Incentives and Obstacles Influencing Higher Education Faculty and Administrators to Teach Via Distance

S. Kay Rockwell
Professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communication
300 Ag Hall
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE 68583-0709

Jolene Schauer
Graduate Assistant, Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communication

Susan M. Fritz
Associate Professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communication

David B. Marx
Professor, Biometry

This manuscript has been assigned Journal Series No. 12589, Agricultural Research Division, University of Nebraska.


This study examined incentives that encourage faculty to develop educational opportunities via distance and obstacles that discourage them from doing so. The primary incentives centered on intrinsic or personal rewards. These rewards included opportunities to provide innovative instruction and apply new teaching techniques as well as self-gratification, fulfilling a personal desire to teach, recognition of their work, and peer recognition. Other incentives included extending educational opportunities beyond the traditional institutional walls so place-bound students have access and release time for faculty preparation. The major perceived obstacles related to time requirements, developing effective technology skills, and assistance and support needs. Monetary awards for faculty and the cost to the student were seen as neither incentives nor obstacles. Faculty were divided on how they saw distance teaching affecting their yearly evaluation process and their promotion/tenure needs; about 40% saw it as an incentive, while about 30% saw it as an obstacle.


Advancements in telecommunications technologies have created opportunities whereby educators in higher education institutions can expand the educational process beyond the traditional classroom and deliver instruction and training to geographically diverse audiences locally, nationally, and even internationally. Consequently, distance education programs have rapidly expanded. These advancements in telecommunications and rapid growth in distance education programs have led to a formal definition of distance education as being "the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance" (United States Distance Learning Association 1998). This integration of telecommunications technologies into a distance teaching and learning process reflects a shift in the classroom-based paradigm that educators have used for many years.

While the educational model for delivering instruction broadens, technologies continue to advance, educational delivery methods continue to expand and audiences become more diversified. In this changing environment, faculty remain a key element in the teaching and learning process. Olcott and Wright (1995) indicate that the responsibility for instructional quality and control, the improvement of learning and the aggregate effectiveness of distance education still rests with the faculty. Ultimately, it is the faculty who need to be aware of diverse technologies and delivery methods available for distance education so they can incorporate them into their teaching and learning strategies. To use distance learning strategies, faculty may need to alter teaching styles used within the "traditional classroom," and develop new skills to effectively reach the distant learner. Dillon and Walsh (1992) and Clark (1993) both observe that faculty using distance education technology face a variety of challenges when adapting their teaching styles to a framework compatible with the distance learning environment. In 1992 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting reported to Congress that faculty need to understand the relationship between learning, interactivity and technology, as well as how to operate the technology.

If higher education institutions include distance delivery in their strategic plans, faculty concerns about teaching via distance need to be considered as distance delivered educational programs are developed and implemented. Carl (1991) noted that some educators resist distance teaching because they are concerned that distance courses will significantly increase an already heavy workload. Distance teaching may require more time for advanced planning. In addition, class enrollments can increase significantly. Other reasons faculty may resist participating in distance teaching relate to a perceived lack of institutional support and training; inadequate compensation and incentive structures; loss of autonomy and control of the curriculum; lack of technical training and support; and lack of release time for planning (Clark 1993; Olcott and Wright 1995).

For faculty to accept distance education as a viable means of instruction, higher education institutions must listen to faculty concerns so the institution can understand and confront the factors that contribute to faculty hesitation in developing distance learning material. Dede (1990) states that once the prohibiting forces are confronted, distance education strategies can then empower both the students and faculty where there is active student-constructed learning and adventurous, risk-taking teaching.

Therefore, this study identified what faculty and administrators perceive as being incentives that encourage them to develop educational opportunities via distance, and obstacles that discourage them from doing so. In addition, it identified whether there are differences in the way the incentives and obstacles are viewed by faculty holding different ranks, as well as those teaching or expecting to teach via distance. It also identified if there were differences in faculty according to teaching experience, tenure status, and level of courses taught.


To study incentives that encourage faculty to teach via distance and obstacles that prevent them from doing so, two colleges in one mid-west land-grant university were selected. Over the past decade, these two colleges have emphasized developing distance education opportunities, and their strategic plans now call for expanding the effort. First, personal interviews with the colleges’ administrators identified what they felt were faculty concerns about delivering education via distance. The administrator responses were then used to develop an instrument to survey teaching faculty and administrators about the potential incentives and obstacles to distance teaching.

Step One – Administrator Interviews

One hour personal interviews were conducted with 16 administrators. They were asked what they perceived as the concerns and issues faculty face when teaching distance courses. Responses were tape recorded to verify accuracy in the note-taking process. Responses where then subjectively grouped according to common themes by the primary researcher. Groupings were independently verified by a second researcher. These groupings showed that administrators felt faculty concerns about teaching via distance related to:

Step Two – Faculty Survey

Instrument development. Using the administrators’ comments about faculty concerns along with concerns identified in a literature review, a mail survey instrument was developed. Nineteen items were listed that could be ranked as incentives or obstacles for teaching via distance. A modified Likert scale was used to rank each item as a primary or secondary incentive, primary or secondary obstacle, or neither an incentive nor obstacle. The instrument was evaluated by five faculty members to assess its appropriateness for rating incentives and obstacles to teaching via distance. The instrument was revised and then pre-tested with 20 faculty members engaged in distance education delivery in other colleges at the university. This group completed the instrument and critiqued it for readability, structure, and form. Based on their responses, the instrument was again revised.

Subjects. The target population was 207 faculty teaching academic courses including those who serve in administrative positions, and 30 administrators in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and in two colleges in a mid-west University. The two colleges selected were those that included faculty with Cooperative Extension appointments. The entire group was surveyed.

Data collection. The instrument was distributed through campus mail in spring of 1997. The first mailing included a cover letter describing the purpose of the study, the importance of participating in the study, length of time required for completing the instrument and a brief statement concerning the confidentiality of the participants. A self-addressed return envelope was also provided. Ten days after the initial mailing, a follow-up post card was sent to thank those participants who had completed the instrument, and to remind the others to return the instrument. Twenty days following the initial mailing, another instrument, cover letter, and self-addressed envelope were mailed to those who failed to return the first survey. A code number was placed on the instruments for tracking non-responders. It was removed from the completed instrument after it was received. The instrument was returned by 67% of the faculty and 77% of the administrators.

Data analysis and interpretation. Data were entered into a file for analysis using the Statistical Analysis System (SAS). Percentages were calculated for all variables. Percentages were used to translate whether faculty and administrators considered the 19 items to be incentives, obstacles, or neither. Under each variable, the percentages for primary and secondary incentives were collapsed into one category, and the percentages for primary or secondary obstacles were collapsed into one category. The following scale was used for interpreting the participants’ responses:

The scale used to determine whether the variables were incentives, neither incentives nor obstacles, or obstacles formed an ordinal sequence. Therefore, the Cochran-Mantel-Haenszel Chi-square test (SAS User’s Guide: Statistics, 1985) was used to determine if there was a difference in the linear trend (a) between faculty and administrators, (b) among the faculty teaching or having taught via distance, faculty expecting to teach via distance, and faculty never intending to teach via distance, (c) faculty who have taught for less than 10 years, 10 to 20 years, and more than 20 years, (d) tenured and non-tenured faculty, and (e) faculty exclusively teaching undergraduate classes and those exclusively teaching graduate classes. For the comparisons, the significance level was set at p < .05. However, results with p > .05 and < .10 were considered as approaching significance and identified as possible emerging trends.


When organized by appointment, senior faculty (full professors and administrators) represented 53% of the respondents. Associate and assistant professors represented 42%; instructors represented 5%. Slightly over one-fourth (26%) of the responding faculty had taught via distance. Another two-fifths (40%) expect to teach via distance in the future; one-third (34%) never expect to teach via distance. Almost half (46%) of the administrators expect to teach via distance in the future (see Table 1).

Table 1. Interest in Teaching Via Distance
Distance teaching experience


(n = 127)


Have taught

26 %

36 %
Expect to teach

40 %

46 %
Never expect to teach

34 %

18 %

Out of 61 faculty and administrators expecting to teach via distance, 34% expect to do so in two years, 46% within three to five years. The remaining 19% expect to teach via distance sometime after the next five years.

Items were classified as Incentive, Obstacle or Neither, based on the following scale:

55% or more = definitely fell into the incentive or obstacle category;
45-54% = leaned toward the incentive or obstacle category;
Less than 45% = unable to classify as an incentive or obstacle

Table 2 shows that administrators and teaching faculty ranked nine items as incentives, five as obstacles, and two as neither an incentive nor an obstacle.

Table 2. Incentives and Obstacles for Teaching Via Distance

Neither Incentive nor Obstacle


Providing innovative instruction

Student Costs

Time requirement

Applying new teaching techniques

Monetary awards

Assistance or support needs


Time taken from research

Fulfilling personal desire to teach

Training requirements

Recognition of work

Developing effective technology skills

Access to place-bound students

Reduction of student travel time

Release time

Peer recognition


Table 3 shows how two items failed to clearly emerge in any of the three categories.

Table 3. Items failing to emerge in any category
Yearly evaluation process % Promotion/Tenure %
Incentive 44 Incentive 40
Neither 30 Neither 28
Obstacle 26 Obstacle 32

Incentives For Teaching Via Distance

Six of the nine items identified as incentives were relate to intrinsic or personal rewards for the instructor. They include:

Two of the nine incentives were related to extending the educational opportunity beyond the traditional walls of the institution. They were:

‘Release time’ was seen as an incentive by faculty because they saw the ‘time requirement’ as an obstacle.

Obstacles To Teaching Via Distance

Four out of the five obstacles suggested that faculty tend to see distance education as a time demanding activity that requires new skill development. These four obstacles were:

Faculty also viewed ‘assistance or support needs’ as an obstacle; this finding suggests that faculty need help with instructional design and technological delivery.

Neither Incentives Nor Obstacles to Teaching via Distance

Items Failing to Emerge Into a Category

Two items, ‘yearly evaluation process’ and ‘promotion/tenure,’ failed to emerge in any of the three categories. Because the responses for these two items were bimodal, it appears that some faculty and administrators see teaching via distance as being supportive in the yearly evaluation or for promotion and tenure, while others see distance teaching as being unsupportive.


Institutions that have incorporated developing more distance education as part of their strategic plans need to capitalize on the incentives that encourage faculty to teach via distance and minimize the obstacles that discourage or impede faculty. This creates a number of challenges when a large percentage of teaching faculty expect to take on the challenge of teaching via distance in the next few years. Implications for these challenges include:


In summary, the primary incentives that encourage faculty to adapt their teaching strategies to deliver education via distance center on intrinsic or personal rewards. These include the opportunity to provide innovative instruction and apply new teaching techniques as well as self-gratification, fulfilling a personal desire to teach, recognition of their work, and peer recognition. Extending educational opportunities beyond the traditional walls of the institution so place-bound students have access and students can reduce travels time is also an incentive. Release time for preparation also is a motivator for faculty to teach via distance.

The major perceived obstacles relate to time requirements, developing effective technology skills, and assistance and support needs. Monetary awards for faculty and the cost to the student were seen as neither an incentive nor an obstacle. Faculty are divided on how they see distance teaching affecting their yearly evaluation process and their promotion/tenure needs; about 40% see it as an incentive while about 30% see it as an obstacle. For administration and faculty to effectively work together in the future to build curriculums that are offered through distance delivery, the incentives that encourage faculty to teach via distance can to be spotlighted and the obstacles that discourage faculty need to be diminished.


Carl, D. L. 1991. Electronic distance learning: Positives outweigh negatives. T.H.E. Journal, 18:67-70.

Clark, T. 1993. Attitudes of higher education faculty toward distance education: A national survey. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7 (2): 19-33.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 1992. Lifelines of learning: Distance education and America’s rural schools. A Report to the 103rd Congress and the American People Pursuant to Pub. L. 102-356. ERIC, ED 357 919.

Dede, C. 1990. The evolution of distance learning: technology-mediated interactive learning. Journal of Research on Computing in Education 22 (3): 247-264.

Dillon, C. L. and Walsh, S. M. 1992. Faculty: The neglected resource in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education 6 (3): 5-21.

Olcott, D. Jr. and Wright, S. J. 1995. An institutional support framework for increasing faculty participation in postsecondary distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education 9 (3): 5-17.

SAS User’s Guide: Statistics. 1985. Version 5 Edition. Cary, North Carolina: SAS Institute.

United States Distance Learning Association. 1998. Distance Learning Definition [online]., 13 July. Available at

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume II, Number IIII, Winter1999
State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
Back to Journal of Distance Learning Administration Contents