Distance Education

by Sharon McConnell Gillins

Distance Education

At first glance, you may think that distance education is relatively new, an outgrowth of recent advances in technology such as the satellite and internet.  In reality, teaching and learning at a distance are not new phenomenon in education at all.  The earliest radio stations, many operated by educational institutions, were used to distribute information and instruction to farmers on subjects such as crop management and farm practices.  Although the life of today's student is quite different from that of a farmer in the 1800's, these learners do share important characteristics that make distance education an attractive and convenient educational option for them.  What distinguishes their distance learning experience is that the range of technologies available today offers students much more flexibility; they have many more options to choose from...how and when they learn; and which methods and technologies are best suited to their lifestyle and preferences.

But what about teaching at a distance?  What challenges does a faculty member face in preparing a course that will be taught at a distance?  As more colleges seek innovative and cost effective ways to serve a broader range of its student constituency, increased emphasis will be placed on using available technologies to extend educational opportunity beyond the boundaries of the campus.  That means teaching at a distance is likely to become a routine expectation of faculty responsibility sometime during your community college teaching career. This lesson is designed to prepare you for the distance teaching experience.

Distance Education: teaching and learning that occur when instructor and students are physically separated. 

The simplest definition of distance education is teaching and learning that occur when instructor and students are physically separated.  Distance education courses are defined and identified by the the type of class interaction inherent in the course made possible by a combination of the course design strategies and course delivery technologies used.   Today, the widespread access to a broad range of telecommunications technologies in homes as well as schools has increased faculty and student options in distance education.

"What is Distance Education?" - Instructional Telecommunications Council's definition
Distance Education---An Overview
University of Idaho

Who Are Distant Learners?

There is no doubt that there is a growing demand for flexible learning options among today's students.  There is no "typical"  profile of the students who  benefit most from distance education opportunities. In fact, the most successful distance learners do not fit into the narrowly defined profile of the "traditional" college student 18-24 years old, living at home with parents or in a college dormitory.  Distance education benefits a broad range of individuals, including, but not limited to:

  • the full-time student with a part-time job who needs to squeeze in one more class
  • the working adult studying toward an associate's degree to qualify for a job promotion
  • a commuter who needs to upgrade job skills
  • a mother with small children at home
  • a disabled grandmother seeking personal enrichment.

These are all very different types of people, but they have some characteristics in common: 

  • Personal or family circumstances (e.g. family and job responsibilities, schedule, transportation, disability) that limit their access to or ability to participate in on-campus course offerings;
  • compelling reasons for wanting the educational experience.

In addition to having self-motivation and a need or reason for taking the course, additional factors that contribute to student success in distance education courses are:

  • Reading level - the ability to read and comprehend print-based content material, often a major component of any distance education course;
  • Self discipline - the ability to establish and maintain a study routine, often  without an externally-applied class schedule;
  • Ability to work independently - to become involved in and internalize content material without face-to-face interaction;
  • Comfort level with technology - to be willing to work through the inevitable technology gremlins that pop up from time to time without becoming frustrated to the point of defeat.

It's important that students who are interested in enrolling in DE classes be able to assess their own strengths and weaknesses...factors that may influence their success and level of satisfaction in distance education.  A simple "Self-Quiz" for Distance Learners was developed by Teresa Donnell and Barbara Hatheway of the Extended Learning Institute of Northern Virginia Community College.  The Quiz, originally developed for  use by students in video-based instruction, has been modified to broaden it for use by students in a variety of DE course types.  Help your students self-assess with the self-quiz, "Is Distance Learning for Me?"

Benefits to the College/District

Aside from the flexible learning options it provides to the benefit of students, distance education also gives colleges or districts new opportunities. The college is able: 

  • to reach beyond the physical boundaries of the college campus; 
  • to extend educational opportunities to new student populations who otherwise may not be able to participate in higher education;
  • to serve more students with reduced strain on limited physical resources such as parking and classroom space;
  • to use a broader range of teaching strategies to reach students with a variety of learning styles.     
    Diablo Valley Learning Styles Website
    Learning Styles for Distance Education 

Effectiveness of Distance Education

If distance education is new to you, one of your first questions will justifiably be, "Does it work?"   It is a question that has been raised since the earliest distance education courses were offered, and there is research on the effectiveness of DE that dates to the 1920's.  A careful analysis of the research reveals that there is no "significant difference" between the student learning that occurs in  traditional classroom instruction and that which occurs in distance education courses.  A summary of the findings is published by researcher, Thomas L. Russell in the "No significant difference" Studies.   (Note: If password dialog box appears, just click cancel.)  

As with any course, whether classroom based or distance education, the overall course design and the selection of teaching strategies are  influential factors in the effectiveness of the course.   In order to develop an effective DE course, you will need to know some of the general characteristics of DE courses as well as some of the more specific characteristics of several common forms of DE courses you may encounter.   Because the forms that DE courses may take are evolving as quickly as the available technologies used to deliver them, it is not possible to list the characteristics of every form of DE course.  However, your understanding of fundamental characteristics will be applicable to any new forms of DE you may encounter or wish to develop in the future.

Glossary of DE Terms

If you encounter a term that is unfamiliar to you, use these glossaries of DE terms to help you.
A Glossary of Distance Education Terms - Texas A&M University
Glossary of Distance Education Terminology - College of Engineering  University of Idaho

Interaction in DE Courses

One of the most important characteristics that distinguishes DE courses is the type of interaction it employs as a function of technology and course design.  In a traditional classroom course where students and teacher are located in the same place at the same time, face-to-face interaction is the dominant (but not necessarily only) form of communication between teacher and students.  In DE courses, students and teacher are physically separated and may not participate in the learning experience at the same time.  The instructor's ability to provide feedback to the student and the students' need to be a part of a learning community are two important reasons why thoughtful consideration must be given to course interaction in DE.  The separation of time and place requires a deliberate plan using innovative combinations of available technologies and carefully selected teaching strategies.

Student-to-student or student-to-faculty interaction in DE courses may be:

  • Synchronous - instructor and students may engage in real-time interaction.  Despite physical separation, students and teacher participate in the teaching/learning experience at the same time, interacting via telephone or audio bridge, two-way video, or internet discussion.
  • Asynchronous - instructor and student interact with each other independent of both time and place.  Asynchronous interaction may occur via e-mail, surface mail, internet message board, voice mail, or fax.

As an instructor, you must consider:

What type(s) and what level of interaction are necessary to accomplish the course objectives in a DE course given the technology options available to you?

Challenges for Distance Ed Teaching Faculty

Developing or teaching a DE course is challenging because there is so much more to consider than course content...all the factors of course design, technology and human dynamics are interdependent and interrelated.  To get started,  

  • Analyze the  capabilities and limitations of the development medium and the course delivery technology in the DE course.  (e.g. video based instruction delivered via instructional cable.) 
  • Assess appropriateness of course content for development medium and course delivery technology.
  • Develop appropriate teaching strategies.
         -  to achieve course content objectives
         -  to exploit the capabilities of the development medium and delivery technology
  • Adhere to college policy and governance while sometimes maneuvering in uncharted instructional territory.
         -  department
         -  college
         -  district
         -  community college system
         -  state 

An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education - Penn State University Innovations in Distance Education

Most Common Types of Distance Education Courses

Distance education courses may be developed using any single medium or any combination of media; it is the form in which the message is carried or the content is stored, e.g. print, audiocassette, videocassette, CD-rom, web.   The delivery mode is the technology used to distribute the content to students, e.g. internet, mail, fax, satellite, newspaper, radio, television, cable, telephone.  Most types of distance education courses, regardless of the media and delivery technologies used, include a print-based component.   The medium, delivery technology, and course design are interdependent elements that determine overall course effectiveness.  Characteristics of the most common types of DE courses are summarized in the following table.   You are most likely to encounter  telecourses, online courses, or hybrid courses in the community college environment.  You may be faced with planning the development, delivery, and approval of such a course, or you may be asked to teach one that is already developed.  The three most common types of DE courses are described in more detail later.


Development Medium
Type of Course
Interaction: Delivery Technology
Asynch. 0-1 Broadcast radio,
Cassette rental/
- Inexpensive to produce;
- Easily revised.

- Not suitable for visual content

Telecourse Asynch 1-2 Cable TV
Broadcast, TV Tape rental/ checkout
- Pre-recorded  professionally produced video;
- Suitable for visual presentation of content.

- Content selected for national audience may differ from local content;
- Expensive to produce, revise
- Not suitable for rapidly-changing content.
- Usually difficult to change telecast schedule sequence

Interactive Videoconference Synch 2-3 Satellite
cable access
- Real-time audio interaction;
- Can be delivered locally, nationally, internationally.
- Content delivered by college faculty

- No schedule flexibility for students
- Time zone considerations
- Interaction limited by number of participants

Computer Based 
Asynch 0-1 CD-rom - Consistency of content message
- Student-paced
- Effective for skills development

- Limited interaction, personalization

Online course Asynch and Synch 2-3 Internet - Widespread, easy & flexible access
- Interactive 
- Suitable for variety of content
- Easily revised, customized
- May be combined with other technologies
- Accommodates variety of file types: graphic, audio, animations, video.
- Learning experience may be personalized
- Vast access to the Web's information resources

- Labor intensive development process
- Bandwidth to home limits file size
- Support staff needed for student technical issues


Hybrid Courses Asynch and Synch 2-3 Any combination - Combines the advantages and strengths of 2+ media and/or delivery modes
- Customizable to course content


Telecourses are broadcast quality video-based instructional lessons produced  for use by a national college audience, i.e. the content has been selected according to course content guidelines gathered at many different colleges.  They typically consist of 26-30 half hour video lessons per 3-unit course.  The video lessons are part of an integrated package of course components that almost always includes a textbook and instructor as facilitator and resource, and may include a study guide and/or limited face-to-face instruction on campus.

Telecourses are usually licensed from the producer or distributor by a single college or a group of colleges that make up a consortium.  Telecourses are licensed by terms:  semester, year, or life-of-the tape.  In addition to the licensing fee, colleges must pay a "per student" fee for each enrolled student (approximately $15.-$25. per student); the fee varies by producers. Some of the most recognized telecourse producers and distributors are:  

What is a Telecourse License - PBS Adult Learning Service, the largest distributor of telecourses

Students view  telecourse lessons in a variety of ways:
  • Local PBS broadcast channels - PBS station finder
  • Educational cable access channels - Contact local cable television provider.
  • Videotape check-out from libraries, college media centers or commercial video rental stores;
  • Rental from commercial instructional video rental facilities, e.g.  RMI Media Productions.

Effective Telecourse Teaching Strategies

  • Provide an expanded syllabus.
         -  Assume nothing; spell everything out.
         -  Include the answers to all the questions you usually get on the first day of class.
         -  Give students a calendar with important dates marked.
         -  Clearly stated course and lesson objectives.
         -  Clear description of assignments.
  • Establish clear and realistic student expectations.   
         - Time commitment for study, viewing, tests, on-campus requirements
         - Offer options for viewing missed video-lessons
                alternate, repeat viewing times
                library, media center
                tape rental (RMI, Los Angeles Community College, others)
                VCR to videotape lessons for student convenience, review
  • Maintain regular, periodic contact with students.
         - faculty initiated (phone, mail, email, bulletin board)
         - student initiated
              published phone number, office hours, email
         - progress check
              voice mail boxes
              course website with grade book function (WebCT, Blackboard)
  • Align telecourse course content with college-wide course content outlines.
         -  Add supplemental lessons if necessary.
         -  Delete inappropriate content.
         -  Inform students; remind students of additions, deletion, sequence changes.
         -  Make sure tests and quizzes match content covered.
  • Involve students in the learning process.
         - Use community as resource (field trips, interviews, observations).
         - Assign projects that enable students to personalize the content.

Online Courses

Online courses use the power of the Internet and the World Wide Web to give students the flexibility to learn anytime, anywhere.  Widespread access to the Internet using home computers and ongoing advances in broadband technology have made online education a technical reality.  The vast resources of the Internet and its flexible, interactive teaching capabilities afford online instruction great potential for teaching and learning excellence. 

Online courses are frequently developed and taught by faculty, although commercially-produced online courses are now common in the marketplace. Consistent with accepted best practices in online instruction, many institutions have developed a course template designed to standardize the online learning environment for the student.  Once developed, online courses reside in a course management program such as WebCT or Blackboard.  These course management "shells" give instructors the functionality needed to manage grades, administer quizzes and exams, communicate privately or on a class discussion board, gather statistics, and track student interaction with content and with each other.  

Instructors who undertake the task of developing an online class may face very different experiences depending on the institution in which they work.  The fortunate ones have the great benefit of a supportive administrative structure that provides ongoing opportunities for professional development, technical assistance to both faculty and students, and a telecommunications infrastructure that adequately supports online instruction.  Less fortunate, but commendably-determined, pioneers may face the development process without benefit of some or all of these favorable conditions.  Assess your college's environment as part of the initial planning for an online course.   Then, assess your own readiness to undertake the development effort, including the time commitment and the requisite skills necessary.  Some suggestions for professional development that will help prepare you are:

Hybrid Courses

The strength of the hybrid course model can be best explained by a simple comparison to hybrid plants in the gardening world.  A hybrid plant is bred to incorporate the strengths of two plants into a unique variety.  That is exactly what a hybrid course does.  A hybrid course is a unique combination of two or more types of course components carefully selected to achieve a set of particular instructional and/or other objectives.  The possibilities for hybrid courses are limited only by imagination and creativity.  Because a hybrid course is designed to achieve particular objectives, it is difficult to use as the basis of a model for other courses.  Some can be replicated while others are customized to a particular set of course requirements.  Some of the more common hybrid courses are:

  • telecourse/online courses - videotaped content combined with online interaction and/or content
  • classroom/online courses - classroom content and/or interaction combined with online content and/or interaction

Hybrid courses - ideas for the considerations and possibilities of uniquely-designed hybrid courses.

Ed Code Requirements for Distance Education

The guidelines that regulate DE in the California Community College System are contained in Distance Education Code Title 5.  The most significant changes to Title 5 took effect in 1998 and are due for revision in 2002.  The CCCS is in a period of intense scrutiny and data collection about the effectiveness of DE.   The data collected during this period may result in an increased emphasis being placed on the use of technology in the delivery of education, with as many as 10% of all courses required to use some form of DE technology.  The major changes from 1998 are:  

  • Separate Course Approval - Curriculum Committee review with a specific emphasis on regular effective contact between instructor and student.  For college-specific information, refer to the Curriculum Committee process at the college where you are employed.
  • Additional Courses - non-transferable and certain non credit courses may be offered as DE courses.
  • Instructor Contact - credit transferable courses offered as distance education must include regular, personal, effective contact between instructor and students. Changed from regular face-to-face contact, this change broadens guidelines to include technology options for interaction.

Steps in the Distance Ed Course Development Process

Offering the course for the first time:
  1. Discuss DE course idea with colleagues, department members.  Build departmental support. 
  2. Discuss DE course idea with any existing office or department responsible for the development and delivery of distance education courses.  Determine how your course fits into any college-wide DE plans.
  3. Analyze course content to determine what delivery modes are best suited to course content.  Determine what delivery modes are accessible at your institution.
  4. Research existing materials, other similar courses.  Identify what you like and don't like. 
  5. Review the content of any existing materials identified; compare course content with college-wide course content outline.
  6. Prepare for College Curriculum Committee review of revised Course Outline.   
  7. Research the licensing fees and budget implications for offering the course.  You may find it necessary to plan a year in advance to accommodate budget cycle approval requirements.

    Once the course has department and curriculum committee review/approval, the course development process begins.

  8. Carefully review all course materials for content accuracy and completeness.  Develop additional course content modules to cover any topics missing from existing material.
  9. Get any hands-on training or professional development necessary.
  10. Standardize the learning environment according to "best practices."  If there is more than one of the same type of DE course at your institution, try to agree on some consistent format for the delivery of the instruction. 
  11. Determine course sequence, assignments, exams, schedule.
  12. Develop expanded syllabus.
  13. Establish clear grading and assessment guidelines (rubrics).
    Developing Rubrics for Web Lessons
    Guidelines for Rubric Development

A Note on Accessibility for the Disabled

Our campuses should only be contracting with distance education providers whose software meets both the Priority One Guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/full-checklist.html) as well as the web accessibility guidelines outlined in Section 508 (http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/508standards.htm, Subpart B -- Technical Standards § 1194.22 Web-based intranet and internet information and applications). Assuming your campus is using accessible software, your only responsibility would be to ensure that your additions to the distance education software are consistent with universal access (e.g., Provide text for all audio content). Universal web access is discussed in the California Community Colleges Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disability (http://www.htctu.fhda.edu/dlguidelines/final%20dl%20guidelines.htm). For more information and support for making accessible web pages, contact the Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) office on your campus.