May/June 2000 // Commentary
Distance Education's Best Kept Secrets
by Barry Willis
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Barry Willis "Distance Education's Best Kept Secrets" The Technology Source, May/June 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In a relatively short period of time, distance education and its offspring, such as Web-supported instruction and videoconferencing, have been transformed from a state of quaint irrelevancy to lightning rods for change on many university campuses. Sherron and Boettcher (1997) suggest that the current rush to implement distance learning programs by colleges and universities is occurring for three major reasons:

  • The convergence of communication and computing technologies;
  • The need for information age workers to acquire new skills without interrupting their working lives for extended periods of time; and
  • The need to reduce the cost of education.

Hopeful politicians and other individuals with minimal background and little previous interest in distance education have become intrigued by its potential while others, who view it as the Trojan Horse disguising “the commodification of higher education,” are alarmed (see Noble, 1997, 1998). Ironically, the politicians who trumpet the benefits of distance education the loudest know relatively little about it, and those who see a dark side to the use of educational technology feel quite comfortable using the Web and related media to espouse their views.

Irony aside, the assertions of what distance education can and can't do, and should and shouldn't do, have resulted in an ever-widening gap between the rhetoric and the reality of distance education. Closing this gap requires careful consideration of what could be labeled “Distance Education's Best Kept Secrets.”

Distance education is about increasing access, not making money. Those who look to distance education as a revenue-generating machine resulting in financial windfalls for their programs or departments are typically disappointed when they factor in the true costs of this endeavor (see Oppenheimer, 1997). These costs include hardware and software, system maintenance and upgrades, telecommunication charges, technical support, faculty/program development and evaluation, student support, and a myriad of other personnel and infrastructure costs associated with these vital components and services. These costs and constant technological change usually necessitate the reinvestment of virtually all income generated by the enterprise. Those who make profits typically do so at the expense of needed upgrades with the potential risk of losing the market share they fought to win in the first place.

This is not to say that distance education is without its financial benefits. Many land grant institutions, for example, provide statewide educational programs and services. A few years ago, this sometimes entailed chartering aircraft to fly faculty to remote outreach or extension centers in various locations served by the land grant institution. Even today, it is not unusual for faculty to drive 200-300 miles a week to meet with students located far from campus. The costs of such enterprises in terms of time, energy, and faculty goodwill are excessive.

In contrast, the appropriate use of distance education can be cost effective, even if the end result isn't a financial windfall. The results of the appropriate use of technology—the ability to grow the market for institutional programs and services and to prove the critical educational role the institution plays in innovative program delivery—may be even more beneficial.

There is no technological “silver bullet.” Every new technology is accompanied by its share of advocates proclaiming it to be the ultimate delivery tool that will solve all instructional problems, even those yet to be identified. In reality, a poorly defined problem may be partially addressed by an infinite number of solutions. Until instructional needs are understood in detail, any technology could be described as appropriate…or inappropriate. Even those at the forefront of technological innovation, like Andrew Grove of Intel, candidly admit they are unsure where the future of technology will lead their companies (Grove, 1999). As a result, they invest heavily in marketing, research, and development in an effort to maintain their technological preeminence, wherever the future might lead them.

For institutions without the research and development funding to invest in every potentially beneficial instructional delivery innovation, the best advice is to avoid technological solutions in search of instructional problems. These organizations should focus on content, learner needs, instructional demands (e.g., the need to train a computer literate cadre of highly motivated professionals), and potential obstacles (e.g., limited bandwidth to the locations to be served). Attention to these issues will make apparent the most appropriate technological solutions.

In this context, the primary benefit of the Web is not as a delivery system in and of itself, but as a standardized platform from which various technological solutions can be launched. Nevertheless, those who think the Web is the ultimate solution to all instructional problems should review the research literature of the 1950s stating the same thing…about the overhead projector.

The only constant in the world of instructional technology is change. Anticipating change and technological direction is always challenging and marked by uncertainty. If an organization moves too fast without adequate long term planning, it may be locked into technological decisions that will quickly become obsolete. If it moves too slowly, its programmatic market share could slip before it catches up. Just as damaging, a program's failure to innovate will signal to the competition and potential markets that the program is no longer viable.

In a world of technological change, timing is everything. Those who learn to embrace technological innovation when the timing is right will be the big winners. The rest will be left to fight over the crumbs.

Lasting technological change is typically the result of evolution not revolution. Over the past thirty years, technological innovation has evolved in a fairly consistent manner. This process could be referred to as technological birth, death, and resurrection. In the “birth” stage, new technologies emerge, unrealistic expectations are set, and the potential impact of the new tool is hyped. In the “death” stage, the original outspoken advocates move on to the next innovation, and general enthusiasm fades as the realities of what the new technology can and can't do emerge. In the “resurrection” stage, thoughtful reflection occurs as the new technology is tested in various, often random, instructional settings. While the technological innovation is found inadequate in most applications, it proves beneficial in addressing a set of very specific needs.

Over time, the once-proclaimed technological cure-all takes its place among other teaching tools and fades from the forefront of technological innovation, into the hands of those who can put the benefits of the technology to best use.

The emphasis of distance education should be on the quality of the academic program, not on the use of technology. Selecting technology is easy compared to the focused attention and subtle insights needed to design, develop, and implement a truly effective academic program. Successful program administrators devote adequate resources to nurture creative and concerned faculty who are willing to take the leap of faith required to be successful in the distance education enterprise.

Instructional delivery experiences that rely almost solely on technology (e.g., first generation Web-based courses) without the day-to-day involvement of a thoughtful and skilled teacher may generate initial student interest; however, they will not be able to sustain interest in the overall instructional program without adequate course design, focused faculty attention, and student readiness.

There is no glory in managing instructional technology. Keeping up with technology is a never-ending battle filled with unmet expectations, the frustrations of limited resources, and the need to constantly plan ahead with the knowledge that the technology being implemented today is likely on the road to obsolescence.

The best that can be said about the management of technology is that someone has to do it and do it right. Without exceptional management skills and thick skins, technology implementers have an impossible task—one that gives those involved the illusion that they are in control when, in reality, they are at the mercy of technological innovations that don't exist today but will be demanded tomorrow.

Learning is enhanced when technology is used to directly link students to other students. The lack of effective and personalized student-student interaction and feedback is the potential “Achilles heel” of distance education. Conversely, the need for effective distant student-student interaction provides a great opportunity to use technology creatively. In fact, whether it is teacher-to-student or student-to-student interaction, learning is enhanced when technology is used to improve communication (see Flottemesch, 1999).

In my experience, effective instruction almost always requires that a fully engaged teacher establish the learning framework, even when the target audience consists of highly motivated adults. Also of critical importance is the learning that takes place among students without any teacher present. Given the inherent separation in most distance learning environments, it is difficult for many students to maintain any continuing connection to the instructional context, let alone to the content of a course. By creating learning spaces and technological linkages that bring distant students together, the gaps between what is being taught and what is being learned can often be bridged (see Wallace & Weiner, 1998).

Face-to-face instruction is still a valid delivery method in support of distance-delivered courses when possible. Many assume that there is no need for face-to-face instruction in distance-delivered courses and hope to avoid the “real time” constraints of face-to-face contact. Still, some of the best distance-delivered courses have well-integrated components in which teachers meet directly with students—individually, in small groups, or with the entire class. If personal interaction between the teacher and students is deemed an important course component, it is critical to meet as a group as early in the semester as possible. Experienced distance education faculty report that the student comfort level in using technology increases significantly if the students and instructor meet early in the course and develop a personal working relationship.

Depending on how the course is delivered, it may be physically impossible to bring the teacher and students together. Nevertheless, it is better to rule out personal contact as impractical or instructionally irrelevant than to fail to consider it in the first place. When the logistics can be successfully navigated, teachers and students alike are rewarded by well-planned and highly interactive face-to-face contact.

Many faculty are comfortable when distant students from other institutions take their classes, but don't like their students taking classes from faculty at other institutions. This is a major stumbling block to cooperative distance education ventures and has limited the success of strategic partnerships relying on the sharing of faculty expertise. The best partnerships are forged when specific academic needs are identified and on-campus expertise is absent. In these cases, competition is not a factor and both sending and receiving institutions benefit. Despite being a major institutional and political motivator for the initial start-up of distance education efforts, true academic alliances have proven elusive and are the exception, not the rule. Until the culture of course “ownership” wanes and the “not invented here” syndrome fades, wide-scale institutional cooperation will be more a goal than a reality.


At its core, distance education is a change process, not a delivery system, and higher education culture has historically proven resistant to change. Perhaps the greatest benefit of distance education is its potential role as a catalyst for modifying the way educational institutions do business. In a relatively short span of years, the proliferation of programs and services available at a distance have resulted in a heightened sense of competitiveness formerly unheard of in higher education. For institutions that are up to the challenge, the current interest and growth in distance learning presents a new opportunity.

Although the dangers of competing and failing in the new world of educational access may pose significant problems, the refusal to look ahead, take calculated risks, and move forward may be the greatest risk of all.


Flottemesch, K. (1999). Building effective interaction in distance education. Educational Technology Journal (In Press).

Grove, A. (1999, April 26). Charlie Rose interview, Program #2407, Bloomberg Television. New York City, NY.

Noble, D. L. (1997). Digital diploma mills, part 1: The automation of higher education. Retrieved 30 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Noble, D. L. (1998). Digital diploma mills, part 2: The coming battle over online instruction. Retrieved 30 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Oppenheimer, T. (1997). The computer delusion. The Atlantic Monthly 280 (1), 45-62. Retrieved 30 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Sherron, G. T., & Boettcher, J. V. (1997). Distance learning: The shift to interactivity. CAUSE Professional Paper Series, #17. Boulder, CO.

Wallace, D. R., & Wiener, S. T. (1998). How might classroom time be used given WWW-based lectures? Journal of Engineering Education 87 (3), 237-248.

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