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Editor’s Note: It is important to explore the educational opportunities and cost-benefits offered by different technologies to determine what works best for the various teachers, students, course content, and instructional management systems. This study compares synchronous and asynchronous aspects of a system that originates lessons in a virtual classroom and a face-to-face classroom.

Overcoming Challenges of Distance Education: Instructional Technologies

Bomna Ko and Boni Boswell


The annual growth of distance education has dramatically increased in many institutions of higher education during the last five years.  Key benefits of distance education courses are convenience and flexibilities of time and space.  However, numerous authors have identified challenges in distance education: student isolation and quality issues related to delivery systems (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003; Legault, 2007; Schmieder, 2008).  This study presents two instructional applications, Centra and Mediasite, to respond to selected challenges in a graduate distance education course.  The Centra program allows students to attend a live lecture and/or watch recordings of the lectures at a later time.  The Mediasite program records and publishes a face-to-face lecture for students in traditional and also in distance education courses.  The program features are reviewed to compare the benefits and selected challenges of online education, specifically: a) facilitation of interactions and live interaction, b) freedom in space, c) technology delivery problems, d) facilities and equipment, and e) availability of recorded session.  This study encourages online instructors to review course needs and adopt technology tools that are appropriate for their specific courses.

Keywords: distance education, instructional technology, Centra program, Mediasite program


During the last five years, the annual growth of distance education or on-line education has dramatically increased in many institutions of higher education. The growth of online programs was addressed in a national study (Allen and Seaman, 2010) that surveyed 2,500 higher education institutions in the USA.  Allen and Seaman (2010) reported that the majority of chief academic officers indicated that the USA economic downturn “created an increase in the demand for both face-to-face …. courses and programs ….with far more respondents reporting increased demand for online offerings than for face-to-face courses and programs (p. 7)”.  Allen & Seaman (2010) reported that in 2008 the overall growth of the student population in higher education of 1.2 percent was dwarfed by the 17 percent growth of online education in higher education.  Several factors have been identified that have stimulated this sharp increase of online education, but economic conditions appear to be a central underlying reason.  Nguyen (2010) discussed other rationales for the increase in demand of online education that included the need of institutions to expand opportunities for present students as well as to attract new students who are employed or have other constraints on mobility or time. Regardless of the reasons, the expansion of online education has presented challenges to faculty to provide quality online courses and programs.

While a variety of challenges in online education have been discussed in the literature, numerous authors have identified the following two areas of concern: student isolation and quality issues related to delivery systems (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003; Legault, 2007; Schmieder, 2008). The purpose of this discussion is to present two live lecture types of instructional delivery technologies and to compare and contrast these systems in terms of the challenges associated with reducing student isolation and selection of appropriate delivery systems.  Suggestions are offered concerning how these challenges can be met to enhance the quality online education. 

Before addressing the challenges of online education in relation to selected technologies, it is important to briefly review certain benefits of online education for students.  From a student perspective key benefits of distance education courses have been identified as convenience and flexibilities of time and space (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003; Nguyen, 2010; Sawyer, 2000; Schmieder, 2008; Tinning & Evans, 1994).  Opportunities to access learning materials when and where they choose allow students to be flexible in their schedules and physical locations.  Students have the flexibility to continue course work thus expanding lifelong learning through distance education while maintaining their jobs and family responsibilities.  One of the many examples of these benefits of online education was described by Tinning and Evans (1994). Their story of a full time teacher who is taking a distance education course for her graduate degree while caring for her children and maintaining a home exemplifies the conveniences and flexibilities in space and time which are inherent in online education.

In addition to maintaining these benefits, faculty also needs to address challenges in online education such as establishing effective avenues for interactions to minimize student isolation. Concerns about student isolation, primarily resulting from a lack of interactions among students and with the instructor has been voiced by students and noted by numerous authors (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007; Hentea et al., 2003; Holbein, 2008; Sawyer, 2000; Schmieder, 2008; Tinning & Evans, 1994).  Schmieder (2008) emphasized that, “the biggest challenge in delivering online courses is to ensure that students don’t feel as though they have missed out educationally because they took an internet course” (p. 5).  Hirschheim (2005) reported that 74% of the on line students surveyed voiced this concern.  In general, most distance education courses require students to become independent learners but lack of interactions with instructor and among students can leave students lacking a sense of a learning community.  As proposed by Rovai (2001), learning is facilitated by interactions between learners and promotion of interactions fosters a sense of belonging.  If students develop a sense of belonging to a learning community, students are more likely to persist in problem solving and ultimately more likely to complete their academic studies.  On the converse, those students who feel isolated in online courses are more likely to “feel confused or angered by assignments” ( Hentea et al., 2003, p. 162) or may be unmotivated to complete a program (Ury, 2004).

Another significant area of challenge in distance education relates to issues surrounding the quality of the delivery system of course content (Schmieder, 2008; Tinning & Evans, 1994).  To meet this challenge, many faculties feel the need to increase their knowledge and understanding of the types of instructional delivery technologies available so that they will be able to select appropriate technologies that fit the needs of their diverse students.  This area can be related to a number of factors such as appropriateness of course content for online delivery, instructor skills in teaching and learning technologies, and the diverse learning styles of students.  Effective delivery of online courses requires the teacher to choose effective teaching methods that satisfy students’ diverse needs and that increase retention rate of on-line students (Schmieder, 2008).  To overcome this challenge faculty needs to employ innovative instructional delivery tools that enhance student interactions in online learning activities using web-based technologies and/or live lecture formats (Hentea et al., 2003; Holbein, 2008; Schmieder, 2008).  According to Hentea et al. (2003), computer-mediated and collaborative tools in the online classroom positively impact on student performance.  For example, Holbein (2008) supports use of web-based technologies such as blogging, incorporating Skype, or instant chatting, to increase meaningful interactions between students and instructor.

Live lecture format can be a powerful tool as a delivery system and for fostering interactions.  It also provides avenues for both instructor and students to appreciate and capture their personalities and interests on-line (Hentea et al., 2003).  Hentea et al. (2003) supported hybrid (blended) distance education which combines best aspects of both on-line and face-to-face learning formats.  A variety of instructional technologies for distance education courses exist and can be utilized to offer web-cam/microphone face-to-face instruction in a virtual environment.  However, for most faculties who are new to online education, it is difficult to find and select the most appropriate media programs that meet the purposes of the course and which facilitate specific course tasks.  As stated, this discussion focuses on two specific live lecture types of instructional delivery technologies that have been utilized in a graduate distance education course; Centra and Mediasite programs.  Comparing and contrasting selected features of these programs in light of the identified challenges of online education are presented below.

Personal Background of the Use of Instructional Delivery Systems

The physical education teacher education program at East Carolina University transformed its graduate program to 100% distance education in 2008.  Change of the program format resulted in rapid growth of student enrollment in the program, but also resulted in challenges such as stimulating interactions with large number of students and the instructor, and suitability of the delivery systems for certain instructional tasks.  One of the courses that focused on analyzing and applying effective teaching practices led the instructor to seek instructional delivery technologies beyond the university’s course management system, Blackboard.  One of crucial tasks in the course was to learn effective strategies of analyzing teaching practices.  This course utilized several observational instruments that cover teachers’ instructional (e.g., intro/closure, demonstration, task statement, etc) and managerial (e.g., formation, routines, monitoring, etc) behaviors.  Therefore, several training sessions were required to provide students with opportunities of hands-on mock coding using the selected instruments.  The instructor’s demonstrations and exemplary teaching video clips were presented before students used the instruments to analyze their teaching practices.  Considering the above course requirements and the need for student interactions, the instructor incorporated two live lecture technology tools into the course: Centra and Mediasite programs 

Instructional Technology Programs

Centra Program

Centra is a web-based conferencing program that enables students to attend a live lecture and/or watch recordings of the lectures at a later time through internet connection.  Once accessing the live class session, students can receive a lecture and be engaged in several interactive activities between students and instructor and among students using several tools, such as live text chatting as well as seeing and speaking with each other through use of web-cams and microphones.  Sessions are controlled and led by not only the instructors but also designated leaders among students.  The instructor or session leader can load power point presentations, image files, and audio and recorded video clips, to deliver lecture.  He or she can use whiteboard as used in a traditional class within this virtual classroom.  Table 1 shows specific procedures to prepare and lead the session for particular instructional tasks.

Once an institution purchases the program license, the Centra Client software program can be downloaded (step 1) on the institutional users’ personal computer.  A session is created by the instructor’s request of a specific time and day, after which the instructor informs the students (users) accordingly of the session through e-mail (step 2).  The instructor can load instructional materials including power point presentation and recorded video clips before the scheduled sessions (step 3).
Table 1
Procedure of Using Centra Program




Download Centra Client Software


Request session event


Load instructional materials


Lead live session


Playback recording

Students are required to log in the Centra program to attend the live session on the assigned day and time (step 4).  This allows the instructor and students to have live face-to-face and/or verbal communication (question, answer, discussion, etc) in the virtual environment during the session.  The program enables students to “raise their hands” (by clicking on appropriate icon) to ask questions and instructor can provide immediate feedback.  One of the most helpful features of this program is that it allows the instructor to designate four students to simultaneously appear on everyone’s screen through use of their web-cams.  The instructor can exchange these four students for four other students, thus rotating the students who appear live on each computer screen.  Following a power point slide show which describes the assessment instrument, the instructor can answer questions about the observational instrument and then code the teaching episode (recorded episode was loaded in step 3) in collaboration with students.   The instructor and students share and discuss the results of the coding to clarify use of the instrument.  The live session including text chat can be recorded and saved (step 5).  All enrolled students who missed or attended the live session can watch a recording of the class by accessing to the Centra program.  Whenever the instructor plans to incorporate a Centra session into the online course, step 2 through step 5 will be repeated to deliver the instruction.

Mediasite Program

Mediasite is used but not limited to recording and publishing a face-to-face lecture for students not only in traditional, but also in distance education courses.  When several students from a distance education course are able to attend the face-to-face lectures in-campus, the Mediasite program has utilized to capture full-motion and voice of the instructor and the students in the classroom and the multimedia presentation contents on the laptop.  The program, therefore, records interactions and conversations between the instructor and the students in the classroom during the class.  The rest of non-participants in the classroom session can watch the class live or later on-demand over the internet. 

The procedure to utilize the Mediasite program is simple (see table 2).  The class can be pre-scheduled to post a list of event schedules at online Mediasite catalogs for students in the course (step1).  The instructor can run the class as he or she does in face-to-face classes without pre-loading any course materials (step 2).  In order to expand audio capability, the instructor wears wireless mic and several mics are placed between students in the classroom.  Mediasite recorders are operated automatically or manually to capture and record the face-to-face classroom environment and contents on the laptop.  For this particular course task, the instructor explains the observational instruments and shows a video clip related to the instrument.  In-class students complete the instrument with the instructor and ask questions to the instructor.  These dialogs and instructor’s timely feedback that can be exist in the face-to-face setting (Hentea et al., 2003; Holbein, 2008; Schmieder, 2008) are recorded and published for non-participant students of the course.  Students who do not physically attend the class in the classroom can watch the class live but cannot interact with the class through this program except through e-mail.  All students can watch recordings of the classes at later dates as sessions are automatically published on the Mediasite catalogs after each class (step 3).

Table 2
Procedure of Using Mediasite Program




Pre-schedule the class


Run in-class lecture


Watch recording

Comparison of Two Instructional Technologies

The Centra and Mediasite programs are innovative new delivery systems that can be integrated into distance education courses.  These delivery systems have similar and/or different functions, therefore, both pros, and cons.  Centra program allows face-to-face meeting and class in virtual environment.  Students can not only receive lecture but also talk and see each other during the session through the Centra program.  Mediasite program provides students with accessibility to the face-to-face class over internet.  Students who cannot attend the class in the classroom can watch the class live or later on demand.  Given the function, these two programs have several features to consider in relation to the appropriateness for a certain instructional content.  The features are reviewed in terms of the benefits and selected challenges of online education and categorized by: a) facilitation of interactions- live interaction, b) freedom in space, c) technology delivery problems, d) facilities/ equipment, and e) availability of recorded session. 

Table 3
Comparison of Centra and Mediasite Programs

Interactions Facilitated


Yes, immediate interactions- Face-to-face class in virtual environment

Access to face-to-face class in on-campus classroom; off-campus students can view the session live, but limited to e-mail exchanges with instructor during sessions

Immediate feedback: Live Interaction


Only for on-campus students. Off campus students can only e-mail instructor during the class.

Freedom in Space


Yes, for non-in-classroom students. No, for instructor and in-classroom students

Technology delivery problems


Very Limited

Facilities/ equipment necessary

Mic, webcam

Mediasite Recorders

Recorded Session



Live Interaction

Need of direct interactions among students and between instructor and students in distance education is pervasively acknowledged to foster student learning (Sawyer, 2000; Schmieder, 2008; Ury, 2004).  One of benefits to use the Centra program is to adopt live interactions between instructor and students and among students during the live lecture in virtual environment.  Audio and video conferencing features of Centra program support providing real time face-to-face class in virtual environment.  Several built-in tools (e.g., live text chat) allow communication between the instructor and students and involvement in the class through text and verbal.  Users who attend the class live can see and communicate with the class instructor and other participants in the session by using their web-cam and microphone.  However, a limitation of this feature is that it allows only four students to appear simultaneously on screens through web-cam videos.  Though the instructor or session leader can select and switch the four web-cam users on the screen, it is difficult to guarantee that all participants are engaged and learning the course materials when a large number of students are involved because the program does not allow capturing all students at a time.  However, it must be noted that the Centra program allows immediate class interactions and communication.  The instructor needs to consider this limitation and plan how to maximize the live interaction feature in virtual environment for successful use of the program. 

Mediasite captures face-to-face classroom setting including full motion of the instructor and participants and the contents on laptop.  Students who attend the face-to-face class interact with instructor and other students in the classroom.  The instructor can at least provide timely feedback to the participants and control class pace to a rate appropriate for their level of understanding and learning of the instructional materials.  The rest of students who do not attend the classroom can watch the face-to-face classroom live, but cannot communicate in the class online.  If the students want to interact or ask question, they have to seek for other program tool to send a message to the instructor, such as e-mail or other instant message tools.

Freedom in Space

One of advantages of distance education is freedom in space constrain (Hentea et al., 2003; Schmieder, 2008; Tinning & Evans, 1994).  Distance education allows students who cannot commute to campus can attend courses online.  Both Centra and Mediasite programs are accessible from anywhere over the internet.  The Centra program specially has no constraint in space for both instructor and students to participate in the session because the session is absolutely conducted in virtual environment.  Mediasite program of class session can be watched through internet access from anywhere.  However, instructor and participant students in the face-to-face class experience constraint in space.  They have to come to a particular classroom that Mediasite Recorders are set up to record the face-to-face class. 

Technology Delivery Problems

Technology issues are unanticipated and generally faced issues in the distance education that requires internet connection for participation.  Instructors should consider reliability of the technology tools when they select for their students to easily access to and utilize the program.  Accessibility of the technology programs can be dependent upon but not limited to the students’ network connection speed at their location, and system support at their own computer.  Moreover, a program can cause common problems with the program system.  Instructors and students can experience several technology problems when they use the Centra program.  For example, students possibly experience difficulty in log-in the Centra program system.  A certain amount of bandwidth and internet speed at the students’ location should be maintained consistently to prevent from audio problems and downloading problems when loading course materials for the session during the class event.  Students do report experiencing audio (hearing and speaking) and visual problems (e.g., pausing their web-cam).  The greatest frustration that students report during the Centra session is difficulty in access to the video clips during the particular course lecture.  Once this occurs, students can neither follow the lecture nor understand the content (particular observational instrument).  In contrast, students experience limited technology issues with no processing or transcoding delays while accessing the Mediasite program.  The Mediasite program captures and presents content from instructor’s laptop so students can see the course materials including video clips without having to download them onto their own computers.  This helps results in limited technology issues.


Both Centra and Mediasite programs require facilities and specific equipment for successful use.  Students in the Centra program should prepare and use web-cam and microphone to get involved in live interaction with participants in the sessions.  The participants in the session can see each other through web-cams and speak through mics.  When watching Mediasite session, students do not need any special equipment providing that their audio systems are working properly on their computer.  However, Mediasite Recorders and wireless mics must be set up in the classroom to record the face-to-face class.

Recording Session

Freedom from time constraint is another advantage of distance education along with space freedom.  Both Centra and Mediasite sessions are conducted at a specific time schedule so students can experience time constrain.  However, both programs allow students to access to and watch recording of the session later on demand.  Students cannot get involved in the live interaction while watching the recording of the Centra session but can watch the session and read text chat content after the event.  Mediasite program of recording shows face-to-face classroom settings including full motion and voice of the participants and contents on the laptop at any time during and after the session.


Limited use of a course management system leads distance education instructors to seek supplementary technologies (Hentea et al., 2003; Schmieder, 2008).  This study introduced two technology delivery programs: Centra program and Mediasite.  These programs are utilized to deliver courses of instruction that require students’ practical level of understanding through hands-on mock coding using the observational instruments.  The course materials include PowerPoint presentation and video clips.  Understanding the significant features of technology programs with respect to major challenges can help faculty select a delivery systems that is most appropriate for their courses. 

These two instructional technologies allow faculty to cope with several of challenges identified by research in this area such as student isolation and suitability for online delivery.  Incorporating either of these systems into online courses can reduce the level of student isolation and provide appropriate delivery of course content. Distance education students feel isolated with limited interactions with instructor and among students (Anelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007; Hentea et al., 2003; Holbein, 2008; Sawyer, 2000; Schmieder, 2008; Tinning & Evans, 1994).  Live interaction function of the Centra program allows providing immediate feedback to students in a virtual environment.  Students also have opportunities to interact and communicate with the instructor and/or peers.  The Mediasite program allows interactions but it is limited to interaction between participants within the classroom setting.  Suitability of a course for online delivery is another challenge (Schmieder, 2008).  A variety of teaching materials can be loaded and delivered through both of these technology programs such as power point presentation, word document, voice and video materials, etc.  This allows expansion of course material delivery in a virtual environment over the internet.  In addition, access to the recorded sessions at later dates may help foster students’ learning.  These two technologies provides students with diverse avenues to learn the course materials regardless of time and space constraints.

This discussion was limited to introducing two technologies for instructional delivery in distance education.  However, a variety of delivery programs have been developed and utilized in distance education courses such as Camtasia and Second Life.  It is incumbent on instructors of distance education to be “conversant with new technology” (Sawyer, 2000, p. 5) and to adopt technology tools that are appropriate for their specific course goals and tasks (Sawyer, 2000).  In addition, administrative and technological supports and trainings at the institutional level are essential to enable faculty to offer quality online education programs.


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Tinning, R., & Evans, J. (1994). Distance education in physical education: An Australian model for inservice teacher education. Physical Education Review, 17(2), 126-132.

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About the Authors

Bomna Ko, PhD is an assistant professor at East Carolina University. Her research interests are to explore teacher’s learning to teach in physical education and enhance internationalization in higher education through distance education.


Boni Boswell, PhD is an associate professor at East Carolina University.  Her research interests are children with disabilities and dance.



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