Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

Key External Factors Influencing Successful Distance Education Programs

Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

Key External Factors Influencing Successful Distance Education Programs

Article excerpt


Administrators of public higher education in the 2000s must recognize changes in the external environment, including changing student demographics, increased competition, and declining government support (Allen & Seaman, 2010; Berg, 2005; Smith & Bramble, 2008). Nontraditional students represent a growing percentage of the student base in higher education and demand a flexible schedule (Blankson & Kyei-Blankson, 2008). Due to declining state allocations, administrators of public higher education must reevaluate the missions of their institutions (Fathi & Wilson, 2009).

What are the perceived positive external factors affecting the institution that can be identified in the context of online higher education? Positive external factors identified in the literature included changing student demographics and expectations as well as positive results of implementing distance learning programs. Several significant positive changes in the external environment have occurred in higher education since 2000 (Allen & Seaman, 2010; Dykman & Davis, 2008; Radford, 2011). Higher education administrators need to understand these changes to develop strategic plans to take advantage of positive factors. With such an understanding, leaders will be able to develop a competitive-advantage strategy for online education (Porter, 1998).

The purpose of the qualitative, exploratory, multiple-case study described here was to identify positive external factors that would assist university leadership in strategic decision making. The study was conducted at Athens State University, located in Athens, Alabama. The focus of the study was to gain in-depth knowledge of the positive external factors at Athens State.

Since the study was conducted at a single institution, the results are specific to the university selected and may be limited to that context. The number of two-year upper-level universities in the United States is limited, and ASU is the only institution in Alabama that falls within the category (ASU, 2009b).


Distance Education

Since the beginning of distance education, administrators have been required to tailor courses to satisfy the needs of students to establish viable programs (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006). With the current generation of distance education, defined by the flexible learning model, the Internet was used to provide online delivery (Taylor, 2001). Online education was implemented shortly after the World Wide Web was developed in 1991 (Casey, 2008). Since then, the Internet has developed into an integral part of the daily lives of university and college students (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006). College and university administrators throughout the United States have embraced the Internet as a new delivery method for instruction. Online instruction has developed into the largest alternative to traditional classroom (Bejerano, 2008). There is a close relationship between online education and distance education, and the terminology is often used interchangeably (Bejerano, 2008).

In the United States, online education has experienced significant growth since 2002, particularly at public postsecondary institutions (Allen & Seaman, 2010). Online courses are offered at 97% of the two-year public postsecondary institutions and 89% of public universities (Parsad & Lewis, 2008). The results of a recent study by Sloan-C revealed that enrollment in higher education online courses continues to grow at a higher rate than traditional course enrollment (Allen & Seaman, 2010).

Changing Student Demographics and Enrollment

In 2002, a report issued by the U.S. Department of Education noted that students between the ages of 18 and 24 represented only 27% of postsecondary enrollment (Blankson & Kyei-Blankson, 2008). …

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