The Standards Approach: Planning for Excellence in Distance Education
Many groups have generated standards for distance education. Despite the many
formats and expressions of these efforts, taken together they offer a “form
for quality” and a foundation for building the next generation of distance
New technologies are offering many alternatives for those teaching in the
distance education environment. What can instructors and those charged with
distance learning programs do to ensure that they are giving students the best
educational experience? Standards can help.
Promoting quality in distance education is a goal that many faculty, administrators,
students, and industry executives pursue. But quality is difficult to achieve,
especially with technology advancing rapidly, the numbers of courses growing
exponentially, and with costs nearly always in question.
In the face of these complexities, how can higher education technologists ensure
quality at all levels for everyone involved? How can they best guide growth
toward these sought-after outcomes?
A systematic strategy for delivering this goal is to identify and adhere to
standards of excellence, which are acknowledged values for developing and delivering
Standards for quality in a distance environment can be similar, if not identical,
to standards in a face-to-face environment: they relate to active learning,
a sense of community, flexibility, timely feedback, and reliable technology.
In a distance environment, though, standards may be expanded to relate to additional
elements, such as course development timelines, complex legal issues like copyright
and intellectual property, and new forms of leadership and technology infrastructure.
Typically, the primary purpose of standards is to improve the teaching and learning
process. But standards can have an impact on related issues, such as teacher
certification, consortia initiatives, competition for distance students, eligibility
for funding, and accreditation. This last item is an especially significant
issue, because accreditation “is the primary means by which higher education
distance learning offerings are currently reviewed for quality,” according
to the Council for Higher Education.
In the last decade—particularly in the last five years—many national
and international organizations have promoted the use of distance education
standards to their constituents and the educational community as a whole. The
American Council on Education, for example, says, “All those involved
in the learning enterprise
will benefit from principles that provide
guidance in producing high-quality education with outcomes that can be clearly
And according to the American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, online degrees,
“won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on, credits won’t
be accepted for transfer, and the people who earned these diplomas will have
a hard time having them accepted in the workplace and elsewhere if standards
At the same time that powerful endorsements—and warnings—have been
issued about standards, many schools have been motivated to adopt their own.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for example, set out to
draft guidelines to promote excellence in the school’s distance education
This project yielded a document centering on 18 standards areas, including initial
course planning, learning and assessment strategies, student feedback, all the
way through to course ownership and student and faculty support services.
At the same time that powerful endosements—and warnings—
have been issued about standards, many schools have been motivated
to adopt their own.
In October 2002, roughly a year and a half after the project began, our standards
were officially approved. Now, as we look at how we created them and how we’re
using them, we feel that our process has been a good one, and that the standards
will continue to be a strong, supportive element in our institution. Some of
the strengths are:
- Variety of contributors: Students, faculty, administrators, and technical
staff were included in the document’s creation so that a variety of experiences,
backgrounds, and knowledge would be represented and integrated.
- Wide circulation: The standards have been circulated institution-wide to standing
committees, administrators, various constituent groups, and individuals. The
objective was to give as many people as possible an opportunity to comment and
contribute so that the document would be enriched and ultimately accepted and
- Comprehensiveness: The standards document is thorough, its recommendations
covering all major aspects of developing and delivering courses, including instructional
design, technical specifications, and support services.
- Practicality: The standards include many practical examples, guidelines, and
suggestions to support the school community in day-to-day efforts that relate
to distance education.
Although the standards committee believes the project will have long term success,
it also anticipates challenges, including making the standards accessible and
useful within the school, and continually integrating them into the instructional
design process and program development.
A Form for Quality
Standards will have different meanings, depending upon who is using them and
what purpose they are serving. But one way to remember their value in distance
education may be to look at what standards mean outside of the distance education
field. For certain gardeners, for example, a standard is a “naturally-bushy
plant trained to have a clear, upright stem capped by a mop of leaves.”
Standards in distance education might be viewed in a similar way. Each one—whether
it pertains to learning design, objectives and outcomes, materials, or technology—is
a leaf in the mop of a well-trained tree. Together, they can be cultivated to
create a strong and viable educational program.
Standards are a foundation, a form for quality. They help us manage the present
and navigate change. Take care of them. Then watch them grow.
Many organizations have already created teaching and learning standards
for distance education. Some standards are simple and streamlined; others
are complex and full-bodied. Here is a short list of models for a variety
The American Association of Higher Education: "Seven
Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (Chickering
& Gamson); "Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever"
(Chickering & Ehrmann) http://www.tltgroup.org/programs/seven.html
Pennsylvania State University IDE:
"An Emerging Set of Guiding
Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education"
International Distance Education Certification Center:
Education Standards and Resource Guide: Principles for Designing and Delivering
Quality Distance Education Courses"
American Council on Education:
"Guiding Principles for Distance
Learning in a Learning Society" and "Distance Learning Evaluation
Institute for Higher Education Policy:
"Quality on the Line:
Benchmarks for Success in Internet-based Distance Education"
David G. Brown (ed): "Interactive Learning:
America’s Most Wired Campuses"
"147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online
Groups: Essentials of Web-Based Education"
St. Petersburg College:
"Best Educational E-Practices"
David G. Brown (ed): "Interactive Learning: Vignettes from
America’s Most Wired Campuses"
Atwood Publishing: "147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online
Groups: Essentials of Web-Based Education"
St. Petersburg College: "Best Educational E-Practices"