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A Bridge for Distance Education: Planning for the Information-Age Student

Bob Fulkerth, Golden Gate University, USA 

Distance Education is reaching critical mass. Delivery technologies are available that are both sophisticated and easy to use. Distance Education has a history, and its credibility is improving. Distance Education is poised for . . . what? If we want to develop distance programs that will enjoy long-term success and that will find a lasting fit in our institutional cultures, we'll have to take a new look at our core constituents-students. 

Distance Education (DE) represents a major change in how students participate in the educational process. People adjusting to changes behave in somewhat established ways. In his 1991 book, Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore presents a change model called the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, which expands traditional innovation /adoption models such as those presented by Everett Rogers (1983). Moore's Life Cycle model says there is a "chasm" barring the transition from early, limited use of an innovation to long-term acceptance and use by the larger population. 

Applying this model to DE suggests that there is no guarantee that the current flurry of technology-mediated programs will migrate into mainstream educational acceptance, nor that the larger student enrollments predicted by DE advocates will occur. Our current successes may simply be fueled by early adopters, a group that represents a small subset of the potential student population. 

One of the macro-level challenges of designing DE for long term success is to create high-quality programs that will build a bridge across the chasm between traditional and Distance Education, a bridge that large numbers of students will see as sturdy enough to cross. To do so, DE designers have to consider the diverse expectations of students, who increasingly behave like consumers. 

Why? We know that students pleased with their educational experience in our schools tell other students. In terms of Moore's "chasm" analogy, positive DE experiences invite more and more students to cross the bridge. In marketing and advertising terms, we can say that satisfied students create the kind of word-of-mouth advertising that money can't buy. What follows are factors to be considered in building such a bridge. 

Who are these students, and what do they want? 

University students are a subset of a group considered to be consumers of information. Technological access and awareness may vary across cultures and locales, but technology is playing an ever-larger role in everyone's lives. Students receive a wide variety of information from television, radio, print media, and from the Internet. They have high expectations for products, goods, and services, and many of their expectations have been created in technology-mediated environments. 

They share other characteristics that even cross ages and backgrounds. Many have families and jobs, and may come to school after work and before going home. A large number already have college degrees and are returning to school for retraining, reskilling, or to obtain an additional degree or certification for professional advancement. 

These people no longer view education in a traditional way. The realities of the world and the workplace have turned them into pragmatists whose view of education is shaped more by use-value than by enrichment. Degrees and certificates are viewed as tickets to job or professional advancement, and these students openly evaluate educational programs and institutions according to the expectations of a consumer-oriented culture: What do I get, how much will it cost, how convenient is it, when will it be delivered, and what's the warranty? In addition to convenience and service, they expect their education to translate directly into professional advancement and higher salaries. 

Building a Service Approach into DE Programs for the Contemporary Student

It's clear that contemporary students expect more than just a high-quality classroom experience. What are some broad-brush considerations in designing DE programs for them? One current idea is that successful programs of any sort will be characterized by flexibility and nimbleness. As changes in the workplace create new educational opportunities, program content and delivery must have possibility to change with demand. As an example, students across disciplines currently require technology skills, so now is an opportune time to design programs with a blend of traditional education and applied technology skills. Thus, in the near future, online programs that deliver both a traditional academic degree and preparation for vendor or software-specific technical certification may be particularly attractive. 

Next, and no less important to students, programs must integrate institutional services and activities into the delivery environment. Online registration and tuition payment are already commonplace, and we should plan to increasingly co-mingle educational and administrative services in online environments. If not today, then tomorrow, students will expect interactive advising, counseling, tutorial internship, work experience, and library information services to be available online. 

These experiences will be characterized as both high-tech and high touch. Students expect educational experiences to be delivered through a variety of high-tech modes, but they also have come to expect personalized, high-touch access to services, instructors, and their classmates. The semester as a unit of administrative and instructional function has already given way to intensive, weekend, and cohort course offerings. Courses can be taught completely or partially online. In some masters-level programs, students gather as groups periodically, but engage in electronic coursework individually. Institutions now offer courses in various formats for specific needs, perhaps in partnership with businesses and organizations. These courses can be credit, not-for-credit, as continuing education, or that lead to professional certification. Overall, students will expect even more time flexibility and asynchronicity and in their DE courses. 

Institutional Development and Advertising Activities

The previous factors call for program design with service considerations in mind. Here are several more traditional activities and approaches that can serve to integrate your DE development efforts into the communication flow of the institution. 

As you develop for online programs, integrate your information resources into the online culture. It's important that these documents have a professional, consistent look. Any material potential students and visitors have access to-be they letters, flyers, brochures, or Web sites-represent opportunities to advertise and demonstrate the full range of university programs and services. 

Depending on your institution's resources, it may be best to use professional designers to create the "look" and "feel" of your offerings. 

  • Design and align DE programs with already successful programs. For example, if there is a high-profile certificate or degree in existence, create a DE version of it, or provide some of the courses in an appropriate DE mode. 
  • Differentiate your DE products from others, and advertise them accordingly. This does not suggest creating ad hoc or niche programs, but instead, making known the characteristics of your programs that make them desirable to specific student or business audiences. 
  • Build institutional and course-level assessment tools into DE courses. At the institutional level, assessment information can be found in traditional grade and enrollment reports. Student evaluation forms can be modified to include prompts that encourage feedback on the students' perceptions of their DE experience. For faculty actually teaching courses, there are a variety of assessment tools. You may structure checkpoints into the courses in which students discuss the learning experience with the teacher, so that the instructor can make necessary changes quickly. 
  • Design with accreditation requirements in mind. Make sure that program assessment and other information is available to institutional quality managers and accreditation agencies. 
  • Encourage design and delivery via multiple technologies. Technologies that work are highly attractive, but avoid settling on the first delivery technology that works. Delivery modalities should embrace all the appropriate tools that are at a program's disposal. 

These traditional activities work very well in supporting new programs, such as DE. Their personalized, interpersonal nature are effective in getting people together 

  • Invite speakers to your school, and have them present at convenient times. These may be teachers, program developers, or technology experts. 
  • Sponsor information panels and symposia. 
  • Create awareness and support among local constituencies by placing stories in student and faculty newspapers, local newspapers and monthlies. Share student, staff, and faculty success stories through articles, word of mouth, and demonstrations. 
  • Participate in the Distance Education professional community. Subscribe to journals, join newsgroups and present at conferences. Write think pieces and columns. These activities not only clarify your thinking, but create exposure for programs. If you are doing research in DE, share it with the educational community by submitting it for publication.
  • Become actively involved with your President, Vice Presidents, and Board of Trustees. Make presentations to them, and become a member of appropriate higher- level committees. If your DE programs provide demonstration courses, offer to enroll decision-makers, and communicate with them as they progress through the course. 
  • If you are a teacher or developer, feel free to design "outside the box." We routinely ask our students to consider a hypothetical larger audience in their coursework. Designing DE allows teachers the opportunity to practice what we preach: we can visualize a larger, global audience of diverse potential students and structure our offerings to meet their needs. 
  • Advertise what you can deliver, and deliver what you advertise. If your programs and technology aren't reliable nor of sufficient quality, continue to pilot-test until they are. 
Moving the Majority

Building a bridge across Moore's "chasm" between early use of a technology and successful acceptance into a culture by mainstream users requires the efforts of many people utilizing different tactics and approaches, working toward realization of a common vision. In this case, that vision is DE programs that effectively address the expectations of our student audience. 

The potential rewards of service-oriented DE planning are substantial. According to Moore's model, Innovators have significant influence on the next two groups of potential users, the Early Majority and Late Majority. Together, these two groups constitute roughly 2/3 of any potential population. This means that if our current students are satisfied, they will be instrumental in encouraging a large number of their colleagues to "cross the bridge" to Distance Education, and help make it a mainstream educational practice. High quality DE programs create students who are happy with their educational experience, and who will tell others about it . . . the best advertising tool of all. 

The Next Challenge 

Sir John Daniel, Vice-Chancellor of the UK's Open University, predicts what might be our next challenge. Education, he says, "is not something that you deliver, like clean diapers or mail order clothes. Students are living, breathing human beings and need to be part of a learning community." DE designers already sense that this is one of the next hurdles we face: as we become more familiar (and less enamored) with our technology tools, how do we create true learner-centered experiences in virtual environments? 

As we invite students across the bridge to our DE programs, we should keep in mind that quality, a service orientation, and effective communication are only part of what the teaching/learning experience is about: as teachers, we aim to give what we know, and to engage learners in integrating new knowledge and skills into their own experience. Our ongoing Distance Education development challenge will be to continue to work toward creating student-centered, technology-mediated learning communities in which the technology tools are so seamlessly integrated as to be transparent. 


Daniel, Sir John. (April 26-28, 1998) Distance Learning: The Vision, and Distance Learning, The Reality: What Works, What Travels? (Speech to Western Governors University and National Governors Association for Best Practice, Salt Lake City, Utah).

Moore, Geoffrey. (1991). Crossing the chasm: Marketing and selling high-tech products to mainstream customers. HarperBusiness. New York, New York.

Price Waterhouse Coopers. (July 1997). The Transformation of Higher Education in the Digital Age

Rogers E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations. 3d ed. New York: Free Press.

Bob Fulkerth
Assistant Professor, School of Technology and Industry
Golden Gate University, USA 

This article first appeared in Syllabus Magazine November/December 1998 Volume 12, No. 4 and is reproduced with kind permission of the author and Syllabus Press Inc.  Copyright © 1998 by Syllabus Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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