distance learning

This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

How Did We Get Here

Several elite public and private universities, including the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin, introduced distance education in the form of correspondence courses, or “home study,” in the United States in 1892 (Chaloux and Miller 2014). This innovation was followed, over the next one hundred and twenty years, by an evolving array of mediated modes for the delivery of continuing education content. Each delivery system exploited a new technology or imaginatively adapted an existing technology. The lineage of distance education systems, or technologies, includes newspapers, radio, audio and video recordings, instructional television fixed service (ITFS), statewide audio networks, compressed video systems, cable television, satellite delivery, and computer technology. The ultimate utility of each mode reflects an assessment of cost effectiveness, adaptability to course content, ease of interactivity, propinquity of students to each other and to the instructor, and learning effectiveness.

In the immediate past we have observed a heightened engagement with distance education at institutions of higher education, a consequence of the ubiquity of and incredible capacities associated with computer technology, with the associated promise of improved learning. And, importantly, the revenue potential imagined from the perceived cost effectiveness of media-supported instruction. In each of the periods of mediated course or program development spanning the last century and a quarter, continuing and professional education at America’s colleges and universities has been a key player, if not the leader, in the application of technology to educational provision.

Penn State and the University of Wisconsin, along with the University of Illinois, helped lead the way in using the Internet to deliver professional and continuing education to distant learners. With the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, initiatives were seeded across the country through the Anytime, Anyplace Learning Program (McGuire 2013). Many of these early initiatives had a focus on professional degree and certificate programs offered through the use of fully online delivery systems.


Where We Are Today

Economic pressures on institutions and students are driving higher education to become more responsive to effective and cost-efficient use of technologies in teaching and learning (Viacave, Fitzgerald, and Smith 2014). Online continuing and professional education in today’s competitive environment in higher education requires the strength of partnership and collaboration among key constituents. It is vital that these partnerships between course developers and instructors share a strong understanding of the audience for whom the professional development is being designed. Creating quality online continuing and professional learning experiences takes time to plan and execute the creation of strong learning objects.

Professional development is available on a variety of different platforms. Those seeking professional development in a wide variety of fields need only do a quick Google search to find courses offered in an array of formats and instructional styles.


The Blended Classroom

By way of example, one such instructional style is the blended classroom. This classroom provides a combination of online and face-to-face instruction. The teacher who uses this form of instruction most effectively allows the content and the learning needs of the student to dictate which sections of the course work occur online and which components are provided face to face. The learning needs of the student may be met through flexible access to lectures and content that can be reviewed outside the classroom. Precious class time may be devoted to learning activities and practice problems to assist students with synthesizing and applying their learning. This approach is important for those time-pressed students who are working professionals and are capable of doing much of the reading and preparation for the class prior to the first class meeting. Adults enrolled in continuing and professional education typically hold a foundational knowledge of the content and, as such, are prepared for class discussions, simulation projects, or hands-on training to occur during the face-to-face component of the blended classroom.


The Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom is a popular version of the blended classroom. In this instructional model, students listen to lectures, watch videos, and read content materials prior to coming to classroom meetings. By participating in the more passive activities of learning outside the classroom, students are allowed additional time for engagement and more active learning while in the physical classroom. The actual classroom time may be used to do assessment activities, labs, videos, audio lectures, and hands-on learning activities that indicate the student’s competency or mastery of the content area. This model is especially good for learners who take a mature approach and personal responsibility for learning content. Blended learning or a flipped classroom approach exhibits more pros than cons for educators. The advantage of this approach is that the use of online learning allows students to engage content from an individualized approach. Then classroom time is spent in a community of learners that deepens the learning experience. The drawbacks of this approach are usually identified as being related to the lack of technology in a student’s home setting. Low bandwidth or inadequate access to computing devices can create a situation where a learner may quickly fall behind the class (Hertz 2012).


Asynchronous, Synchronous, or Mode-Neutral Learning

Considerations and approaches to asynchronous and synchronous models have long been debated. If we look back, we discover that correspondence courses were completely asynchronous, that is, the instructor and student did not engage in real-time interaction. For example, in correspondence courses students may wait a week or more for responses to questions or assessments from the instructor. Online courses using asynchronous models are characterized by much shorter delays, measured in minutes and hours rather than days and weeks. Many of those who are enrolled in continuing and professional education appreciate this approach and enjoy the asynchronous models of online learning today. Those instructors who utilize Twitter feeds and other social media to extend learning outside of a physical classroom setting are engaging students through asynchronous connectivity (Rhode 2012).

However, there may also be a significant instructional rationale behind including a synchronous component to a continuing education course. When webcasting, online chat, and Skype are used for electronic office hours, live-discussion sessions can add value and spontaneity to interactive online learning. Synchronous models can be quite effective in assisting students with confusing or complicated assignments or skills that need an immediate answer. If skill set mastery is dependent upon immediate feedback, then a synchronous component may be the best option for the distance learner. Additionally, synchronous models may be used to build a sense of community within a course of study.

A new approach in continuing and professional education allows the instructor to be located at a distance to teach to co-located students. This type of grouping may take place formally or informally. Courses are held in a variety of locations through various distance technologies. One such example is the Minerva Project (www.minervaproject.com). The Minerva Project provides students with residency in major cities, where they live and learn together. Each term, the students move to another city to learn in a new environment while taking their next term of online classes (Rivard 2013).

Additionally, there are mode-neutral classes. Mode-neutral classes allow the learner to be in control of the space in which they learn. Modeneutral classes combine face-to-face, online, and blended classrooms in such a way that the student can decide which mode of delivery works best for them at any time during the semester. This student-centered approach allows for the optimization of faculty time, while giving the student control over how they will engage with content, faculty, and fellow learners (Smith, Reed, and Jones 2008). For example, students may begin a class face to face and, at any point in the term, choose to move to the online or blended delivery section of the course.


Prior Learning and Competency-Based Learning

Many universities have offered prior learning credit for decades. More recently, these prior learning programs are offered in an online mode to students at a distance. Professional and continuing education students commonly have competencies developed through work, military, and volunteer experience. This often involves a faculty assessment of a portfolio of activities that previously took place. Universities offer a limited amount of academic credit for the demonstration of competencies acquired.

Western Governors University was chartered in 1996 to begin offering a competency-based learning approach to awarding credit for degree completion. This collaboration among nineteen governors of western states was one of the first competency-based, large-scale initiatives (Western Governor’s University 2014). This approach has come to be included in an increasing number of online programs. The US Department of Education announced in 2013 that it would approve the offering of financial assistance to students in competency-based programs—notably the large and growing program at Southern New Hampshire University (Fain 2013). The benefits of competency-based education are that it can decrease the time in which a student completes a degree and decrease the cost of the degree. The challenges include motivating students to stay on task to complete each set of competency-related assessments.


Teaching Consideration

At its core, as Larry Ragan stated, “good teaching is good teaching” (Ragan 1999, par. 4). Ragan provided context for this statement in his article regarding teaching at a distance. Some instructors excel in a face-to-face environment, while others are superstars in an online environment. Good teaching strategies are necessary to provide the roadmap to success for participants in the continuing and professional education arena. Participants learn best through varied media. One may learn best through listening; others do better watching video or reading graphs or tables. Some need kinesthetic involvement, which must be built into the online class through activities that will encourage hands-on learning to occur. Some learners need social engagement outside of the online course, which requires assessments to include interviews or observations of groups related to the field.

Connecting coursework to a level of thinking skills is important. Using Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom 1969) or a newer derivative such as the “Online Tools and Taxonomy Resource” (University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning 2014), consideration must be given to providing foundational thinking, allowing for review and reflection of the material, and substantive evaluation or analysis of the content to be reflected through assessment or project work. Extending learning by providing for a professional community to develop after the class officially ends is one way to add value to the continuing and professional education needs for working adults. This can be done through blogs, professional learning communities, and collaboration with a variety of web tools. These learning opportunities eventually may be built into personal learning networks that can be used for professional development throughout a career.

Teaching online requires a team, not just an individual. While face-to-face teaching may be a singular effort, online teaching includes a multitude of technical, pedagogical, environmental, and associated considerations that requires a team of experts. The team determines who the learner is and what characteristics are needed to ensure the material addresses immediate and relevant needs for the learner seeking continuing and professional education. Some fields are more likely to use specific types of technologies than others. Providing a level of comfort or stability in course offerings is important when assessing the needs of the learners. Identification of specific teaching strategies are needed to best engage the learner with the content material.

Those who follow best practices in online teaching and learning do not simply add documents that they have used in face-to-face presentations to an online classroom. The team of experts analyzes and recommends the best way to present concepts to help students fully understand the theory and application related to their content area. This can be done with a variety of tools, including video, audio, PowerPoint presentations, music, lectures, podcasts, calendars, work schedules, handwritten comments, web pages, quizzes, tests, and a variety of web-based tools. Quality assurance is an active and ongoing process in online learning.


Course Quality

There are several tools that the team of experts can use to determine overall course quality in online learning. Quality Matters (www.qualitymatters.org) is a recognized leader in providing a peer-reviewed approach to assessing the content and design of online learning courses. Quality Matters takes a continuous improvement approach by engaging instructors in the review of online courses, providing professional development to assure consistency in the review process, and maintaining a recognized standard of quality in the field of online learning.

In order to connect effectively with the continuing and professional education participant, it is necessary that the instructional design team understand what connections must be made as they design and assess the effectiveness of the continuing and professional education course. This connectivity to the participants is key for the design team to consider during the development and teaching of the course. Working professionals who want to learn new skills expect high-quality courses and strong networking opportunities. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) viewed online learning as a process. Their work on creating a “community of inquiry” within the online course provides a strong framework for building teaching and learning.

Continuing and professional education courses that use the community of inquiry approach deliberately seek to engage the participants with content, the participants with each other, and the participants with the instructor. As this community of learning is built, the learner becomes skilled in the content area through a social-constructivist approach to learning. The learner connects with the content, the other students, and the instructor to build skill level and expertise.

By merit of having classes delivered in a digital, online format, this kind of learning offers a rich array of data that cannot be collected in the face-to-face environment. Students in the online classroom can be monitored every minute and by every action taken. The detailed data of how much, how long, how well, how many times, and so on, is available for analysis, interpretation, and action. This data can be used to improve the class as well as provide effective interventions for struggling students. It is this data-centric approach upon which the future of online learning will be built.


The Future of Online Continuing Higher Education

Corporate engagement in education has flourished in some ways and declined in others. At its peak two years ago, the for-profit universities were flourishing, funded by high tuition paid by federal financial aid. But more recently federal and state regulators have joined accrediting bodies in holding for-profit universities accountable for the relatively low success rates of their students and graduates. At the time of this writing, for-profit universities are sustaining substantial losses in profitability, and some are even moving to become private nonprofit universities (Fain 2014).

In the complex context of higher education in 2015, there are some interesting experiments that may point to the future of professional and continuing studies in higher education. In the past few years, massive online classes have emerged to reach hundreds of thousands of students at a time. Universities have begun “giving away” their product in massive open online classes (MOOCs). Many of these are produced within the schools of professional and continuing studies. Now more than a thousand MOOCs have been produced by some of the largest and most successful universities in the United States. They have reached huge audiences of students, mostly located outside of the country. The completion rates have been low, but the public relations impact has been high. A more recent development is the advent of learning hubs to support students taking MOOCs. The US State Department has built hubs around the world to sustain distant students on other continents, and Coursera has begun an initiative to install learning hubs in libraries and other sites around the country. In effect, these hubs turn MOOCs into blended learning experiences with both online and face-to-face support components. Through the MOOC experience, universities continue to conduct learning research that has resulted in the development of tools and techniques that will impact our field broadly in the future. As MOOCs evolve, we will see even more efficient models of teaching emerge.

Notably, we look to the experiment by Georgia Tech, Udacity, and AT&T to offer an online masters in computer science using MOOC designs (www.omscs.gatech.edu). This initiative, begun in early 2014, offers the degree, which carries a price tag of $42,000, for less than $7,000, a reduction made possible by economies of scale and subsidies from industry. As this program rolls out, the goal is to serve up to 10,000 students in a limited-entry program that will be self-sustaining over time. If the massive open online approaches of Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and others succeed, we will surely see this model replicated for other online graduate degrees—often offered through schools of professional studies—at other universities.

Udacity continues to press the envelope in professional studies. The most recent effort, being closely followed, is the self-paced “nanodegree” (www.udacity.com/nanodegrees). Once again in collaboration with AT&T, Udacity is rolling out a series of professional development courses. Using a unique pricing model of $200/month for as long as it takes the student to complete the sequence (anywhere from three to twelve months), the nanodegree promises that the student will have the skills and knowledge for an entry-level position in the industry. Selecting areas of high demand for and low supply of qualified prospects, this approach to professional development is industry driven. If it succeeds, we will surely see university professional and continuing studies programs adopting the model of self-paced, adaptive learning offered on a pay-as-you-use basis.

It is clear that consumers are seeking value in higher education in terms of jobs and careers. Traditional universities have lost their monopoly on education; competition has arrived in the form of MOOCs and corporate-led learning. Yet, in the midst of these challenges for higher education, there exists within our universities the bright prospect for change and a shift in focus. These changes are already in place in the departments, schools, and colleges of professional and continuing studies. They are at the core of our commitment to serving the adult learner with quality, relevant, just-in-time learning.

The University Professional and Continuing Education Association is leading the effort to ensure quality and flexibility in online professional education. As this centennial report is released, UPCEA is developing Hallmarks of Excellence, drawing upon our collective expertise and vision to prepare a roadmap for the design and implementation of excellence in schools, colleges and departments of continuing and professional education. Dr. Jay Halfond, senior fellow for the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy, is coordinating the efforts of leaders across the field to further develop standards for excellence in the field of online learning. This blueprint will guide us into the next century of leadership in our field.

The values that have led our efforts are the same that are driving change across all of higher education. Those of us in professional and continuing studies are prepared to lead our institutions through the disruption that awaits us.



Bloom, B. S. 1969. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay.

Chaloux, B., and G. Miller. 2014. “E-Learning and the Transformation of Higher Education.” Leading the E-learning Transformation of Higher Education (pp. 258). Sterling, VA: Stylus. Fain, P. 2013. “Beyond the Credit Hour.” Inside Higher Ed. Accessed at http:// www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/19feds-give-nudge-competencybased-education – sthash.g6LMqIgw.dpbs.

Fain, P. 2014. “Dropping Profit.” Inside Higher Ed. Accessed at http://www .insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/17/few-profits-have-become-non profits-despite-regulatory-environment.

Garrison, D. R., T. Anderson, and W. Archer. 2000. “Critical Inquiry in a TextBased Enviornment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education.” The Internet and Higher Education, 2, nos. 2–3: 87–105.

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Ragan, L. C. 1999. “Good Teaching Is Good Teaching: An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education.” Cause/Effect 22(1).

Rhode, J. 2012. “Best Practices Teaching with Twitter.” Accessed at http:// www.jasonrhode.com/twitterinedu.

Rivard, R. 2013. “The Minerva Moment?” Inside Higher Ed. Accessed at http:// www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/04/05/minerva-project-plans -different-kind-online-education-sthash.j7broCb1.dpbs.

Smith, B., P. Reed, and C. Jones. 2008. “‘Mode Neutral’ Pedagogy.” European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning. Accessed at http://www.eurodl.org /materials/contrib/2008/Smith_Reed_Jones.htm.

University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. 2014. “Online Tools and Taxonomy Resource (OTTR).” Accessed at http://teach.ucf.edu /pedagogy/ottr/.

Viacave, D. F., S. Fitzgerald, and K. M. Smith. 2014. “Growing Pressure Evident in Fiscal 2013 Public University Medians.” Moody’s Investors Service.

Accessed at http://saportareport.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10 /Public-University-Medians-FY-2013.pdf.

Western Governors University. 2014. “The WGU Story.” Accessed at http://www.wgu.edu/about_WGU/WGU_story


This article was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).