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Editor’s Note: It is often stated that the success of a distance learning program is dependent on the quality of supporting services. Much of the research in distance education is focused on instructional design, learner characteristics, and performance. This research relates to services, gaps in service, business models, continuous quality improvement, and maintaining a competitive edge.

Improving the Service Quality of Distance Education

Rui-Ting Huang
USA / Taiwan


There has been extensive research in theory and practice of teaching and learning in face-to-face, distance, and blended learning. In distance education, support services are more than delivery and feedback systems, they provide a means for continuous quality improvement. Research on support services informs organizations of ways to further improve teaching and learning, streamline business processes, and gain long-term competitive advantages.

Keywords: distance education, service quality, consumer satisfaction


Advancements in information and communication technologies give people a more convenient life. They also have an important influence on the development of Distance Education (DE) (Salisbury, Pearson, Miller & Marett, 2002). Traditional education is subject to constraints of time, place and geographic distance. Technologies such as the Internet, television, radio and computers break those constraints in Distance Learning (DL) enabling people more opportunities to acquire knowledge, more power to decide their own learning path and speed (Alexander, 1999; Tarr, 1998), and achieve their lifelong learning needs (Claus & Dooley, 2005; Carriere, & Harvey, 2001).

Distance Learning has become an important learning option for education systems (Yilmaz, 2005) and training solutions in the Human Resource Development (HRD) area (Felix, 2006). The growth of the distance learning industry has been faster than expected (Huynh, Umesh & Valacich, 2003). Most importantly, in terms of organizational training, an investigation from the Fortune-500 companies indicates that over 80% of companies use distance learning or plan to do so (Hammond, 2001). Through distance learning, organizations have a more convenient, practical and cost-effective way to train the employees (Hammond, 2001; Whitney, 2006; David, 2006).

Due to the growth and competition in the distance learning market (Huynh, Umesh & Valacich, 2003), DL research includes the study of consumer aspects such as consumer services and satisfaction (Shaik, 2005; Granitz & Greene, 2003; Huynh, Umesh & Valacich, 2003). Feedback from learner give the instructor important data to determine how well the instructional program satisfies individual learner needs (Steyn & Schulze, 2003; Long, Tricker, Rangecroft, Gilroy, 1999). This in turn offers service providers in the marketplace important information to streamline the business process to improve the quality of distance learning services (Granitz & Greene, 2003; Steyn & Schulze, 2003). Quality services and support will help the service providers, institutions and organizations in DL get a competitive advantage in the marketplace (Shaik, 2005).

Kotler (1999) points out an unchangeable principle for a successful business - satisfy the customers’ need. Consumer service is closely related to customer satisfaction and consumer satisfaction has a critical influence on the profits and performance of institutions and organizations (Fornell, 1992; Mittal & Lassar, 1998; Wong, 2000). That is why organizations emphasize the importance of consumer service and satisfaction.

Students and learners are the customers of educational service providers (Moisio& Smeds, 2004; Tricker, Rangecroft & Long, 2005; Granitz & Greene, 2003; Long, Tricker, Rangecroft & Gilroy, 1999; Shaik, 2005; Douglas & Douglas, 2006). For service providers to have a long-term competitive advantages in the distance learning market (Shaik, 2005), researchers in DL should pay more attention to studies related to consumer service and satisfaction. As the distance learning industry has become mature in the educational marketplace (Huynh, Umesh & Valacich, 2003), it is providing learners with convenient and flexible learning alternatives (Alexander, 1999; Tarr, 1998). It is also giving organizations alternative cost-effective and timely training solution to effectively and efficiently implement the human resource development plans (Hammond, 2001; Whitney, 2006; David, 2006).

The Problem Statement

Distance learning institutions and service providers provide support to individuals and groups, and learners are increasingly considered as customers in the educational service industry (Moisio and Smeds 2004; Tricker, Rangecroft and Long 2005; Granitz and Greene 2003; Long, Tricker, Rangecroft and Gilroy 1999; Shaik 2005; Douglas and Douglas 2006). Additional research is needed on service aspects of distance learning (Moisio & Smeds, 2004). Services and consumer perspective have not been studied extensively in traditional education (Stevenson & Sander, 1998). In fact, the key differentiation between the service quality concept and traditional evaluation concept lies in the concept of service encounter. Redman and Mathews (1998) state that “this true quality is evaluated by the consumer during and after the service encounter” (p. 60). As distance learning continues to grow and mature in the marketplace, the focus on consumer service may offer the service providers new insights (Moisio & Smeds, 2004) to help them streamline the business process , improve the quality of future service in distance learning (Granitz & Greene, 2003; Steyn & Schulze, 2003) and gain long-term competitive advantages (Shaik, 2005).

Literature Review

The consumer service perspective is closely associated with the evolution of the business strategies in the distance learning industry. Until recently, the distance learning business model, the distance learning institutions and organizations were responsible for program development, knowledge packaging, instructional administration, record keeping and achievement certification (Lang & Zhao, 2000). Evolution of business strategies in the distance learning industry included joint- ventures, strategic alliances, partnerships, and outsourcing (Huynh, Umesh & Valacich, 2003). This evolved to the current business models.

The Business Model in Distance Education

Huynh et al. (2003) propose that there are four types of business models in the distance learning industry. The first is the corporate university model represented by enterprises like General Electric, Disney and Motorola. The target goal of corporate universities is to provide their employees with in-house distance training programs. The advantage of this business model is that corporate universities can address their specific training needs. They develop, design and deliver distance training program for their employees. This is a practical approach for large corporations and multinational organizations. It may not be economically affordable for small companies.

The second business model is the virtual university. Representative enterprises include University of Phoenix Online, Concord University Online Law School, and Capella University. Most service providers for the virtual university model are proprietary and for-profit organizations. Their target population is working adults who seek a professional degree or enhanced knowledge and skills through DE. The virtual university is sometimes considered a threat to traditional universities because it provides the adult learners with a convenient, flexible, cost-saving alternative to a traditional university for achieving professional degrees and lifelong learning.

The third business model is the spin-off distance-learning venture model where a prestigious university such as Columbia University, Stanford University, or Carnegie Mellon University, collaborates with private for-profit distance learning organization. This creates a value-chain partnership. The target population in this model is professionals and business executives who don’t intend to get a degree, but to acquire professional knowledge from a high-quality program.

The fourth type of business model is the strategic alliance. This business model refers to a partnership or alliance with different universities and industries. The goal of this business model is to increase economies of scale to reduce costs and gain competitive advantages in the distance learning educational marketplace. The target population of this business model includes corporate employees, professionals and off-campus students. Although this business model can let each partner exploit its own competitive advantage to maximize the total profits, management and coordination are key issues.

Each of these distance learning models focus on the service need of its target population so that service providers can streamline the business process to improve the quality of future distance learning services (Granitz & Greene, 2003; Steyn & Schulze, 2003) and get long-term competitive advantages (Shaik, 2005).

What is the key that differentiates between the service quality concept and traditional evaluation? The answer is in the concept of service encounter. Redman and Mathews (1998) state that “true quality is evaluated by the consumer during and after the service encounter” (p. 60). Through the consumer service perspective, researchers in may get different insights (Moisio & Smeds, 2004) to help distance learning service providers survive ever-increasing market competition (Huynh, Umesh & Valacich, 2003).

The PZB Service Quality Model

The service quality model and the role of consumers’ and learners’ satisfaction is an essential part of service quality studies. The Disconfirmation Paradigm (Brady, 2001; Redman & Mathews, 1998), Parasuraman et al. (1985) enables the Service Quality Model to measure differences between consumers’ perception and expectation of service quality.

According to the PZB model (Figure 1), there are five gaps.

The first gap refers to the difference between customers’ expected service and management’s perceptions of customers’ expectations. This gap means that management may not correctly perceive customer expectations.

The second gap refers to the difference between management perceptions of customers’ expectations and service quality specifications. This gap means that although the people in management level may perceive the correct expectations of the customers, they may not have suitable and sufficient service quality specifications.

The third gap refers to the difference between service quality specifications and the real service delivery. This gap means that although the service providers may have suitable and sufficient service quality specifications, they may not have the satisfactory service delivery in the real situation. That may be because service providers lack well-trained employees to deliver satisfactory service.

The fourth gap refers to the difference between the service delivered and external communication about the service with customers. That is, the service providers may not have suitable and sufficient communication with the customers or the service providers may have commitments that exceed what they can do or they may not sufficiently inform the customers of what they have done.

The fifth gap is the difference between consumer expectation and their perception of service quality - measured by the difference between what customers expect and what customers perceive about the service. In addition, gap 5 is a function of gap 1, gap 2, gap 3, and gap 4; that is, Gap 5= f (gap1, gap2, gap3, gap4). This means that the service quality is closely related to management perception, marketing, personnel management, communications with customers, service specifications and delivery. Based on theoretical development of the PZB Service Quality Model, the SERVQUAL (SERVice QUALity) instrument was proposed in 1988.

Source: Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V. A. & Berry, L. L. (1985). A Conceptual Model of Service Quality
and Its Implications for Future Research. Journal of Marketing, 49(4), 41-50.

Figure 1: PZB Service Quality Model


Consumer and Learner Satisfaction

Consumer satisfaction plays a very important role in business administration, not only because it has direct influence on the performance of the organizations (Wong, 2000; Fornell, 1992), but because it is highly associated with the competitive advantages of the institutions and organizations in the marketplace (Greenland, Coshall, & Combe, 2006). In distance learning, as institutions and organizations provide the learners with training and learning services, students and learners are customers in the educational service settings (Stevenson & Sander, 1998; Moisio & Smeds, 2004; Douglas & Douglas, 2006). Customer satisfaction can reasonably be considered to be learner satisfaction.

In educational studies, the learners’ satisfaction has been widely used as a critical dependent variable to evaluate success of the programs. Compared with other outcome variables in educational studies, learner satisfaction is not an equivocal and obscure indicator. It shows the success of communication between learners and instructors, which is a measure quality and success of the entire program (Thurmond, Wambach, & Conners, 2002). The learner is one of the important stakeholders in the educational arena (Yeung, 2001; Yang & Cornelious, 2004). As for distance learning, it is reasonable that the learners’ perception will be considered as a crucial indicator to evaluate the quality of distance education (Steyn & Schulze, 2003).

In the business area, consumer satisfaction often denotes whether the service provider met the consumers’ need (Steyn, & Schulze, 2003). Anderson, Fornell and Lehman (1994) propose there are at least two viewpoints in the definition of consumer satisfaction. The first viewpoint is a transaction-specific perspective, which refers to the consumers’ post-purchase appraisal or judgment of the products or service based on expectations at the specific purchasing time or location. The second viewpoint is cumulative satisfaction, which refers to consumers’ overall appraisal of purchasing and consuming experience toward the products or service. Therefore, we may regard learners’ satisfaction as the learners’ overall post-using evaluation toward the educational service.


Based on preliminary knowledge about the service quality model and the consumer satisfaction concept, there are two major assessment instruments (SERVQUAL and SERVPERF). The SERVQUAL (SERVice QUALity) instrument was proposed by the Parasuraman et al. (1988). In the beginning, they collected data from service industries such as appliance repair and maintenance, bank industry, credit card, securities brokerage, and long-distance phone companies. They initially developed a 97-item instrument to measure the service quality attribute. After eliminating the items with low correlation, they extracted five factors (tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy) with 22 service quality items, and claimed the generic nature of the five-dimension instrument.

Because the disconfirmation-based SERVQUAL instrument has advantages such as better diagnostic power (Jain & Gupta, 2004), and the parsimony of the instrument (Rohini & Mahadevappa, 2006), most researchers in the service quality area tend to prefer the disconfirmation-based SERVQUAL instrument (Abdullah, 2006; Brady, 2001). However, some researchers have been questioning its drawbacks related to the disconfirmation-based model (Redman & Mathews, 1998), process orientation, dimensionality, measuring scale, and the gap scores (Buttle, 1996; Coulthard, 2004; Clewes, 2003; Wetzels, Ruyter, & Lemmink, 2000).

To resolve problems related to the disconfirmation-based SERVQUAL instrument, Cronin and Taylor (1992) propose the performance-only SERVPERF (SERVice PERFormance) instrument to measure service quality. Comparing the validity and reliability of the SERVPERF with that of the disconfirmation-based SERVQUAL, they claim that SERVPERF is better than SERVQUAL in overall service quality measurement in empirical tests (Cronin & Taylor, 1992; Brady, Cronin, Brand, 2002; Jain & Gupta, 2004). The debate related to adoption of SERVQUAL or SERVPERF in service quality studies is not yet resolved. SERVPERF has better explanatory power in overall service quality measurement. On the other hand, SERVQUAL has better diagnostic power because of the P-E score measurement. Thus, selection of the service quality instruments will be determined by the intention of the researchers, service providers or decision-makers (Jain & Gupta, 2004).

Recommendation for Future Research

The DL-sQUAL instrument developed by Shaik, Lowe and Pinegar (2006) needs further validation. To address the need for quality improvement in distance learning and the needs of different target populations in the distance learning market, researchers need to conduct a comparative analysis among the SERVQUAL, the SERVPERF, and the DL-sQUAL instruments to further validate the appropriateness of different instruments for distance learning. Most importantly, debates related to the adoption of the P-E score method (SERVQUAL) or the perception-only method (SERVPERF) in the service quality studies have not been resolved because of the shortcomings of the service quality model. Researchers in DL may need to develop the distance learning service performance instrument (DL-SERVPERF) to address the specific needs of researchers, service providers and decision-makers.


Individual learners and groups of learners have a need for high-quality distance learning to assist them in fulfilling their lifelong learning goals. Organizational needs for high-quality distance training is increasing at an explosive rate because it is flexible, convenient, and cost-effective (Hammond, 2001; Whitney, 2006; David, 2006). Distance learning is expected to play an important role in Human Resource Development (HRD).

Distance learning and distance training require quality instruction and excellent technical and administrative support (Shaik, Lowe & Pinegar, 2006). Through educational services such as student advising, real-time information about courses, help desk and complaint handling, the institutions or service providers in DE can not only build, expand and sustain the perennial relationships with the target clients, but also create added-value in the DE program to further long-term competitive advantages in the DE marketplace (Shaik, 2005).

Last but not least, the idea of quality improvement and developing excellence is always a focal point propelling the HRD professional field (Swanson & Holton, 2001; Claus & Dooley, 2005). In order to achieve continuous and incessant quality improvement in distance education through the analysis of service quality and consumer satisfaction, researchers and practitioners must continue to grow new insights (Moisio & Smeds, 2004) to further provide the learners at the individual, group, and organizational level with good-quality distance learning and training service.


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About the Author

Rui-Ting Huang, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA


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