2013. Vol.4, No.12, 762-766
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.412108
Best Practices in Distance Education: A Review
Gabriel Kofi Boahen Nsiah
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Valley View University, Accra, Ghana
Received November 4th, 2013; revised December 4th, 2013; accepted December 11th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Gabriel Kofi Boahen Nsiah. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all
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Education plays a significant role in shaping a nation, and the proliferation of Internet-based educational
opportunities has expanded distance learning modalities to all parts of the globe. However, though this
mode of delivery is being capitalized upon as a result of the opportunities it offers, it is still new to many
nations and institutions of learning. This article therefore reviews the best practices that make distance
education works. This will better inform nations and their learning institutions as they capitalize on this
mode for providing access to education.
Keywords: Distance Education; Best Practices
Technology plays a major role in the educational world
(Monolescu, Schifter, & Greenwood, 2004), and has been cred-
ited with reducing the educational gap between developed and
developing nations through distance education (Breen, 2006).
Learners around the world are demanding anytime and any-
where forms of education, and learning institutions are re-
sponding to that demand by implementing various forms of
digitally-based education (Schrum & Hong, 2002).
Distance education is not a new concept, but in recent years,
it has assumed markedly new forms and greater prominence.
Now, it is one of the fastest growing forms of education and is
becoming more a part of mainstream education through courses
taught by Internet or videoconferencing (Ashby, 2002). In a
very short period of time academic institutions have been pro-
vided vastly expanded opportunities to provide a flexible and
more open learning environment for students, and this trend
continues as technology continually improves (McIsaac & Gu-
Distance education as a discipline has a sufficient research
base to have an established set of practices that are considered
essential elements for quality instruction. Though terminology
of these best practices varies by researcher, the broad categories
of best practice are relatively consistent across the literature.
Strong distance education programs have specific hallmarks of
good practice, and these are discussed in this article.
Selecting Organization, Vision and Planning
The importance of organization, vision and planning for dis-
tance education is emphasized by many authors (Berge &
Mrozowski, 2001; Care & Scalan, 2001; Berge & Clark, 2005;
Stansfield et al., 2009). According to Cavalluzzo (2005), edu-
cational leaders who see the possible role for distance education
in their school system should begin by assessing students’
needs and identify clear objectives for the program. Berge and
Clark (2005) seconded this idea by asserting that the vision of
offering a virtual school program must be grounded in the real-
ity of needs, resources, and capabilities (p. 207).
Stanfield et al. (2009) discovered that establishing a clear vi-
sion and strong leadership, as well as demonstrating a pro-
active approach to management that can address potential prob-
lems and explore opportunities to the full, are vital for success
in distance education. In terms of developing vision and plans
for implementing a distance education program, it is suggested
by some authors that administrators should play that leadership
role (Care & Scanlan, 2001; Hache, 2000). Others suggest fac-
ulty leadership, explaining that without faculty leadership, the
plan may be undermined (Kriger, 2001; Myers & Ostash, 2001;
Schifter, 2000). Still others promote the importance of collabo-
rative involvement of all stakeholders—administrators, faculty,
staff, and students (Hache, 2000; Hughes, 2001).
Husmann and Miller (2001) emphasized the importance of
good planning based on their survey of distance education ad-
ministrators. These leaders highlighted the need to provide
additional support for faculty development of course materials,
to make programmatic quality a high priority, and to be cus-
tomer-focused by offering programs concentrated on potential
client needs as essential to sound planning for any distance
Poorly planned programs run the risk of not been successful.
Thus, program administrators must have the vision to consider
and plan for multiple aspects of their program and be consis-
tently evaluating the program to assess effectiveness, limita-
tions and barriers. Planning, if properly executed, provides
solutions to the challenges of today (Fain, 2007; Pisel, 2008).
Good planning may also depend on financial viability. In view
of this, financial issues in distance education program are dis-
cussed in the following section.
G. K. B. NSIAH
Open Access 763
Implementing a viable distance education program can re-
quire a substantial investment of human and capital resources.
Though program administrators may not have to fund physical
classrooms, they do have to support technologies that reliably
produce the virtual classroom setting and qualified technical,
instructional and support staff to run the program. Stanfield et
al. (2009) stressed the importance of financial planning in dis-
tance education to assure a sustainable business model beyond
the initial funding period. Cost models must be developed that
accurately predict the direct and indirect costs associated with
providing instruction at a distance.
Set up costs. Establishing a distance education program can
be expensive, especially when starting with little equipment and
big dreams (Porter, 1997). Cavalluzzo (2005) posited that edu-
cational institutions with interest in or plans of offering distance
education must confront different kinds of issues surrounding
the setup of the program. This includes costs and funding. Por-
ter (1997) explained:
Before you start developing a distance learning course,
you should investigate the types of technology you intend
to use and determine what it will cost to start a course or
program and what the projected costs will be to offer the
course X number of times over X time frame. Knowing
what it will cost to offer the ideal program, then deter-
mining how the―ideal can be translated into―practice
and effective or locating additional sources of funding, are
crucial to the success of a distance learning program (p.
Cavalluzzo (2005) placed emphasis on the use of a student
needs assessment as the basis for program objectives prior to
initiating any distance education program. Once these objec-
tives are defined, the next significant issue should be the factors
that affect the costs and effectiveness of the program, followed
by the need to identify funding sources and methods that can be
used to launch and maintain the program.
Porter (1997) believed that distance education can be offered
with lower-cost technologies but suggested careful budget
planning so that quality is never compromised. Ojo, Ogidan and
Olakulehin (2006) like Porter, also believed that technology
plays an important role in determining the overall cost in run-
ning a distance education program. In their research, they found
that distance education is cost effective as a result of its flexi-
bility, which allows students to pace their study and finish
classes at a convenient time. In other words, a student can skip
a course if facing financial difficulty and return to continue the
program when necessary. The challenge this poses for those
implementing the program is that a steady tuition stream may or
may not be present, as students periodically drop out of the
program based on personal circumstances or finance. Thus, it is
incumbent on the distance education planner to identify finan-
cial strategies such as commercial secretarial services and
stores/bookshops that maximize efficiency and contain costs.
Cost Effectiveness and Efficiency
Butcher (2000) distinguished between cost effectiveness and
cost efficiency. He defined cost efficiency as having to do with
“cheapness” of educational provision—usually expressed in
terms of per-student costs—while cost effectiveness has to do
with striking the optimal balance between cost, student num-
bers, and educational quality, a balance which according to
Butcher, will be entirely different for different educational con-
Butcher (2000) believed the concept of cost-effectiveness
represents the balancing act that constitutes distance education.
According to this author, there is no magical formula that leads
to cost-effective education; rather, cost-effectiveness needs to
be measured on an ongoing basis in relation to changing con-
textual requirements. Bartley and Golek (2004) posited―To
comprehensively evaluate the cost effectiveness of online
learning, practitioners and adopters need a comprehensive tool
to evaluate the costs associated with online learning as com-
pared to those associated with face-to-face learning (p. 173).
To accomplish this program, administrators must carefully
consider costs and budget appropriately. Determining start up
costs, ongoing expenses, and the inevitable price of constant
upgrades inherent to information technology is vital to estab-
lishing and sustaining an effective program.
Online facilitation, in broad terms can be described as the act
of managing the learners and the learning through an online
medium (Australian Flexible Learning Framework, 2002). The
importance of qualified and engaged classroom facilitators is
recognized in distance education programs by researchers
(Mac-Gregor & Atkinson, 2002-2003; Spencer, 2002; Wang,
Literature has revealed four interrelated roles played by fa-
cilitators in distance education—intellectual, social, managerial,
and technical (Hoostsein, 2002; Wang, 2008). Intellectually,
facilitators help students achieve learning objectives by helping
them comprehend critical learning concepts. They also distrib-
ute and collect class materials, proctor exams and quizzes, and
report class needs or problems as they occur (Spencer, 2002;
Wang, 2008). Socially, the facilitator creates and maintains a
friendly environment. Such an environment makes students feel
safe and comfortable interacting with the instructor and with
each other (Anderson, 2004; Wang, 2008).
Managerially, the facilitator sets agendas such as timeline,
rules, and norms for smooth online discussions. In so doing, the
facilitator demonstrates leadership abilities by keeping the stu-
dents focused. Technically, the facilitator assists teachers and
students by operating electronic classroom media that are ap-
propriate to the delivery of each class session. In addition to
that, the facilitator also helps students get familiar and com-
fortable with the delivery technology (Spencer, 2002; Wang,
2008). According to Spencer (2002), facilitators act as the―
eyes and ears of the instructor who is not physically present in
the remote classroom by giving directions, making announce-
ments, answering questions, and consulting with full-time staff.
Both the instructor and students rely on the facilitator to bridge
the physical distance that separates them by minimizing tech-
nological and administrative obstacles.
In their research, Yi and Majima (1993) found that the rela-
tionship between the facilitator and the students impacted the
way the students learned. Positive relationships between the
facilitator and the students affect the students’ learning posi-
tively, while negative relationships affect the students nega-
tively. According to MacGregor and Atkinson (2002-2003), fa-
cilitators should be mentors/role models to the students.
G. K. B. NSIAH
Tapping Student Motivation
Educators in general believe that all students can learn. But
the strength, desire, and temperament to learn vary from one
student to the other (Sankaran & Bui, 2001). Sankaran and Bui
Students who choose distance education need a high level
of motivation if they are to complete the course work
successfully. During their studies, they often have to work
by themselves with little or no opportunities for face-to-
face or peer interaction. They will have to deal with more
abstract and ambiguous situations than someone taking a
lecture class. They need to be efficient in time manage-
ment, be responsible and in control of their studies and
maintain an image of self-worth and self-efficacy. They
should see the value of the education and be able to post-
pone current enjoyments and cope with interruption life
frequently entails (p. 2).
Ormrod (2006), who also spoke to the importance of tapping
student motivation for learning and motivation for pursuing that
learning at a distance, offered the following guidelines for good
practice in fostering student motivation:
When students approach a learning task believing they can
make sense of the information—that is, when they have a
meaningful learning set—they are more likely to learn that
Students with a high sense of self-efficacy are more likely
to exert effort when attempting a new task. They are also
more likely to persist (to try, try again) when they confront
obstacles to their success. In contrast, students with low-self
efficacy about a task will put in little effort and give up
quickly in the face of difficulty,
People often set goals for themselves and direct their be-
havior accordingly; in essence, they are motivated to ac-
complish their goals,
Students with high achievement motivation seek out chal-
lenging tasks that they know they can accomplish with ef-
fort and persistence. They really do not rest on their laurels;
instead, they set increasingly high standards for excellence
as their current standards are met (Ormrod, 2006: p. 200-
Research has shown that students exhibit greater motivation
when the course content is of interest to them and they perceive
some personal relevance in the content (Adler, et al., 2001;
Brass, 2002; Burke & Moore, 2003). In their research on the
impact of motivation on performance, Sankaran and Bui (2001)
found motivation and performance to be significantly correlated
and that high motivation is associated with high performance,
while low motivation is correlated with low performance. In
similar research, Dunigan and Curry (2006) found high motiva-
tion to be associated with high performance and less motivation
to be associated with low performance.
According to Parker (1999), distance education necessitates
the use of real world problems that students work on in teams
to find solutions for and consistent levels of interaction among
class members and with the instructor. In view of the above,
Parker suggested that distance education courses should there-
fore be designed in a manner that would make room for interac-
tion through questioning, evaluation, and analysis. Such activi-
ties support student motivation by linking theory to practice.
Conaway, Easton and Schmidt (2008) posited that online in-
structors should recognize their roles as facilitators who moni-
tor discussion and provide feedback to sustain student motiva-
tion and promote performance. To encourage discussion, they
suggested that the instructor should lead the discussion, sum-
marize the discussion points, and provide feedback. The in-
structor then may have students assume roles for various as-
signments which automatically place them in interactive roles.
And once interaction is initiated, the instructor may disengage
as the students take over.
Russo and Campbell (2004) also noted that the way instruc-
tors respond to students’ e-mails and other forms of communi-
cation have great impact on how well students learn online.
However, Dennen et al. (2007) offered that communication
through e-mail and assignment feedback is not enough to sat-
isfy learners. This research suggested that learners are used to
having an instructor in the face-to-face classroom and wish to
see that same sort of presence in the virtual classroom (p. 9).
Dennen et al. (2007: p. 9) also emphasized the importance of
clearly presenting the expectations of the course to learners.
They said instructors should not assume that their expectations
are as clear to the students as it is [sic] to them. They believed
that students often feel more secure when they have the expec-
tation explicitly stated or confirmed. Moore and Kearsley
(2005), concurred with the above assertion as evidenced by the
Only when a course has clear learning objectives—un-
ambiguous statements of what the student should be able
to do as evidence of having learned—can instructional de-
signers identify the most suitable learning experiences,
make good technology and media selections, and design
appropriate evaluation instruments (p. 125).
Dennen et al. (2007) suggested the provision of examples of
completed assignments or models of expected discussion be-
havior as a way of doing this. They believed that this provision
could be readily built into the course design so students do not
have to ask for them.
Instructors as Co-Learners
Evans et al. (2007) noted that the distance education envi-
ronment affords benefit to both instructors and students by
changing the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship. Fol-
lowing a constructivist philosophy, Evans et al. (2007) recom-
mended that a sound approach to distance education involves
instructional strategies that empower the learners to construct
their own meanings from the content and apply it in personal
ways. Sound instruction, then, relies upon the ongoing initiative
of engaged instructors who are committed to teaching within
the online environment, and to approaching their instruction as
co-learners with their students. Program administrators must set
appropriate standards for hiring and retention of distance edu-
cation faculty, and ongoing development opportunities should
be provided. Meeting instructors’ professional development
needs enhances students learning (Levy, 2003; Lockard, 2001).
Sound Instructional Design and Technical
Because distance education involves the physical separation
of teacher and student, the design of instruction must be highly
precise to make sure that students have all of the information
G. K. B. NSIAH
Open Access 765
they need and that it is presented in a logical and easy-to-follow
format. Instructional design principles that operate from estab-
lished instructional theory should be standardized and applied
to course environments so that students have a consistent inter-
face with which to engage and a logical flow to the course ma-
terials. Course design should focus on the simplest way to con-
vey the content and should be transparent to the learners
(DiPietro et al., 2008; Evans et al., 2007; Levy, 2003).
Adequate Support, Funding, and Compensation
Administrators must ensure the availability of adequate sup-
port from the school, including appropriate technology with
high quality sound and video, as well as support for distributing
homework and for arranging proctored exams. In addition,
funding mechanisms must also consider appropriate compensa-
tion for the design and delivery of distance education courses.
Because distance education requires more of instructors’ time
for preparation and interacting with students, schools should
compensate instructors and teaching assistants appropriately for
extra time spent. Such considerations should be integrated into
program planning and budgeting, and program administrators
should periodically audit their rates to assure that they are
competitive with other programs (DiPietro, et al., 2008; Evans
et al., 2007; Levy, 2003).
Established Policies for Intellectual Property
and Fair Use
Another best practice for distance education programs stipu-
lates that policies should be in place that explicitly outline the
rights of ownership and future use of all instructional materials
and media. Course development should be contracted according
to specified terms of ownership and fair use, and rules should
be employed consistently to avoid any misunderstanding be-
tween course developers and the program. Therefore, estab-
lishing right of ownership and future use policy is necessary to
avert problems before they occur (Evans et al., 2007; Gasaway,
2002; Levy, 2003).
Distance education is still new in most countries, especially
in the developing world. It is a good mode for delivering edu-
cation. There are a lot of benefits that go with distance educa-
tion such as flexibility and provision of education to the remot-
est areas, cost effectiveness, etc. Therefore, serious nations and
institutions interested in real development cannot do away with
distance education. It will provide the opportunity for all, espe-
cially workers and parents to access education even with their
The implementation of an effective distance education pro-
gram, like any other program, can be facilitated by following
established standards of practice and reliance upon the body of
literature related to the discipline. The lack of knowledge
makes people perish and knowledge is power. Therefore being
well informed in distance education will ensure successful es-
tablishment. This article therefore outlined some of the best
practices for successful implementation and administration of
an effective distance education program. Modern academic
institutions must seize the opportunities that distance education
offers to advance their nations.
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