Faculty and Administrator Perceptions of Instructional Support for Distance Education. (Instructional Media Initiatives: Focusing on the Educational Resources Center at Thirteen/WNET, New York, New York)

Article excerpt

The proliferation of information technologies has made it easier to employ distance education to meet the needs of time and place-bound students who otherwise may not have a chance to learn. Distance education is now emerging as part of mainstream education and training efforts to provide learning opportunities that are flexibly responsive to learners' needs. Among the different levels of education, higher education institutions have been forerunners in experimenting and establishing distance education. According to the recent national survey on distance education in higher education institutions (NCES, 1999), about 33% of the institutions in the United States currently offer distance education courses and an additional 20% plan to offer them in the next three years. Distance education is an increasingly important component of higher education, and has become a touchstone for those seeking to keep higher education relevant (Willis, 1998).

In spite of the increasing demand for distance education in higher education institutions, there have been several barriers to its growth. According to Lewis and Wall (1988), these barriers include: (a) technical barriers such as pace of technology change, limited access to hardware, and support service complications; (b) structural barriers such as off-campus students' limited access to libraries, lack of skills to access a variety of databases, and regulations regarding transmission across state boundaries; and (c) attitudinal barriers such as faculty resistance to off-campus learning. Brock (1987) and Dillon (1989) noted that the lack of faculty participation has also been a barrier to the growth of distance education in higher education.

Instructional support in a higher education institution refers to the kind of support the institution provides faculty members to develop and improve their instruction. It usually comes from people who have specialties in certain areas in which faculty members need training and assistance to conduct their teaching effectively. Specialists include instructional designers, editors, technicians, graphic designers, radio and/or television producers, teaching assistants, and librarians. In a distance education environment, instructional support can take the forms of course redesign support, training in the use and application of distance education technologies, training in teaching methods, and media and technical support. According to Olcott and Wright (1995), instructional support, such as establishing training and providing release-time for course development, is one of the key elements leading to successful distance education. One of the reasons is the fact that instruction at a distance differs from its traditional classroom counterpart in many ways (Gehlauf, Shatz, & Frye, 1991; Northrup, 1997). Moore and Kearsley (1996) summarized four factors that make distance teaching unique compared with traditional instruction. First, in most cases, distance instructors will not see how students react to what they are saying or doing. Second, the effectiveness of distance teaching is highly dependent on how well the instructors use the technology involved. Third, distance instructors need to pay a lot of attention to students' motivation. Fourth, distance instructors usually work closely with a number of different people in the development and delivery of the course. Because of these differences, faculty members' experiences in conventional education may not necessarily be transferred and work well in a distance education setting (Kelly, 1987). Hence, even an instructor who has been outstanding in his/her classroom teaching in traditional face-to-face settings needs to be prepared for distance instruction.

While some faculty members have instinctively developed the requisite skills and abilities for distance teaching, the majority requires specialized training or trial and error experience to become comfortable and effective at a distance (Willis, 1992). …