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Distance Education Program Principles of Good Practice

We gratefully acknowledge our debt to the American Council on Education, for their Principles of Good Practice for Distance Learning in a Learning Society, and to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools for their Principles of Good Practice.



In this document the Task Force on Distance Higher Education specifically addresses the fastest growing segment of US higher education, distance education or distance learning. In part because of the rapid changes in the technological platforms and because institutions are launching new programs without substantial experience base, there remain wide variations in the quality of distance education programs. In response to this concern, the Task Force has established principles and standards of good practice that can be used to evaluate an institution's capability to design and deliver quality distance programs mediated through technology.

At the same time, the Task Force recognizes that the increased use of technologies in site-based courses and the growing interest in alternate approaches to distance learning have created a convergence of distance and on-site learning that some refer to as distributed learning. Increasingly we see distributed learning environments in which students on site and students at a distance have much the same learning experience. As this convergence continues, the new forms of education that emerge are likely to resemble distance education in their flexibility, interactivity, and use of innovative pedagogical approaches.

These principles and criteria address only the distance education aspects of programs, not their content or the academic preparation of their faculty. The standards of academic quality remain the same for all programs regardless of the delivery system used.

Organizational Commitment


  • Distance learning must be backed by an organizational commitment to quality and effectiveness in all aspects of the learning environment.


  • To be effective distance learning programs must be backed by a commitment on the part of the institution or organization to include distance learning in its planning and goal-setting, to treat distance education and on-campus education equitably in its policies and procedures, and to provide the necessary resources – human, fiscal, programmatic and technical --- to support those programs.

Operational Criteria

  1. The institution's distance learning activity is consistent with the institutional mission.
  2. The institution shows evidence - through its priorities, goals, strategic plans, policies, procedures, faculty recognition, and infrastructure - that it values distance learning.
  3. The institution's distance learning programs show evidence of careful planning, including identification of the need, the nature and size of the intended audiences, provisions for serving those audiences, and a plan for adding resources (financial and human, including instructional staffing and support functions) to accommodate future program growth ("scalability").
  4. The institution has committed sufficient resources to its distance learning programs and services to ensure their effectiveness.
  5. The institution has clearly identified a single office or officer with responsibility for assuring the quality of all distance education across the institution.
  6. The institution ensures that the administration of its distance learning programs by knowledgeable personnel with adequate time and resources to accomplish this task.
  7. The institution has developed and implemented a process for sustaining faculty professional development in distance learning.  This process recognizes that teaching in the distance learning environment requires different pedagogical and communication strategies to function effectively and that the faculty member and the institution share responsibility for assuring effectiveness.
  8. If the institution uses courses, programs, or academic support services from another provider, it has an adequate process in place (with faculty participation) for evaluating their quality, academic rigor, and suitability for the award of college credit and a degree or certificate.
  9. The institution has in place a comprehensive, viable technology plan for distance learning.
  10. The institution has a clear policy on ownership of course materials developed for its distance education courses; this policy is shared with all faculty and staff involved in distance education at the institution.
Learning Design


  • The institution's distance learning programs are designed to fit the specific context for learning.


  • All programs the institution offers in a distance learning format must have quality, integrity, and consistency, and must fit the specific context for learning. That context includes the nature of the subject matter, the intended learning outcomes, the needs and goals of the learner, the learner’s environment, and the instructional technologies and methods.

Operational Criteria

  1. The same academic standards and requirements are applied to programs offered on campus and through distance learning.
  2. Distance learning programs are coherent, complete, and offered in a sequence or configuration that allows timely completion of requirements.
  3. The same faculty qualifications are applied to distance education programs as all other academic programs.
  4. Faculty members are responsible for the initial and ongoing development and delivery of instruction in distance programs.
  5. Distance learning programs provide clear statements of learner responsibilities and expectations of student participation and learning.
  6. Distance learning programs provide for appropriate and flexible interaction between faculty and students and among students.
  7. The technologies selected for a specific distance learning opportunity are appropriate for the intended learning outcomes, content, relevant characteristics of the learning and the learner, and student cost.
  8. Distance learning programs include adequate verification of learners' work.
  9. Faculty and program administrators determine the appropriate enrollment that can be supported in the distance learning program and in individual courses based upon the content and learning activities, the nature of the learners, the technologies used, and the support available to faculty.
Learner Support


  • Distance learning activities are effectively supported for learners through fully accessible modes of delivery and resources.


  • Distance learners often must assume greater responsibility for their own learning. They must understand and address their own learning needs; take initiative in asking questions and obtaining help; interact with faculty and other students as appropriate; and be prepared to deal with technical difficulties in the two-way flow of information. At the same time, institutions must develop and provide the necessary information and learner support systems to assist learners in carrying out their learning activities and using the available resources. Learner support must be appropriate to the distance learning modes used.

Operational Criteria

  1. The institution provides distance students with detailed information on admissions and program graduation requirements.
  2. Distance program materials clearly and accurately represent the program, including detailed program completion requirements, the nature of the learning experience, program and faculty responsibilities, and the nature of faculty-student, student-faculty, and student-student interaction opportunities, techniques, and requirements. They define any specific student background, knowledge, or technical skills needed to undertake and successfully complete the distance program, and describe in layman's terms any technical equipment and/or software required or recommended.
  3. The institution provides distance learners adequate academic support, including academic advisement, technical support, and other student support services normally available on campus. Program materials clearly describe how students obtain these support services.
  4. The institution provides adequate library and information resources, services, and support for academic programs, including training in information literacy. These resources and services are accessible at a distance on a timely basis.
  5. Administrative processes such as admissions and registration are readily accessible to distance students, and program materials clearly describe how access is obtained.
  6. The institution provides orientation opportunities and resources for distance learners that are appropriate to the technologies used, the content, and the learners.
Outcomes and Assessment


  • Distance education programs organize learning activities around demonstrable outcomes (often expressed in learning objectives), assist the learner to achieve these outcomes, and assess learner progress by reference to these outcomes.

Operational Criteria

  1. Distance learning programs are expected to produce the same learning outcomes as comparable classroom-based programs. These learning outcomes are clearly identified -- in terms of knowledge, skills, or credentials -- in the course and program materials.
  2. All aspects of the distance learning program are consistent with and shaped to achieve the demonstrable learning outcomes.
  3. The means chosen for assessing student learning are appropriate to the content, learning design, technologies, and characteristics of the learners.
Program Evaluation


  • The institution evaluates the effectiveness of its distance learning
    programs and uses the findings to improve the programs and services.

Operational Criteria

  • The institution has a process in place to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of all aspects of its distance learning programs on a regular basis.
  • The evaluation results are used for continuous program improvement.
  • Program evaluation procedures include a determination that distance learning programs result in learning outcomes appropriate to the rigor and breadth of the college degree or certificate awarded.
Examples of Good Practices

Organizational Commitment

Distance learning must be backed by an organizational commitment to quality and effectiveness in all aspects of the learning environment.

  • Importance of Distance Learning:

    Monroe Community College (MCC) demonstrates organizational commitment to alternative instructional delivery systems that is evident by its cross-divisional impact. Both administration and staff are enthusiastically involved in distance learning. The Vice Presidents for Academic Affairs and Educational Technology Services strongly support these initiatives, and over fifty faculty members are interested and involved. The overarching philosophy at MCC is that all courses (on-campus, off-campus or online) are the same in terms of academic rigor and faculty and learner support needs. The college's President, who teaches distance courses himself, is particularly articulate in stating Monroe Community College's commitment to integrating distance learning into the everyday operational activities of the institution.

  • Oversight/Quality Assurance:

    The State University of New York at Albany has designated the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs as the person responsible for oversight of and quality assurance for distance education across the institution. The following information was provided in a letter to the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Carlos E. Santiago.

    To support the Provost in this task, the University has:

    1. Added a person dedicated to the support of courses in distance learning to its Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). This individual has prior experience in online teaching and demonstrated knowledge of pedagogy related to an online environment.
    2. Institutionalized training and technology support for video-teleconferencing in CETL.
    3. Added faculty from the School of Education to the CETL Advisory Board.
    4. Identified funding sources in order to increase CETL's professional development opportunities for those interested in and already involved in distance learning.
    5. Created a Provost's Advisory Committee consisting of the Directors of CETL and Extended Learning as well as faculty members to provide a mechanism and process to assure the quality of our extended learning offerings and to review programmatic offerings before they are submitted through the standard governance process.
    6. As a result of the site review, the University has integrated the activities of CETL and the Office of Extended Learning. The Director of CETL and the Director of Extended Learning are members of the Council of Deans and participate in meetings of this body. They will periodically report on progress in their areas to the Council of Deans and work with the deans and Provost's Office to assist in efforts to promote quality distance education.

    At New York University, the President sent a memorandum to all Deans establishing a process by which all distance education activity (described as "Internet activity") will be cleared through the Special Assistant to the President who is also the Dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS). This assignment is based in part on the fact that most existing distance education at NYU was developed and administered by SCPS.

    As we develop our potential in this area, it is clear that it has enormous positive applications for us in this world of instant global communication and we must be careful to use this tool effectively to advance our goals and protect our product. Conversely, if we are not careful in our management, the Internet also holds the power to do us harm with misstatements or inaccurate representations of NYU. Therefore, as we move ahead on this important project, I believe it is important to have a process in place that helps each of us develop innovative uses for the Internet while also having the appropriate system of oversight in place to avoid mistakes that could easily have large consequences. I have asked the Special Assistant to the President to coordinate discussions and activities related to how we can most effectively use the Internet to benefit the University."

    Under the direction of the Vice President for Educational Technology Services, the Monroe Community College Distance Learning Advisory Committee provides advisory review and guidance for MCC's distance learning initiatives. Comprised of faculty members, department chairs, academic affairs staff, educational technology staff, marketing staff, and others, the committee meets regularly to discuss current and future alternative instructional delivery options. Although advisory in nature, the committee reviews distance learning operational details and recommends changes or enhancements as necessary. A core group of members from this committee worked with the VP of Educational Technology Services to develop the materials needed for the SED Distance Learning capacity review process.

  • Mission:

    At New York University there is not a separate mission for distance education; the University views it only as one of the several tools to help it fulfill its core mission. Academic excellence is the core of NYU's mission and drives the University's entireon site and online activities. NYU also views distance education as a means to help it further its international mission of making NYU's opportunities available to a broader audience.

  • Professional Development:

    At the New School University faculty who teach online are provided with an intensive training program and ongoing pedagogical and technical support by the staff of DIAL, the New School's online delivery system. All instruction staff who teach online through the DIAL program are required to complete a specially designed five-week faculty development workshop during the semester before their course is offered online. This online workshop, conducted under the supervision of DIAL's Manager of Academic Services, and with support from other distance learning staff and divisional coordinators is designed both for faculty who are new to Internet communication as well as those who already have a good deal of experience working online. The faculty development workshop engages faculty in a pedagogical discussion of the similarities and differences between teaching online and in the classroom. Successful completion of the workshop requires a commitment of three to five hours a week of online interaction in addition to a set of required readings selected to introduce faculty to the pedagogy of online education.

    After the faculty development workshop is successfully completed, faculty enter a two-week "Start-Up" conference in which they bring together all the elements of their online course. In the first week, each faculty member is given a class "shell"-the empty classroom into which the faculty member will post his/her instructional and resource items-and during the second week, which overlaps with the Student Orientation week, students will begin to enter the "classroom" to greet each other and the faculty member. All technical support is offered through the DIAL office for both faculty and students 24-hours a day, seven days a week on a toll-free ("800") telephone number.

    Monroe Community College (MCC)utilizes a two-pronged approach to support its faculty members who teach in a totally asynchronous mode via the SUNY Learning Network (SLN). To date, MCC/SLN faculty members have developed over one hundred courses and deliver approximately twenty percent of all SLN courses each semester. SLN provides the course template, server, and help-desk support, three training sessions for faculty and offers a wide variety of online support through their website. The MCC/SLN team (which consists of Instructional Designer, an Academic Coordinator, a Collaborative/Distance Learning Librarian, an Instructional Support coordinator and a Training coordinator) provides operational assistance and on-site wrap around training sessions to supplement SLN’s instruction. All team members have other full-time responsibilities at the College, so a distributed, collaborative team approach was chosen as the best way to operationalize SLN at MCC.

Learning Design:

The institution's distance learning programs are designed to fit the specific context for learning.

  • Verification of Learner's Work:

    Pace University, through a grant provided by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, developed the Pace/NACTEL Proctoring Program. The proctoring system allows designated proctors to supervise and administer any major examinations throughout the distance education course. It is the distance learner's responsibility to choose a proctor in his or her community that meets the criteria outlined by Pace/NACTEL. The proctor must submit an application to the university, and the student will be notified by e-mail once their selection has been approved. Prior to the day of the examination, the student receives a copy of the Proctored Exam Information via e-mail. The student then contacts his or her proctor to arrange to take the exam and prints out a copy of the Student/Proctor Verification Form. The exam is sent to the proctor via mail, fax or computer and administered to the student after a valid photo I.D. is presented and the Student/Proctor Verification Form is completed by both the student and proctor. The exam, with the attached Student/Proctor Verification Form, is then mailed to the university. Once the course instructor receives the examination, the student is notified by e-mail. After the exam has been graded and the grade recorded, the student will receive another e-mail and will have access to the grade through CourseInfo, software developed by Blackboard for online course assessment.

  • Cost / Benefits of Distance Education:

    The State University of New York  Learning Network (SLN) offers a distance learning calculator for students to determine how much they would save by taking an online course rather than commuting to a campus. Variables, such as distance, gas mileage, childcare, commuting time, personal worth, and miscellaneous expenses are calculated and the savings for both classes that meet once a week and classes that meet twice a week over a fifteen week semester are given to the prospective student.

Learner Support:

Distance learning activities are effectively supported for learners through fully accessible modes of delivery and resources.

  • Academic and Administrative Support:

    Mercy College offers a method of academic advising to distance learners that helps students identify their academic and career goals, and monitors student's academic performance. This monitoring system is called the Early Alert System. Faculty notify academic advisors when they feel concerned about a students' academic performance so that the advisor may then offer the student assistance or recommendations that would enable the student to successfully complete the course. The advisors are available Monday through Thursday from 9am to 7pm, Friday from 9am to 5pm and Saturday from 9am to 1pm.

    In addition to offering solid academic advising to distance students, Mercy College also offers online tutorials in writing and math, as well as one-on-one assistance for those needing help with papers related to their courses or specific math problems.

  • Student Orientation:

    Monroe Community College is developing a video on the Ten Myths of Online Learning from the student's perspective. This video will supplement information already on the web site and will directly address student concerns and misperceptions regarding asynchronous course delivery. MCC is utilizing the collaborative efforts of an English department faculty member and a Counselor from the Counseling Center to develop this product. A completion date of spring, 2001 is anticipated.

    Also in development for spring, 2001 release is a module for students on the evaluation of learning styles within the context of distance learning. An MCC Counselor, who also teaches an online Career Orientation seminar, is researching and developing the module. The module will be reviewed by MCC colleagues and will become a part of MCC’s enhanced online Student Services presence.

Outcomes and Assessment:

Distance education programs organize learning activities around demonstrable outcomes (often expressed in learning objectives), assist the learner to achieve these outcomes, and assess learner progress by reference to these outcomes.

  • Program Outcomes:

    The State University of New York at Albany has developed a model, known as the Albany Outcomes Assessment Model, that is used across the institution. This model takes into account factors such as pre-college characteristics, college experiences, both academic and personal outcomes of the educational process, and alumni outcomes. Since programs offered at a distance by the University have the same content and characteristics as those offered on campus, the application of this assessment model to on-campus programs covers their distance education counterparts as well.

Program Evaluation:

The institution evaluates the effectiveness of its distance learning programs and uses the findings to improve the programs and services.