The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Establishing Successful Online Distance Learning Environments: Distinguishing Factors that Contribute to Online Courses and Programs

Lynne Schrum and Angela Benson
University of Georgia, USA

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.


This chapter looks at factors that promote development and implementation of successful online distance learning environments from the perspectives of educators and learners. It provides an overview of current tensions between the requirements of the faculty, the needs of the students, and the forces driving the development of online programs. The work is based on the authors’ current research as well as past experiences in the design, development, and delivery of online distance learning environments.


Today’s learners are demanding “anytime and anywhere education,” and institutions are responding by committing substantial resources to providing online distance learning through courses and full degree programs at the post-secondary and high school levels. Such courses and programs may include some face-to-face interaction, but the teacher and student are separated for the majority of activities. One or more forms of technology are used to mediate the teaching, and several forms of technology may be used for communication.

Distance education has long been viewed as a way in which to offer lifelong learning to those who are geographically separated from traditional institutions, have obligations that limit their ability to attend regular courses, or prefer to learn in new ways. One challenge has been to balance the need for intense and personal interaction with the reality of limited financial and other resources. Organizations and universities have turned to technology that has evolved to the point where it can provide the needed experiences through electronic networks and groupware (Gerencher, 1998; Mangan, 1999; Schrum, 1998). This chapter presents a review of the trend towards online distance learning environments by identifying challenges to faculty, students, and program planners.


Several previous studies were analyzed and amalgamated in this chapter. Schrum and Benson (2000a; 2000b; 2000c) investigated the first two years of a collaborative effort between a large financial corporation and a large southeastern university College of Business’s MBA program to provide expanded learning opportunities for the corporation’s professional workers who wished to further their education while maintaining full-time employment. In a qualitative case study of a distance learning consortium launched by the university system of a southeastern state, Benson (2001) described and analyzed the planning and implementation of the consortium’s first online degree programs from the perspectives of the primary stakeholders: the consortium planning committee, the administrators at the universities providing the courses, the instructors developing and delivering the courses, the students enrolled in the courses, the university system administration, and the business community with workforce needs. Schrum (1998; 2000) identified characteristics of successful online learners, based on literature and inter- views. In a qualitative case study of students enrolled in two online school library media courses at a large southeastern university, Benson et al. (in press) and Tallman and Benson (2000) investigated the effectiveness of online course delivery for the university’s school library media program. From these four studies and the relevant literature, the authors have identified factors that influence educators’ success in teaching in this context, specific dimensions that appear to influence student success, and factors that contribute to the overall success in creating online programs.


Teaching in Online Distance Learning Environments

Educators face specific challenges in moving from their comfort zone in traditional classrooms to teaching in online distance environments. Faculty members have had an especially difficult time changing the ways in which they teach, regardless of their own personal use of electronic media (Candiotti & Clarke, 1998). In an online environment, the role of faculty changes in many ways. Specifically, the traditional hierarchy is flattened, and the power and control are redistributed. Faculty are forced to develop and design their activities and interactions in new ways, and they may be frustrated without the ability to recognize students’ furrowed brows (Schrum & Berge, 1998).

Faculty members, with little knowledge or experience of teaching online, also have voiced uncertainty about their abilities to provide appropriate educational experiences and opportunities, design meaningful interaction, and meet the needs of all their students. They worry about the extra time demands necessary to teach successfully in this manner, and specifically if meeting those time demands would be counted toward the yardstick of promotion and tenure. Further, librarians voiced concerns that some students who have few skills in evaluation of Web information, bibliographic searching or retrieval strategies may take online classes. Their worry is that this lack of knowledge would negatively impact students’ success and learning.

Kember (1995) urged instructors to work toward deep learning, which requires moving away from excessive assignments, shallow assessments, and lack of freedom in activities. Heeren and Lewis (1997) suggested matching the media with the task, keeping media lean for tasks that do not require much interaction such as electronic mail, and reserving rich media for things that require more interaction and a broader spectrum of activity. These challenges go far beyond the instructor’s need to be comfortable with the reliance on technology to support their courses (Schrum, 1998).

Course Design in Online Distance Learning Environments

Wiesenberg and Hutton (1996) identified three major challenges for the online course designer to consider: accommodating the increased time for delivery of the course (they estimate two or three times what is necessary for a traditional course), the creation of a community online, and encouraging students to become independent learners. Before any decisions can be made about delivery or models, however, each instructor must make pedagogical decisions about the fundamental goals of a course. The salient questions when creating an educational experience have always been, “What are the instructional and personal goals of this course for all students?” and “What is the purpose of this course?” These are questions that all educators must ask themselves when designing courses, and in general, they have become comfortable and adept at doing this.

The structure of the course, the planning for educational and personal needs, and the teacher’s role must all be reconceptualized. It is clear that active and independent learning must take place. The designer will have to determine what actions will promote this type of learning. Further, from adult learning theory, it is clear that authentic learning, relevant materials, and negotiated assignments are required to ensure the participation, involvement, and action necessary to meet these goals. This is an ideal opportunity to create a Development Team, composed of a Subject Matter Expert (SME), an instructional designer, and at least one person with experience in distance education.

Evaluation in Online Distance Learning Environments

The nature of online teaching requires the instructor to rethink the evaluation process as well. The evaluation component must be ongoing and continual; just leaving everything to one midterm and a final paper would put everyone at a disadvantage. The instructor must become familiar with each student’s work, and the only way to accomplish that is through many instructional activities. One possibility is to have weekly questions for students to answer individually, even if the students are working on group projects. They may have to answer a content question, or explain something in the readings. They may also be asked to explain what they have done in the various parts of the course.

A feedback loop is also essential, so perhaps it is wise to include specific times during the term when students fill out an anonymous questionnaire regarding the progress and process of the course. Some faculty members have included one question each week that requires students to consider various aspects of the content, interaction, and affective reaction to the online environment. It is important that the teacher respond to class concerns, when possible, to demonstrate attention to students’ needs.


Learners face incredible challenges in adapting to online distance learning. Cognitive science and software engineers suggest that individuals must create mental models to be able to understand and internalize what is happening in this new environment (Brandt, 1997). One study suggested that students had to take time to move through the initial efforts of learning the tools before they began constructing new knowledge (Yakimovicz & Murphy, 1995). Another study confirms the necessity for learners to have support to learn and act out their roles in these situations (Olson & Bly, 1991).

One graduate course demonstrated that even in the case of having independent online lessons, it was useful to add a component that required students to interact with their colleagues in some way (Dehler & Poirras- Hernandez, 1998). Eastmond (1995) found that students reported feelings of isolation if they didn’t keep up with the interactions, and had to be taught to take personal responsibility for involving themselves. Similarly, it is important to build in practice opportunities for the students to refine their evaluative and analytical skills to be able to successfully use the enormous amount of information on the Internet (King, 1998).

In recent work, Schrum (2001) identified seven dimensions of student success in online distance learning environments. These were the result of investigations of assessment instruments and information gathering from experienced online educators. While these dimensions are presented separately, in reality they do not function independently. Rather, they are similar to an organic system, and work together to support or challenge the online learner.

Access to Tools

The first dimension concerns tools that students must have readily available. Research has demonstrated that easy access to technology, at home or at work, is one of the most significant contributors to success in online learning environments (Benson & Wright, 1999; Bonk & Dennen, 1999; Schrum, 1998). It is worthwhile to create a minimum standard for hardware and software, including peripherals. An institution can provide a convenient and effective way of ensuring that student equipment meets the standards by offering a free mini-course to experiment with the components and also to demonstrate exactly what an online learning experience might be like.

Technology Experience

While having convenient access to the tools is the first step, experience using the tools for personal or work-related activities is also important. More than one study has suggested that students who have little technological experience delay learning new content while they learn the tools (Schrum, 1998; Yakimovicz & Murphy, 1995). Important experiences for new online learners include writing documents using a word processor, printing, sending email on a regular basis, sending and receiving files via email, conducting searches through the World Wide Web, and accessing online information.

Students who are comfortable and adept at these tools will be able to solve small technical problems, such as rebooting their machine, installing software, changing printer cartridges, and answering simple configuration questions. They will also be able to distinguish between the problems related to their individual hardware and software that they can solve and those problems that are better referred to the system administrator or institution for assistance.

Learning Preferences

Students may be concerned that they might miss traditional face-to-face instruction. It is true that each person learns in a unique way—in general, people know the ways in which they are best able to remember a phone number or address. Some people will write it down, others will say it several times, and still others will make a rhyme out of it. Each is appropriate for the individual who uses it. It is important to recognize that when students learn off-campus, individual strengths and weaknesses may be amplified (Bonk & Dennen, 1999). Online instructors must have strategies that accommodate these learning preferences.

Study Habits and Skills

One of the greatest benefits of learning in online distance environments is also one of its greatest challenges. Learners appear to appreciate the greater control over their learning, yet with that control comes substantial responsibility for completing assignments and being prepared (Schrum & Benson, 2000c). Learners must be able to turn off the television and concentrate on their work in a timely fashion, in order to stay on track in turning in assignments. It is clear that those students who do not keep up with the class and the coursework are in greater danger of dropping out. A student may need to assess his/her basic academic proficiencies, such as skimming for information, and then reading the important portions more carefully.

Goals and Purpose

Adults have a variety of reasons for seeking educational experiences, and these may include a mandated upgrade of skills, a requirement for additional credits to maintain licensure, a need to change careers, or a simple desire to gain knowledge. Realization of these goals, however, is often subject to the strength of the motivation that drives these desires (Benson, 1998; Schrum & Benson, 2000a). Motivation describes the internal and external conditions that influence behavior and is one of the most significant factors in persistence in online learning (Schrum, 1998). A non-motivated student may experience difficulty in completing an online course.

Lifestyle Factors

Today’s population leads extremely busy lives–with many adults having obligations beyond work. These potential learners must determine if they have 10-20 hours a week to devote to studying. They must also ascertain if they have flexibility in their schedules, or if little room exists for rearrangement. It is vital that learners have the full support of their family, friends, and employers. When competing demands put stress on a student, they often feel they must give up or minimize their studying to keep peace in the family (Schrum & Benson, 2000c). It may also be helpful for the student to find someone who has taken distance courses to act as a mentor for support and advice.

Personal Traits and Characteristics

A few of the dimensions have touched on the ways in which individuals study and learn, but this dimension offers a perspective on fundamental ways in which individuals actually handle their daily activities, and patterns of behavior that go far beyond school-related issues. This includes examining the way one completes daily tasks. For example, is the individual always on time for appointments, or do simple tasks get forgotten in the midst of daily activities? Looking at our personal qualities can be somewhat difficult, but it is an important step toward successful online learning. If learners are aware of their deficiencies, they can seek help in overcoming them. For example, Eastmond (1995) found students must be instructed in ways to take personal responsibility for becoming involved in the interactions and with their colleagues.


Administrators and program planners face many challenges in adapting degree and certificate programs to an online environment. The distance education literature is short on program-level planning models (e.g., Holmberg, 1995; Knott, 1994; Rumble, 1986). For the most part, the literature has focused on individual courses (e.g., Andriole, 1997; Benson, 1998; Benson & Wright, 1999; Bourne et al., 1997; Cooper, 1999; Lauzon, 1992; Mason, 1998; Pincas, 1998). Recent research conducted by the authors suggests that success with online distance learning at the program level require attention to seven key areas: faculty development, technical support, student services, curriculum design, program format, course design, and marketing.

Faculty Development

The strength of the faculty largely determines the success of any program, traditional or online, but in an online distance learning program, faculty development cannot be overemphasized. This development includes technical training, pedagogical training, and administrative support.

First, faculty must have more than a general familiarity with the technology being used. Faculty teaching online for the first time have identified a need for more familiarity with software and hardware (Benson, 2001). Faculty members who are familiar with the technology and comfortable with its use will be more likely to model appropriate use. Providing opportunities for instructors to participate in an online course will give them needed experience and allow them to experience the online environment as their students will. Some organizations conduct a portion of the technology and pedagogical training online to gain this benefit.

Second, faculty need pedagogical training to be successful in this new environment. In many ways the technology training and the pedagogical training go hand-in-hand. Introducing faculty to the interactions model of learning is an effective way to begin the pedagogical training. The interactions model specifies four types of interactions required for an effective learning environment: learner to instructor, learner to content, learner to learner, and learner to technology (Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena, 1994; Moore, 1989). Once faculty start thinking of their courses in terms of these interactions, they can be introduced to online tools that facilitate the interactions. For example, asynchronous communication over a bulletin board or discussion list can facilitate the learner to learner interaction.

Faculty also must have appropriate administrative support and concomitant rewards if they are to be successful in an online environment. Faculty members require freedom to perform in the online distance learning environment without being forced to adhere unnecessarily to the restraints and constraints of the traditional classroom. For example, the performance review process for faculty teaching online must accommodate the differences between teaching online and teaching in a traditional classroom. Peers of the online instructor may not understand the additional demands on an instructor teaching online and thus, may not account for those differences in their peer reviews. Traditional course evaluations may not address the specifics of the online course, so new course evaluations may need to be introduced into the program structure. These evaluations may need to be delivered in nontraditional ways (Schrum & Benson, 2000c).

Technical Support

Technical support is a mandatory requirement. Technical support goes beyond providing continued technical training and includes the ongoing support that faculty and students need. Faculty and students experiencing online distance learning for the first time will run into problems; however, these problems can be overcome if an adequate support system is provided. Help Desk functions are now commonly associated with online distance learning programs. Many institutions and organizations provide such functions on a 24 hours/7 days a week basis to accommodate the “anytime, anyplace” nature of online learning (Benson, 2001).

Student Services

Student Services are important in online distance learning environments. Online students require all the support functions of traditional students: registration, financial aide, bookstore, library services, counseling, and access to appropriate equipment and technology. Since the online student is learning at a distance, Student Services functions need to be provided online. It is obvious how a school’s registration, financial aide, bookstore, and library functions can be put online, but online counseling is a relatively new area (Benson, 2001).

First, online learning students should be assigned a single counselor whom they can contact for all issues related to their experience, and this person should be trained to address a wide variety of student concerns. It would be unfair to force the online student to have eight points of contact. Second, this counselor must be knowledgeable about learning in an online environment so that she or he can provide the specialized support required by these learners.

Curriculum Design

Choosing a curriculum for an online distance learning program is nontrivial. Educational institutions want to assure that their online program meets regional accreditation standards, and fortunately, many accreditation associations have developed criteria. For example, traditional standards require a fixed amount of face-to-face time for each credit hour assigned to a course. Obviously, that requirement can’t be met in an online distance learning environment, so a revised requirement is needed. Accrediting agencies are beginning to examine these kinds of differences and to provide alternative standards more suited to the online environment (Benson, 2001).

Another curriculum issue concerns the determination of which courses to offer in the online program. Successful online programs have tended to limit the number of student course options (Schrum & Benson, 2000a). For example, a student in an on-campus MBA program may have seven specialization areas from which to choose, while the online student may only have two. As more students choose online program delivery, increased options may be provided to them.

A final curriculum issue deals with the structure of course offerings. Programs may choose a cohort model, an independent study model, or some variation of both. In the cohort model, students progress lock step through the courses in the program, typically on a traditional school-year schedule. In the independent study model, students are free to enroll in courses at any time, and are given a fixed time to complete each course. Few programs have chosen this latter option. Most choose a pure cohort system, or a modified cohort system. In the modified cohort system, students enroll in a course in the program and move through that course in a lock-step fashion, but they don’t necessarily move through all the courses in the program together (Benson, 2001).

Program Technologies

A key to program success in online distance learning environments is the use of multiple technologies. Varying combinations of email, bulletin boards, chat rooms, white boards, audio, and streaming media can provide significant value to an online course. While instructors may be warned to avoid lecturing online, recent research has shown that students have a favorable attitude towards the use of narrated PowerPoint presentations to supplement their coursework (Schrum & Benson, 2000b). Of course, not all students will find all media equally valuable, but using multiple media will give students choices and address a variety of learning style preferences.

Many programs have come to rely almost exclusively on online technologies and ignore the value of using the telephone, fax, and even face-to-face experiences to supplement the online experience. Online students should feel as free to call an instructor during office hours as they do to send him or her an email message, or visit him or her in a chat room. Programs using the cohort model have found success with initial face-to-face sessions where they begin building a sense of community among the enrolled students. For many programs that initial face-to-face session is the only contact the cohort has; other programs have chosen to infuse their design with multiple face-to-face sessions (Schrum & Benson, 2000a). The choice depends on the nature of the program and financial resources of the students who would have to travel to the meeting site.

Course Design

Course design in the online distance learning environment is the focus of much discussion and research. Everyone seems to agree that developing an online course requires more than physically moving the course to the electronic medium; rather, the course and its goals must be reconceptualized for the new medium. Similarly, when moving an entire program, the courses must be reconceptualized as part of the online program. For example, research shows that asynchronous bulletin boards can be used to support the learner-learner interaction as well as higher-order thinking skills (Shapley, 2000); thus, online instructors may want to make use of this tool. In reconceptualizing the courses as part of an online program, faculty members may decide to have a common bulletin board for discussion of topics related to multiple courses. Alternatively, faculty members may choose to redistribute one course’s content across multiple courses.

All the courses in a single program may have a consistent look and feel. Unless there is a valid reason dictated by course content and learning goals, students should not be required to learn a new set of tools for each course in the program. A tool set should be established at the program level, and those tools used by all faculty.

Marketing and Pricing

Marketing and pricing the online program should not be ignored. Some institutions have found success by entering into partnerships with corporations to provide online degrees and programs for the corporations’ employees (Schrum & Benson, 2000c). These institutions have been able to fully recover their costs, and in many cases, make a profit. Other institutions have targeted a specific student population in a specific subject area, and spent marketing dollars to reach that population. No institution should take the “if we build it, they will come” attitude.


This chapter has identified significant issues related to online distance learning for educators, learners, and program planners. It synthesized information from a growing literature base and included the results of several studies that the authors have completed. But this article only reflects the beginning of the trend towards online distance learning. Post- secondary institutions are under pressure to provide greater access to educational opportunities, and they face intense competition from industry and for-profit companies for students’ attention. This pressure may cause decisions to be made without full consideration, and the authors suggest that larger ethical, legal, and social questions have yet to be answered. Some of these include:

  • What will happen to intellectual property rights of professors who locate their resources online?

  • Is it possible that less skilled workers might be hired to deliver these courses (Noble, 1998)?

  • Will students become “guinea pigs” in experimental trials of online courses?

  • Should students be paid for their participation, or at least be allowed to take the courses for free?

  • Is it possible that education will become a compilation of individual courses, rather a broader whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?

The possibilities in the online world are immeasurable. Educators and the public at large have an opportunity to take a proactive stand in the development of courses and programs to insure that they are pedagogically sound, organizationally strong, and programmatically effective. The result will be the best possible online distance learning environments.


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