Support Services for Distance Education
Director of Distance Education
CampusNet/University of Houston System
4242 South Mason Road
Katy, Texas 77450 USA
Tel: (1) 281 395 2800 Ext 6015
Fax: (1) 281 395 2629
What Makes Distance Education Work?
Universities are very busy these days trying to "do" distance education. We are planning for a future that is not quite clear, budgeting for unknown and frightening technological contingencies, training faculty to use technologies that the faculty are not at all sure they even want to use, visiting other campuses to see what the other folks are doing, reading the research that can be contradictory for reasons that are not all that clear—and all the while trying to figure out how to market a product that hasn’t quite taken shape yet.
While management gurus such as Peter Drucker tell us that universities as we know them will cease to exist in the next thirty years (Lenzner & Johnson, 1997), university administrators and faculty are trying to put all these elements together to see if we can come up with a survival formula. We are vaguely aware that the technology is somehow at the root of all this, and we tend to focus on surviving by making the right technology choice. But starting with the "right" technology choice is already a mistake. The fact is, it’s the combination of elements that offers any promise of survival for today’s universities.
Experience with distance education helps. Regardless of the technology used, the benefits of making some mistakes along the way bring important perspectives for ongoing planning. Whatever mode of transmission is used to deliver programs away from an institution's main campus, administrators and faculty must begin to think differently about what they are doing, whom they are serving, and what educational outcomes they are seeking. The advantages of having administrators, faculty, students, legislators, regulatory agencies, and the general public who understand and support distance education cannot be overestimated.
Commitment at the top helps. When the board of regents, chancellor, president and provost all agree that distance education should be a priority for an institution, things do start to happen—though still not quickly enough. In most any higher education institution, nothing happens without the willingness of the faculty, and so it becomes the role of the administrator to win the willingness of a diverse group of people who generally don’t have to (and sometimes just don’t want to) go along with the administrators’ vision.
Money helps—let’s be honest. Ramping up a distance education operation of any sort takes people, equipment, and training, and these needs keep multiplying. Sources can include discretionary funds employed by a committed top administrator; donors who want to help realize a vision for the university; reallocation of resources (a politically unpopular move most of the time); grants from many sources that are increasingly available to institutions; and users who pay fees to enjoy the benefits that distance education will deliver to them.
Infrastructure helps—the kind that provides the behind-the-scenes support to all the participants, that gives the users that sense of seamlessness, that makes interactions work smoothly and "naturally." A support services infrastructure bridges the gap between the discomfort of trying to do something familiar in an unfamiliar setting and the constantly rising set of expectations users have related particularly to technology. The "issues of divergence" (Olcott, 1996) between common institutional practice and the infrastructure requirements to support distance delivery begin to identify the particulars that universities need to address.
Even a glance at the literature in the field of distance education hints at the diversity of factors beyond technology choices that are required for successful delivery of programs: special advisers and student orientations (Westbrook & Moon, 1997); nontraditional schedules and customized programs and services (Speer, 1996); academic, business, and institutional partnerships (Froke, 1995); and internal marketing to faculty, chairs, and deans (Olcott & Wright, 1995). Faculty participation depends on appropriate administrative support as an important factor (Betts, 1998). Students require services that are user-friendly not only to on-campus students (Olcott, 1996); and studies have long shown that classroom management issues outside of instruction and specific technologies are vitally important to student satisfaction (Biner, Dean, Mellinger, 1994).
Houston: A Case Study of Distance Learning in Progress
As the fourth largest city in the United States, Houston encompasses a greater metropolitan area more than a hundred miles across and has a population of approaching four million, with sizeable concentrations of industry, high technology companies, and corporate headquarters. Rail or subway forms of mass transportation are lacking, and freeway traffic often keeps would-be students from getting to class after work. Economic up’s and down’s have created considerable drama in major sectors over the past two decades, including energy, banking, real estate, and aerospace, and have driven many Houstonians to explore new careers. Corporate downsizing has forced many advanced professionals to re-enter the job market, and companies have turned increasingly to training, re-training, and advanced education. As the region and the state shift to a minority-majority population, regional and state leaders have begun implementing strategies for educating its future workforce.
The University of Houston System institutions share the traditional mission of serving the higher education needs of a diverse urban population. The University of Houston is the doctoral degree-granting and research-oriented component of the University of Houston System (UHS). Its activities include a broad range of academic programs encompassing undergraduate, graduate and professional education; basic and applied research; and public service programs. University of Houston-Clear Lake and University of Houston-Victoria are upper-level institutions delivering bachelor’s and master’s degrees and serving the traditional and non-traditional academic, research, and service needs of their surrounding communities. A vital part of the region’s business community, University of Houston-Downtown is a four-year open admission institution (with a recently approved master’s degree program in criminal justice) providing credit, noncredit, and public service programs. The educational offerings of the four universities include both full-time programs for traditional students and part-time and evening programs for employed individuals. The campuses make no distinction in requirements or quality of instruction between the degree programs offered through day or evening classes, or between on-campus and distance education courses. A majority of UHS students are older, part-time working students; distance education students generally are somewhat older than on-campus students and are even more likely to be working part- or full-time.
Distance Education at UHS Universities
Each university has developed its distance education operations and infrastructure in its own way, based on the events and culture of its own institution. Over the past two decades, the four institutions have been called upon many times by their communities to deliver programs to specific locations and populations. They have responded by developing both widely spread off-campus locations and various technological delivery systems. All four institutions participate in one or more multi-institution teaching centers that provide collaboratively offered bachelor’s and master’s degrees both face-to-face and via some form of instructional technology. UH-Clear Lake has delivered degree programs by videoconferencing to corporate sites in other cities; UH-Victoria has developed cohorts in corporations and communities in Texas and Canada; UH-Downtown has provided courses by videotape, television, and online; and for the past 19 years, UHS has served remote parts of its region through face-to-face off-campus courses, microwave and videoconference courses, public television, cable, videotape, and online delivery.
The support services infrastructure at UHS has had more time to develop than the other campuses and has required more attention due to its numbers (3500 enrollments each semester). The following description of the development of UH Distance Education will illustrate how the demands and growth of support services has addressed needs arisen from the particular organizational culture. UH Distance Education (UHDE) has followed these basic principles as it has grown:
UHDE programs have developed as new technologies and delivery approaches have been implemented. From its beginnings in 1980 as the organizing and coordinating office for face-to-face off-campus courses, UHDE used a centrally allocated instructional funding pool to solicit departments to offer key upper-level and graduate courses at suburban sites. Courses were generally taught as overloads for extra pay and mileage reimbursement from UHDE. Academic departments/colleges received the "credit" for the hours generated (Texas public universities are formula-funded). As "buildings farther down the street from the main campus," the off-campus sites functioned as suburban learning centers within their communities. Staff members were hired as the interactions with the communities grew and the demand for services increased. Staff worked with their surrounding community associations, chambers, economic development councils, school districts, and community colleges, as well as coordinating program offerings—both credit and noncredit—with the university’s academic programs.
Issues during this phase of development included providing support and incentive for faculty: setting up extra pay plus mileage; identifying specific support needs; creating a pleasant work environment with supportive, friendly staff; and offering faculty opportunities for community contacts. UHDE needed to develop the trust of department chairs and deans, in addition to making a case that the departments and programs could benefit by outreach activities. Departments saw that UHDE provided opportunities for faculty to receive extra compensation at no expense to the department, all the while generating new enrollments and creating visibility for the programs. Campus governance bodies and the state’s regulatory agency had to be satisfied that the quality and mission of the institution were well-served by the off-campus activities; this goal was generally accomplished through regular reporting and interactions between the various committees and UHDE staff. A major challenge was marketing: how to let the general public (or specific niche audiences) know that these programs were suddenly available to them at a level of convenience they had never before imagined.
Staff at the earliest stages included a director (initially of each off-campus location, and gradually a single director of all off-campus sites); an associate director to oversee the academic programs; an assistant director to develop noncredit programming; a site coordinator; an office manager; and a night manager. Events were organized to draw the public to the site as a hub for learning activities and intellectual stimulation, as well as just getting the word out that the university was there. The state did not initially allow complete degrees to be offered off-campus, so that the focus was on key courses that the suburban populations were seeking. Support both to students and faculty could be very individualized.
In 1984, based on the infrastructure created by the off-campus sites, UHS began broadcasting live, interactive courses in graduate engineering and graduate education to closed-circuit sites, including schools, corporations, community sites, and multiple off-campus institutes. The state regulatory board eventually granted permission to offer two complete engineering master’s degree programs via distance education, and slightly later, a master’s degree in computer science. Faculty teach their face-to-face campus class as part of their teaching load in a studio classroom. Remote site students constitute faculty "overload," for which the faculty receive instructional pay based on the same principles as had been developed for face-to-face overload instruction. Courses are delivered by one-way video/two-way audio microwave or two-way audio/videoconferencing. Paperwork may be exchanged by courier, fax, e-mail, and/or mail, and tests are proctored by site facilitators coordinated through UHDE.
New issues arising from these developments included training for faculty to teach in a televised setting and coordinating activities with another department—University Media Services. Decisions about equipment purchases, maintenance, and budgets became (sometimes painful) shared decisions and included bringing in external perspectives as to where the technology was heading. UHDE began developing protocols for working with corporate and community partners: how to assess and address their needs and how to develop flexible responses; how to assure seamless on-site support through site facilitators; how to provide company-wide communication about program offerings and opportunities; and how to assist them in setting up their telecommunication infrastructures.
During this period, UHDE staff expanded to include instructional design training for the faculty delivered as workshops, manuals, and one-on-one training; and a logistics/support services person to coordinate schedules and communications with external partners.
In 1994, confronted with the unexpected loss of airtime from one of its microwave carriers, the university decided to tape its live-interactive courses and replay them on the local PBS affiliate and Educational Access Cable. This change took UHDE from 200 students each semester to over 2,000 within the first year. During the initial semester, UHS organized a partnership with all regional community colleges and proposed the delivery of complete, collaborative bachelor’s degrees through distance education, with the community colleges providing the freshman/sophomore levels and the university providing the junior/senior courses. This plan received state approval, as did the offering of several additional master’s programs via distance education. Tape-viewing sites were established at the community colleges, and courses also became available by videotape purchase.
New issues included copyright agreements; intellectual property rights; agreements and arrangements with television stations; tape purchase, delivery, and storage; changes in instructional design and training to adapt to the new formats; orientation sessions for students; delivery of services to students who might never come to campus or have ongoing real-time communications with their professors; and coordinating activities and processes with an increasing number of partners (and students). Pay scales and policies for asynchronous (videotape) delivery were based on the previously accepted and familiar policies used for face-to-face or live-interactive courses.
Staff grew once again, to include admissions and advising personnel trained in the campus units, but specific to distance education. These positions became essential as liaisons to the community colleges and other partner organizations, as well as being available to answer student questions and guide them through the admission and enrollment process. Additional studio staff was hired (and an additional studio built) to accommodate the dramatically increased production schedule. Support services staff grew to include an information-line manager and videotape coordinator.
In 1995, the four UHS schools entered into a collaborative agreement to deliver degree programs to a multi-institution teaching center in which the freshman/sophomore courses would be delivered by two local community colleges and the junior/senior and master’s level courses would be provided in partnering arrangements among the four universities. Many of the courses would be provided face-to-face, while others would be delivered live-interactive via videoconferencing. A second such partnership started up shortly afterward involving two of the System institutions.
By 1996, online courses began, conducted by e-mail, or by combinations of e-mail, listservs, live chat, bulletin boards, groupware, or classroom software management systems. Again building on existing policies and procedures, processes and salary policies were developed to encompass online course development. Special training, equipment, general organizational logistics, student hardware/software/logistics support, computer access, software—all have thrown the university into new discussions about mission, priorities, and (inevitably) budgets.
Staff for UHDE expanded somewhat to accommodate the diverse locations and new instructional technologies to be implemented and integrated within the existing set of offerings. A marketing coordinator joined the team to develop outreach materials, as well as an additional person in support services to help manage the logistical details of communicating with over 150 faculty and 3,500 students each semester.
As of 1999, the entire UHS is undergoing a major change: the distance education operations of the four campuses will be coordinated and marketed jointly, and the new infrastructure is very much "under construction." Each campus has an existing infrastructure to support its activities to some extent: UH-Clear Lake, for example, has an outstanding Instructional Technology Center with staff, equipment and software, as well as a systematic course development program for faculty; UH-Downtown has a Technology Teaching and Learning Center with extensive facilities to help faculty develop and implement online courses; UH-Victoria has years of experience in delivering its MBA program to cohorts in far-flung locations. The various distance education programs available from each campus, however, have not worked together in the past, as they will in the future. University of Houston Distance Education will add some support staff (a webmaster and a corporate outreach coordinator), but basically will—again—build on the existing structures and strengths at all four campuses to create a strong presence for the University of Houston System.
How to Deal with Sweeping Change
The evolving support infrastructures created by all these changes have required the participation of virtually all administrative departments dealing with students, and all academic departments offering courses or programs. Internal and external advisory boards, community colleges, corporate partners, and school districts have all provided input. The process has been ongoing and collaborative as new groups on campus get involved with distance education. While winning awards for its programs and faculty, UHDE has continuously examined and revised its processes and procedures to maintain the academic integrity and service excellence of the program.
In some situations, the opportunity may exist for substantive change: a top administrator might declare and fund a major initiative that can be built from the ground up to meet the precise needs of the new distance education venture. This is, however, often not the case; more likely, the distance education initiatives have gradually developed in the absence of significant support or initial planning. The University of Houston has been fortunate to have the support of top administrators fairly early on, but has seldom had the funding to support widespread change. The solution that has in fact worked has been to build on the experience and infrastructure that have evolved over the years.
At the level of the distance education unit, partnering is important: other units (media services, information technology, library, admissions) have similar goals that can create productive collaborations (example: an internal funding opportunity to promote recruitment resulted in a shared position with the admissions office). Establishing credibility of the distance education unit and its staff is essential, through ongoing interacting and networking (example: the distance education unit conducted a two-year "internal marketing campaign" in which each staff member made a point of meeting and interacting with their regular campus contacts or serving on campus committees to be a "voice" for the distance education perspective). Maintaining a service orientation toward all "customers"—internal as well as external—invites greater participation (example: showing an academic program how distance education initiatives can help the program achieve its own goals). Having a budget proposal in your pocket at all times makes sure that no opportunity for funding any part of the distance education activities will be lost.
Distance Education Support Services: A Checklist
The following list of distance education activities and support services may be a suggested guide for some of the services associated with delivery of degree programs at a distance. Virtually all of these activities require support from other campus units.
Orientations & Training
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (State Governance) Issues
Assessment and Evaluation