How Institutionalized is Distance Learning?  A Study of Institutional Role, Locale and Academic Level
 


 

Anthony A. Piña, Ed.D.

Coordinator of Learning Technologies

Northeastern Illinois University

Chicago, Illinois

a-pina@neiu.edu
 

 

Abstract

 

The purpose of this study was to determine areas of strengths and weaknesses in the institutionalization of distance learning at colleges and universities.  To accomplish this goal, 30 factors found to influence the institutionalization of innovations were identified from the literature of several area.  These factors were rated by distance learning professionals on how successfully each of the individual factors was being implemented at their respective institutions.  Results were analyzed and compared according to institutional role (distance learning administrators or distance learning faculty), academic level of the institution (associate, masters or doctorate) and institutional locale (rural, suburban or urban).

 

Introduction

 

According to research conducted by the Sloan Consortium, distance learning appears to be a vibrant part of higher education, with 83% of higher education institutions offering some form of distance learning (Allen & Seaman, 2007).  But are distance learning programs at each of these colleges and universities equally healthy?  Do they all offer a full range of online degree programs with full organizational, infrastructure, design and technical support for distance learners and their instructors, or do many provide merely a few courses each semester with no discernable growth?

 

Researchers examining distance learning programs at higher education institutions report many cases of successful, well-developed and thriving programs (e.g. Moore, 2004) and others that stagnate, shrink or have been discontinued (e.g. Garrett, 2004; Schell, 2004).  For many of the latter institutions “decisions about distance education are made too often without adequately considering the broader institutional context” (Boyd-Barrett, 2000, p.1) and “some institutions that are struggling to keep up with the demand for Internet-based courses have made a conscious decision to serve students immediately and plan later” (Phipps & Merisotis, 2000, p.7).

 

One reason for the lack of success of many of these programs and similar innovations is that they have never been fully institutionalized within their organizations (Curry 1992; Oldford, 2002).  In other words, they have not become a “normal” and integral part of the institution, losing their “special project” status (Surrey & Ely, 2002).  Most models of organizational change (e.g. Rogers, 2003) tend to view adoption or implementation as the final step in the change process.  Surry and Brennan (1998) point out that the research based on these models tends to demonstrate “a deterministic bias—it assumes that once an innovation has been adopted, it will continue to be used” (p.2).  Ellsworth (2000) notes that “the successful transition from implementation to institutionalization is rarely mentioned in the literature” (p. 43).  

 

In this study, 30 factors found to influence the institutionalization of innovations are applied to distance learning programs at colleges and universities, to determine where the areas of greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses lie.  To gain a broad perspective, both distance learning administrators and distance learning faculty are surveyed.  In addition, other institutional variables, namely the academic level of the institution and the locale or setting of the institution are considered in the analysis.

 

Institutional Variables

 

Research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education and elsewhere, reveals that distance learning outcomes vary (often significantly) at different types of higher education institutions.  Among the variables that have been found to affect distance learning are institutional locale (i.e. rural versus suburban versus urban) and the academic level of the institution (i.e. undergraduate versus graduate) (NCES, 2003).  In addition, there is evidence to suggest that those with different roles within the institution (e.g. faculty and administrators) may have different perceptions of distance learning.  These findings can be used to generate hypotheses for the present study.

 

Institutional Role: Administrator and Faculty Perspectives

 

According to Keenan (2007), college and university faculty and administrators tend to have different perspectives and priorities with regard to their institution.  Some of the areas of the “faculty-administrator divide” include collegial versus managerial relationships, disciplinary or departmental versus managerial perspectives and micro versus macro views of the institution (Smart & Kuh, 1997).  Another source of this difference is that “administrators often have more influence over resource allocation than individual faculty” (McMillin, 2002, p. 3).  Administrator perceptions toward their institutions tend to be more favorable.  In their study of faculty and administrator’s view of distance learning, Selani & Harrington (2002) found that distance education places different expectations on faculty and administrators.  Faculty tended to be most concerned about quality issues of learning outcomes, faculty training and selection, academic misconduct, and teaching loads.  Faculty and administrator perspective differed with respect to learning outcomes, classroom management, faculty selection and training, compensation, teaching load, and program marketing.  Lee (2002) found that faculty and administrators perceptions were different with regards to instructional support for distance learning.  Keenan (2007) found that administrators and faculty disagreed on the implementation of class size limits and technical support for distance learning.  It is hypothesized that administrators would rate their institutions higher than would faculty when it comes to successfully institutionalizing distance learning.

 

Academic Level of Institution

 

Classification of higher education institutions by degree level is a method used both inside and outside academia.  An example of the former is the “Classification of Institutions of Higher Education” developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (McCormick, 2000).  An example of the latter is the annual ranking of colleges by U.S. News and World Report (Morse, Flanigan & Setoodeh, 2004).  The NCES (2003) study found that institutions with graduate degree programs offered distance learning courses at a slightly higher rate than institutions with only undergraduate programs (63% versus 57%).  Public and private 4-year institutions were more likely to offer entire degree programs via distance learning (48% and 33% respectively) than 2-year colleges (20%).   Universities tend to have access to greater resources and per-student funding than community colleges (Center for Community College Policy, 2000; Murphy, 2004).  It is hypothesized that distance learning at institutions that award graduate degrees will tend to be more successful at institutionalizing distance learning than those colleges that award solely 2-year undergraduate degrees.

 

Institution Locale

 

Distance learning has a long history in rural education, dating to the late 1800s, when the University of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania State University began extension and correspondence programs to provide agricultural education to rural families (Simonsen, Smaldino, Albright & Zvacek, 2006).  Service areas for rural colleges and universities tend to be much larger than those for those that serve urban or suburban areas.  Higher education institutions with large rural service areas, such as those in Wyoming, Virginia and Iowa were among the first to establish state-wide distance learning consortia and technology systems (Shoemaker, 1998; Sorensen, Maushak & Lozada, 1996).  It is hypothesized that rural colleges and universities will be more successful at institutionalizing distance learning than urban or suburban institutions.

 

Questions for Study

  1. Do distance learning faculty and administrators differ in how they rate their respective institutions’ success in implementing the institutionalization factors? 
  2. Which factors are most successfully implemented? 
  3. Which factors are the least successfully implemented?
  4. Does institutional academic level (undergraduate or graduate) influence the level of implementation of the institutionalization factors?
  5. Does institutional locale (rural, suburban or urban) influence the level of implementation of the institutionalization factors?

Method

 

Participants

 

The sample consisted of 170 respondents involved in distance learning at their institutions.  Respondents were classified according to their institutional role (distance learning administrator or distance learning faculty), the academic level of their institution (highest degree offered) and institutional locale (urban, suburban or rural).  Due to the low number of respondents from bachelor degree granting institutions, this category was excluded from the institutional academic level analysis.  Table 1 shows the breakdown of respondents by institutional classification.

 

Table 1:

Institutional Classification of Respondents (n=170)

 

Classification

Sub Groups

Respondents

Institutional Role

Distance Learning Faculty

Distance Learning Administrator

111

59

Institutional Academic Level

Associate Degree

Bachelor Degree

Master/Specialist Degree

Doctorate Degree

Unknown

50

3*

59

55

3*

Institutional Locale

Urban

Suburban

Rural

Unknown

60

52

55

3*

Note: * Excluded from the data analysis for this classification

 

 

Instrumentation

 

A literature review of factors necessary for the institutionalization of innovations was undertaken in the areas of service learning (Furco, 1999; Kramer, 2000), organizational behavior (Tolbert & Zucker, 1994), health care (Goodman & Steckler, 1989; Public Education Network, 2004), engineering (Colbeck, 2002), educational leadership (Aronsen & Horowitz, 2000), library science (Oldford, 2002), and distance learning (Levin, 2005; Phipps & Merisotis, 2000; Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, 2000).  After eliminating certain area-specific items and modifying the wording of others to be relevant to distance learning, a total of 30 factors were identified.  Following Furco (1999) and Kramer (2000), a survey instrument was created that included an application item for each factor.  The instrument also contained a section to identify respondents as distance learning administrators or faculty, report the highest degree offered by their institutions, and whether their institutions were located in an urban, suburban or rural setting.  Table 2 lists the 30 institutionalization factors and the application item for each factor.

 

Table 2:

Institutionalization Factors and Application Items

 

Factor

Item

 

Factor

Item

Institutional Mission

Distance learning is compatible with institution mission/vision statements

Master Plan

There is a specific master plan for distance learning

Policies and Procedures

Formal policies and procedures for distance learning have been adopted

Marketing

There is an aggressive marketing plan to promote distance learning

Needs Assessment

There is periodic assessment of faculty, student and institutional distance learning needs

Evaluation

There is a formal plan for ongoing evaluation of distance learning

Campus-Wide Function

Distance learning is a campus-wide function, not a dependent unit of a particular school, department or discipline

Centralized

Distance learning is coordinated by a single central entity, rather than run from many different departments.

Collaboration

Distance learning staff collaborates regularly with other entities on campus to insure broad base support. 

DL Leadership Authority

Distance learning director/coordinator has decision making authority

Visibility

Distance learning is visibly recognized on the institution’s web site, catalogue, bulletins or organizational chart

Communication

There is a formal mechanism for informing the campus community about distance learning activities

Instructional Design Support

Instructional design help to assist faculty to develop distance learning courses is available

Faculty Tech Support

The institution provides technical support for distance learning faculty

Staff Development

Comprehensive and on-going staff development in distance education is provided

Funding

The distance learning program and staff are permanent budget items funded by hard money

Infrastructure

The campus hardware and software infrastructure can support distance learning systems

Course Management System

Distance learning utilizes a course management system such as Blackboard

Distance Learning Director

There is a director/coordinator whose primary responsibility is distance learning

Permanent Staffing

Distance learning staff consists of permanent, rather than temporary, employees

Full-Time Staff

Distance learning staff are assigned full-time to distance learning

Faculty Participation

Faculty (especially faculty leaders) are actively recruited to teach distance learning courses

Professional Incentives

Professional incentives for teaching distance learning courses (e.g. positive evaluation for promotion/tenure) available

Financial Incentives

Financial incentives for teaching distance learning courses (e.g. course development fees, royalties) are available

Online Registration

Students can register for, add and drop courses on line

Online Library Resources

Students can access a full range of library/research services on line

Advising & Counseling

Students have access to counselors and advisors without having to come to campus

Student Tech Support

The institution provides technical support for distance learning students

Online Degree

Students can complete an entire degree program via distance learning

Multiple Disciplines

Distance learning courses are available in multiple disciplines

 

Instrument Distribution and Reliability

 

The instrument was constructed and distributed online using SurveyMonkey software (SurveyMonkey, 2004).  IP data was collected by SurveyMonkey to prevent duplicate completion of surveys; however data sent to the researcher was aggregated to maintain respondent confidentiality.  Solicitations to complete the survey were sent to the electronic mailing list (listserv) of regional and state-wide distance learning consortia and professional associations with a link to the survey’s website.  Reliability of the instrument was verified by using Cronbach’s Alpha, which yielded a coefficient of .93 across all thirty items.

 

Data Analysis

 

Respondents were asked to rate how successful their respective institutions were at implementing each of the 30 factors.  A five-point Likert-type scale with values of 1 (completely), 2 (mostly), 3 (a little), 4 (not at all) was utilized.  Respondents who did not know whether their institutions implemented specific factors were given the option of answering “I don’t know” to any of the items on the questionnaire.  These “I don’t know” answers were excluded from the final data analysis.  Responses were grouped and analyzed according to the respondents’ role (faculty versus administrators), academic level of their institutions (highest degree awarded), and locale of their institutions (urban, suburban or rural).  Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics (mean scores, standard deviations, rank ordering), and inferential statistics, (ANOVA, Scheffé’s post-hoc test for multiple comparisons).  Alpha level for significance was set at P < .05.  Originally, the study also included data by institutional affiliation (public or private) and size of student enrollment (less than 3,000, 3,000-10,000 or above 10,000).  However these last two classifications did not produce the same significant results as institutional role, level and locale, so they have been excluded from this report.

 

Results

 

Institutional Role (Administrators vs. Faculty)

 

Table 3, which reports mean scores, standard deviations and rank orders for distance learning faculty and administrators, demonstrates that both groups are in basic agreement as to which factors are most successfully implemented by their institutions.  Both agree that course management systems are the best implemented factor.  Institutions are also most successful in the implementation of online registration, online library resources, distance learning director, faculty technology support, visibility and permanent distance learning staff.  All of these were judged to be either “completely” or “mostly” implemented.  Faculty and administrators agreed that their institution’s weakest areas were in offering professional and financial incentives to faculty, recruiting participation by faculty and performing assessment of distance learning needs.

 

ANOVA, revealed significant differences between administrators and faculty for the factors of offering financial incentives, collaboration with other on-campus entities, providing fully online degrees, accessing advisement and counseling services, and offering professional incentives.  These are listed in Table 4.  In each of these cases, administrators rated their institutions as more successful in implementing the factors than did faculty.  The hypothesis that administrators would rate their institutions higher than faculty finds support in five (17%) of 30 factors.

 

Faculty were more likely than administrators to answer “I don’t know” when asked to rate how well their institutions implemented the institutionalization factors.  Of the 111 faculty surveyed, 50 (45%) answered “I don’t know” to at least one of the implementation items.  The item answered “I don’t know” most often by faculty (37) was whether distance learning was a permanent budget item funded by hard money.  Only 5 of 59 administrators (8%) gave an “I don’t know” answer on at least one of the items.  The item answered “I don’t know” most often by administrators (4) was whether there was a master plan for distance learning.

 

Table 3:

Mean Scores for Implementation for 30 Institutionalization Factors

 

Factor

Administrators

Faculty

Total

 

Mean

S.D.

Rank

Mean

S.D.

Rank

Mean

S.D.

Rank

Course management system

1.40

0.724

1

1.45

0.772

1

1.43

0.754

1

Online registration

1.69

0.876

4

1.47

0.854

2

1.55

0.865

2

Online library

1.60

0.674

2

1.53

0.701

3

1.56

0.691

3

Infrastructure

1.78

0.832

7

1.74

0.725

4

1.75

0.762

4

DL director

1.68

0.973

3

1.87

1.050

6

1.80

1.024

5

Faculty tech support

1.80

0.689

8

1.85

0.768

5

1.83

0.740

6

Visibility

1.73

0.848

5

1.92

0.848

8

1.85

0.850

7

Permanent staff

1.83

1.028

9

1.91

0.877

7

1.88

0.933

8

Campus-wide function

1.76

0.865

6

2.02

0.879

11

1.93

0.880

9

Budget

1.88

1.010

11

2.01

1.000

10

1.95

1.003

10

Multiple disciplines

1.92

0.816

12

2.00

0.828

9

1.97

0.822

11

Institutional mission

1.93

0.896

13

2.02

0.736

11

1.99

0.794

12

Centralized

1.83

0.985

9

2.11

1.110

13

2.01

1.073

13

Student tech support

2.03

0.909

14

2.16

0.865

15

2.11

0.880

14

Instructional design support

2.10

0.885

17

2.15

0.960

14

2.14

0.932

15

Policies & procedures

2.12

0.751

18

2.16

0.874

15

2.15

0.831

16

Staff development

2.21

0.853

20

2.23

0.905

17

2.22

0.885

17

Full time staff

2.16

1.182

19

2.33

1.115

19

2.26

1.140

18

Advisement & counseling

2.03

0.898

14

2.45

0.972

22

2.29

0.963

19

Communication

2.38

0.895

24

2.28

0.890

18

2.32

0.890

20

Collaboration

2.07

0.944

16

2.49

0.890

23

2.33

0.930

21

Master plan

2.35

0.865

23

2.35

0.869

20

2.35

0.865

22

DL leadership authority

2.33

0.925

22

2.42

0.971

21

2.39

0.951

23

Evaluation

2.43

0.901

26

2.49

0.927

23

2.47

0.915

24

Needs assessment

2.42

0.855

25

2.63

0.883

25

2.55

0.876

25

Online degree

2.25

1.040

21

2.73

1.059

28

2.56

1.074

26

Recruit faculty

2.46

1.006

27

2.63

0.870

25

2.56

0.924

26

Marketing

2.79

0.833

29

2.64

0.911

27

2.69

0.884

28

Finance incentives

2.74

1.061

28

3.27

0.892

30

3.08

0.987

29

Professional incentives

2.86

1.008

30

3.22

0.914

29

3.09

0.963

30

 

Table 4:

Significant Differences – Institutional Role

                                               

Factor

Value (p < .05 is significant)

Significance

Financial Incentive

F (1,158) = 11.576, p = .001

Administrators higher than faculty

Collaboration

F (1,159) = 7.827, p = .006

Administrators higher than faculty

Online Degree

F (1,159) = 7.716, p = .006

Administrators higher than faculty

Advisement & Counseling

F (1,153) = 6.924, p = .009

Administrators higher than faculty

Professional Incentive

F (1,154) = 5.321, p = .022

Administrators higher than faculty

 

Institutional Academic Level (Associate vs. Masters vs. Doctorate)

 

Although there was almost complete agreement between masters and doctoral institutions as to the ranking of the top five factors, there was less agreement with associate granting institutions.  However, all three groups included course management system, online registration, online library resources, infrastructure, distance learning director and faculty technology support among their top ten best implemented factors--albeit not in the same order.  All three groups were in agreement that professional incentives, financial incentives and marketing were the least successfully implemented factors at their respective institutions.

 

Results of ANOVA showed significant differences in the implementation of online degrees, visibility, advisement and counseling, student technology support, centralized function, and infrastructure, according to the academic level of the institution.  Since three difference groups were compared, Scheffé post-hoc test for multiple comparisons was run to determine where the significant difference actually occurred.  Table 5 reveals that doctoral granting institutions were ranked significantly higher than associate granting institutions in implementing fully online degrees and in providing advisement and counseling services.  Masters institutions were found to be significantly more successful than associate granting institutions in implementing student technology support, advisement and counseling, and online degrees, and significantly higher than doctoral universities in centralizing distance learning within the institution.  Associate granting colleges were ranked significantly higher than doctoral on centralizing distance learning and in promoting visibility for distance learning at their institutions.  ANOVA showed a significant effect for infrastructure; however, the Scheffé test revealed that closest effect--between masters and doctoral--was not significant (p = .053).  The hypothesis that distance learning at institutions that award graduate degrees will tend to be more successful at institutionalizing distance learning than those colleges that award solely associates or bachelors degrees was supported for five (17%) of 30 factors.

 

Table 5:

Significant Differences – Institutional Level

 

Factor

Value (p < .05 is significant)

Significance

Online Degree

F (2, 153) = 8.520, P < .001

Scheffé p = .001; p = .011 

Doctorate higher than Associate
Masters higher than Associate

Advisement & Counseling

F (2,148) = 6.940, p = .001

Scheffé p = .012; p = .003

Doctorate higher than Associate

Masters higher than Associate

Student Tech Support

F (2,154) = 6.266, p = .002

Scheffé p = .002

Masters higher than Associate

Centralized Function

F (2,159) = 5.892, p = .003

Scheffé p = .012; p = 014

Masters higher than Doctorate

Associate higher than Doctorate

Visibility

F (2,159) = 7.173, p = .001

Scheffé p = .001

Associate higher than Doctorate

 

Institution Locale (Urban vs. Suburban vs. Rural)

 

Professionals from urban, suburban and rural institutions were in agreement that course management system, online registration and online library services were the most successfully implemented factors at their institutions.  Infrastructure, distance learning director, faculty technology support, permanent distance learning staff and campus-wide function were in the top ten factors for all three groups.  All three groups were also in accord that professional incentives, financial incentives, marketing and recruiting faculty participation were the least successfully implemented factors at their colleges or universities.  Those at rural institutions gave the offering of professional incentives the lowest average score for implementation in the entire study.  

 

Table 6 shows results of significant differences by locale.  ANOVA, revealed significant differences for instructional design support, policies and procedures, campus-wide function, professional incentives, faculty technology support, staff development, and online registration.  Post-hoc testing using Scheffé revealed that urban colleges and universities were ranked significantly higher than rural on the factors of instructional design support, policies and procedures, campus-wide function, professional incentives, and faculty technology support.  Suburban colleges and universities ranked significantly higher than rural on the factors of faculty technology support and staff development.  Urban was found to have a slight significant effect over suburban on professional incentives.  Although online registration showed a slightly significant overall effect under ANOVA, the Scheffé test revealed that the effect for urban versus rural was just under significance (p = .051) and all other combinations were not significant.  The hypothesis that distance learning at rural institutions will tend to be more successful at institutionalizing distance learning than at suburban or urban institutions was not supported by any of the factors.

 

Table 6:

Significant Differences – Institutional Locale

 

Factor

Value (p < .05 is significant)

Significance

Instructional Design Support

F (2,165) = 7.187, p = .001

Scheffé p = .001

Urban higher than Rural

Policies and Procedures

F (2,160) = 3.515, p = .032
Scheffé p = .033

Urban higher than Rural

Campus-Wide Function

F (2,161) = 3.180, p = .044

Scheffé p = .047

Urban higher than Rural

Professional Incentives

F (2,151) = 4.616, p = .011

Scheffé p = .028; p = .046

Urban higher than Rural
Urban higher than Suburban

Faculty Tech Support

F (2,164) = 6.864, p = .001

Scheffé p = .002; p = .037

Urban higher than Rural
Suburban higher than Rural

Staff Development

F (2,164) = 4.066, p = .019

Scheffé p = .032

Suburban higher than Rural

 

Discussion

 

The utilization of a course management system (aka learning management system) to deliver distance learning was considered the most successfully implemented factor by all groups.  This corroborates recent literature  identifying systems such as Blackboard, Blackboard Vista (formerly WebCT), Desire2Learn, Angel, Sakai and Moodle as the most commonly available and utilized educational technology at colleges and universities (e.g. Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005; Piña, 2007).  Providing registration online and  access to library/research resources online was considered well-implemented at colleges and universities.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, the offering of professional incentives, such as credit toward promotion and tenure for faculty who engage in distance learning activities, received the lowest overall ratings for implementation of any of the 30 factors.  Although research indicates that faculty value professional incentives higher than they do financial incentives (Giannoni & Tesone, 2003; Parker 2003), it appears that colleges and universities have not found an effective way to provide professional recognition for faculty participating in distance learning.  This supports Schell’s research, which finds that faculty can be negatively influenced by developing distance learning that pulls them away from scholarly activities (Schell, 2004). It is a likely contributor to the low scores in the area of recruiting faculty participation in distance learning, which “usually does not help professors’ promotion and tenure goals” (Prestera and Moller, 2002, p. 8). Community college faculty, who tend not to be bound by the same “publish or perish” constraints of their university peers, actually gave this factor the lowest rating of the three groups.  This may be explained by the larger teaching load required of community college faculty and the increased time and effort required to develop online courses, which does not result in a professional benefit.  Faculty who teach online are not doing so because they are being rewarded professionally by their institutions.

 

Institutional Role

 

Overall, administrators tended to have a more optimistic view than faculty regarding how well their institutions implemented the 30 factors.  In all of the areas in which there was a significant difference (collaboration, online advisement, online degree, financial incentives and professional incentives), administrators rated their institutions as more successful in implementation than faculty.  It must be noted, however, that even administrators rated the implementation of the latter two as low.  Administrators were also more likely than faculty to have knowledge of whether or not the factors were being implemented at their institutions and gave far fewer “I don’t know” ratings than did faculty.  Given the fact that most of the institutionalization factors in this study are administrative in nature, it is to be expected that those with administrative responsibility would be more aware of them.

 

Academic Level

 

Institutions of higher education that award graduate degrees (masters, specialist or doctorate) tended to show more similarities than differences with each other and demonstrated a number of differences with those that grant the associate as the highest degree.  A look at the two areas for which associate level colleges scored higher for implementation may provide clues as to their scores for importance.  The successful implementation of visibility of distance learning at associate institutions may contribute to less emphasis on marketing.  The successful implementation of a centralized distance learning program (as opposed to doctoral institutions, which tend to be divided into schools, colleges and departments that provide their own independent services) may affect the perceived need for master planning at associate-level colleges.

 

The more successful implementation of distance learning degrees, student technology support and assessment via distance learning by graduate-level institutions reflects the trend that distance learning degrees and programs are generally developed first at the graduate level and later developed at the undergraduate level.  Currently, there are more graduate degrees available by distance learning than undergraduate degrees.  However, this situation may be changing soon, due to latest research findings showing that the largest rate of growth in distance learning programs is occurring currently at community colleges (Allen & Seaman, 2007).

 

Institutional Locale

 

Distance learning professionals at rural colleges and universities rated several of the factors differently than their peers at suburban and urban institutions.  Contrary to the expectations stated in the hypothesis, those at rural institutions rated 20% of the factors as significantly more poorly implemented—the largest quantity of differences of any group analyzed in this study.  This group also gave one of the factors, implementation of professional incentives, the lowest overall mean score (3.28) in the entire study.  Having distance learning function as a campus-wide function was identified as a weakness at rural colleges and universities and could be the reason why policies and procedures for distance learning are not well implemented at these institutions.  These weaknesses could also be catalysts for the condition that nearly every factor dealing with faculty support—instructional design support, faculty technical support, staff development and professional incentives, was rated as poorly implemented at rural colleges and universities.  Another reason may be that rural institutions have a harder time recruiting and keeping support personnel.  Given the rich history of distance learning in rural education and the critical role that it plays at many rural institutions, this finding is both surprising and disturbing.

 

Conclusion

 

The 30 institutionalization factors can be used by leaders who wish to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their distance learning programs and, with some slight modifications in verbiage, other campus programs and innovations.  It is clear that that the institutions of higher education represented in this study do some things well and need improvement in some areas.  Those involved in planning and administering distance learning programs would do well to consider those factors appearing at the bottom of the list.

 

Many of the faculty in this study suffered from a lack of knowledge of how their institutions’ distance learning programs functioned.  Creating a more effective system of communicating (one of the 30 institutionalization factors) would help to mitigate this problem.

 

Encouraging faculty participation via financial and (especially) professional incentives is the greatest and most consistent weakness identified in this study.  Given the large amount of time and effort required to develop a quality online course (Cavanaugh, 2005) and the pressures facing junior faculty who wish to be promoted and receive tenure or community college faculty with large teaching loads, leaders may consider some “out of the box” solutions for providing professional incentives to those faculty who would teach at a distance.  One method could be to utilize a system of peer review for online course development using a rubric such as Quality Matters (Shattuck, 2007).  Upon successful evaluation of a course by peer review, the candidate would be awarding credit for teaching or scholarship that would count positively toward review, promotion and tenure.  

 

Distance learning programs at associate degree granting institutions appear to have fundamental differences in priorities and in the way their distance learning programs are structured within their organizations, as compared to their graduate degree offering counterparts.  Given their recent growth, community colleges appear to be doing what works for them; however, administrators would do well to consider workload and release time when making assignments for online teaching.  Distance education professionals in rural institutions were found to experience numerous challenges compared to their urban and suburban peers in nearly every area related to faculty support.  Since distance education may be the key to survival of many of these institutions (Oakley, 2004) leaders at rural institutions would do well to evaluate their support of faculty teaching at a distance.

 

References

 

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2007).  Online nation: Five years of growth in online learning.  Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

 

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Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume X1, Number I, Spring 2008
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
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