November 1998 // Commentary
Distance Learning:
Implications for Higher Education in the 21st Century
by Nancy Levenburg and Howard Major
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Nancy Levenburg and Howard Major "Distance Learning:
Implications for Higher Education in the 21st Century" The Technology Source, November 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Recently, there has been explosive growth in the array of distance learning delivery modes and information technologies. Interactive television, video and audio conferencing, and Web technology, in addition to multimedia simulations, optical storage technology (CD-ROM and CDI), and video-based telecourses, have added a dazzling array of options for program and course delivery. Given this prolific and ever-expanding variety of instructional alternatives, what implications arise for teaching in colleges and universities in the 21st century?

In his classic text Scholarship Reconsidered (1993), Ernest Boyer defines the scholarship of teaching as "not only transmitting knowledge, but transforming and extending it as well" (pg. 24). Good teaching begins with the teacher’s knowledge base, but includes all the pedagogical procedures that facilitate student learning in class and into the future (lifelong learning). This suggests that the scholarship of teaching finds expression in nontraditional ways. Boyer writes that "preparing quality computer software, for example, is increasingly a function of serious scholars, and even videocassette and television offer opportunity for communicating ideas to non-specialists in creative new ways" (pg. 36). In a similar vein, developing and adapting courses and programs for delivery via distance learning should be considered a form of serious scholarship—especially by those within academia.

According to the literature as reported in 248 research reports, summaries, and papers (Russell, 1997), usage of technology in the classroom remains a neutral factor in terms of academic achievement. The frequently-cited report, dubbed "The 'No Significant Difference' Phenomenon" maintains that distance education programs are as good as their traditional on-site equivalents. As a result, it should come as no surprise that Colorado State University's AACSB-accredited MBA program is considered among the top 25% in the country, regardless of whether students are attending the classes delivered in a traditional on-campus classroom, or those offered via interactive Web technology and video-conferencing.

Based on the premise that the pedagogical procedures incorporated into distance learning programs offer serious scholarship opportunities, what are the implications for institutions that tout teaching as being equally important as research? Three specific issues seem to be critical here:

  1. What are the differences between traditional on-campus and nontraditional distance learning classrooms?
  2. What are the implications of these differences for curriculum and instructional design?
  3. What are the implications of these differences for decision-making with regard to faculty hiring, training, and tenure?

Traditional In-Person Versus Nontraditional Distance Learning Classrooms

Some professional educators feel that the on-campus strength of their institution is the only prerequisite necessary to achieve the same performance in the distance learning environment. While an institution's current expertise and experience base with traditionally-delivered courses and programs certainly provides a strong foundation, faculty need to possess or acquire additional skill sets in order to achieve the same degree of success in distance learning environments. Faculty must still be content-experts, but they must, in addition, be skilled in learning facilitation techniques, agile in their ability to manage distance learning tools and technology, and quick and practiced problem-solvers.

In order to achieve success with distance learning programs, therefore, an institution needs to consider how it will acquire faculty who possess these skills, and how current faculty members' skill sets can be expanded to include those necessary for successful delivery of distance courses.

With online courses, for example, instructors' competency to successfully convert traditional classes to online form is directly related to their experience in applying computer applications to teaching and learning. Acquiring faculty who already possess these skills may well entail altering definitions of hiring criteria for faculty. Those faculty who are products of traditional, on-ground institutions only rarely come with knowledge of or experience in teaching via distance learning technologies. They, and their degrees, are traditional in title, content, and course process/delivery format. These instructors may lack the skills to adequately engage in distance education, and will require instruction or extensive guidance.

On the other hand, graduates of non-traditional programs that include a distance learning delivery component already possess critical distance learning skills. These graduates may have unusual degrees or even certificates (e.g., UCLA’s Internet-delivered professional Certificate in Online Teaching), which may might require a change regarding the range of "acceptable" degree titles for prospective faculty. In other programs, the delivery system may not be apparent (for example, video-based telecourses are typically integrated into student transcripts without special designation). The fact remains that faculty members who participated in distance education programs themselves are more likely to be open to and experienced in using distance technologies in teaching their own courses. Rather than viewing individuals with non-traditional educational backgrounds as wearing a scarlet letter "V" (for "virtual"), their skills should be viewed as a potential asset to teaching institutions—especially those that are preparing to enter distance learning environments. Institutions committed to developing and marketing distance learning courses to students should employ faculty with distance learning credentials. At the very least, these institutions should be just as accepting of new faculty who are the products of distance learning systems as they are of the students who are studying within these systems. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case; most traditional colleges and universities still have a long way to go in regarding their distance learning programs, faculty, and students with the same respect they hold for their on-campus counterparts.

Curriculum and Instructional Design

Broadly defined, distance learning offers a delivery mode in which the physical classroom, the instructor, and the students are not all present in the same time and location (Figure 1). Distance learning delivery systems can be categorized as those that help eliminate barriers posed by location (lower left quadrant), those that help eliminate barriers of timing (upper right quadrant) and those that help eliminate both spatial and temporal barriers simultaneously (lower right quadrant). In most cases, the shift to distance learning involves a movement to a more facilitative model of teaching that more closely approaches the Socratic method, as opposed to more traditional lecture-based models.

Figure 1. Overcoming Barriers of Location and Time via Deployment of Distance Learning Systems

Same Time

Different Time

Same Space


  • Face-to-Face Meetings
  • Classes


  • VCR
  • Computer
  • Interactive Video Disk

Different Space


  • Audio Conferencing
  • Interactive Television (Two-way video and two-way audio)
  • Satellite Courses (One-way video and two-way audio)
  • Synchronous Computer Communications


  • Correspondence Courses
  • Video-based Telecourses
  • Online Computer Courses (computers and modems)
  • Multimedia on Demand (Just-in-time)

There may, in addition, be some learning outcomes that are more readily achieved in a distance learning environment than in a traditional classroom. Distance learning courses may inherently better support students' ability to develop and hone certain abilities, such as self-directed learning, communication, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. In any case, instructional strategies developed in order to take advantage of the attributes of a distance learning system create potentially powerful environments for facilitating students' acquisition of these skills.

While the existing curriculum and instructional design can serve as a foundation, this curriculum will probably require modification to fit distance learning formats. It will require rethinking the desired academic outcomes and course objectives, the range of learning activities that are best able to facilitate their accomplishment, and the appropriateness of distance learning technology, in order to take optimal advantage of the strengths and attributes of each particular learning technology in facilitating learner attainment of course outcomes.

Faculty hiring, training, and tenure decisions

Faculty play a critical role in the successful delivery of distance learning programs, and it is of paramount importance that faculty are well-trained and have experience in using distance learning delivery technologies well before the students show up for class. The ability to manage curriculum—balancing desired learning outcomes, learning activities, and available technologies—requires training and practice. This also suggests that while instructors may be successful in a typical face-to-face classroom setting, they may not necessarily be well-prepared to teach in a distance learning environment without acquiring or honing additional skills.

According to Richard Varn, keynote speaker at the 1996 Telelearning Conference (Oct. 3), institutions should devote no more than 50% of resources (financial, time, and otherwise) to hardware, no more than 25% to software, and no less than 25% to faculty training. All too often, however, expenditures for faculty training are shorted in order to eke out additional dollars to pour into the other areas. This a disservice not only to faculty, but ultimately to students, in that faculty preparedness is of utmost importance in successfully transmitting, transforming, and extending knowledge to students.

Training workshops for faculty must not only acquaint them with selected distance learning technologies, but should also provide mentorship opportunities. Promotion and tenure decisions should also reflect Boyer's definition of scholarship across its many dimensions—discovery, integration, application, and teaching—taking into account the numerous ways in which scholarship can be expressed by incorporating technology.


Distance learning modes and technologies have the potential to drastically change the teaching and learning paradigm. New and exciting opportunities abound that extend students' access to programs and courses. They also enable colleges and universities to tap new markets, in many cases without heavy investment into bricks and mortar. Distance learning courses expand student access to higher education by helping overcome barriers of time and location, and may be better than traditional teaching and learning paradigms at helping learners develop certain kinds of skills. In order for teaching institutions to be successful, however, it is important that administrators and faculty alike recognize the skills and mindset needed to engage in distance learning programs.

It is vital that senior administrators thoroughly and thoughtfully address the critical role played by faculty members (current and future), since their performance relates directly to their distance learning system's performance. They need to:

  1. Include technological literacy in a faculty member's position description, and ensure that selection committees understand its importance.
  2. Develop and implement accessible technology-related faculty development and training opportunities, along with appropriate incentives.
  3. Consider candidates who have received all or a portion of their education in distance learning environments and who therefore have an experiential base that is of value to the academy, rather than as indicative of a deficiency.

As in all else, students and faculty alike will be most satisfied when technologies are deployed, not as an ends in themselves, but as the means to facilitate and support learning and instructional goals—the mission of the teaching institution.

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