January 1999 // Commentary
Learner Success in Distance Education Environments:
A Shared Responsibility
by Howard Major and Nancy Levenburg
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Howard Major and Nancy Levenburg "Learner Success in Distance Education Environments:
A Shared Responsibility" The Technology Source, January 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Student success has become a primary focus of today’s educational institutions and is an area of national concern. The successful mastery of academic content, once viewed entirely as the learners' responsibility, is now considered a shared responsibility between three major players: the student, the instructor, and the educational institution.

Literary tracts on successful strategies for traditional classroom environments are legion. Less understood and written about are strategies for effective learning in distance education environments. Learning in distance education environments requires unique strategies that may be initiated by the instructor, the institution, and/or the learners themselves. The purpose of this article is to describe these strategies. First, though, we need to consider the characteristics of distance education.

What is Distance Education?

Distance education occurs whenever the instructor and the learners are not in the same location at the same time. Figure 1 illustrates that the instructor and learners may vary with regard to their spatial and temporal locations. If they are in the same place at the same time (upper left quadrant), then this is not a form of distance learning. The other three quadrants depict situations in which the instructor and the learners are either in different locations (lower left quadrant), or operating in a different timeframe (upper right quadrant), or both (lower right quadrant). While the term "distance education" implies that the location-shifting capability is of paramount importance, many times learners are more interested in the time-shifting capabilities provided by technology-based distance education systems than they are in the location-shifting capabilities of the systems. For this reason, some educators use the term "virtual education" rather than "distance education" to describe these systems.

The Role of Educational Technologies in Distance Education

Distance education systems must deploy educational technologies capable of surmounting the barriers of time and location. Formerly, print-based correspondence courses led the way. Today, distance education is moving toward a "blended" technology approach deploying multiple technologies (Major and Levenburg, 1997).

Figure 2 depicts graphically that learning outcomes (goals and objectives) should be at the center of the decision-making process, and that communication technologies should be selected based on their ability to facilitate established desired outcomes.

Using the metaphor of a "toolkit," educators select and apply the appropriate distance education "tool" to facilitate students’ engagement in optimally appropriate learning activities for the outcome being addressed. In the Major-Levenburg Distance Learning Curriculum Matrix (Figure 3), the instructor begins at the top center with the pre-instructional analysis and then proceeds clockwise to make the critical distance education instructional design decisions. The pre-instructional analysis provides baseline information about the learners and their entry level skills and aptitudes as well as information about available toolkit resources. The next steps are: (a) the establishment of appropriate learning outcomes for those learners in that learning environment; (b) the development of assessment strategies to assure that, after the measurement of learning outcomes, there will be measured, suitable modifications to facilitate the learners’ achievement; (c) the selection of the most appropriate learning activities; and (d) the selection and deployment of the best technological tool(s) for supporting those learning activities. These steps ensure precise reasons for the selection of particular technologies in each instructional instance. The learning environment may call for the use of several instructional technologies, just as a home-repair situation may require the carpenter to use a variety of tools from her/his carpentry "toolkit." But for too long, the application of educational technologies has been described best by the adage, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

In emerging distance education systems, the entire educational technology toolkit is available to instructors and to learners; this implies an obligation for the institution to provide access to the entire range of educational technologies and for instructors to learn how to use them effectively.

Distance Learning Success Strategies Initiated by the Instructor

As the instructional leader, the instructor typically plans the instructional outcomes, selects much of the content of the instruction, and ascertains how successful learning will be achieved, measured, and assessed. The instructor sets norms for interaction and controls the pacing and communication patterns of the learning environment.

In a traditional classroom teaching and learning situation, much of this occurs at the unspoken, almost subconscious level. However, in distance education environments, roles are less defined; the instructor must articulate them. Distance education instructors must provide many structures for themselves and their learners so that everyone will have a clear understanding of the expected behavior and communication patterns:

  • Pre-instructional analysis. Conduct a pre-instructional analysis for information about the learners, available resources, and technology tools, and the barriers and constraints to overcome or circumvent.
  • Learner orientation. Provide learners with a thorough orientation to reduce uncertainties, provide clear guidelines for success, clarify expected performance and behavior patterns, and establish the direction of the learning experience. Depending on the communication tools available to the instructor, this orientation can take the form of a live session held in an interactive television environment, a videocassette prepared by the instructor and mailed to learners, or an introductory online session. Students who have completed the orientation should understand what is expected of a successful learner in the instructional environment; they should also know how to access specific technological tools and feel comfortable using them.
  • Course outcomes. Clarify expected course outcomes, which should specifically identify the behaviors the successful learner will be able to perform upon completion of the learning experience. These outcomes are often listed as course goals and objectives.
  • Instructional design. Apply established principles of instructional design, including: (a) conducting a pre-instructional analysis of the learners' characteristics and goals and the resources and barriers in the learning environment; (b) identifying desired learning outcomes; (c) selecting and deploying learning activities and technologies that best lend themselves to learner achievement of course outcomes; and (d) determining methods of authentic learner assessment in achieving specified course outcomes.
  • Practice and feedback. Provide learners with opportunities to practice learned behaviors and receive corrective feedback with regard to their performances.
  • Authentic assessment. Apply principles of authentic assessment in diagnostic, formative, and summative contexts. In other words, measure learners' entry levels as they relate to course objectives, check for progress along the way, and measure their achievement of the objectives with criterion-referenced measurement instruments at the end of the instructional process.
  • Communication protocol. Establish appropriate communication patterns and guidelines, model desired communication patterns, demonstrate use of distance education technologies for communication and interaction, and reward assertive and constructive learner communications.
  • Constructivist learning. Model learning processes that are effective in distance learning environments; be one learner in a community of learners; move from the mental model of "teacher as a dispenser of learning" to one wherein the instructor is a facilitator of a shared constructivist learning process.
  • Technology selection and deployment. Apply the appropriate instructional tool(s) to the instructional process to optimize learning.
  • Print materials and graphics. Distribute printed materials in advance and convert graphics and other display materials to appropriate formats for the distance learning technologies being employed. Graphics and other materials that cannot be clearly seen will kill an otherwise effective instructional process.

Distance Learning Strategies Employed by the Institution

The institution that accepts the responsibility of delivering education at a distance must also make certain structural and systemic changes to support the emerging learning environments. For example, technical assistance must be available at all times. This probably means assigning technicians to the second and third shifts, so that someone is available around the clock. Other learner and instructor support strategies include:

  • Extending library services to students at "remote" locations. Some institutions have established an "outreach librarian" position to support off-campus learners and instructors.
  • Making counseling and other student services personnel available to learners in remote locations and those who participate in learning at unconventional times.
  • Making academic advising available to distant and/or time-shifted learners.
  • Committing the institution to establishing a total technology toolkit so that instructors are able to select appropriate technological tools for helping learners achieve a specific outcome.
  • Investing in substantial professional development for instructional personnel. Instructors, counselors, administrators, librarians, and other educators must have access to professional development opportunities in order to apply the technology toolkit effectively (Major and Levenburg, 1997). To address a poor track record in this regard, Richard Varne (1996) advocates that 25 percent of distance education budgets be set aside for professional development. In reality, closer to three percent is allocated nationally, which often results in instructors being unable to use available technology.
  • In rewarding the use of emerging technologies, institutions must implement compensation systems, using either release time or financial compensation. Planning distance education delivery is a time-consuming process. Some institutions award this with compensation during the time period when the planning takes place (the semester before delivery of the course or training activity), rather than waiting until the instruction is actually delivered. Intangible rewards and recognition systems may also encourage distance education planning and delivery. In addition, institutions should make a point of employing instructors who are themselves the products of distance education delivery, educators who will have a visceral understanding of the process. This will model an appropriate regard for the effectiveness of distance learning per se; it will also eliminate the current ethical dilemma that exists when institutions offer distance education programs but discriminate, in their employment practices, against the products of distance education programs.
  • To provide optimal flexibility in packaging and access, distance learning delivery should design combination modules of courses and/or entire degree or certificate programs. In other instances, learners may desire single modules applicable to their performance at their place of employment. Modularization is a step toward the "just-in-time performance enhancement" systems predicted by Perelman (1992).
  • Institutions should encourage a distance education delivery "team-planning" approach, consisting of an instructional designer, a librarian, a continuing education representative, technicians from appropriate technical areas, and, of course, the instructor. This planning team will help secure needed resources; it will also assure that the various components work cooperatively. Some institutions are experimenting with a new team-teaching approach: two or more instructors play different "roles" in the course delivery. For example, instructors with excellent lecture styles may videotape their lectures. Others that excel in analyzing learner writing and providing insightful feedback may monitor online class discussions. This role differentiation allows instructors to operate more effectively.

Distance Learning Strategies Employed by the Learner

It is the learner's responsibility to be an active learner; passivity is typically not rewarded in distance learning environments. Learners can contribute to their own learning success by:

  • Self-directed learning. Two behaviors that characterize the self-directed learner in distance learning environments are self-discipline and meta-cognitive processes. Since learners may choose when they will actively engage in the learning process (time-shifted learning), they must have the self-discipline and time-management skills to "keep up" with the expected learning schedule and pace. Learners must accept the importance of this demand, or opt out of the distance education environment. Since employers expect similar skills, distance education should tout this expectation as an advantage, rather than apologizing for it. The second required behavior, the meta-cognitive process, entails the learners asking themselves if learning has taken place. If the answer is "no," the learners must either repeat the previously engaged-in learning activities or ask for help. This process differs from many traditional learning systems in that in some distance learning environments, instructors cannot read non-verbal cues to detect learners in trouble. Again, as meta-cognition is a valuable lifelong skill, educators should not apologize for requiring it.
  • Using technology. Distance learners must learn to use specified communication technologies. This involves problem-solving and pro-active approaches to acquiring instructors' help.
  • Working together. Distance learners should help other learners and work together, and thus become less dependent on the instructor. Students often find that the learning they create communally is far richer than that gained from a single presenter. The instructor becomes a community member and functions with his students to create the learning rather than simply dispensing it. Dialogues then occur among learners and between learners, and the instructor no longer adheres to a traditional top-down academic hierarchy in which the knowledge flows one way from the instructor to the learners (Jonassen, 1995).


Several groups must share responsibility for successful learning. While this is true in all learning situations, it is particularly important in distance learning environments. Without shared responsibility among instructors, institutions, and learners, distance learning systems will function poorly and break down. Distance education environments require the articulation of the mental model presented here so that administrators, instructors, and learners understand and can fulfill their roles.


Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., and Haag, B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education. (9), 17-23.

Major, H. T., and Levenburg, N. M. (1997). Critical issues in interactive television delivery: Instructional quality, faculty development and faculty compensation. ED 413 867 (ERIC Document). 14p.

Major, H. T., and Levenburg, N. M. (1997, Summer). Designing multiple-technology marketing courses. Marketing Educator, 8.

Perelman, L. J. (1992). School’s Out. New York: Avon Books.

Varne, Richard. (1996). Keynote address, National Telelearning Conference, Chicago, IL. The Telecourse People and The Instructional Telecommunications Council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

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