Distance Education

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There is a great deal of excitement about distance education. Unfortunately, the evangelical zeal of some and determined resistance of others has made this a polarizing issue. More often than not, distance education is the subject of hype and hyperbole. Depending on whom you ask, distance education represents either the demise of personal, quality education or a financial jackpot for those willing and able to invest.

What Problem Does Distance Education Solve?

Although most of our institutions are involved in some form of distance learning, the rationale is not always clear. Presidents, trustees, faculty and students often feel that they are being swept along by the tidal wave of public expectations for distance learning, and none of them wants to be left behind. For those institutions with more well-defined reasons for embracing distance education, the rationales vary, but they often fall into one of four broad categories.

Expand access. Most states need to expand access to meet the education and training needs of state residents and companies as well as to educate under-served populations. For many people in the past, academic program calendars have not matched work and family responsibilities. Program offerings may not have met learner needs.

Alleviate capacity constraints. Many states are expecting more college students than their facilities will accommodate in the next decade. Some are hoping to leverage the scalability of distance education to avoid overwhelming their bricks-and-mortar capacity.

Capitalize on emerging market opportunities. The public’s growing acceptance of the value of lifelong learning has fueled an increased demand for higher education services by people outside the traditional 18-24 age range. Emerging segments, such as executive education or working adults, may be more lucrative than traditional markets.

Serve as a catalyst for institutional transformation. Higher education institutions are being challenged to rapidly adapt in a more competitive environment. Distance education can be used as a catalyst to stimulate institutional transformation.

After defining these rationales at the University of North Carolina, it became obvious that we could not meet all four goals with a single model of distance education. Depending on the rationale chosen, the organizational structure, governance and financial model required would be different. For example, if we chose to enhance access to education for the state’s citizens, we would likely choose a different technology, different courses and different delivery systems than if we were trying to capitalize on emerging market opportunities. Enhancing educational access might cause us to focus on general education courses, whereas capitalizing on emerging market opportunities would lead us to offer courses in the state’s high-growth fields such as financial services, genomic sciences or marine sciences.

Who is Distance Education For?

Almost everyone recognizes distance education as a rapidly expanding market. The desire for lifelong learning and educational flexibility, as well as the growth in student populations, are among the trends fueling this growth. However, the distance education "market" is not homogeneous. Learners may range from traditional students seeking additional flexibility to "recreational learners" engaged in expanding their personal knowledge.

Once the rationale for distance education is defined, it is important to identify the type of learner to be served – i.e., define learner segments. Segment definitions depend on several factors including the goals and maturity level of the learner and on who makes the purchasing decision. Different segments also signal that alternative educational approaches may be appropriate. The kind of program designed to serve those interested primarily in personal fulfillment will be quite different from one designed for corporate learners, for example. In working to develop a system-wide IT strategy, the University of North Carolina and PricewaterhouseCoopers defined the following learner segments.

Life fulfillment learners are interested in education for its own sake. They enjoy learning and the academic environment, and they view additional education as a hobby or a source of personal development.

Corporate learners are seeking education to advance their careers with their corporate employers. The purchase decision is made by the corporation and not by the individual. Corporate learners demand a broad range of services, from IT end-user training to advanced scientific training.

Professional enhancement learners are seeking to advance their careers or shift careers. They work for companies but are making the purchase decision themselves.

Degree completion adult learners are seeking to complete a degree later in life than usual. They are frequently working adults who must balance work and family responsibilities with their educational goals.

"College experience" learners are preparing for life (a.k.a. the "traditional student"). This segment includes many of the 18-24-year-old residential college students for whom the "coming of age" process is as important as academic learning.

Pre-College (K-12) learners are interested in taking baccalaureate-level work prior to the completion of high school. This segment may be interested in getting a "jump start" on college.

Remediation and test prep learners are interested in learning as a prerequisite for an examination or enrollment in another program.

Is Distance Education About Education or Technology?

Complicating these issues of goals and learner segments even further is the tendency to see distance education as a technology issue. Certainly the advent of new technologies has enabled institutions to think quite differently about distance education. However, distance education should be an educational—not a technology—issue. Some strongly believe that the new set of distance education possibilities has the potential to fundamentally alter (and perhaps transform) our traditional institutions of higher education; others argue that it will lead to their downfall.


Determining the nature and purpose of distance education – and defining its appropriate role – can be difficult because it represents a convergence of multiple issues: technological advances, pedagogical change, business model change, organizational adaptability, knowledge management and increased access to education. Some assert that distance education represents a strategic "inflection point" for higher education, signaling the fundamental transformation of education as we know it.

If we are clear about the problem we are trying to solve and who distance education is for, we will be able to make better decisions. Distance education is fundamentally an education issue. Viewed in this light, it offers students and faculty an alternative to our still-rich residential tradition.

Critical Reviews

Critic LL

This isn't a very long review, or specific. But, as much as I really detest the first paragraph (introduction), I very much like the rest of the paper. It is short, clear, and packed with interesting reading.

I just don't see the characterizations made in the first paragraph (e.g., polarizing; financial jackpot; demise).

Critic WW

Outstanding article. Two suggestions. First, expand the title to "Determining the Nature and Purpose of Distance Education".

Second, in the section titled "What Problems Distance Education Solves", note that bullets 1 and 3 look too much alike; they should be better differentiated.

Critic U

I can certainly envisage this short essay in the "Commentary" section, as described in TS. This is a brief, well focused, and clearly written essay. I do not have any changes to suggest at this time.

This type of essay would get readers interested in responding to the author's main argument -- that DE is a pedagogical issue.