Quality on the Line

In only 10 years since the software for the World Wide Web (WWW) was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in Switzerland, educational institutions, research centers, libraries, government agencies, commercial enterprises, advocacy groups, and a multitude of individuals have rushed to connect to the Internet (Johnson, 1999). Indeed, not since the printing press was invented by Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century has an “invention” generated such potential to dramatically change how people communicate and interact with one another.

This extraordinary growth of technology-mediated distance learning in higher education has prompted several different organizations to develop principles, guidelines, or benchmarks to ensure quality distance education. The organizations include The American Council on Education, the Global Alliance for Transnational Education, the National Education Association, and the Southern Regional Electronic Campus. The quality assurance benchmarks promoted by these organizations are designed to apply to a wide variety of institutional contexts and consist of fairly broad statements. Virtually all of the strategies address such topics as course development, faculty training, student services, learning resources, infrastructure, and outcomes assessment. 

These benchmarks for all types of distance learning have been in existence in various forms for a number of years. The question that has arisen is whether they are applicable to Internet-based distance education. In short, are the benchmarks appropriate and necessary to ensure quality Internet-based distance education?  Two organizations—the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest professional association of higher education faculty, and Blackboard, Inc., a widely used platform provider for online distance education—have been interested in exploring these issues and their implications. The two organizations jointly commissioned The Institute for Higher Education Policy to examine the benchmarks by studying active distance learning programs at several institutions.

The Institute was approached by the two commissioning organizations in part because of its previous experience in analyzing issues related to quality in distance education. The Institute’s widely cited 1999 report, What’s the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education (Phipps and Merisotis, 1999), has generated considerable dialogue throughout academia about what constitutes quality in distance learning settings.

Specifically, NEA and Blackboard, Inc. asked The Institute to attempt to validate those benchmarks that have been published by various entities, with specific attention to Internet-based distance education. This study was designed to ascertain the degree to which the benchmarks are actually incorporated in the policies, procedures, and practices of colleges and universities that are distance education leaders. In addition, this case study sought to determine how important the benchmarks are to the institutions’ faculty, administrators, and students.

The following description of the case study is adapted from the full report, Quality On the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-based Distance Education, which can be found on the Institute’s web site at www.ihep.com.

The Case Study

The case study process consisted of three sequential phases. First, a comprehensive literature search was conducted to compile those benchmarks recommended by other organizations and groups, as well as those suggested in various articles and publications. This search resulted in a total of 45 benchmarks developed by these other organizations.

Second, we sought to identify institutions that satisfied the following criteria. The institutions (1) must have substantial experience in distance education; (2) are recognized as among the leaders in Internet-based distance education; (3) are regionally accredited; and (4) offer more than one degree program via online distance learning. To ensure that a broad spectrum of higher education institutions were represented, the study would include a community college, a comprehensive institution, a research institution, and a virtual institution. From among several colleges and universities that fit the requirements, the following six institutions agreed to participate in the study: Brevard Community College, Regents College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland University College, Utah State University, and Weber State University.

Third, the six institutions were visited by Institute staff to assess the degree to which the campuses incorporated the benchmarks in their Internet-based distance learning courses and programs. Each site visit included interviews with faculty, administrators, and students, as well as a survey of these individuals that rated both the presence and importance of the original group of 45 benchmarks to determine if they are being followed and if they make a difference in terms of academic quality.


The results of the study revealed that, for the most part, the benchmarks for quality Internet-based distance education were considered important and, in general, the institutions strived to incorporate them into their policies, practices, and procedures. At the same time, several benchmarks did not enjoy consensus among administrators, faculty, and students at the institutions and, in some instances, were not considered mandatory to ensure quality in distance education.

The following list represents the final benchmarks resulting from this study. The Institute’s analysis of the data and information from the interviews resulted in the elimination of 13 benchmarks and the addition of three benchmarks. Several benchmarks were combined because they addressed the same issue and were related to each other. The final outcome is a list of 24 benchmarks that are essential to ensure quality in Internet‑based distance education.

Institutional Support Benchmarks

Course Development Benchmarks

Teaching/Learning Benchmarks

Course Structure Benchmarks

Student Support Benchmarks

Faculty Support Benchmarks

Evaluation and Assessment Benchmarks


The 24 benchmarks that made the final list were considered mandatory for quality Internet-based distance education. Put another way, the absence of the benchmark would be deleterious to quality. The purpose of this case study was to assist policymakers—such as college and university presidents and chief academic officers, state coordinating boards, accrediting bodies, state legislatures, and governors’ offices—as well as faculty and students, make reasonable judgments with regard to quality Internet-based distance education. The challenge, then, was to identify those benchmarks that are essential for quality distance education–in contrast to those benchmarks that contribute to and support the teaching/learning process, but are not necessary or required to ensure quality. We are confident that policymakers can use this list with the assurance that they are directly addressing the issue of quality without placing unnecessary restrictions on institutions.


Johnson, J. (1999). The thread of a great and long tradition. TechKnowLogia 1(1), 9-12.

Phipps, R. A., & Merisotis, J. P. (1999). What’s the difference? A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education. Washington, DC: Council for Higher Education Accreditation.