This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 21 Number 3 1998. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

Linking Strategic Planning with Program Implementation for Distance Education
by Zane L. Berge and Lynne Schrum

This article outlines some of the major factors and issues a college or university needs to address in planning for and implementing distance education. The authors propose that there is a need to conduct such planning and programmatic implementation simultaneously and to integrate these activities into the fabric of the institution as seamlessly as possible.

The widespread implementation of distance education, still a marginalized op- eration on many American campuses, has become a major challenge demanding attention and resources. At a time when the demand for distance education programs and courses is growing, most college campuses do not have the infrastructure or culture to change in ways that will meet the demand. From its start in correspondence study to its present proliferation on the Web, distance education has suffered from an enduring negative attitude based in "traditional academic suspicion of--and resistance to--change, intellectual elitism, and the scandal-ridden history of proprietary correspondence schools."1 This legacy has left many institutions scrambling in the face of increased consumer demand and competition from other institutions.

To many newcomer practitioners who are now being asked to orchestrate the delivery of education off-site, distance education is perceived as a brand new field rather than one with a long history having its own body of research and theory.2 The question now becomes how to integrate that recorded experience with teaching and learning at a distance into clearly articulated contemporary plans and action.3

Distance education is defined here as the process of linking learners with (human and non-human) remote resources for instructional purposes, where the instructor and students are geographically separated for at least some of the instruction and the students earn an institutional credential (a grade, certificate, degree, etc.). Some differentiation has been made between distance learning, which focuses on the learner at a distance, and distance teaching, which focuses "on the process of course development by which a distance education institution prepares learning materials for students."4 Keegan in Foundations of Distance Education and Moore and Kearsley in Distance Education: A Systems View see distance teaching and distance learning as components of distance education. Keegan proposes it as "the only term for international usage."5 For our purposes here, distance teaching, distance education, and distance learning will be used synonymously. We will use the phrase "technology-enhanced learning" to mean a broader concept that includes the use of technology in teaching and learning both on campus and at a distance.

This article outlines some of the major factors and issues involved in planning for distance education within the broader scope of technology-enhanced learning on campus. It also points to elements critical to the implementation of distance education. It is important to recognize that on-campus programs and courses may often use the same resources and infrastructure as those delivered to students at a distance. Our perspective is that there is a need to conduct institutional planning (including policy evaluation and reform) and programmatic implementation simultaneously. The goal is to integrate these into the fabric of the institution as seamlessly as possible.6

Benefits and Barriers

Learning is a lifelong pursuit. Distance learning uses many technologies including telecommunication and computer systems for two-way interaction to promote lifelong learning without regard to geographic location or time zone.7 A few examples of the benefits of technology-enhanced learning are:

However, a bewildering number of policies and procedures form barriers to the efforts of educators who wish to implement a program at a distance. This, along with the meager resources available on most college campuses, makes implementation of certificate or credit programs a formidable challenge. There are also issues of coordination and control for those on campus who are charged with standardizing educational efforts, reducing duplication of effort when it is cost effective to do so, and accounting to university or other governing agencies. For these administrators, the ad-hoc, grassroots efforts of faculty and departments to develop and implement technology-based learning may be viewed as maverick efforts that create planning and implementation challenges.

The Role of an Advisory Committee

The challenges of planning and implementing distance education programs include pedagogical changes, institutional issues, and organizational structure. Given these concerns, a committee is often formed by campus administrators to more systematically analyze campus needs. The composition of such committees can be as varied as the campuses on which they are formed. However, commonly participants include a person or persons high enough in rank to champion technology-enhanced learning, faculty members interested in distance education, a person or persons in charge of infrastructure and support services (e.g., the director of campus computing, the director of instructional development, the dean of the library), and other administrators and staff with a stake in promoting successful technology-enhanced learning. The charge to this committee may include the following:

The advisory committee can provide leadership in policy revision and remove barriers to the mainstreaming of technology-enhanced learning. Each incentive or disincentive, the reporting and accountability structures, and the determination of major resource allocations have a role in changing the institutional culture. Identifying external and internal policies affecting distance education, especially during the initial phases, is critical to overall success. Examples of policies that may require review include:

The committee may experience tensions as they determine whether to review these campus policies and procedures to determine which, if any, are in need of change in light of emerging technology-enhanced or distance learning activities. Philosophically, some members of the committee may believe it is best to work through policy change and planning to affect change; others will be anxious to select a "test case program" and, as that is implemented, discover changes that need to be made to the campus systems, policies, and procedures. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but in our experience working with a program to get it into operation in a concrete way is more effective and efficient than a comprehensive review of all policies and procedures when that review takes place outside of the context of a specific program or technology-enhanced learning project. These activities can, and should, be done concurrently.

Strategic Planning

One of the goals of strategic planning is to create and define the environment--with its boundaries and parameters--in which students learn, teachers teach, and the institution competes. The idea is to gather data, analyze information, and decide on an implementation plan that has a high possibility of success while avoiding expensive pitfalls.9

Integration with the institutional mission

For example, how distance education programs fit within the mission of the institution must first be determined before any major resource allocation should be expected.

Resources inventory

A first step is to take an inventory of resources such as available hardware, software, distance delivery technologies, technical and faculty support staff, and identify any technology-enhanced learning projects already functioning. Indicators of resources capacity (e.g., length of time individuals have to wait to get assistance in lesson design or technology support, and the availability of expertise represented by an instructional technology support unit) might also be included. Armed with a current institutional inventory, planners are in a position to judge what existing space, facilities, equipment, and staff a program may use and what reallocation from within may be required.

Financial and market assessment

A thorough review by the advisory committee of the strategic financial planning and opportunity costs should be made. Often, an outside consultant is hired to expedite this strategic assessment process, which should be designed to answer the questions: Why should the institution offer distance education? What is the competition? Are an adequate number of qualified faculty available who are willing to teach online for the program? What regulatory factors will have an impact upon the program?10

Cost issues for the institution need to be analyzed because technology-enhanced courses usually cost more to produce and deliver than traditional courses. What is the cost of the additional equipment, infrastructure, and staff needed for developing a distance education program? Once the analyses are made, the distance education program needs to be compared to other resource allocation opportunities that are presented both to the advisory committee and to the broader institutional decision-making structure for assessment and decisions on whether to move forward with the program and resource commitments.

Evaluation of academic standards and roles

Strategic planning can help establish a timetable for the roll-out of specific courses/programs and ensure equitable distribution of learning resources for all students, whether remote or local. Quality standards must be consistent regardless of delivery system employed or location of the students completing the program. For example, course approval for a program can generally follow the same procedure whether the course(s) or certain sections of a course are on-campus, use technology-enhanced formats, or are designed solely to be delivered at a distance.

Programs can be developed that recognize the increasingly diverse ways in which faculty and students interact with subject matter and each other. The standards of accountability do not change simply because a course benefits from technology. However, it should be noted that changes often do occur in the teaching methods used in technology-enhanced courses.

Distance education often serves as a catalyst for the adoption of learner-centered approaches to instruction. As a result, a significant commitment to distance education is also often a commitment to changes in the roles of students, faculty, and the institution itself, even though the quality of the instruction is stable.11 The impact of this paradigm shift on faculty and students can be measured, as can the amount of time distance education programs may take to gain acceptance. It is essential that faculty and students understand that quality instruction is of primary importance to the success of all technology-enhanced learning initiatives, and that instructional design is more significant than the types of technology used.

Programmatic Implementation

While most distance education programs are designed as long-term programs, especially those offering credits and degrees, it is helpful to consider the initial implementation of such programs through the lens of project management.

Operationally, distance education requires different resources than classroom teaching, and often a greater initial investment. Since courses taught at a distance should be designed and produced to fit the available technology, they may require extensive written lesson notes, exercises and practice by students, or scripting of computer code. High-quality distance learning demands more planning, as well as the development of materials and delivery methods beyond the skills of most faculty. This requires the development of partnerships among academics, instructional designers, administrative support staff, and course delivery experts. The role of the instructor usually changes, as he or she becomes a "content specialist" instead of an independent course preparation and delivery expert.12 If distance education, and technology-enhanced learning generally, is to make a sustained improvement in education both in the in-person classroom and at a distance, change must occur on an operational level. Behavior patterns and functions within the organization must change to reflect the changing roles of individuals.13

Support services for students

Whether the administration of distance education is situated on campus or at the student’s locale, admission and registration must take place efficiently. Student advising, computer accounts, library services, and financial aid must be provided. Student access to computing and to the campus network and the Internet are critical for the success of technology-enhanced or distance learning programs. Faculty members have a right to expect that students will come to distance learning experiences prepared to study effectively at a distance. The support team could develop a student handbook, a pre-screening survey, or even a "mini-course" that would ensure that students understand their rights and responsibilities in a distance learning course.

Support services for faculty

Technical support is critical to the success of teaching and learning at a distance. Faculty who ask, "How do I teach with this technology" or "In what ways does the use of the technology change the nature of my teaching?" should be encouraged and supported as quickly as possible. The goal is that delivery technologies should become as transparent to student learning as a blackboard or the overhead projector have become in a place-based classroom.

Faculty development and instructional system development services must also be provided. Faculty members who have started online courses using computer conferencing or video conferencing are usually rewarded little, if at all, for their efforts. These faculty look to the advisory committee and on-campus support services to assist their efforts in the implementation of distance education.

Administrative support

Existing on-campus departments or colleges are typically responsible for the development of distant degree and credit programs. On a campus familiar with technology-enhanced learning programs, administrative management for distance education is usually located within a continuing education department or some other special unit.

When a campus is quite new to distance education initiatives, a question often arises as to the locus of administration for the program. Several academic and administrative units are likely candidates (and competitors) for this administrative location. The administrative location of distance education must be where it is most likely to be integrated into the academic mainstream.

A similar consideration arises when deciding whether a specific director of technology-enhanced or distance learning should be hired. While a director of distance learning activities can often supply needed leadership, the cost justification for such a hire may be lacking when initiating distance education on a campus. If one person can be hired to take the lead in overcoming obstacles and to concentrate efforts toward promoting distance education, that may be the best solution. Generally, however, the institution does not have the budget to do this immediately, and compromises are frequently made in this area. It is a task of some consequence to study the implications of different management structures and to select the one that best meets specific situational and cultural needs.

Specific program market analysis

Another facet of the competitive and market analysis is to determine demand for a particular distance education program or course. This can be done using telephone interviews with current and past learners, government publications on industry and job trends, surveys of potential students in the program, and questions posed to business leaders in the area of proposed study. It might also be important to determine the types of technology that potential students for this program own, their qualifications to be admitted to the program, and typical experience that they may have in using technology or in studying at a distance.

Program evaluation

Distance education program planning should include specific evaluation components in addition to the traditional ones. These include a role for students as evaluation participants, determination of ways their learning should be assessed, the frequency of evaluation, distribution of evaluation results, and ways in which longitudinal studies will be conducted to assess changes in the program over time. Faculty and student perceptions of the delivery system and desire to participate in similarly delivered courses should also be collected.14

Linking Planning with Implementation

Key to the success of campus initiatives in technology-enhanced learning and distance education is the support of campus leaders. These leaders will need to exhibit enthusiasm for, champion, and allocate resources to these programs while encouraging and rewarding faculty cooperation. Such leaders can build credibility for distance education, maintain currency in the field, and gather support and partners for programs from among members of the business communities. The most important function of institutional leadership may be to create a shared vision that includes widespread input and support from the faculty and administration, articulates a clear educational purpose, has validity for stakeholders, and reflects the broader mission of the institution. Both top-down and bottom-up support is needed for successful distance education.

In addition to the establishment of a vision, leadership in four areas--budgeting, infrastructure development, staffing, and policy revision--is key to linking strategic planning and specific program implementation (see Figure 1). Leaders working in or through such groups as a technology-enhanced learning advisory committee can help decision-making at both the program level and at the campus level in those key areas.

Figure 1: Linking institutional strategic planning to
programmatic implementation through leadership and vision

Figure 1

Establishing a budget

Providing funding support as a line item from the central resources of the institution establishes technology-enhanced learning as part of the institutional infrastructure. The institution must decide what equipment and resources are considered infrastructure and what are considered operational expenses. A review of cost analyses of all distance education programs may show that a program(s) will appear to lose money if technology infrastructure costs are included in the program budget. Still, a budget, to give a true indication of costs, must cover all areas including support services (e.g., instructional development, registration, library services), infrastructure, and faculty development.

Revenue sharing for academic units and incentives and rewards for faculty represent a quintessential model and will build commitment by faculty members and academic departments. Faculty are usually unwilling to continue to teach distance education courses as a perpetual overload responsibility. Faculty expect corresponding increases in pay when class size increases significantly over similar, place-based courses, or when these courses are not given the same weight when it comes to promotion, tenure, and career advancement.

Faculty and others seeking to initiate technology-enhanced learning must make a business case for new programs. Understanding this, leaders in distance education must acknowledge the entrepreneurial efforts and other risks of innovation that faculty and academic units are required to take and properly reward them by using different incentive models than those that have worked in the past. Profit sharing, funding from vendors, and other external partners must be aggressively sought.

Determining functional infrastructure

Some infrastructure resources and functions should be common across all distance programs, and others are more useful decentralized. While decentralization may appear to unnecessarily duplicate efforts and costs, it may more closely align expertise with program needs. Centralization of services may allow administrators of all distance education programs more direct access to top decision-makers and encourage a more efficient use of resources. The risk is in overburdening specific programs with bureaucracy and overhead, while not meeting specific program needs. Generally, centralization is favored for the following functions: marketing, instructional design and development support, technology help desk and infrastructure, professional/faculty development, faculty reward, promotion and incentive structures, and registration.

Staffing the program

It is hard to imagine anything more important to program implementation than recruiting and retaining expert faculty and support staff. Are all faculty equally suited to teach in distance education programs? The answer is generally, "No." It might be wise to begin with a small cohort of willing faculty. If time and energy are spent in training this cohort, and it is given support for its development and implementation, its successes will often inspire others.

In some institutions, an initial group of enthusiastic faculty has been trained in effective distance teaching methods, and the individuals comprising the group then become mentors for the next group of teachers. Ongoing support is given to these faculty through workshops, online discussion groups, and strategic feedback. Occasionally, a faculty member works as an apprentice to a practitioner who is teaching a distance course, and the following term is mentored as he or she practices what was learned.

A timeline is helpful to new distance education teachers as they begin to conceptualize their tasks. Answers to the following questions, and the availability of specific training as needed, will go a long way toward retaining new distance educators: At what point should the syllabus be in place? What materials need to be developed and tested? Is the hardware and software already in place and functional? What are the options when something goes wrong?

Revising policy

Several critical issues unique to program planning for distance education emerge. Institutional policy and procedures need to be reviewed to remove potential barriers to program success, such as:


For institutions of higher education to integrate technologically enhanced learning at a distance, leaders must link institutional strategic planning to programmatic implementation through decisions about the budget, infrastructure, staffing, and policy. This leadership should come from both academic planners and the implementation team. Leaders championing distance education within their institution must be able to show that such programs are adding value, are relevant, and may increase enrollment and retention, and thus warrant a change in some policies. We will know this has happened when the existing campus culture includes distance education in routine strategic planning for the institution, and decision-making intrinsically links to smooth implementation of technology-enhanced learning.


Linking Campuswide Strategic Planning with Distance Education Implementation

Institution-Wide Strategic Planning

Programmatic Implementation

Linking Planning with Implementation


1 Barbara L. Watkins and Stephen J. Wright, The Foundations of American Distance Education: A Century of Collegiate Correspondence Study (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendal/Hunt, 1991), 109-110.

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2 Michael G. Moore and Greg Kearsley, Distance Education: A Systems View (New York: Wadsworth, 1991); John R. Verduin, Jr. and Thomas A. Clark, Distance Education: The Foundations of Effective Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., 1991); Desmond Keegan, Foundations of Distance Education, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1991).

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3 David A. Keast, "Toward an Effective Model for Implementing Distance Education Programs," The American Journal of Distance Education, 11(2): 39-55.

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4 Keegan, 31.

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5 Ibid., 33

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6 For more detailed information, readers are directed especially to Toby K. Levine, Going the Distance: A Handbook for Developing Distance Degree Programs, published by the Annenberg/CPB Project and The PBS Adult Learning Service in 1992, and to two reports published by the Pennsylvania State University: Distance Education and the University Culture, The Report of a Policy Symposium (1995) and The Report of the Task Force on Distance Education (1992).

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7 Nancy Franklin, Michael Yoakam, and Ron Warren, Distance Learning: A Guide to System Planning and Implementation (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University School of Continuing Studies, 1995).

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8 Radford University, Goals of Distance Learning Task Force (1996); University of Kansas, Charge to the Distance Education Strategies and Technologies Planning Team (1996), online at strategies/charge.htm.

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9 Robert Albrecht and Gary Bardsley, "Strategic Planning and Academic Planning for Distance Education," in Barry Willis (Ed.), Distance Education: Strategies and Tools (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications, Inc.), 67-86.

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10 See especially Chapter Four in William J. Rothwell and Peter S. Cookson, Beyond Instruction: Comprehensive Program Planning for Business and Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997).

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11 Zane L. Berge and Mauri P. Collins, "Technology and Changes in Higher Education," in the 1995 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference Proceedings: Smooth Sailing to the Future (Piscataway, N.J.: IEEE, 1995).

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12 Dalhousie University Distance Education Task Force, Distance Education at Dalhousie: Review, Guiding Principles and Action Plan (1995), online at

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13 Keast, 39-55.

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14 For a more in-depth reading, see Zane L. Berge and Bob Myers, "Evaluating Computer-mediated Communication Courses in Higher Education," in P. Robinson (Ed.), Web-based Computer Conferencing (Sterling, Va.: Stylus Publishing, in press).

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Zane L. Berge ([email protected]), Ph.D., is director of the Training Systems Graduate Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Lynne Schrum ([email protected]), Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia. the table of contents

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