Key Elements of Successful Distance Education Programs

Distance learning is appealing as it removes many of the barriers – time, location, transportation, child care – that prevent some adults from continuing their education. Yet, it is not a panacea, nor is it a quick fix. To develop a successful distance learning program, states need to understand that distance learning is based on a unique educational model. Navigating this largely uncharted educational territory can be frustrating. To make distance work, states must address a host of financial, planning, and implementation challenges. This article highlights what we have learned and continue to discover about good program development.

Create a Culture that Encourages & Supports Innovation

This is the first necessary step from which everything else flows. Implementing distance education is a very different task from teaching a new course in the classroom. It demands that programs explore totally new ways of recruiting, orienting and delivering instruction to students. Both blended and distance learning require that teachers and administrators modify how they think about the process of teaching and how they interact with their students and content materials. To succeed in this endeavor, creativity and innovation are crucial.

  • States must create an environment in which these traits are both encouraged and valued. One way to do this is to focus on the process— and learn from it—rather than on specific outcome measures. For example, in the first years of its experiments, the Pennsylvania pilot sites were exempted from tracking their distance learning students in the state’s accountability system.
    Rhode Island and Ohio took similar approaches with their fledgling DL programs, opting to explore the possibilities of using distance education effectively before imposing additional constraints on programs.
  • States can also encourage and support the innovative use and development of curricular materials to meet the specific needs of learners. Illinois and Missouri both created online GED programs. Missouri also worked with TABE to create an online version of the test to be used for placement purposes. Common to these approaches were the recognition that materials and approaches that are effective in classroom teaching may not be suited for distance and the willingness to explore other possibilities. Many have started to investigate the potential of Open Educational Resources (OERs) and their use and adaptation of through platforms such as OER Commons.
  • Minnesota has recently (as of 2016) created a proxy hour certification process teachers created online distance curricula. This innovation allows teachers to construct online curricula housed in a learning management system (e.g., Moodle or Schoology) that perfectly compliments in class instruction in a blended learning context.
  • It is also crucial that the teachers, administrators and programs involved are excited about the possibility and view themselves as innovators. These adult education professionals are taking a risk, and moving away from the security of what they know they can do effectively. They should be commended for taking on the challenge, and provided with an opportunity to explore, try new out new ideas, and take risks in a safe, supportive environment. In turn, they can then communicate this approach to their students.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of creating on innovation mindset among all participants involved in the endeavors. Without this foundation, the rest of the program can only make limited progress. However, creating an environment that supports innovation, by itself, is not sufficient to successfully implement distance learning programs. There is a real need for a variety of other factors to be in place for this to go from an idea to a reality.

Provide Strong Leadership

Distance learning experiments are the most successful when the person assuming primary responsibility (the point person) is excited about the project, has both time and resources to bring to bear on the project and has strong leadership skills. Distance learning in all its forms whether it is blending learning using computers or mobile devices for instance requires a major shift in how people both think about and deliver education to adults; the point person needs to be someone who can embrace the vision, has the clout to implement it and who can create a sense of enthusiasm among participating agencies. Experiments are more likely to be successfully implemented if the point person has the following:

  • High levels of involvement with the project. States where the point person is actively involved with the experiments seem to have greater success in implementing their programs. Their involvement signals that this endeavor is an important one at various levels throughout the state.
  • Adequate time to spend on the project. Implementing any new program is time consuming; distance learning may be even more so because it differs so dramatically from typical classroom programs. Thus, it is not enough for the point person to be excited and enthusiastic about the project, he/she must have sufficient time allocated to it. This may require re-assigning other tasks to ensure distance learning experiments are a priority in the state.
  • Influence with state leaders and participating agencies. The point person often needs to bring people from disparate perspectives together and create consensus on working toward a goal. This appears to be done more successfully if the point person is well regarded as a leader in his/her state. It is also important for the person to have the authority to get things done and the funds available to support the project.
  • A desire to take this challenge and explore a relatively unknown area. The point person’s attitude permeates all aspects of the project. The job needs to belong to someone who wants the challenge, likes to create new programs and is excited about finding new ways to reach adult learners. Experiments are much less likely to succeed if the assignment is given to someone who does not relish the opportunity or someone whose time is already overcommitted.

Funding Is Essential

There are costs associated with both new and existing programs. Distance learning – even if done on a small scale – requires funding to implement and support the project. Funds are necessary for the participating agencies and teachers, the point person, training and ongoing support and curricular materials. In order for agencies and their teachers to put enough time and effort into building a distance learning project, they must either receive financial compensation or release time from other assignments. This is too challenging a project to be added as an additional assignment to educators who are already carrying a full workload. States have developed various ways of financially supporting their projects. Some have provided small grants to participating agencies to cover teacher and administrator salaries (e.g., Ohio, Arkansas). Maine required that participating agencies split the cost of teacher support with funds from a state grant. Pennsylvania funded an agency to oversee and provide technical support for providers involved in the distance learning experiments. North Carolina financially supported the development of the modification of Crossroads Café. Several states have purchased state-wide or agency-wide licenses for the curricular package they are using. Successful states recognized that this program needs financial support if it is to flourish.

Support & Professional Development for Teachers & Administrators

Teachers working at a distance need ongoing support. This takes two forms – ongoing technical support in using the selected curricula and professional development to build skills needed for teaching at a distance.

Ongoing technical support. Just as distance learning students can sometimes feel isolated, so too can distance learning teachers. For most teachers and administrators, this is a new enterprise that makes different demands on their abilities. It is important for these educators to feel that they are not alone in this process and for them to have a resource available to answer questions, provide support and help guide them along the way.

  • Successful state-wide experiments are likely to have a person or agency that can provide information about the curricula being used and guidance on delivering instruction at a distance. This support person or agency maintains close contacts with the experimental sites, thus diminishing feelings of being set adrift without guidance.
  • Successful programs create situations in which sites act as mutual supports and share accumulated wisdom. Some states have established regular conference calls while others use online discussion boards or face-to-face meetings.

Professional development. It is almost impossible to overstate how different distance education is from classroom-based programs. The entire process from beginning to end—from recruitment to assessment—requires new ways of thinking about teaching and of administering a program.

  • Blended and distance teaching require different ways of orienting, teaching and motivating students. This difference requires distance teachers to have access to professional development. By providing professional development opportunities for teachers involved in distance learning programs, states increase the likelihood that these teachers will teach effectively, keeping learners involved and active.
  • Administrators need to commit time and energy to new ways of work. Professional development opportunities that allow teachers and administrators to learn together and to plan how changes will be made in their own organizations maximize the possibility that programs will be successful.

Recognize that Change Takes Time

Implementing any new program takes planning, time and effort. In the case of implementing distance learning programs, this is intensified because distance learning is such a dramatic departure from established classroom programs. The most successful state programs are those that recognize this and give agencies ample time to find their way in this new arena.