The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Distance Education in the Online World: Implications for Higher Education

Stewart Marshall 
Central Queensland University, Australia

Shirley Gregor 
Australian National University, Australia

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.


In this chapter, the authors identify forces leading to change in industries in the online world, including increasing global competition, increasingly powerful consumers and rapid changes in technology. In the higher education industry, outcomes are evolving, but include the formation of alliances, outsourcing and re-engineering of systems and work practices. The communication and information technologies that created the online world also link lecturers, tutors, and teaching resources to create the possibility of networked education. The authors outline a “glocal” networked education paradigm that separates out global and local resource development and global and local learning facilitation. By embracing this separation, it is possible to develop ways of working that allow the creation of a flexible model of education delivery that is scalable and hence globally competitive. In this model, the work of the university academic is changed considerably. The functions traditionally performed by a single university academic are differentiated and are performed by a network of learning facilitators. In this scenario, university academics may find themselves responsible for the learning of hundreds of students, but they may never find themselves face-to-face with a single student.


As the world moves online, pressure increases on industries and organizations to change the way they do business. According to Turban, McLean and Wetherbe (1999), pressures acting on industries and organizations result from: the market, technology, and society. Market pressures include global competition and consumers who are becoming more demanding; technological pressures include the use of e-commerce to lower the costs of production and transaction costs; and societal pressures include government regulations and economic conditions (for example, through the use of subsidies, tax policies, and import/export regulations).

The higher education industry and universities are subject to the same pressures as other industries and organizations in the online world. For example, in Australia, enrollment of foreign students was the country’s eighth largest export earner during 1997/8 earning A$3.1 billion [the larger ones being: coal (A$9.5b), tourism (A$8.0b), transport (A$6.7b), gold (A$6.2b), iron (A$3.7b), wheat (A$3.6b) and aluminium (A$3.2) (AVCC, 2000)]. Because of the Internet, Australian universities must now compete with universities from other countries offering online programs to those students in their own countries. So universities must change the way they do business.

Those institutions that can step up to this process of change will thrive. Those that bury their heads in the sand, that rigidly defend the status quo – or even worse – some idyllic vision of a past that never existed, are at very great risk.…The real question is not whether higher education will be transformed but rather how and by whom? (Duderstadt, 1999, p.1)

To understand how universities need to be transformed, it is necessary to look at the impact of distance education in the online world on higher education organizational structures and work groups, including organizational roles, workgroup dynamics, and communication. It is also necessary to examine which structures and processes are needed to allow a university to exist and prosper in an age of globalization and rapid changes in the information technology underlying remote education and work. This chapter tackles these issues using a model based on Giddens’ (1977) theory of structuration in which process (activity) and structure are reciprocally constitutive, and the application of this theory to information technology by Orlikowski and Robey (1991). Central to this model is the view that change is not solely “technology led” or solely “organizational/ agency driven.” Instead, change arises from a complex interaction between technology, people and the organization.

The authors then consider, as a case study, Central Queensland University (CQU), which is a university in Australia that is responding to the challenge of remote education and operation on a national and international basis. CQU has been a distance education and on-campus education provider since 1974 and is now Australia’s fastest growing university. Inherent in all CQU’s operations is a model in which the organization, its members and its partners are all constituents of a “glocal” network of learning facilitators.


In considering the implications of the online world for industry, it is necessary to consider both structure and process, where process includes change processes (Gregor & Johnston, 2000; 2001; Johnston & Gregor, 2000). For example, one defining characteristic of an industry structure is the degree to which vertical integration has occurred. Vertical integration and alliances are formed by negotiation over periods of time. The result is a structure that becomes formalized to some extent. Further activities and processes are needed to maintain the alliance and modify it as needed.

In Giddens’ theory of structuration, process (activity) and structure are reciprocal (Giddens, 1977, 1984, 1991). As Giddens (1977, p. 121) states, “Social structures are both constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution,” or as Rose (1999, p. 643) puts it, “Agents in their actions constantly produce and reproduce and develop the social structures which both constrain and enable them.”

This link between process and structure is also important at the organizational level. In order to develop technology and systems to survive in the online world, an organization must engage in certain processes, such as business process re-engineering. These processes are of great importance—many information systems fail and exhibit the productivity paradox (Brynjolfsson & Hitt, 1998). This paradox refers to the fact that investment in Information Technology appears to be unrelated to increased outputs. One explanation of the productivity paradox is that some organizations do not pay sufficient attention to processes within their organization when introducing new technology. If organizational change is not implemented well, and work processes not redesigned, the new systems do not lead to gains in productivity. Organizations that gain in productivity appear to be those in which there is a restructuring of the organization and flatter, less hierarchical structures with decentralized decision-making.

Thus, it is necessary to consider change and processes of change as well as structure. The authors have a particular view of organizational change. This view is that change is “emergent.” Change is not solely “technology led” or solely “organizational/agency driven.” Change arises from a complex interaction between technology and the people in an industry or organization (Markus & Robey, 1988).

The conceptual model developed here is based on the structurational theory of information technology of Orlikowski and Robey (1991). This model posits four relationships: (1) information technology is a product of human action; (2) information technology is an influence on human action; (3) organizational properties are an influence on human interactions with information technology; and (4) information technology is an influence on the organization. The model is extended to include the market, technological and societal influences from the external environment that affect an organization.

So what are the implications of the online world for industry structure and process? Barriers to participating in electronic transactions are decreasing. Rather than having networks only link existing trading partners in a tightly coupled environment, new electronic markets can easily include larger numbers of buyers and sellers (Malone, Yates & Benjamin, 1987).

On the other hand there is evidence for hierarchical arrangements supported by electronic networks, with firms in many industries reducing the number of their suppliers, and entering into contractual arrangements for the supply of goods. These arrangements constitute supply chain management. The arguments from economic theory for the changes in market structures are complex. Holland and Lockett (1994) propose an “anything goes” or mixed mode hypothesis where firms develop different forms of market and hierarchical relationships that are maintained simultaneously. The interrelationships and interdependencies of governance structure, asset specificity, market complexity and coordination strategy will determine interorganizational arrangements (Klein, 1998).

A value chain consists of the movement of components through various stages of production and distribution as they are transformed into final products. A firm can decide to produce each of the goods and services needed along the value chain in-house or to outsource it. There is a view that greater use of interorganizational networks will lead to vertical disintegration and greater outsourcing. For example, instead of an organization having its own IT department, it may outsource this function to a specialist IT service provider. However, evidence to support this view is still being collected (Steinfeld, Kraut & Chan, 1998). Some expect disintermediation to occur, where intermediaries are removed because of the ease with which they can be bypassed on electronic platforms. For example, retailers and wholesalers can be bypassed by the customer placing orders online directly with the manufacturers. It is not clear, however, that disintermediation will always occur. Instead, different forms of intermediaries may emerge; e.g., a cybermediary such as which to some extent replaces the traditional intermediaries, namely, book shops.

It appears that maximum benefit is obtained from e-business when it is integrated with other applications in the organization. This integration can require re-engineering of the way in which the organization does business. Ebusiness reduces the costs of handling paper-based information. For example, the cost to the U.S. Federal government of a paper check was 43 cents compared to two cents for an electronic payment (Turban, McLean & Wetherbe, 1999). Small companies can use the Internet for marketing and compete against firms globally at comparatively little expense. Employees can work from home or from different parts of the globe. Teams can be linked with electronic communication.

To summarize, the implications of the online world for industry include: market transformations, the need for alliances, changes in outsourcing behavior, and changes in the role and type of intermediaries. In addition, the need for re-engineering and the manner in which organizational change is approached must be considered carefully.

What are the implications for higher education?


Universities and the higher educational sector face similar challenges to other industries in the online world.

Universities are due for a radical restructuring. After centuries of evolutionary changes, they are faced with carving out new roles and methods to get there. Today the predominant model is still the combination of traditional teaching and academic research as mapped out by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the last century. The guiding principles of Humboldt’s vision of the university are forschung und lehre (research and teaching) and of professors, einsamkeit und freiheit (solitude and freedom). But change is unavoidable and pressure for change is increasing from the public, the media, and political groups. This change is mainly driven by the new technological possibilities and the new learning environments they enable. (Tsichritzis, 1999, p.93)

Specific implications for universities can be drawn from the conceptual model based on the structurational theory of information technology of Orlikowski and Robey (1991): ­ Organizational change arises from a complex interaction between technology and the people in the organization. For example, information technology makes possible new learning environments and changed work practices for university staff.

Information technology can influence changes in organizational structure. The improved communication options offered by advances in information technology support the formation of alliances and the “unbundling” of the functions of the university (content, packaging and presentation). This vertical disintegration, in which functions are differentiated and either outsourced or dealt with by partners in strategic alliances, creates new intermediaries in the learning/teaching network. There is evidence of organizational change arising from the interaction of technology and people in some universities. In Australia, online and videoconferencing systems are being developed as alternatives to face-to-face communication where the people are physically dispersed. These methodologies require both staff and students to change existing work practices and to acquire new literacies (Wallace & Yell, 1997). The new technological possibilities (and new learning environments that arise from the interaction between technology and the people) include: the Internet (facilitating synchronous and asynchronous interactions between learners); videoconferencing (facilitating tutorials comprising distributed groups of students, and also remote access to live lectures); digital libraries (as knowledge repositories); computer simulation (substitutes for laboratories); etc. Overall, the interaction of these new technologies with the people creates a learning environment in which learners, tutors and learning resources can all be networked.

These same technological possibilities also permit new working environments for those responsible for the facilitation of learning. Thus lecturers can use the Internet for synchronous and asynchronous communication with colleagues, videoconferencing for meetings, digital libraries for research. The interaction of these new technologies with the people creates a teaching environment in which lecturers, tutors and teaching resources can all be networked.

There is also evidence of changes in organizational structure that have been influenced by information technology. Traditionally, universities have carried out all the functions relating to the provision of higher education: content production; packaging content; credentialing programs; presentation to students; marketing; registration, payment and record keeping; and assessment. In the online world, these functions can more readily be “disintegrated” and the university can specialize in those functions which it regards as its “core business,” forming alliances for other functions or outsourcing to new intermediaries in the value chain.

The marketing of a university’s programs can be outsourced to a company that specializes in researching the market and promoting the university. Recruitment can be better accomplished close to the student, and in the case of international students, in the student’s mother tongue by agents overseas. Library facilities could be provided by new intermediaries close to the students or provided online by cybermediaries. Fee payment, especially online payment, can similarly be outsourced to a cybermediary. If an institution is offering on many sites and many countries, then outsourcing invigilation and related examination administration is necessary. Sylvan Learning Systems (2001) is an example of an organization specializing in the function of assessment in the education value chain. Based in the USA, it offers computer-based testing services to educational institutions, for example the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Research, of course, can be conducted by others outside universities, so there is really no reason why this activity couldn’t be outsourced. But it could be argued that there is a nexus between research and teaching in universities that is essential for higher education.

The functions of course development and materials development are perhaps the ones seen as most likely to remain with universities. But there are those who even suggest the need for outsourcing and alliances for the performance of these functions. Gibbons (1998, p.61) predicts that universities “will learn to make use of intellectual resources that they don’t own fully. This is the only way that they will be able to interact effectively with the distributed knowledge production system.”

In the higher education industry there is an increasing number of instances of institutions delivering the content of others. UNext is an internet-based distance learning ‘university’ which utilizes content developed by the London School of Economics, the University of Chicago, Colombia, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and delivers Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees to the corporate sector. UNext also handles the global marketing and management of the programs (UNext, 2001). Western Governors University (WGU) was formed in 1996 by the governors of the western USA to share higher education distance learning resources. It offers online access to over 500 distance education courses from over 40 higher education institutions. It assesses students and awards degrees, but its programs are produced and delivered by the participating institutions (WGU, 2001).

Gibbons (1998, p.61) suggests that a university should be regarded as “a sort of ‘holding institution’ in the field of knowledge production, perhaps limited to accrediting teaching done primarily by others while in research doing their part by forming problem-solving teams that work on fundamental issues.” This view sees the core business of the university as participating in knowledge production and credentialing the teaching programs of others. But if so many functions are outsourced, then an important new function must be added to the work of the university—the function of organizing the learning space—bringing all the outsourced functions together to facilitate learning by the students. Indeed, one could say that the organization of the learning space perhaps becomes the central function of the university.

As the various functions of the higher education process are differentiated, so too the nature of work and the workforce change (Coaldrake & Stedman,1999). The authors now consider a case study that illustrates this change.


Central Queensland University (CQU) is a regional university in Australia that is responding to the challenge of the online world. With 15,000 students, CQU is now Australia’s fastest growing university in terms of international students. Only 25% of its students were in grades 11 and 12 in Australia during the last two years; the remainder are mature-aged or international students. In other words, CQU has a diverse student population quite unlike that of “traditional” universities.

In Central Queensland, CQU’s traditional catchment area, Rockhampton is the location of the main campus; Mackay campus 350 kilometres to the North; Gladstone campus 120 kilometres to the South; Emerald campus 280 kilometres to the West; and Bundaberg campus 330 kilometres to the South. A key component of this integrated network of campuses is the Interactive System-Wide Learning (ISL) system—a synchronous video link that facilitates networked learning. Thus, on these campuses, classes are taught using combinations of synchronous video delivery of live lectures, videoconferencing to connect distributed groups of learners, web-delivery, synchronous and asynchronous computer-mediated discussions, and face-to-face classes.

CQU has been a distance education provider since 1974. Distance education students are serviced with a combination of printed, CD-ROM and web-delivered material, as well as electronic asynchronous communication for class discussion and mailing lists.

CQU formed an alliance with a commercial partner, Campus Management Services, to establish campuses at Sydney in 1994, Melbourne in 1996 and more recently in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. At these campuses the students are mostly of international origin. In addition, there are campuses operating in Singapore, Hong Kong and Fiji. At all these campuses, the CQU programs are tutored by locally appointed academic staff, specifically employed for teaching rather than research. The mode of delivery is face-to-face for tutorials and lectures, supported by the distance education resource materials produced by the CQU academic staff in Central Queensland.

Inherent in the CQU educational partnership with Campus Management Services is a model in which the function of content production has been detached from other functions traditionally carried out by the university (for example, lecturing). This vertical disintegration, in which functions are differentiated and either outsourced or dealt with by partners in strategic alliances, creates new intermediaries in the value chain.

For both on-campus and distance education modes, CQU has moved to a networked learning paradigm, using communication and information technologies to link learners and learning resources. But it has also moved to a networked teaching paradigm that links lecturers, tutors and teaching resources.

There are inherent dangers, however, in globalization coupled with the facility to network all teachers and learners. Inappropriate structures and processes for this global network have the potential to create stress for the individuals at the CQU campuses. When becoming more global, it is important to take care that the models used for teaching are scalable—for example, one coordinator in Rockhampton should not be dealing with a mailing list comprising one thousand students from all over the world.

There are also fears that the globalization of higher education could lead to a global western academic homogeneity—yet another wave of cultural imperialism. But the fear that global higher education will destroy indigenous cultures fails to acknowledge that other forms of communication between cultures have existed for hundreds of years, and the fact that cultures survive such transculturation is evidence of cultural ‘resistance’ and ‘adaption’ (McQuail, 1994).

The intensifying of worldwide social relations sets up dialectical ties between the global and local, such that what happens in any particular milieu is an expression of, but also can often stand in contradistinction to, distanciated social forms. (Giddens, 1991, p. 210)

So, when becoming more global, it is important to take care to create a system which does not seek to undermine cultural ‘resistance’ and ‘adaption,’ but which instead is responsive to the knowledge, culture and needs of the local learners. One aspect of this process is the “internationalising” of the curriculum to allow local knowledge and culture to be incorporated and valued.

To overcome the dangers mentioned above, it is important to move to a “glocal” meta-model in which the staff in each faculty of CQU are responsible for the organization of the global learning environment whilst the educational partners are responsible for the organization of the local learning environment (see Figure 1). Hence the portmanteau expression “glocal”—it is global and local at the same time.

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Figure 1: The “Glocal” model of networked learning


Let us consider the specific example of CQU facilitating learning in Singapore.

CQU was originally offering programs in Singapore using distance education (DE) materials together with local tutorial support—a sort of “supported DE delivery.” This was the original “glocal” model, viz., global learning resources with local learning support/mediation provided by local tutors employed by our Singaporean partner. The penetration of communication and information technology in Singapore is considerably higher than in most of the other CQU learning locations and so it was natural to make this the first location for CQU to offer its programs online.

The first, and perhaps most important point to make about the Singapore online project is that it was the result of emergent change. In an evolutionary fashion, CQU added online interactivity and support to what it was already offering in Singapore. Thus, the online programs in Singapore are not offered in a pure online mode of delivery—instead they are offered in “supported online mode,” i.e., with some printed DE materials, some face-to-face tutorials and other campus-based support. This “supported online mode” is simply an example of the flexible learning paradigm embraced by the University, or more specifically, an example of the “glocal networked learning paradigm.”

The communication and information technologies which enable us to create the networked learning environment for the student also enable us to create a networked education system in which lecturers, tutors and teaching resources are all linked. In the CQU/Singapore network, a CQU academic development team is responsible for the collection of the resources, the creation of the materials and the development of the “global core” for the supported online course. The global core is then electronically delivered to the local partner in Singapore.

The local partner in Singapore is responsible for adding the local education interface to the global core (see Figure 2). Thus, the online component of the global core is mirrored on our partner’s server in Singapore and the local partner then creates a website with the required local online “look and feel.” The CQU academic development team works electronically with the local development team to maintain quality control of this locally added component.

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Figure 2: The “Glocal” resource development process

As regards the facilitation of learning during the running of a particular course, a lecturer on one Central Queensland campus is designated as the coordinator of a particular unit (course), and that person, together with the administration multi-campus support team, coordinates the activities of the learning facilitators/tutors on all the other campuses on which that particular course is taught. Thus, rather than dealing directly with a thousand students on campuses all over the world, the CQU coordinator deals with the in-country tutors who in turn facilitate the learning of the students. The local campus/centre acts as a hub—a local network—as shown in Figure 3.

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Figure 3: The local learning network linked to CQU

Through the coordinator, CQU is responsible for quality control of the facilitation of the learning process. The usual quality control mechanisms are used, including moderation of assignments, marking of examination scripts, and site management visits.


In this chapter, the authors have identified forces leading to change in industries in the online world, including increasing global competition, increasingly powerful consumers and rapid changes in technology, especially those related to telecommunications. Implications for industry include market transformations, the need for alliances, changes in outsourcing behavior, the need for re-engineering, and changes in the role and type of intermediaries.

In the higher education industry, pressures for change include global competition and technology-facilitated learning. Outcomes are evolving, but include the formation of alliances, outsourcing and re-engineering of systems and work practices. In particular, the communication and information technologies that facilitate networked learning also link lecturers, tutors, and teaching resources to create the possibility of networked education.

The particular “glocal” networked education paradigm that the authors have outlined separates out four functions:

  1. Development of the global core of learning resources;

  2. Development of the local education interface;

  3. Coordination of the learning facilitation on a specific occasion; and

  4. Local learning facilitation.

An important distinction here for CQU is the separation of the development and the teaching functions. By embracing this separation, CQU has been able to develop ways of working which allow the creation of a scalable and flexible model. In this model, however, the work of the university academic is changed considerably.

The authors have shown how the online world tends to lead to vertical disintegration in universities and results in the differentiated functions being performed by alliance partners or being outsourced. In the same way, the functions traditionally performed by a single university academic are differentiated in the CQU “glocal” networked education paradigm and are performed by a network of learning facilitators. The distinction between academic and nonacademic university staff blurs as both take on more “learning management” roles, for example, management of learning facilitators and management of learning resources. In this scenario, university academics may find themselves responsible for the learning of hundreds of students. They may never, however, find themselves face-to-face with a single student.


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