction and material.


In today's environment of ongoing workforce reductions and more being expected from the remaining employees, "continuing education delivered at a distance via new and emerging information and communication technologies, is no longer a novelty but a necessity for working adults" (Harsh and Sohail, 2002).

As more adults look to distance learning as a viable option, the number of distance learning programs continues to increase. Higher education has now become an arena in which universities from around the world compete with each other for "customers." One avenue for universities to expand their markets is through distance learning via new information and Internet technologies.

Existing research in distance learning education identifies the following four components as contributing to the effectiveness in distance learning offerings:

    • resource structures
    • instructor/student participation
    • community essence
    • interactive communication

Resource Structures

Resource structure refers to the elements that may be seen as the basics or "the ground work" for a distance-learning course. These are elements that must be available through online access, such as registration, library resources, virtual classrooms, and interactive media. In a distance learning structure as with traditional face-to-face communications, the choice of appropriate technology is an important element.

For many distance students, access to library and other resources can be extremely limited in isolated areas. And even when access is available, it can be located in congested areas that require wasted hours in traffic-laden commutes. "An electronic reserve collection means that lecturers can provide readings, including single chapters of books, to provide a much wider and up to date resource base for their students" (Gunn et al., 2002, p. 46).

To create a constructive learning environment in a virtual setting, Duin (1998, p. 373) recommends that faculty and students have access to the following virtual classroom spaces:

    • online lectures and interactive multimedia textbooks (web pages)
    • one-to-one and one-to-many communications (e-mail)
    • asynchronous group communications (listserv)
    • synchronous group discussions (MOO)
    • forms on a web page to submit papers and grade responses online

"With these virtual classroom spaces, faculty and students are able to converse across the limits of time, distance, and space" (Duin, 1998, p. 373). For example, in synchronous sessions such as a MOO, the entire session can be recorded and used for future reference.

Instructor/Student Participation

"The online teaching and learning environment demands strategies and tactics of self-survival" (Duin, 1998, p. 383). The instructor and student must bring their own individual levels of participation to ensure the quality of the overall distance learning experience. Both the instructor and students contribute to the quality of distance learning through their social presence.

Social presence "is the ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally in a community of inquiry" (Garrison et al., 2001). It can contribute to making group interactions appealing, engaging, and thus intrinsically rewarding, leading to an increase in academic, social, and institutional integration that can result in increased persistence and course completion.

Instructor-Specific Contributions

Online group learning is student centered and requires that the instructor serve as facilitator rather than lecturer. "The instructor needs to plan the online activities and then follow the flow of the conversation, offering guidance as needed rather than strictly adhering to a preplanned agenda" (Motteram, 2001, p. 133).

The instructor must establish a secure, interactive environment through communicative behaviors while establishing online teaching presence. "Teaching presence includes designing and managing learning sequences, providing subject matter expertise, and facilitating active learning" (Garrison et al., 2001). In addition, by fostering "learning experiences that are open, flexible, and distributed, the instructor provides opportunities for engaging, interactive, and efficient instruction" (Olson and Wisher, 2002).

Student-Specific Contributions

The working adult in distance learning programs is generally well into a career and is often juggling the demands of home and family. "Motivation, therefore, must not only stem from the student's necessity to learn, but also from within" (Harsh and Sohail, 2002). Initiative also plays a role for the student in achieving online learning success.

The cognitive and social strategies students use to learn online, such as detailed discussion and commentary on course content, and threaded responses with messages of socially appreciative nature, impact the course's development and have implications for similar courses taught in distance learning. Therefore, the reciprocal effects of the student/instructor participation lead to the quality of the existing course, as well as to future online experiences that each group may participate in.

Community Essence

In addition to being "an efficient method or tool for confronting or improving an existing educational situation, the Internet also brings together learning communities" (Duin, 1998, p. 386). "The building of a learning community, where all members feel they belong and their contributions are valued, is clearly important" (Gunn et al., 2002, p. 43). The resulting community essence helps to heighten the quality in distance learning.

"Distance learning environments should be designed to include virtual spaces that promote interaction and modes of communication that allow students to develop their identity within the community" (Duin, 1998, p. 376). For example, group work and interaction provides the opportunity to get to know other students and facilitates a feeling of belonging to a community. In developing peer-to-peer interaction within the community, where participants get to know each other better, people begin to feel more secure in giving out their own ideas.

Interactive Communication

"The role of technology in providing access to materials helps to foster interactivity among students and between students and instructors" (Frydenberg, 2002). Student interaction with instructors and other students is an essential characteristic of distance learning and is facilitated through a variety of technologies that deliver the resource structure of the course, including voice mail, e-mail, and synchronous and asynchronous communication. "Student satisfaction and development generally improves as the amount of contact they have inside and outside the classroom increases" (Gunn et al., 2002, p. 47).

"Student-student interaction not only enhances confidence levels, it also facilitates the exchange of ideas among students, which is a necessary process of learning" (Harsh and Sohail, 2002). Individual students will bring varying perspectives and approaches to the challenges in distance learning and the interaction will help give each student a broader and more comprehensive prospective.

"Distance learning should provide for dialogue between student and teacher, emphasize the active role of the student, and allow the teacher to become a facilitator who places the student in effective contact with the knowledge to be learned" (Duin, 1998, p. 373).


"With the increasing pace of change, most adults need to continue to acquire university-level understanding and knowledge throughout their working lives" (Frydenberg, 2002).

As with any educational course or program, it's hard to know the quality of the content and delivery of the material until you try the experience for yourself. For individuals considering a distance-learning course, this report identified several components that help ensure the quality in content and delivery.

Without all of these components being present, the distance course may still be successful but the quality may be lacking. However, with the components listed in this article for quality content and delivery in distance learning, instructors and students will have some idea of what to look for as they evaluate available distance learning offerings.


Duin, Ann Hill. "The Culture of Distance Education: Implementing an Online Graduate Level Course in Audience Analysis." Technical Communication Quarterly 7.4: 365-388. Fall 1998.

Frydenberg, Jia. "Quality Standards in eLearning: A Matrix of Analysis." International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 2002.

Garrison, D. Randy, Terry Anderson, Walter Archer, and Liam Rourke. "Assessing Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-based Computer Conferencing." Journal of Distance Education. 2001.

Gunn, Cathy, John Hedberg, and Geraldine Lefoe. "Recommendations for Teaching in a Distributed Learning Environment: The Students' Perspective." Australian Journal of Educational Technology. 2002, 18(1), 40-56.

Harsh, Om Kumar and Sadiq Sohail, M. "Role of Delivery, Course Design and Teacher-Student Interaction: Observations of Adult Distance Education and Traditional On-Campus Education" International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. October 2002.

Motteram, Gary. "The Role of Synchronous Communication in Fully Distance Education." Australian Journal of Educational Technology. 2001, 17(2), 131-149.

Olson, Tatana M. and Robert A. Wisher. "The Effectiveness of Web-Based Instruction: An Initial Inquiry." International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. October 2002.

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