July/August 2003 // Case Studies
Ambitious Vision, Limited Resources:
A Flexible Approach to Distributed Learning
by Gabriele Ferrazzi
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Gabriele Ferrazzi "Ambitious Vision, Limited Resources:
A Flexible Approach to Distributed Learning" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In August 2000, the newly established Department of Rural Development (DRD) at Brandon University began testing the waters of distributed learning (DL). The fast-changing, increasingly competitive educational environment in Canada impelled it to explore DL with the aim of bringing the entire program to rural learners. This article is an account of the challenges faced by the department in its brief but intensive exploration. The DRD experience is likely to be relevant to other educational institutions where DL is strategic to program survival and growth, and where institutional support is not yet in place or assured.

Founding Assumptions and Competition-Driven Decisions

The DRD was established in 1999, primarily to provide master and graduate diploma degrees to members of rural communities in Western Canada. Students are predominantly part-time, mid-career professionals who commute to Brandon University from nearby areas. The enrollment profile, however, suggests an emerging demand for graduate-level rural development education throughout the prairies and other rural parts of Canada. This demand has not gone unnoticed; other institutions in Canada, notably the University of Guelph (Ontario) and Malaspina University-College (British Columbia) have established or are planning online programs to serve this dispersed niche market. This is good news for rural learners, but it has challenged the founding assumption of the DRD: that it could draw from Western Canada and beyond. In response to this changing environment, the DRD decided to add an online DL component to its course offerings.

Just weeks after reaching its full staff of four faculty members, the DRD prepared to tread on unfamiliar DL terrain. It seemed important to gain hands-on experience quickly and to adopt an effective, appropriate course management system. Asynchronous capability was needed to serve the anticipated DRD target market: mid-career professionals who prefer to set their own study time and pace. WebCT emerged as a good possibility. It had limited synchronous capability but an architecture rich enough for us to consider the platform as the cornerstone of an online program. Several advantages cemented the choice, including the system's relative ease of use for students and the instructor-cum-designer, its versatility, and its affordability.

Faculty-Driven Programmatic Efforts

When the WebCT choice was made, Brandon University was not able to support the software, and it lacked online design and pedagogy support in general. Such deficiencies have been endemic and strongly lamented throughout North America (The Campus Computing Project, 2000). In assessing this problem, the "diffusion" literature has predominantly addressed the efforts of technical, administrative, or educational support units to enhance capability and gain acceptance from what is largely seen as a reluctant faculty, "early adopters" excepted. Faculty innovation is often hindered by lack of experience or concerns about increased workloads; additional concerns about intellectual ownership and private sector intrusion also make faculty members ambivalent about online learning (Booth & Turk, 2000). Consequently, others typically have led the charge to promote faculty involvement in technological innovation. As Bailey, Childress, Pauley, and Cunningham (2000, ¶ 5) note, "The identification of a change model/process to move a college or university toward widespread acceptance and use of technology based instruction is a continuing challenge for deans and system administrators."

Largely missing from the literature are accounts of faculty-driven programmatic efforts and the challenges that they have faced. Individual faculty efforts can be mounted with few complications, even without initial university support. WebCT, for example, offered a trial "course facility" that allowed instructors to design and deliver a course for several months on the WebCT server, at no charge, rather than on their own institution's information technology system. This option was meant to promote pilot programs that might lead to wider adoption of the software on commercial terms. The shift of an entire program from a traditional to an online mode, however, inevitably raises issues of institutional support, including departmental consensus and commitment, administrative resources and leadership, technical and pedagogical assistance, and student acceptance.

The DRD adopted a two-track approach to the challenges listed above. First, as a lead faculty member, I began a pilot program of WebCT courses to provide a practical demonstration for interested faculty members and students. Second, when the results of this pilot program created a favorable climate for DL, the department fashioned a specific DL strategy.

Departmental Consensus and Commitment

In most educational settings, the distance support team simply chooses to work with faculty "early adopters," generally on a one-to-one basis. In a programmatic approach driven by faculty, early adopters face the additional challenge of marshalling departmental consensus and commitment. Particularly for small departments, it is crucial that everyone be on board, or the enterprise never leaves the ground.

As mentioned above, I initiated a pilot program in which one rural development course per semester was delivered with WebCT (see Table 1 below). These courses were directed toward two student groups, albeit with some crossover between them: an on-campus group (within commuting distance) and an at-a-distance group. Based on positive feedback about courses offered in the fall of 2000 and winter of 2001, departmental discussions about a long-term DL strategy were initiated. These talks were often informal and ad hoc. Faculty members were searching for guideposts and boundaries while examining the risks that they would be willing to take on the journey to DL. Faculty consensus on the value of close mentoring and the promotion of civic engagement through education (Resnick, 2000) determined early on that the DRD would not adopt an exclusively online mode of delivery. Instead, we decided that the program would adopt a "mixed mode" of course delivery—whereby distance students would take courses conducted entirely online, whereas on-campus students would take either traditional or online-enhanced courses. While all faculty members would be expected to teach online, no one would be pressured to do so exclusively.

Table 1: Course Distribution in WebCT Pilot Program


Pilot Schedule


Rural Community Development

Fall 2000

Online delivery as enhancement to on-campus group (traditional classes)

Business Development

Winter 2001

Online delivery for both groups, and traditional classes for on-campus group

Sustainability in Rural Development

Fall 2001

Online delivery only to at-a-distance group, and traditional classes for on-campus group

Rural Development in Global Perspective

Winter 2002

Online delivery only for both groups, with no other addition for on-campus group

Rural Tourism

Fall 2002

Online delivery to both groups, and traditional classes for on-campus group

Administrative Resources and Leadership Support

The director of the DRD played the lead role in seeking financial resources and initiating strategic discussions outside the department. He successfully garnered seed funding from the University's Rural Development Institute and from Manitoba Intergovernmental Affairs. He also kept the dean of the Faculty of Arts and the vice president of the University abreast of emerging issues that required support and direction from the administration. On occasion, these informal discussion extended to the new president of the University, who took a keen interest in the development of the DRD and publicly emphasized the institutional commitment to serve rural learners and promote rural development. The administration pledged to find funds for online course development (e.g., to purchase a dedicated server and compensate faculty for extra work), though such needs had not been foreseen in the 2000-2001 budget.

These favorable signals, and their impact on supporting units, lend weight to the observation of van der Merwe (2000) that information technology integration can be a "bottom-up" evolution as well as a "top-down" process. Technical support (computer and educational technology) was provided by the relevant University service units, whose highly committed staff showed a genuine interest in discussing and resolving the technical challenges faced by the department. Their responsiveness was in turn encouraged by senior University administrators' broad statements of support for the DL initiative. The DRD still faces numerous challenges in its efforts to offer distributed learning, but there is clearly an institutional will to explore what might be possible.

Technical/Pedagogical Support

In fall 2000, discussion about a variety of support issues began in earnest and initially involved the staffs of the DRD, the Computer Services office, and the Educational Technology Unit (ETU). The trial WebCT courses served as evidence of the DRD's serious intentions and of student interest; "guest" access to the courses had been liberally employed. The ETU responded by pledging to support a WebCT administrator/designer for 6 months, and the Department of Computer Science pledged administrative support once the pilot WebCT courses were shifted from the WebCT server to a Brandon University server. A winter 2001 class in business development was scheduled to be the first course to reside on the University server. However, even with accelerated training of the new administrator/designer, the system was not ready on time. It is a testament to the trust built between the DRD and ETU staff that a nearly seamless transfer was made in mid-stream, in February 2001.

University support units are still playing catch-up and have yet to fully institutionalize their assistance. Ideally, support would be characterized by:

  • staff with long-term contracts,
  • cross-training among staff,
  • continuous upgrading of software patches/versions/capabilities,
  • support for a full range of online effort (including pedagogy), and
  • support for other components of online delivery (student support, copyright clearance, library access, etc.).

The obvious challenges associated with institutionalization raise a fundamental issue: Should an academic unit pursuing DL in a programmatic fashion seek resources to build its own in-house capability, or should it take the slower and perhaps more daunting path of encouraging university-wide capability? To date, the DRD has chosen the latter course, but the price—despite goodwill and efforts by the university—has been insufficient and uncertain technical/pedagogical support. A more autonomous route, employing the best available external and internal resources, is advisable for programs that can find funding. While the use of external services involves some risk of reduced departmental control and more complex communication, these potential drawbacks can be minimized if the needs and success factors of the DL initiative are well understood by all parties. Depending upon future funding, such programs may take gradual measures to shift external services to their own support staff.

Student Acceptance

Discussion forums, Web pages, and other indicators show strong student engagement with the DL courses. The mixed courses offered in 2002 were split about evenly between the on-campus and at-a-distance participants. The former found the online elements of their courses to be worthwhile, though they exhibited some intolerance for technical hiccups; the latter were very positive about their DL experiences. This encouraging feedback can be attributed to the students' age/maturity, their involvement in the DL exploration and strategy development process, their understanding of DL as a strategic tool for reaching rural learners, and a desire to see the DRD succeed.

On the challenges side, students enrolled in what they expected to be a traditional program expressed a desire for the following:

  • early warning that some classes will be shifted to an online format (respect for the university-student "contract"),
  • provision of with adequate technical support, and
  • choice in format (online versus traditional face-to-face classes).

Shifting from a traditional to online mode raises the issue of whether there must be parallel programs, or a transition period in which parallel programs coexist. Within a range of possible permutations, it may be possible or necessary to adopt temporary or permanent "hybrid" offerings—for example, an online and in-class component for the same course, or rotating online and face-to-face delivery for the same course. Meanwhile, there is little guidance in the literature on how to stretch limited faculty resources when both online and in-class offerings are desired. The implications for "work assignment" issues, with their faculty union/association complications, need to be better understood. The potentially negative impact of demanding faculty schedules on the university-student contract (i.e., the student's assurance of being able to finish the program in the stipulated time) also should be considered. For new or small departments, capacity and credibility considerations necessitate careful navigation around these issues.

Future Goals

Due to an institutional lack of information about and experience with distributed learning, we have made slow progress on important issues that have arisen in the DL environment, namely:

  • developing a modular and learning outcomes-oriented curriculum,
  • ensuring a greater focus on learners,
  • instituting preliminary learning assessment for students entering courses,
  • selecting DL-appropriate methods for end-of-course assessment,
  • establishing workload value and assignment for course development and delivery,
  • establishing faculty training and support for course development and delivery, and
  • defining the residency component for courses delivered in different modes.

These topics demand attention, which means that the program will be a work-in-progress for some time to come. The department hopes that specialized support units will take up most of the above efforts, or at least share the work. They have done so for prior learning assessment and recognition, an area that spills over into the modular and learning outcome orientation that the department is trying to achieve (through the preparation of professional portfolios by students, for example). The issues listed above will not make or break the program, but they are essential to the creation of a long-term, excellent program. What is still urgently needed is a resolution to the larger strategic questions of markets, faculty preferences, resources, and capacity. Despite many loose ends, the faculty agreed upon a general strategy to fully realize a mixed-mode DL program by 2003-2004. This strategy recently was shared with the supporting units and the administration.

In mid-2002, the small DRD faculty underwent a staffing change: One member retired, and I joined the consulting field (though I remain connected to the department as adjunct professor). This shift opened up both opportunities and threats to the DL strategy. New faculty members are expected to be enthusiastic, have fresh ideas, and be willing to work with DL; the latter is an explicit hiring condition. On the other hand, the general orientation process and the need to become familiar with online teaching put a temporary brake on progress. At this juncture, the ability of the institution as a whole is tested: Can it develop a DL program in spite of the necessary adjustments and changes experienced by individual contributors? The jury is still out on whether the department has achieved sufficient institutionalization to realize its mixed-mode program by 2003-2004.


The Brandon University experience indicates that some initial DL bootstrapping is possible and that WebCT is helpful in this regard. However, numerous challenges will arise on the road to a full program launch and properly institutionalized support. A programmatic approach is qualitatively different from one or more faculty members offering a few courses: The stakes are higher, the task is more vast and complex, and the resistance or anxiety is greater.

Road maps are needed to show how small departments or institutions with limited resources can quickly but appropriately gear up to explore, create partnerships, build institutional support, and make an appropriate DL commitment. The standards of practice developed by the U.S. Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, 2001) and the communication approaches explained by Rehberg and Oates (2000) are helpful—but the current literature is centered almost exclusively on individual course provision and how support units can engage instructors, rather than on how faculty/departments can move forward with a programmatic vision of DL, particularly when support structures are scarce.

It is my hope that, in the future, organizations facing the same challenges will be able to draw on a richer pool of relevant case studies, best practices, and advice on how to embark on a programmatic approach that is heavily reliant on institutional support.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the WebCT 2001 User Conference in Vancouver.]


Bailey, S. S., Childress, R. B., Pauley, R. D., & Cunningham, M. (2000). Changing attitudes and behaviors: A model for broad based implementation of WebCT based delivery of instruction. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.webct.com/service/ViewContent?contentID=2358925

Booth, T., & Turk, J. L. (2000, September). Ownership rights: The sale of online course content. Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin Online, 47(7). Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.caut.ca/english/bulletin/2000_sep/commentary.htm

The Campus Computing Project. (2000, October). The 2000 National Survey of Information Technology in US Higher Education: Struggling with IT staffing. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.campuscomputing.net/summaries/2000/index.html

Rehberg, S., & Oates, K. (2000, July). Establishing institutional support across organizational boundaries. Presentation at the WebCT 2000 User Conference, Athens, GA. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.gsu.edu/~wwwets/webct2000/webctconf.html

Resnick, D. (2000). The virtual university and college life: Some unintended consequences for democratic citizenship. First Monday, 5(8). Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue5_8/resnick/index.html

van der Merwe, A. (2000, July). Implementing WebCT at Stellenbosch University: The integrated approach. Paper presented at the WebCT 2000 User Conference, Athens, GA. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.webct.com/service/ViewContent?contentID=2386007&communityID=864&pageName=index.html

Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications. (2001). Best practices for electronically offered degree and certificate programs. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from http://www.wcet.info/Accrediting%20-%20Best%20Practices.pdf

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