July/August 1999 // Case Studies
Distance Learning in East Carolina University's Educational Leadership Program
by Lynn Bradshaw and Laurie Weston
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Lynn Bradshaw and Laurie Weston "Distance Learning in East Carolina University's Educational Leadership Program" The Technology Source, July/August 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Technology has a strong and growing presence in the changing environment in which school leaders function. In order to ensure that school leaders will be effective in tomorrow’s world, education programs must help these leaders develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable them to: (1) adapt to changes in the field of technology, and (2) recognize when and how technology can be used to support the mission and goals of their schools. Distance learning can serve both ends. Distance education requires students to develop and use a variety of technical skills, and it has the potential to respond to individual needs and learning styles with quality course materials, improved access to resources, and new and better interaction with instructors and fellow students (Ng & Marriott, 1995; Threlkeld & Brzoska, 1994).

Interest in Distance Delivery at ECU

East Carolina University (ECU) serves the large geographic area of northeastern North Carolina; it also collaboratively delivers, with other universities and agencies, programs in central and southeastern North Carolina. ECU built its Masters of School Administration (MSA) program, which was implemented in 1995, around the national standards for educational leaders (National Policy Board for Educational Administration, 1995; Van Meter & Murphy, 1997) and the technology standards for educators in North Carolina (NC School Technology Users Task Force, 1995). Except for cohorts of about 15 students whose full-time study is supported by the NC Principal Fellows Program, MSA students tend to be experienced teachers who are employed in a full-time position while they complete the program.

The faculty of the Department of Educational Leadership (LEED) advocated that the MSA program be available via distance delivery for the following reasons:

  • to increase student access to the program and reduce student travel time
  • to increase flexibility to meet individual student needs
  • to improve the technical skills of students and faculty
  • to provide experience with distance learning technologies for students and faculty
  • to stretch limited faculty resources.

In the spring of 1997, the School of Education received a grant from University of North Carolina General Administrationto expand the distance learning efforts of the Department of Business, Vocational, and Technical Education (BVTE) and to bolster that department's efforts to help other School of Education faculty prepare courses for distance delivery. The grant supported training for LEED faculty and the distance delivery of two LEED courses in the fall of 1997.

BVTE faculty members developed a five-day workshop to introduce their LEED colleagues to the basic operations of distance education. The content included instructional design, copyright issues, electronic presentation strategies, Internet technologies, Web page design, and the North Carolina Information Highway. In addition, BVTE faculty were available to resolve problems and provide support as teams of LEED professors designed and implemented courses for distance delivery.

The Pilot Effort

The first two courses offered through distance delivery were (1) Strategic Problem Solving, and (2) Ethical and Societal Aspects of Educational Leadership. The faculty chose to employ varied strategies for the delivery of instruction; they sent e-mail with attached documents, used Internet resources, held electronic conferences, and linked (with two-way television) the ECU campus with three sites on the North Carolina Information Highway. In addition, the instructors scheduled three on-campus, face-to-face sessions with their students.

In both courses, rich interaction among students—an important feature of the classroom setting—was difficult to attain through distance learning technologies. The instructors attempted, however, to use various technologies to promote active learning. In Strategic Problem Solving, students applied their learning to problem cases and scenarios. They discussed cases during class sessions on the Information Highway, and they shared their responses with classmates and the instructor through e-mail. The instructor used e-mail and listserves to raise questions about the cases and to share interesting responses from individual students with the rest of class. In the Ethics course, online interaction between the students and the instructor likewise was important, but the instructor was able to achieve the level of dialogue and debate that he desired only during face-to-face sessions.


The initial student response to the distance learning offerings was almost overwhelming. Far more students than expected enrolled through the Office of Continuing Education as nondegree students. University policy allows students to take up to nine semester hours of coursework without being formally admitted to a graduate program.

Student feedback was more positive than negative. Although some missed regular face-to-face contact with the professor and other students, many appreciated the more individualized approach, the flexibility of meeting course requirements, and the reduced travel time that distance learning afforded them. More than half felt that they had sufficient technical skills to participate in the courses. While some students said that they still prefer traditional course delivery, more than three-fourths said that they would take another distance learning course.

The instructors believe that the three face-to-face sessions, held on campus on Saturdays, were essential to meeting the goals of the courses. During those sessions, they were able to clarify requirements for the courses, work with students in the lab to resolve technical problems, promote interaction among students, and engage students in significant activities to reinforce important objectives of the course. The instructors differ in their feelings about continuing distance learning efforts: the instructor for Strategic Problem Solving is willing to use distance learning again and to design other distance learning courses; the Ethics instructor has decided that the course is not suitable for a distance learning format.


Student enrollment and the availability of faculty have remained issues since the pilot effort. Initially, distance learning was seen as a strategy to "stretch" limited faculty resources. Ironically, the pilot effort was so successful that it magnified the problem. The first two courses reached cohorts of students at four sites. Interest in the program swelled, and large class sizes became almost unmanageable. Instructors found themselves working with more students than usual, and they reported that maintaining electronic communication with individual students was more time-consuming than the traditional approach. Their communication efforts were complicated by a large number of e-mail messages, particularly early in the semester, that did not relate to the content of the courses but instead requested technical help.

Since the fall of 1997, class sizes have remained high, with enrollment in mixed delivery classes sometimes reaching 50 or more (compared to an enrollment of 10 to 20 in on-campus graduate courses). Although the distance learning opportunities immediately increased interest and enrollment in the MSA program, it took almost one year for the increased enrollment to generate additional faculty positions. Some faculty members with training and experience in distance learning have moved to other universities; thus, there is a growing need to orient and train new faculty.

Technology was an issue throughout the pilot effort. Some students used PCs; others operated on Macintosh computers. Many had never used e-mail and needed help with the basics of electronic communication. The variety of e-mail programs that students used made exchanging attachments difficult. Moreover, a substantial number of students were not familiar with electronic searches. Much of the early interaction between instructors and students centered on student problems with technology, and these issues resurfaced throughout the course. ECU used the North Carolina Information Highway to connect the ECU campus with remote sites, but funds and personnel for technical support were not available at every site. Consequently, it was difficult to ensure that students at each site would be able to hear and be heard during the interactive sessions.

Faculty members were forced to learn new technologies, and they found it difficult to add and modify online teaching materials. University policy requires that departmental Web pages be consistent and that they be maintained by a designated individual. It is unclear at what point course Web pages belong to the instructor or to the department. Because instructional materials for the pilot courses could be modified only by the site administrator, a delay in the delivery of instruction (which would not have occurred in the traditional classroom setting) sometimes resulted.

Next Steps

Since the pilot effort, distance learning has been used primarily to serve a cohort of students on another university campus; these students take courses that are collaboratively offered by their institution and ECU. Many ECU faculty, however, have increased their use of technology and online resources to support traditional on-campus courses.

As a result of the pilot program, LEED faculty members have identified four challenges that they must address before making decisions about the future of distance learning in their program. The LEED department will have to:

  1. Clarify the long-term vision for distance learning in the MSA program so that all entering students will know from the outset: (a) what courses will be available through distance delivery, and (b) when and how the courses will be offered. Because it is receiving increasing numbers of national and international inquiries about distance delivery options, the LEED department also will have to define its target audience. Will students in the ECU MSA program be required to reside in North Carolina or even in a specific area of the state?
  2. Determine which courses are best suited to distance delivery, then design them to promote active student learning and to take advantage of the most appropriate available technologies. In the pilot, the Ethics instructor decided that the goals of that particular course could not be achieved in an online teaching environment. Concerns and implications will vary for specific courses and individual instructors.
  3. Develop strategies (including holding face-to-face sessions) for promoting interaction among distance learning students. Personal contact and relationship building are important components of most effective distance education programs (Willis, 1994). Selected sessions could be held on the ECU campus or in the field, and they could be combined with opportunities for students to use the university library, share print materials, get help with electronic searches, or engage in field exercises.
  4. Provide prerequisite instruction in technology and technical support throughout the course. Help lines staffed by graduate students could resolve technical problems quickly and free the instructors to concentrate on the content of the courses. In addition, procedures for revising online course materials must ensure that students and instructors receive timely responses to their requests.

In ECU's pilot effort, distance delivery forced instructors and students to integrate technology into the course content. For many of the future school leaders enrolled in the pilot program, this was a challenging task. Their experiences likely will influence their attitudes toward distance learning in K-12 settings and increase their awareness of the issues they should consider when deciding how to use technology in the schools of the future. As students of educational leadership gain opportunities to participate in distance learning through various delivery formats, it will be important for the content of each course to include experiences that will help them use and evaluate technology in their professional settings.


National Policy Board for Educational Administration. (1995). NCATE guidelines: Curriculum guidelines for advanced programs in educational leadership for principals, superintendents, curriculum directors, and supervisors. Alexandria, VA: Educational Leadership Constituent Council.

Ng, J., & Marriott, A. (1997). A survey of users of a web-based computer graphics course [On-line]. Retrieved 30 September 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.computer.org/pubs/cg&a/cged/ng/g3w03.html.

North Carolina Technology Users Task Force. (1995). North Carolina technology competencies for educators. Raleigh: NC Department of Public Instruction.

Threlkeld, R., & Brzoska, K. (1994). Research in distance education. In B. Willis (Ed.), Distance education: Strategies and tools (pp. 41-66). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Van Meter, E., & Murphy, J. (1997). Using ISLLC standards to strengthen preparation programs in school administration. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Willis, B. (Ed.). (1994). Distance education: Strategies and tools. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

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