Factors Influencing the Institutionalization of Distance Education in Higher Education

Article excerpt

The purpose of this study was to determine actions that colleges and universities can take to institutionalize their distance education programs. Thirty factors found to influence the institutionalization of innovations were identified from the literature. These were rated by distance education faculty and leaders as to their importance for influencing the institutionalization of distance education. Data were analyzed according to institutional role, institutional academic level, and institutional locale. All 30 factors were validated as indicators of institutionalization of distance education. Distance education faculty and leaders demonstrated a high level of agreement as to the importance of the various institutionalization factors.

Less than 2 decades ago, the authors of an influential text had this to say about the state of distance education in the United States: "Dis- tance education, although a popular and effec- tive concept in other countries, is still something of an unknown quantity in the United States and, with the possible exception of correspondence courses and telecourses, has until now had little impact here" (Verduin & Clark, 1991, p. 9). This sentiment was also echoed in the educational technology journals of the time. Clark (1989), for example, acknowledged that colleges and universities in the United States were "not leading practitio- ners of distance education at the adult learning level" (p. 7).

As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, it appears obvious that this situation has changed considerably. The advent of the public Internet has facilitated a meteoric rise of online instruction (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2006). According to research conducted by the Sloan Consortium, 83% of colleges and universities now offer courses at a distance (Allen Sc Seaman, 2007). However, far fewer of these have established institutionwide distance education programs that include centralized coordination and complete degree or certificate programs available at a distance (Bear & Nixon, 2006; Boyd-Barrett, 2000).


Individuals and groups critical of online and distance learning have often characterized it as a scheme foisted upon faculty by money conscious administrators (e.g. Carnevale, 2000; Noble, 2003). Although some higher education institutions engage in systematic planning by administration prior to offering online courses (Gersten & Evans, 2004), it is common for distance learning programs to evolve from an initial group of online courses developed independently by faculty-"the result of random acts of innovation initiated by risk-taking individual academics" (Taylor, 2001, p. 7).

Once a college or university begins to increase its online course offerings, it can either remain in the mode of decentralized course delivery or it may take the journey from online courses to the establishment of an institution-wide distance education program (Hunt & Piña, 2004). This "tipping point" can be brought about by a number of factors, including declining student enrollment (Oakley, 2004), pressure from students or faculty, or competition from competing institutions (Olson, 2002; Picciano, 2001). Unfortunately, many higher education institutions take a reactive, rather than a proactive stance toward distance education. In a study commissioned by the nation's largest teachers' union and a large online learning management system provider, Phipps and Merisotis (2000) found that many institutions were struggling to come to grips with the demand for distance education:

Because of increasing student interest in Internet-based distance education at some of the institutions in the case study, administrators revealed that policies are being developed to catch up with practice. One administrator said simply that the institution is moving ahead without all of the answers. While some institutions were farther ahead in their planning than others, some institutions that are struggling to keep up with the demand for Internet-based courses have made a conscious decision to serve students immediately and plan later. …