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Course perceptions of distance education students.


This paper examined the levels of knowledge, motivation, and course preferences for students enrolled in both online and onsite management courses. Findings indicate that these students are much more similar with regard to these factors than previous research has indicated.


The focus of this paper is to examine possible distinctions related to student knowledge, motivation, and preferences that may exist between students choosing a distance education course over a traditional face-to-face course. An expanded understanding of any such differences will assist not only educators and trainers engaged in the instructional process, but will also provide valuable insight for individuals and organizations as they consider how best to achieve their learning objectives and spend their education and/or training budgets.

Distance learning has grown rapidly in both education and industry during the last decade (e.g. Martins and Kellermans, 2004; Arabaugh and Benbunan-Fich, 2006). Some of the primary motivators have been the surge of technological developments including the accessibility and affordability of personal computers, as well as the demand for "just in time" learning that accommodates people's lifestyles and work schedules (Anderson and Jackson, 2000; Jenkins and Downs, 2003; Robinson and Doverspike, 2006).

The pros and cons of distance education are frequently debated at all levels of academia (Celsi and Wolfinbarger, 2001; Bryant, Kahle and Schafer, 2005). While there appears to be little consensus of judgment, most faculty agree that distance education is becoming more important as it provides an opportunity to serve more students beyond a geographical location and to make improvements in operational efficiency and student service (Perreault, Waldman, Alexander and Zhao, 2002; Martins and Kellermans, 2004). The influx of students is typically seen as encouraging, because although additional demands are placed on the technological systems of the organization (computing networks, new hardware and software, etc.), there is not a corresponding demand for increased physical space associated with onsite students.

Distance education also offers great potential in helping professional organizations meet their just-in-time training needs in a cost effective manner. Advancements in technology have made it more feasible to deliver quality training and instruction programs to people geographically dispersed yet sharing common learning needs. In fact, the rapid technological change that has occurred in the workplace, combined with the accessibility and cost effectiveness of distance education, has caused many corporations to offer more of their training programs in a virtual setting (Blake, Gibson and Blackwell, 2003). Celsi and Wolfinbarger (2001) call for colleges and universities to better prepare their students for a workplace that often blends technology and business strategy.

For many students, there are numerous positives associated with distance education. When education is available to you at any location, provided asynchronously, and with the flexibility to accommodate a busy life, students are more willing to tolerate the less community-oriented learning environment (Robinson and Doverspike, 2006), higher tuitions, and to sacrifice social interaction for the increase in convenience that allows for balancing an education with full-time employment and family responsibilities (Jenkins and Downs, 2003; Harris and Gibson, 2006).

Despite the positives, distance education is not without its skeptics. With the explosion of distance education programs in business schools, issues related to maintaining accreditation standards now permeate curriculum discussions. In fact, current American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business accreditation standards state that "An institution that uses a variety of educational delivery systems at various locations must demonstrate comparable quality of its educational programs for all students. An institution must meet accreditation standards at all the various locations at which the included degree programs are delivered, or in the case of distance learning, standards must be met in all delivery modes" (AACSB, 2005). Faculty has also expressed concerns related to distance education, particularly the technological problems associated with course delivery (Perreault et al., 2002; Crow, Cheek and Hartman, 2003). While challenges still exist, colleges and universities are facing increasing pressure from both internal and external stakeholders--including accrediting agencies, public agencies, and private organizations, to incorporate more technology into their curriculum (Driver, 2002).

Given the existence of this demand, it seems logical to examine any differences that may exist between those individuals who choose to pursue their education via a distance medium and those who do not. Specifically, it would be advantageous to know if these learners possess different levels of subject matter motivation or knowledge or have different preferences for course administration attributes. The literature reviewed below considers the potential for these distinctions.

Various researchers of distance education have suggested that online learners must be more self-disciplined and motivated than their traditional onsite peers (Dos Santos and Wright, 2001; Devi, 2002; Hongmei, 2002). Consistent with this, previous literature has shown that students enrolled in distance learning courses score higher on measures of locus of control (Wang and Newlin, 2000), and place a greater value on controlling the timing and pace of learning (Roblyer, 1999). Perreault et al. (2002) and Robinson and Doverspike (2006) found that a distance education course is often more time consuming and less community-oriented than a traditional classroom. However, since an increasing number of college students are employed full-time and have more outside responsibilities that create "barriers to 'traditional' education" (Christensen, Anakwe & Kessler, 2001, p. 275), many of these students view distance education as the best, if not the only way to acquire a degree. Interestingly, Campbell and Swift (2006) found that students who register for distance education courses because they had no other alternatives were more psychologically prepared for the level of technology used in a virtual learning environment. When considered as a whole, the past literature leads one to believe that motivation, time management, and interest level (to a degree), are all somehow critical to a student's success in a distance education environment. However, prior research has yet to determine to what degree these factors are important.

Distance education is not only challenging for many students; it also presents challenges for instructors to create a well-designed virtual learning environment (Kearsley, 2002). Shea, Motiwalla and Lewis (2001) found that most professors sampled from 68 higher education institutions relied primarily on asynchronous tools for their distance education courses; only 63% used live chat, 32% used streaming audio, and 28% used streaming video. The lack of personalized communication has been previously documented as an obstacle in the distance education learning environment (Perreault et al., 2002).

Various recommendations in course design and administration have been offered to overcome potential obstacles, including the perceived lack of personalized communication. Berger (1999) suggests that distance education professors set up online office hours and incorporate live chat sessions into their virtual classes. Similarly, Perreault et al. (2002) recommend that professors strive to create distance education courses that promote interaction and collaboration via providing multiple means for communicating, including e-mail, discussion boards, online office hours and flexible telephone access. Further supporting these findings, Arbaugh and Benbunan-Fich (2006) report that separate from epistemological considerations, collaborative approaches to online course work result in better outcomes and higher levels of medium satisfaction. Riley and Gallo (2000) stressed the importance of incorporating all aspects of course design into a distance education environment. This includes providing the appropriate curriculum and teaching tools, as well as support, interaction, and selection of the best mix of technology tools. Daily (2000) equates the move to teaching a distance education course to the professor moving from an expert lecturer to more of a coach and mentor.

Professors and other instructors should be careful, however, not to incorporate technology without a planned purpose. Christensen et al. (2001) argue that in order for technology in a distance education setting to be viable and improve student receptivity, professors must demonstrate the usefulness of the technology. In addition, research shows that students are more accepting of a web-based course system when they are better aware of its capabilities and understand how to use the various features (Martins and Kellermanns, 2004). While distance education students tend to have a stronger preference for a "rich medium" than encourages interactivity (Christensen et al., p. 275) they still expected some of the structure provided in a traditional college classroom. As virtual courses become more sophisticated, they have greater success at "mimicking" the traditional classroom (Christensen et al., p. 276).

Just as Christensen et al. (2001) suggest that distance education courses are becoming more like the traditional classroom due to the influx of sophisticated technological tools, it also seems that students are becoming more adaptive as they gain experience in the virtual classroom. Experienced distance education students, according to Sonner (1999), may exhibit more creative problem-solving skills due to the increased level of creativity and independence required in an online course. Cheung and Kan (2002) and Lawrence and Signhania (2004) found that student performance in distance education courses should improve as a result of previous experiences since students spend less time familiarizing themselves with the learning environment and devote more time and effort to the course content. This may be the result of a possible learning curve associated with distance education.


Participants and Procedures.

Both graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in sixteen management courses (eight distance education and eight onsite) at a large, regional university in the southeast were invited to complete an anonymous web-based survey during the 2005 spring semester aimed at ascertaining the opinions, perceptions, and preferences of the students with regard to the courses in which they were currently enrolled. Of the 402 students enrolled in these courses, 199 completed the survey, yielding a response rate of 49.5%. No extra credit or incentive was offered for participation and individual student participation was not tracked. Each of the courses surveyed for this study were being taught simultaneously in both a distance education and traditional onsite format. Hence, students had the ability to enroll based upon which medium best fit their needs or preferences.

Survey Instrument.

The survey used for the current study was comprised of student demographic questions, questions used in previous research on distance education (Christensen et al., 2001; Martins and Kellermanns, 2004), and questions from the University's Student Opinion of Instruction Survey. Participants responded to 30 questions regarding their overall knowledge and motivation, course administration preferences, and overall course perceptions. Respondents used a 5-point Likert-type scale where one was "Not at All" and five was "Very Much So." Respondent knowledge and motivation was measured with the following items:

* I am extremely motivated to do well in this course.

* I am extremely motivated to do well in school.

* l am very interested in the subject matter of this course.

* Compared to others I have a strong knowledge of the subject matter for this course.

* I have very strong time management skills.

* I am a very self-disciplined person.

Course administration preferences is the degree to which various forms of communication were important to students, and was measured by rating the importance of:

* Student to instructor e-mail

* Student to student e-mail

* A website containing course content

* An online discussion board

* A website used exclusively for group interaction

* A website used for electronic file transfer and sharing

* A website containing archives of class discussions, chats, etc

* Conveniently presenting thoughts to my class

* Conveniently presenting thoughts to my professor

* Conveniently presenting thoughts to my group members

* Conveniently sharing work with group members

* Conveniently accessing course materials.

* Seeing the professor

* Hearing the professor in their learning

Overall perceptions of the course required respondents to rate the degree to which they agreed with each of the following statements:

* After reviewing the syllabus, I understand the objectives of this course.

* After reviewing the syllabus, I understand the expected outcomes of this course.

* After reviewing the syllabus, I understand the grading criteria of this course.

* After reviewing the syllabus I understand the policies of this course.

* After reviewing the syllabus I am comfortable with the professor's office hours and availability.

* I feel that this course is very flexible.

* I feel that the workload for this course is reasonable.

* I feel that the grading criteria for this course are reasonable.

* I feel that this course is well organized.


The results were based on responses from 96 male students and 103 female students. Forty-eight percent of participants were enrolled in onsite courses, and 52 percent were enrolled in distance education courses. Among those enrolled in the onsite courses, approximately 54% were undergraduates and 46% were graduate students. Graduate students made up a larger percentage of the sample population for distance education, accounting for 60% of those enrolled in the online courses.

Knowledge and Motivation. Independent-samples t tests were conducted to evaluate whether or not distance education students reported different degrees of subject matter knowledge and motivation when compared with onsite peers. Significant differences (p < .05) were not found for any of the items related to these constructs.

Course Administration Preferences. Findings were mixed with regard to course administration preferences. Whereas there were no significant differences related to importance of using various computer technologies, there was one aspect of convenient communication that onsite students (M=3.96, SD=I.05) rated as being of greater importance than did distance education students (M=3.56, SD=I. 15)--the importance of being able to conveniently share work among group members, t (195) = 2.51, p < .05. There were also significant differences related to students' need to both see and hear their professors. In both instances, distance education students rated these as less important than did their onsite peers [Seeing: t (195) = 2.62, p < .05; M=2.91, SD=1.28 versus M=3.39, SD=1.29 and Hearing: t (t95) = 2.53, p < .05; M=3.13, SD=-1.29 versus M=3.59, SD=1.25].

Course Perceptions. Only two significant differences existed for students' course perceptions. Specifically, distance education students (t (195) = 1.96, p < .05; M=4.11, SD=.77) reported that they had less understanding of the expected outcomes of a course after reviewing the syllabus than did onsite students (M=4.33, SD=-.83), and that they felt the course was less flexible (t (195) = 2.35, p < .05; M=2.77, SD=1.18) than did onsite students (M=3.20, SD=1.42).


The results of this study indicate that many of the course perceptions of distance education students are similar to their onsite counterparts. Although differences were found in the current study, we propose that research might be better served by recognizing the importance of the similarities between these two groups of learners.

One example of similarity between these groups of students is evidenced in their self-reported levels of knowledge and motivation. Whereas others have theorized that distance education students would report higher levels of knowledge, motivation toward school, or better time management skills (Devi, 2002; Hongmei, 2002), this was not found in the current study. This presents a major challenge for those involved in teaching these courses--we can not presume that our distance students are inherently more motivated or better at "staying on task;" on the contrary, we must now make special effort to ensure that our online teaching engages these students' curiosity, involves them in the material, and focuses their awareness on progressing at an appropriate rate. Furthermore, extra efforts may be needed when learners are engaging in required training for employment purposes, as opposed to self-chosen educational pursuits.

A second area of similarity was the students' perceived importance of integrating computing technology in their courses and education. Celsi and Wolfinbarger (2001) argue that the business schools that better integrate technology in their curriculum and delivery modes create "Renaissance managers and employees" who have a stronger understanding of the convergence between information technology and business strategy (p. 308). It appears that most students have increasingly come to rely upon e-mail, websites, online discussion forums, etc. as ways of conveniently communicating with their professors, classmates, co-workers, and managers, as well as using technology for obtaining course-related or work materials. Krentler and Willis-Flurry (2005) found that incorporating technology into the classroom does enhance student learning, and can help equalize student performance across different academic majors. Instructors who do not acknowledge this reality and adopt these technologies for all of their course offerings may likely find that their students complain of faculty being "inaccessible."

Finally, an examination of students' course perceptions indicated that both distance and onsite students possessed very similar levels of understanding with regard to course requirements, objectives, policies, and workload. This is quite possibly the result of professors providing highly detailed course syllabi and/or verbally reviewing course expectations with their classes early in the semester. Ironically, this may actually help account for one of the differences that was found. Due to the highly explicit nature of the materials provided to distance students, they might have perceived a course to be less flexible than their peers who simply listened to their professors review the syllabus on the first day of class. For those contemplating any type of distance learning activity, this finding reinforces what others have found--that with proper planning and execution, distance learners can effectively understand and achieve equal to their onsite peers (Sankaran, Sankaran and Bui, 2000; Lawrence and Singhania, 2004; Hamann, Pollock and Wilson, 2006)

When taken as a whole, the similarities that were found between distance education students and traditional onsite students largely outweighed the differences that were found. Specifically, no statistically significant differences were found related to student knowledge and motivation. For course administration preferences, the only distinctions found related to the need to see and hear the course professor, and overall course perceptions were largely similar for the two groups of students, excepting that distance education students reported that their courses were actually less flexible and their syllabi somewhat hard to comprehend. This is not to say that the few existing differences are unimportant, but it points toward an acknowledgement that many of the qualities that are important for learning in a face-to-face environment are equally important in distance learning. Our findings support Christensen's et al. (2001) claim that online education is becoming more suitable for traditional learners as professors have greater success at "mimicking" the traditional classroom through the use of advanced technological tools (p. 276).


The current study was conducted to provide insight into the knowledge, motivation, and course preferences of distance education students as compared to those enrolled in traditional face-to-face courses. While the results are based on a sample of students from one university, the findings do indicate that online and onsite students have similar knowledge and motivational levels, and share common perceptions about the importance of technology in course administration. The students within our study seemed flexible and adaptive to both the virtual or traditional learning environment. And with the technology now available professors are able to use various tools to help alleviate the few differences found within our study, such as ability to see and hear the professor.

Research by Hamann, Pollock and Wilson (2006) suggests that the delivery mode does not necessarily drive learning. Instead, effective teaching is what truly promotes student learning. Students learn best in a well organized course that allows for active learning opportunities (Hao and Liu, 2006). As suggested by Jenkins and Downs (2003), college students are not necessarily as concerned about the delivery format of a particular course as they are at finding the one most "congruent" with their current needs (p. 220). Our findings suggest that students have similar perceptions of distance education and onsite courses and both formats are capable of meeting their academic needs.


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Michael L. Harris, East Carolina University

Shanan G. Gibson, East Carolina University

Michael Harris and Shanan Gibson are Assistant Professors of Management with responsibilities for teaching both online and traditional onsite courses.
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Author:Harris, Michael L.; Gibson, Shanan G.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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