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Editor’s Note
: This paper addresses the reasons for building online education programs for Human Resource Development professionals, and confronts transition and implementation issues. Resolution of some concerns expressed is a work in progress.

Challenges and Solutions in Offering
Distance Education programs:
A case study of an HRD program

Bassou El Mansour
United States


Distance education has created a growing opportunity to provide education that will impact the field of Human Resource Development (HRD) and create new knowledge and skills that better serve today’s practitioners. This trend makes it essential that those involved in preparing future professionals, in this case HRD professionals, examine closely how to take advantage of the many opportunities that distance education has to offer. Depending on the format, distance education can often create challenges that may impact the quality of the whole system. In the case of an HRD program offered via distance education, there are at least three major groups of stakeholders – the administration, faculty, and students. This paper explores some challenges and solutions faced by the distance education HRD program at Indiana State University (USA). Challenges such as workload, space allocation, student persistence, student honesty, faculty development, copyright, and intellectual property are examined.

Keywords: distance education, Human Resource Development, workload, infrastructure, learning styles, teaching styles, student persistence, faculty development, copyright, intellectual property.


As the Internet becomes a major factor in education, higher education in the U.S. is increasingly turning to distance education technologies to deliver the curriculum at all levels. On reason for the popularity of distance- based courses is the freedom to choose the time and place to study. Students, and especially adult learners, are struggling to balance their educational needs with a job, family, health issues, and financial worries. Internet classes allow them to learn at a pace that is comfortable to them, at a place of their choosing, and at a time when there are least interruptions. The main reasons given by adult learners in a research study were: to gain skills that will help them get further in their careers, to enrich their lives with more knowledge, to complete a degree or other credential, and to fulfill the requirements of their employers to take educational courses (Berker, 2003).

Today distance education has become an alternative method for delivering academic course work to students. Ryan et al (1999) wrote “The current paradigm shift in higher education is from traditional classroom settings to distance education program delivery via the World Wide Web (WWW)” p.272. Furthermore, distance education eliminates the barriers of time and distance by offering instructional material instantaneously and continuously (Piskurich, 2003 & Bullen, 2003). Distance education allows the learning process to become continuous and accessible any time. It illustrates the advantage of unlimited access and retrieval of electronic learning materials. As Merriman (2006) wrote “Online education is entering the mainstream, according to some higher education analysts, and its growing popularity with employers is part of the reason” p.79.

This trend makes it essential that those involved in preparing future professionals, in this case HRD professionals; to examine how to best use online learning to ensure quality learning.


Distance education has created a growing opportunity to provide education that will impact the field of Human Resource Development (HRD) and create new knowledge and skills that better serve today’s practitioners. The purpose of the HRD program offered at Indiana State University is to prepare HRD and Training professionals for higher education, industry, business, government, and other agencies. The goal is to develop graduates who are competent in planning, conducting, and managing education, training, and other human resource development activities. In addition to the required coursework, students in these programs are required to complete an internship.

The department that offers the HRD program was chosen based on the fact that it has over ten years of experience delivering the curriculum at all levels via distance education technology as well as through more traditional delivery systems. Currently, there are over 300 students completing degrees at a distance. The HRD major is offered at the undergraduate level leading to a Bachelor of Science degree and to a Master of Science at the graduate level. Since 1994, the BA/BS program has grown in enrollments (i.e., unduplicated headcount) from 29 to approximately 145 in 2006. During the same period, the MS program has increased from 87 students to approximately 150. The faculty in this program also offers a Ph.D. program, which at present has 50 students enrolled in the HRD specialization. Currently, there are four full-time, tenured and three tenure-track faculty lines dedicated to this program. The dean teaches courses in these programs.

The program under consideration began offering distance education via correspondence courses more than 20 years ago. Ten years ago, the department made the choice to expand the offerings and employ the satellite television network in the State of Indiana to reach more students. In the past five years, the majority of the students have migrated to the Internet sections of the courses. Since that time, the numbers have been increasing.

The courses for both programs are offered using three modalities: face-to-face, video/television network, and the Internet. The course content is delivered face to face in a lab classroom to students registered as on campus- students as well as to students who use video/television network via satellite technologies from other Indiana sites. The course material is then posted on Blackboard, an online course management platform for all the students to use.

The HRD program represents the initial attempt in exploring new means to improve teaching through the effective and convenient utilization of educational technologies. Second, the purpose of the department is to leverage distance education as a means to reach working adults, improve learning, and enhance learner’s capabilities. Technology offers the department one other means to achieve a long term vision of not only attracting new traditional students, but also professionals currently working in the field of human resources as well as working adults seeking continuous education (The majority of the students in the HRD program are working adults with 25 percent of them working in the field of human resources). Finally, an important factor was the department’s need for distance education methodologies that are transforming higher education to meet the demands of the changes developing due to the advent of the internet.

Challenges and solutions

Whenever we consider the challenges relative to a specific program or course of instruction, it is necessary to note that there are multiple stakeholders. In the case of an HRD program offered via distance education, there are at least three major groups of stakeholders. They are the administration, the faculty, and the students. The challenges, taken in no particular order, are discussed in the following,

Infrastructure and Space Allocations

Developing and maintaining the necessary infrastructure to support distance education constitutes the first challenge. This involves such things as developing or purchasing the necessary computer bandwidth, instruction development hardware and software, faculty support (IT personnel and instructional designers), as well as providing multiple opportunities for training. This is not simple, nor is it inexpensive. Indiana State University was successful in attracting a significant amount of state support and external funding to develop the necessary infrastructure for Internet delivery. To support the program in question, the university invested in excess of $400,000 over a two year period of time to create a television and Internet ready classroom that is in essence a full-feature studio that seats 24 students.

In short, the transition of instruction from face-to-face to distance delivery can be quite expensive, requiring major investments in hardware and software. However, there is often another interesting outcome of this transition; the actual need for space declines as fewer and fewer students choose not to attend on-campus courses. In some cases, this has the net effect of programs losing physical space even with significant growth in enrollments.

Faculty Development

Research suggests that faculty as a whole see Internet delivery of classes as a good thing; they also admit that many, if not most, lack the skills necessary to incorporate it in an effective way. Many teachers have had no prior experience with this method of teaching and the only solution offered to them in most cases was in-service training (Wonacott, 2001). Among the influences to faculty’s resistance to teach distance education courses are: a perceived lack of institutional support and training as well as lack of technical training (Clark, 1993).

Indiana State University through the Center for Instruction, research and technology (CIRT) offers a multidimensional professional development program for faculty and staff to increase their competence and confidence in the areas of teaching distance education courses. Distance teaching instructors participate in faculty development courses, seminars, workshops, and summer institutes for which they receive a stipend. CIRT offers programs for faculty and staff in many other formats such as one-on-one training, self-study tutorials and computer-based, and resources and services. Instructional designers assist faculty with course development and implementation.

Distance education department publishes a free e-newsletter that contains important University announcements to help students start and complete their distance courses. Technical support is also provided to students. A toll free number allows students to call 24 hours for technical support. Quality of instruction is also ensured by peer course review as well as evaluation by instructional designers regarding the design and management of the course.

Faculty Workload

Depending on the format, distance education can often create an overwhelming workload for faculty. K. Holt (2005) in a study that compared faculty time requirements in online and traditional course formats found that faculty time requirements to deliver an online course took significantly more time when compared to a traditional course regardless of employment status, academic rank, course discipline and faculty gender. Several authors also agreed that web-based courses require more time and effort on the part of faculty in comparison with classroom courses of comparable size, content, and credit (Tomei, 2005; Visser, 2000; Rockwell, Schauer, Fritz & Marx, 1999).

Traditional methods of face-to-face instruction allow faculty to maximize their delivery capability. Synchronous forms of distance education (e.g., television networks) also allow one teacher to impact many students simultaneously. As faculty become more involved with asynchronous methods the workload tends to increase as the major of the teaching and advising interactions are completed individually. So instead of one teacher teaching a lesson to 45 students simultaneously, that same teacher may have hundreds of interactions with the same 45 students to deliver the same amount of instruction and advisement.

Regarding the online teaching, the workload increases with the increase of the number of students. According to Dibiase et al (2005) an increase from 18 students in a class to 49 students increased course-related workloads from 47.5 hours to 116.7 hours total. Consequently, today a normal load for the HRD faculty at Indiana State University is to teach three sections of two courses. Often these courses have both the undergraduate and graduate sections. In that case, the professor would actually have three sections of four courses. Given that this program has grown quite large due to the number of faculty and given that most of their students are in the Internet sections, this workload has become quite overwhelming. Faculty is currently exploring ways to reduce this workload by reducing the number of sections, and employing group means such as a frequently asked questions page on their web pages, chat sessions, and other interactive communication tools

Another aspect of workload has to do with course preparation. Unlike traditional face-to-face classes, distance education classes (especially asynchronous ones) must be prepared fully in advance.

The final aspect of workload has to do with advising. Without a doubt, quality developmental advising is essential if students are to maximize their educational experience. Consequently, faculty is often encouraged to do much more than simply sign off on an advisee’s registration sheet. Assistance with academic, financial, career and personal concerns has made quality advising very demanding and time consuming for the faculty. With over 300 majors and seven faculty members, this constitutes a significant portion of the faculty’s workload. In addition, advising distance students from all over the country via e-mail and the Internet is particularly challenging. Faculty is debating the creation of an administrative unit that will help students with registration questions and scheduling while faculty advises on academic, career, and personal matters. To address the issue, some institutions go so far as to employ full-time advisors and remove that workload from faculty.

Student Persistence and Learning Styles

As many universities struggle to maintain a 40% six-year graduation rate, lack of persistence has been a concern for the faculty who reported that they often found that some students, especially traditional undergraduates were not prepared to take more responsibility for their own education. Very little in their educational experiences to date prepared them to deal with the autonomy and responsibility of asynchronous instruction. Graduate students seemed to be more capable of generating self-discipline to complete assignments in a timely fashion and to treat the assignments seriously.

Student persistence is a major issue also for Indiana State University as the state is considering basing their funding on the university graduate rate. Low persistence rate will have serious implications on the program. A decrease in the number of students means a drop in tuition income. This, in turn, impacts the department’s ability to maintain the quality of its instructional offerings. To address the issues associated with persistence rate, the faculty attempts to anticipate where students might have difficulty and ensure, as much as possible, that the students will be able to master the material on their own. Otherwise the faculty member can expect a small flood of e-mail messages.

Research has put a lot of importance on learning styles for internet students. Authors feel that if the instructor knows the learning styles of his/her students, he/she can build a better course content. If instructors have an understanding how students learn and are able to address each different learning style and incorporate it into their courses, greater learning will take place, the learners will be able to interact better, and get more our of the class (Barnes, Gooden, & Preziosi, 2004). “Some adults are inclined toward teacher-centered instruction, and some may opt for self-oriented or self-directed instruction. Some may prefer reading to gather new information, and others may desire a multimedia presentation for acquiring the same information. These learning styles complicate the distance educator’s job but must be considered during early planning activities” (Clark & Verduin, 1991).

In addition, Clark (1993) observed that faculty using distance education technology face a variety of challenges when adapting their teaching styles to a mode compatible with distance education environment. Faculty in the HRD program, in this regard, is using techniques such as online networking where students are placed in groups called communities. Such groups allow students to actively participate, share ideas, and help each other overcome the barriers of distance learning. Instructors assume the responsibility of making sure that students are participating in the class. To maintain these groups, instructors are very accessible, they provide progress updates on regular basis, and they encourage students to respond to each other’s questions and comments.

Academic Honesty

Academic honesty is another challenge in distance education. Not only is there a wealth of information on the Internet, ready to be copied and pasted, and often presented as the learner’s own work, but there are numerous websites the offer research papers for sale. This can be a great temptation for student’s who feel they are not doing well enough, who want to spend their time on other things, or who simply don’t have the skills to do the work themselves and receive a passing grade. This places a different role on the instructor; that of detective or “honesty police” (Holt, 98). While there evidence that age is associated with lower levels of cheating (Whitley, 1998), Faculty, while recognizing the importance of plagiarism detection, is more interested in prevention. In an effort to communicate faculty expectations about the proper use of reference materials published online, the HRD faculty uses expectation management to enforce academic integrity standards. Each faculty member develops a section in the syllabus that explains academic dishonesty as well as encourages students to read and ask questions about the University Student Handbook. Faculty also uses to detect plagiarism.

Another challenge to academic honesty, relates to the identity of the test taker. Instructors have no way of knowing who is actually taking the test (Kerka & Wonacott, 2000). For example, instead of giving a test online, the instructor could require the student to go to an approved site and have the test proctored. Currently, this method is only used with PhD students taking their preliminary exams. As time goes on, there may be other solutions we have not considered thus far. Technology is ever advancing and could come up with a way to assure academic integrity.

Intellectual Property

Of significant concern for both faculty and administration is the issue of ownership and use of the instruction developed for distance delivery. The issue of intellectual property on university campuses in the United States is a hotly debated and rarely settled issue. Some institutions insist they own it all and may or may not share the “profits” with faculty. Others take a more “generous” position. Faculty on the other hand, tends to desire to retain ownership rights. For the Indiana State University, this issue reached crisis state when a senior faculty demanded that all university records of his courses be destroyed just as he was retiring. The department chair complained to University Council but was overruled. Council ruled that the institution had not taken the necessary steps to retain at least shared ownership. Today, faculty is required to sign a waiver for each course they are paid to develop. The waiver states that both the faculty and the university own the materials and have the right to use them in the future.


One small but significant challenge is the use of copyrighted material for Internet based courses. Although huge amounts of data are available on the Internet, not all of it can be used freely. The instructor may also have materials that are available for nonprofit educational institutions but can not be posted to the Internet by the instructor. This would require the instructors to look elsewhere for pertinent materials for the class (Wonacott, 2001). Copyright laws were amended in 2003 to include these issues. The Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) legislation enacted comprehensive changes that educators must follow where distance education is concerned (Lipinski, 2005).


This analysis highlighted information on challenges that administrators and distance education faculty need to reexamine. It also brought relevant information to education professionals working in developing countries around the world. Lastly, the inconclusive solutions presented in the paper create a need for similar analysis to document other studies and practices.


As can be seen from the analysis above, many issues challenge the success of distance instruction, especially whole programs offered via asynchronous means. In a day, when it seems that everyone is trying to do more with less, it does not appear to be possible to do so in this case.


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About the Author

Bassou El Mansour, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of HRD and Assistant Director of the Technology Services Center in the Industrial Technology Education Department at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana USA

(812) 237-3455 E-mail:

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