The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: The Potential Attraction of Online Distance Education: Lessons from the Telecommuting Literature

Geoffrey N. Dick
University of New South Wales, Australia

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.


Distance education involves both the student and the instructor in various tasks associated with learning and testing the absorption of that learning. In this chapter, parallels are drawn between educational and workplace tasks– the understanding of prescribed material, assignments, experiences and acquisition of knowledge on one hand and the components of a job on the other. It draws on the telecommuting literature as it relates to telecommuting’s attraction to the worker, the organization and the community, the importance of the task, the technology required, the role of the supervisor and the individual attributes one needs to be a successful teleworker. These are brought together in a model aimed at providing a guide to the possible adoption of distance education and enabling administrators to assess its potential and some of the pitfalls that may be encountered.


Distance education, particularly online distance education is attracting considerable attention from both providers of education and potential students. There are many similarities between this form of education and telecommuting. From the employer (or provider) perspective, there is the attraction of a wider pool of potential recruits (read potential students), savings on facilities and organizational infrastructure, meeting demand and changing work practices. From a student perspective, the telecommuting advantages of reduced travel, flexibility and the time to devote to other commitments (work, family, etc.) are at least initially attractive.

The objective of this chapter is to review the telecommuting literature and put forward a model that outlines the potential influences affecting the adoption of distance education for use by academic institutions in their decisions related to this area. Such a model may be helpful for research into distance education too.


This chapter begins with a review of the benefits, costs and risks associated with telecommuting (Gray et al., 1993; Turban & Wang, 1995; Ford & McLaughlin, 1995; Ellis & Webster, 1997) for each of the three components of the telecommuting arrangement–the individual, the organization and the community, and suggests that several of the matters relevant here have direct relevance to the distance education decision. In essence, these issues form part of the drives and constraints which need to be present or absent to some degree for telecommuting to take place. Other drives and constraints include the suitability of the task, the attitude of the supervisor, etc. This theme is continued by an examination of the enablers (Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1994; Tung & Turban, 1996) which provides some insight into the technological factors that are likely to influence the acceptance and potential use of this form of education.

Using a theoretical task model to encompass the component, coordinative and dynamic themes of complexity (Wood, 1986), the task characteristics of uncertainty and equivocality (Daft and Macintosh, 1981) and the organizational issues of resources and scheduling of work (Thompson, 1967), a set of attributes for educational tasks is developed. It is suggested that this model forms a central component of an overall model for the evaluation of the suitability of educational tasks to distance education. In addition the task model provides a firm basis for consideration of the appropriateness of the attributes associated with various distance education tasks and the suitability of those tasks.

Studying and learning from home will require particular student attributes: some familiarity with computing and communications technologies, the ability to organize one’s self, and time management skills are all likely to help the potential student. These personal attributes of the individual have parallels in the telecommuting literature too. These are most likely to be in the areas of personal characteristics such as the ability to get information required, knowing when advice is needed, the ability to solve one’s own problems and good self-management (Venkatesh & Vitalari, 1992; Gray et al., 1993; Wheeler & Zackin, 1994; Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1996a) and the home environment (Yap & Tng, 1990; Mannering & Mokhtarian, 1995).

For many potential telecommuters, the supervisor is an important figure in the decision to work from home. To some extent the role of the Professor is analogous with that of the supervisor. As the supervisor controls allocation, timing and resources for tasks (Starr, 1971), the Professor controls task content, timing and the required resources. Accordingly, this literature, as it relates to telecommuting, offers some assistance in studies of distance education.

Telecommuting literature also provides some pointers to demographic influences on the preference to telecommute: age, gender, time in the workplace, job type, education, transport, presence of small children, and the number of cars in the household (Mokhtarian and Salomon, 1997; Belanger, 1999; Dick and Duncanson, 1999). Some of these seem to have relevance to the decision to engage in distance education.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the adoption model proposed, relating it to a series of issues presently being encountered in distance education.


For the Individual

The telecommuting literature (Olson, 1983; Rice, 1987; Ford & Butts, 1991; Gray et al., 1993; Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1994; McQuarrie, 1994; Turban & Wang, 1995) suggests the following as potential advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting–each item is discussed with a view to its applicability to the student undertaking distance education, assuming that some form of information and communications technology will be used to aid him in the associated tasks.

The Advantages

  • Reasons associated with travel to work, such as reduction in commuting stress, saving money and time and helping the environment. There is at least some relevance here to distance education; not having to attend on a regular basis may reduce travel costs for the student, particularly if long distance travel is involved. In this context it should be noted that reduction of living costs may be a significant factor for the potential student. Also, this area might be broadened to include those for whom travel would be impossible, such as those living abroad or in remote areas.

  • Better able to manage one’s own affairs; e.g., more independence, flexibility, control of the physical working environment, to study or pursue personal interests. This factor has particular relevance (perhaps a very strong relevance to the postgraduate student, or the mature-age student) in the sense of being better able to manage work commitments.

  • To be able to work if sick, disabled or to look after a sick child or other dependent. This potentially increases the possibility of education for those who may be disabled or extensively involved in the care of dependent children or other relatives.

  • To reduce the stress experienced in the office. Relevant perhaps to those who might find the campus environment threatening or intimidating.

  • To spend more time with one’s family. A similar advantage for distance education students.

  • To get more work done. Campus life offers many distractions for the student; while these are mostly seen as an advantage, some students may benefit from the possibility of removing themselves from these distractions. On the other hand, many of the activities available to, and experienced by, undergraduates on campus are part of the getting of wisdom and their being unavailable may render the educational experience a poorer one.

The potential advantages get generally high exposure in the distance education literature: accessibility, convenience, international (or recognized) instructors and a “consumer orientation” (Alavi et al., 1997; Emmons, 1999), allowing students to remain in a familiar environment, and the possibility of advancing the emergence of global software development and discussion (Passerini & Granger 2000), and the ability to continue education or keep up to date while having only limited time available due to heavy work commitments (Jana, 1999; Boisvert, 2000).

The Disadvantages

  • More difficult to work at home due to less help available, motivational problems, increased family conflict and distractions. One might expect these to be serious impediments to distance education for many people, requiring particular personal attributes for them to be overcome.

  • Viewed negatively by management, being “out of sight and out of mind.” If we interpret “management” to mean faculty, there could well be a feeling among distance students that those with physical access to the faculty and university resources get enhanced help and assistance.

  • Exploitation by management–missing out on overtime or having to work extra time to cover peak periods. “Management” in this sense could be interpreted as the university administration that supplies resources and occasional casual work to supplement student incomes.

  • Travel time can be used productively, to run errands, or provide a break between home and the office. Travel is seen as a time for completing assignments, reading, study, etc.

  • The office is nicer/better equipped than a home office would be. A significant issue for potential distance students may be the need to equip a home study area with a PC and appropriate software, telephone line and communications software, although there is a recent move among University administrations to require students to purchase laptops and the appropriate software.

  • The social interaction found at the conventional workplace and missing out on the extracurricular activities that take place on campus could be viewed by many as serious disadvantages to distance education.

  • The professional interaction found at the conventional workplace– getting to know one’s fellow students, easy access (formal and informal) to faculty. At a more strategic level, a diminished educational experience may result.

Many of these potential disadvantages are echoed in the distance education literature to date. There is broad support for the notion that an educational program is far more than a curriculum and that there are benefits from a “surround interaction” between the students, the instructor and the lectures. This rich variety of interaction is likely to be lost (Bertagnoli, 2001). Others include not learning the skills to think on one’s feet, the absence of support and help, longer to develop a rapport between student and Professor and cost issues related to tuition and technology (Emmons, 1999). Attempts to measure satisfaction with distance education have been sporadic, other than the measure of enrollments and the growth in the number of institutions offering some form of distance education. One recent approach using the service industry as a base (Long et al., 2000) based the assessment largely on immediate application in the workplace—not an invalid measure, but perhaps only one of many.

For the Organization

Advantages to the organization from telecommuting normally center around productivity, better use of an employee’s time, a wider pool of recruits on which to draw, saving on conventional office space and an extension of working hours (Katz, 1987; DuBrin, 1991; Gray et al., 1993; Hamblen, 1999). Similar advantages could accrue to universities offering distance education. Increasing staff workloads and the ability to offer courses outside conventional hours may appeal to university administrations; the wider pool of students, with the associated revenue (Keohane, 2000) is already seen as a major driving force; there could also be savings in lecture halls, tutorial rooms, laboratories and other on-campus facilities. Indeed there is evidence that this is already happening (Chellappa et al., 1997; Kirk & Bartelstein, 1999; Bertagnoli, 2001). In addition, there is at least circumstantial evidence that computer-based learning is less costly than classroom instruction (Mottl, 2000).

Disadvantages of telecommuting from an organizational perspective are largely to do with changing the way organizations work and function, duplicating equipment costs, absence of key personnel from the conventional workplace, morale problems and security (Ford & Butts, 1991; Filipczak, 1992; Li & Gillespie, 1994; Tamrat et al. 1996; Orlikowski, 1996; Dick & Duncanson, 1999). Re-skilling faculty (not just those who are keen to experiment with technology) and changes to more traditional ways of teaching may present significant problems. There will be additional costs (Herther, 1997) in supporting students’ online access, and the absence of students from the conventional classroom may diminish the teaching standing of the university, due to the potential reduction in the student-professor interaction. Research may suffer too, due to the high demands of distance education in course preparation, rewriting and overhead associated with student contact (Chan, 1999).

Again distance education literature suggests that university administrations are already trying to cope with these issues (Theakston, 1999). The standing of the course is a matter for serious concern. A not uncommon perception of distance education is that it is a lesser experience and of lesser academic standing, partly as a result of it largely being offered by low-quality correspondence schools in the past (Emmons, 1999). While the analogy of takeout Chinese food compared with a restaurant dinner (Kling, 2001) seems a little unkind, this remains an issue for university administrations.

For the Community

Potential reduction in the demand for transport infrastructure, reduction in pollution and benefits to local or rural communities are often cited as possible effects of telecommuting (Blanc, 1988; Mokhtarian et al., 1995; Nilles, 1996). There is some scope for these benefits from distance education; perhaps the most significant may be the reduction in the subsidies required for public transport. As a rather bizarre example of the attraction of such an issue, there was a move after the Olympic games in Sydney to remove the stands at either end of the Olympic stadium, thereby reducing its capacity (empty seats do not look good on television), a move supported by the State Government as each person travelling to and from the stadium involves a public transport subsidy.

Another potential benefit to some communities and institutions is that the provision of distance education may provide the opportunity to leapfrog more established universities and colleges with their established (and perhaps difficult to change) infrastructure, in distance education, all institutions are on the starting blocks (Gregg, 1997).

Against this, business activity in the city centres and university towns may fall, travel may increase in outlying areas, and energy consumption in the home may rise (Gray et al., 1993).


There is a long list of electronic enablers that facilitate telecommuting: PCs and laptops, printers, modems, copiers, fax machines, cellular telephones, answering machines, high-speed communications links and access to e-mail and the Internet (Hotch, 1993; Tung & Turban, 1996). While clearly not all are required for all tasks, this list is a useful starting point for the types of electronic assistance that would facilitate online distance education. At present much of this equipment is made available free of charge to students in the traditional campus environment. Considerable expense would be incurred by the student in equipping himself with such technology. On the other hand many universities expect students to have such technology available at home.


The following model, constructed from the telecommuting and task literature, outlines various aspects of task properties that make a task suitable for telecommuting.

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Figure 1: A task model

Based on original models of task suitability for telecommuting (Olson, 1983; Huws et al., 1990), the model suggests support for these properties from the task-related literature.

  • The original telecommuting models suggested that tasks may lend themselves to telecommuting if:

  • physical requirements (for resources and equipment) are kept to a minimum,

  • the staff member is in a position to control the pace of his work,

  • the work has defined deliverables,

  • the work required concentration,

  • the work has specific milestones set, and

  • there is minimal need for communications with one’s supervisor or fellow employees.

There are obvious parallels here to those tasks that are likely to be part of distance education: assignment writing, research, understanding course notes and lecture material, and examination preparation.

In general terms, as the degree of task complexity rises, the task becomes less suitable (or more difficult) for telecommuting (Wood, 1986). The same may be said of distance education. Component complexity is a function of the number of distinct acts that are required to perform the task and the number of information cues to be processed in performing these acts. Component complexity is also affected by the task being dependent on completion of other tasks. The type of task may have relevance here too. Some concepts may be difficult to explain or demonstrate without “hands on” experience, for example, dissection, modeling and instrument operation. Coordinative complexity refers to the form and strength of relationships and the sequence of inputs. Wood suggests that the more complex the timing, frequency, intensity and location requirements, the greater the knowledge and skill the individual must have to be able to perform the task. Changes in the acts and information required or in the relationships between inputs and products, Wood calls dynamic complexity; an example could be a change in the desired output due to variations requested by a client. This too can create shifts in the knowledge or skills required.

To illustrate the potential impact of task complexity in a distance education environment, if we consider component complexity, tasks with minimal component complexity may be those such as reading a study guide, notes or a textbook and answering a series of “review” questions. At the other end of the scale, research using multiple resources, including hard copy and electronic journals, textbooks and the Internet, discussions with a colleague and writing up a summary of the research may present difficulties for the distance education student. Likewise coordinative complexity could range from one person completing an assignment, to working as part of a team with each member responsible for various components and then the team having to link them together to produce a final product.

Distance education today is largely conducted in an asynchronous mode (it does not require the students to be working together either at the same location or at the same time). This is part of its attraction in that this flexibility answers the drive of being better able to manage one’s own affairs and commitments. However, where coordinative complexity is concerned, one person’s time to complete a task may not suit another. Consider the case (typically used in IS courses) of building a web site and sending it to another student to critique before submitting it for grading. In the campus environment, many classmates could undertake the critiquing task if one’s first choice was unavailable immediately. The student in a distance education environment may wait several days to discover his colleague is away, unable to master the technology required, or simply hasn’t read his email. By this time, the assignment may be late, incurring penalties, etc.

Another example (again from the IS environment): one team member may develop program specifications, two or three others do the programming, and another tests the finished product. Software, hardware, and understanding another’s work all become more difficult to manage at a distance, requiring extra overhead in management and control of the task.

The above examples illustrate a potential danger. In order to have such courses available for distance education and in an attempt to overcome such obstacles the instructor may be tempted to omit such coordinatively complex tasks from the course, meaning a lesser education experience may result.

The task characteristics of equivocality (ambiguous meanings or instructions) and uncertainty (about what is required or how to go about it) are also particularly relevant to tasks involved in distance education (Daft & Macintosh, 1981; Daft et al., 1987). Considerable difficulty might be expected to be experienced by the student if tasks are not clearly explained with out ambiguity and specified to reduce uncertainty. In such an environment, a student may easily become frustrated and annoyed and may be more willing to question the value added by the instructor. There is a fine line to tread here. On one hand the course has to be challenging and enable the student to develop his skills and knowledge to their full potential. On the other hand, in the campus environment, many tasks are developed and modified on the fly (Kling, 2001) and give the instructor the opportunity to modify tasks for a particular student by changing requirements. If students are having trouble locating a particular resource, for example, the instructor may suggest alternatives or make it available by another means. Many assignments are set in such a way as to encourage the student to explore one of several options. Such amendments and vaguely worded assignments, without the likelihood of immediate remedy, can cause significant problems in the distance education environment and lead to the frustration and annoyance mentioned above.

In the campus environment too, the student enjoys access to a range of support groups of which the professor is only one part. Other groups include past students living in the college, current colleagues the student has established relationships with due to class contact, and formal administrative support groups such as counseling and tutorial services. All of these might be expected to be less readily available to the distance student. This requires the professor to be particularly careful in setting work and may influence the standard of such work.

Similarly, the environment in which the tasks take place (Thompson, 1967) may have some relevance to their suitability. Serial dependence refers to the need to wait on others (professor or student) in order to commence or complete one’s own work. Also relevant is the degree of “networking” and team building that educational tasks are designed to include.


  • Successful telecommuters display certain traits (Gray et al., 1993). According to the authors, these traits are:

  • the ability to make sound decisions, know where to get the information that leads to the decision-making process or the completion of the task and to know when they need advice;

  • the ability to solve their own problems. This might require a knowledge of the organization, the tasks or the technology and an analytical approach to problem solving; and

  • good self management; i.e., self motivation, time management, the ability to assess their own work and to be able to put these skills together to deliver quality work on time.

There is considerable support for these traits in the literature (see also, Venkatesh & Vitalari, 1986; Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1996b; Lewis, 1998). Confidence in working within the electronic community may also be an important attribute (Venkatesh & Vitalari, 1986; Hesse & Grantham, 1991; Trevino & Webster, 1992). The telecommuter is isolated from “help” and runs the risk of being seen as incapable of working with the required tools or being seen as incompetent if he/she does not hold the necessary skills.

Other aspects identified in various studies by Mokhtarian and others include the need for self discipline, household interaction problems, and aversion to risk (Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1994), susceptibility and aversion to stress (Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1997; Trent et al., 1994) and the desire to get more work done (Mokhtarian et al., 1994).

For the distance student, knowing where to get relevant information and when to seek advice would seem to have particular importance, as does the ability to solve his own problems: The added reliance on information technology and communications equipment gives this aspect added weight. Undergraduates are perhaps more likely, than their postgraduate counterparts, to have motivational problems and will need to develop time management skills to enable work of an appropriate quality to be delivered on time. On the subject of the household environment, the telecommuting issues of presence of small children, number of people in the household and family orientation may also have some effect on the preference to undertake education at a distance (Mannering & Mokhtarian, 1995).


The supervisor has an enigmatic role in telecommuting. On one hand, without the supervisor’s approval of individual instances, telecommuting is unlikely to take place, while on the other, the attitude of the supervisor does not seem to affect the preference to telecommute (Dick, 2000). Nevertheless, if we align the role of the supervisor with that of the professor, some issues do arise. It has already been noted that one of the disadvantages of telecommuting to the organization relates to changes in the way of working. Faculty will need to learn new skills, particularly IT-related ones. They will need to be prepared to “formalize” presentations and the learning experience imparted to a considerable degree and to correspond with students by the, perhaps unfamiliar media of email, “chat rooms” and “bulletin boards.” These changes will not be easy and are likely to involve universities in considerable upheaval.


The above suggests that the following model (Figure 2) may be useful in the evaluation of online distance education as an alternative for students and universities. The model is an attempt to identify the various influences on the possible acceptance of online distance education by universities, staff and students. As such it may provide some assistance to those evaluating the provision of distance education as a viable model, an understanding to those considering undertaking distance education of the issues, pitfalls and attractions involved, and potential researchers with a body of literature from a related field adapted to the topic.

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Figure 2: An adoption model


Many education institutions are considering, or have already implemented, distance education programs, using some form of online delivery.

There is some temptation for academic institutions, attracted by the possibility of dramatically increased student numbers (often paying full fees), the apparently relatively easy conversion of current lecture material into online study guides, and a proliferation of software for online teaching to follow a “build it and they will come” approach. This is not likely to work.

So what can we learn to help in distance education from the telecommuting research? First, it should be noted that there are a complex set of factors that work together in consideration of such programs. This means that distance education is not likely to be suitable (or even attractive) to all; some courses and some components of courses are not likely to be suitable to distance education, and distance education may not be suitable for an entire educational program. There seems little doubt that much academic work will be modified from the campus environment in its translation to the distance education one. Several possibilities arise here. One, there will be a proliferation of institutions offering low-quality tertiary education, much of which would be better offered as online training. Two, the large start-up costs associated with establishing any form of distance education will be lost as students eventually shy away from degrees “that everybody passes.” Three, for the better administered and developed courses, faculty will be required to put in considerable extra effort to make the course available in a distance mode, which at least in the short term may mean less research and a lower academic standing for the university.

Modification to the work practices of faculty and the tasks to be completed by students will not come without some disruption to the university environment. In the long term it is possible that these changes may be for the good; however, telecommuting research would suggest that the programs will work best where they fit neatly into current organizational work practices and match student desires and abilities.

The varying approaches to telecommuting over the last 20 years and the way these approaches have been modified by such things as careful selection of telecommuters, the recognition that full-time telecommuting is often not good practice, and the modification of work practices to accommodate telecommuting suggest that careful planning and an evaluation of all of the factors involved will be required for any measure of success to be achieved.

Research on these programs is just beginning. There is a need for the evaluation of such programs against a sound research model. An important contribution of this chapter is to bring the telecommuting-related literature together in a manner that allows the development of a preliminary research model for studies of the provision of distance education from the educational institution perspective and for the desire to partake in distance education from an individual perspective. The model brings together the tasks (and the related issues of scheduling and control of work), personal characteristics of the individuals, the perceived advantages and disadvantages of undertaking a course of study in this way and the necessary underlying technology.

An important element in any form of education is the partnership between the instructor (or professor) and the student. On the face of it, the imposition of any form of technology between these two partners is likely to erect a barrier rather than facilitate learning. Accordingly, technologies and procedures must be found and implemented that enhance the learning experience.


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Normally working from home, but may include working from a site office or community centre, using some form of telecommunications and computing equipment to communicate with one’s colleagues and the normal work place.

Drives and Constraints

Telecommuting can be attractive to some, unattractive to others. The strength of the presence of the “drives” (eg. to be better able to manage one’s own affairs) and the weakness of potential constraints (eg. the difficulty of working from home) affect the desire for telecommuting.

Task suitability

A complex relationship between task complexity, task characteristics and the organisational environment in which the task is performed, in order to determine its suitability for telecommuting.

Personal attributes

Not all people make suitable telecommuters—telecommuting demands skills such as time management and the ability to make decisions, seek out information and be self-reliant.

Relationship to distance education

Distance education uses many of the same technologies and has similar drives and constraints to telecommuting. There are similarities in the tasks performed (at least at a theoretical level) and in the personal attributes required. Prima facie many of the lessons learnt in telecommuting have relevance to distance education programmes.