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Editor’s Note: Internal and external influences that affect distance learning may not be recognized or understood. Distance learning has the potential to change the educational paradigm. Some consider it a threat; others see it as an opportunity. It is important to identify the forces involved to successfully introduce and make effective use of distance education.

The Organizational, Governmental and External
Political Forces Shaping Distance Education.

George D. Konetes


Keywords: Distance learning, distance education, politics, educational technology, government, administration, educator, faculty, culture, policy, human capital


Distance education is being shaped and impacted by a variety of forces that function within institutions, in governing bodies, and from external sources.  In organizations there are political tensions involving administration, faculty and finances which have latent effects as to how programs are carried out.  Within governing bodies there are policies and initiatives taken to advance distance education for the sake of increasing human capital for economic gain.  Externally there are cultural, industrial and global forces that act to influence the field of distance learning and how programs develop.

Problem Statement

Definition of Terms

The following terms are defined to unify the concepts and research presented hereafter.

Distance Education. Education taking place with the student physically or geographically removed from the instructor using some form of technology to facilitate learning and contact (Valentine, 2002).

Distance Learning. Used synonymously with distance education (Valentine, 2002).

Intellectual property rights.  Refers to educators’ legal right of ownership over academic and scholarly material they have created and use (Oravec, 2003b).

Open source software. Usually free software that is often in the public domain (Fuggetta, 2003).

Currency of Issues

The dynamic forces impacting distance education are evolving within the field itself.  The development and controlling factors within institutions are changing and pioneering new models of distributing power (Larreamendy, 2006).  Government bodies are bringing new laws and amendments to the table concerning issues that affect distance programs and institutions (Larreamendy, 2006).  Also, national efforts are being undertaken to develop better technology and capabilities for access and programs (Baggaley, 2005).

Controversial Topics

The nature of political influence of any level on education is controversial.  A government intervening to control and manipulate education through more than funding and assistance is someArial seen as an inappropriate use of power (Leslie, 2003).  Whether it is intended or not, cultural imperialism through distance learning is often seen as a negative or even confrontational issue (Larreamendy, 2006).  In addition to these topics within the field itself there are still a number of instructors in higher academic circles who feel that distance learning is inferior to traditional education (Yang, 2005).

Special Interests

The technology industry has a significant interest in the advancement of distanced education because technology companies provide software, applications and hardware used by distance programs (Saba, 2005).  In addition, local and national governments have a vested interest because they are seeking economic and political advancement through the development of intellectual capital (Naidoo, 2003).  Faculty, educators and teachers themselves have an interest in how distance education is implemented and what are the opportunities for advancement due to a change in work type and procedures for tenure and promotion (Valentine, 2002).

Summary of Literature


There are visible and unseen political factors that influence and shape the field of distance education through organizational, governmental and external factors.  Within organizations there are powers struggles between administration and faculty on how distance learning programs should be carried out.  From the top of the administrative level to federal government there are laws, initiatives and desired benefits that alter and advance the state of the field.  Externally there are global trends, cultural issues and outside industries that influence and alter the way distances education is applied and advanced.

Influence of organizational factors

There are various issues in the areas of administration, educators and trends affecting finances that reflect the application of power and influence in the field of distance education at the organizational level.  The way power is handled by the leadership in an organization determines not only the effectiveness of that institution but also determines either the synergy or friction between faculty and administration.  Likewise, the manner in which faculty obtain and exercise power determines the climate in which distance education operates and educators ability to meet their own goals.  Affecting all levels of distance learning within organizations is the component of finances and how trends impact the use and distribution of money.

Power distribution within a distance learning organization can potentially alter the climate and effectiveness of the organization.  This is seen through management pushing its directives without concern for the faculty causing internal unrest. This is also demonstrated conversely with faculty attempting to influence the policy and direction of the administration resulting in a wavering and undependable course for the organization.  Innovation, change and advancement in distance education within an organization are usually driven from one of two directions, either from the top-down or from the bottom-up (Whitworth, 2005).  Top-down direction involves decisions and initiatives coming from administrators and management and filtering downward to staff and faculty while a bottom-up system involves that same direction starting with the staff and faculty and moving up the chain of command (Larreamendy, 2006).  In top-down designs, the power is in the hands of the administrators who push programs forward but do not necessary look out for teachers’ best interests (Whitworth, 2005).  In this type of system conflicts and concerns surface on the part of the educators involving issues such as applicable credit in new types of programs for tenure and promotion, technological support, time to develop new course materials and proper training to operate new distance learning initiatives (Natriello, 2005).  In the case of a bottom-up system other political concerns manifest such as pushes for frequent policy and vision change that vary with fluctuating political climates (Coupal, 2004).

Faculty, though their individual influence on their educational organization may not be significant, they make use of the ability to unite and leverage power for furthering their causes and agendas.  Faculty members often have requirements imposed upon them by administration in distance education programs to monitor content and competency (Stella, 2004).  These requirements are someArial stringent and given without proper training and support for the educator (Stella, 2004).  Because of these and other concerns faculty members are someArial apprehensive concerning the instituting and advancement of distance education programs and may attempt to influence administration to move away from distance learning (Natriello, 2005).  These educators will someArial band together to form groups in order to optimize their political leverage on the organization and influence leadership (Whitworth, 2005).  This tactic of creating groups to maximize influence (Whitworth, 2005) is also done by faculty to further their agenda in the areas of concern such as over intellectual property rights (Oravec, 2003b) and plagiarism (Oravec, 2003a).  Intellectual property rights have been significant concerns among distance educators and faculty who often use whatever means are available to them to protect their content and course materials from being stolen (Oravec, 2003b).

Trends of distance education have at Arial overextended the financial capability of various regions and institutions that desire to institute state of the art distance learning programs, thus creating a vacuum of resources.  The costs of distance education both directly and indirectly have functioned as one of the largest influencing factors to successful programs and organizations (Moyo, 2003).  These costs are often not all evident at the beginning of programs that are created and implemented too quickly and are revealed as time passes (Dhanarajan, 2001).  Subsequently, more recent distance education programs have had their views of price jaded and often perceive the costs to be higher than they actually are, thus some programs and expansions are avoided as the benefits are not alleged to outweigh the investment (Whitworth, 2005).  A significant factor influencing the movement of distance education programs and the perceived costs and benefits is that of the global market itself (Ntsheo, 2004).  The global influence on distance education has been pushing technology-based learning into areas, regions and institutions that are not yet properly financed to effectively apply it (Dhanarajan, 2001).  This push has been affecting the creation of policy and purpose in many organizations (Ntsheo, 2004).

Government influence

Through the creation and management of laws, advancement of learning initiatives, and desire for economic and political growth, governments and governing bodies are influencing and shaping the field of distance education.  The writing and changing of policy both internally and at the state and federal levels is advancing resources and capabilities of distance programs.  At the same time national and international initiatives have been undertaken to develop distance learning programs, technologies and refine effectiveness. Through both of these actions governments are seeking to bolster intellectual capital and national financial capability to further economic growth and political standing.

The field of distance learning is shaped by internal, local and federal policies which affect areas from standards of learning, to practices, to funding, to the laws which move and influence students abilities to be involved in certain programs.  Both at the academic and national level, there are rules and laws which impact distance education from plagiarism (Oravec, 2003a) to intellectual property rights (Oravec, 2003b) to federal mandates (Larreamendy, 2006).  Governments have had increasingly active roles in shaping, modifying and even partially controlling higher education and distance learning through laws and polices (Leslie, 2003).  Federal and state governments have increasing levels of interest and interactivity in monitoring the quality of distance education modes, made visible by changes in interest rates and taxes to improve program funding in various areas (Stella 2004).  However it is not always clear why various levels of government have taken such an active role in pushing reforms and higher standards of distance learning, although is consistently changing the industry and raising the bar (Leslie, 2003).  This trend operates at the national level as well and can be seen by a motion of the U.S. Senate in 2006 to ease the law that limits colleges to enroll no more than fifty percent of their students through distance programs if the students are to be eligible for federal aid (Larreamendy, 2006). 

State, national and international endeavors are being taken around the world by governing bodies to further advance the use, saturation and effectiveness of distance education.  State governments have begun to more frequently take initiatives in order to push distance learning programs forward (Leslie, 2003).  At the same time, the federal government has been altering national policy in order to aid institutions that are highly involved in distance programs (Stella, 2004).  Outside of the United States similar trends continue, according to Lee (2004) the Chinese government is focusing on the technological development of higher education, accessibility for distance programs and research networks. European countries have also been involved in similar initiatives pushing students to take courses in other nations within the European Union with the purpose of better solidifying academic structures and technology (Altbach, 2004).  There are similar approaches of governments in general moving to further distance education internationally in Africa (Moyo, 2003), Asia (Baggaley, 2005), and Mexico (Potashnik, 1998).

Governments are leveraging resources and laws to maximize their ability to foster growth of human capital and thus advance their economic and political positions.  In this evolving technological era many governments have looked at intellectual capital as one of the most important factors of economic success (Naidoo, 2003).  Distance learning serves to both further intellectual and human capital through channels of academic, vocational, and medical advancement (Dhanarajan, 2001).  Distance education has become a key factor in the developing of knowledge and capability for nations to function in a dynamic information economy (Moyo, 2003).  The key to this, however, is building up people, workers and academic professionals able to help push the nation and the commonwealth forward (Naidoo, 2003).  Politically, nations have been maneuvering and positioning programs, students and efforts to maximize their growth of human and intellectual capability (Altbach, 2004).

External effects

Distance education affects and is affected by various external powers such as global trends, technology interests, and unintended transmissions of culture and political ideologies.  Many of the positive economic and global effects are often sought out by various nations and institutions.  These same nations and organizations are simultaneously and perhaps in an uncorrelated manner, affected by the technology industry in a manner that impacts their technological policy.  The nature of distance education itself also carries with it unintended traces of political and cultural information which are transmitted both through material and medium itself.

Globalized trends and economic impacts of distance education and higher education are both being realized by able nations for their own national benefit.  With the development of the global marketplace (Dhanarajan, 2001) distance education has begun crossing national, cultural and ethnic boarders creating a global learning environment (Vrasidas, 2003).  This global setting has become something that has not just impacted various nations and institutions but is something that is being used and leveraged by those same nations and institutions now as well (Altbach, 2004).  This global learning environment has economic and social benefits, which many nations such as the United States have begun to purposefully use for national benefit (Altbach, 2004).  Jones (2004) states the various generalized attempts of the active state which is a hierarchical and purposeful entity to try and manage without directly controlling the effects of this global market, which is of itself chaotic.  These insights lead to the conclusions reached by Naidoo (2003) that lines have been drawn to link higher education to a global industry that can be controlled for economic and social gains.  One demonstration of this is an effort by the United States to draw in as many foreign students as possible in order to increase global competitiveness (Altbach, 2004).

Many institutions and nations involved in distance education are influenced by various industries, governments, and policies affecting what technology they use. The technology industry has both interest and significant influence in the field of distance education (Saba, 2005).  Technology is a central force which both facilitates and encourages the spread of many forms of distance learning, often acting as a catalyst for change and advancement (Post, 2004).  The writing of distance education technology policy is a politically influenced practice affected by the technology industry, governments and many pre-existing politically infused institutional policies (Coupal, 2004).  These policies are influenced by different factors and forces depending on the region.  According to Baggaley (2005), eleven Asian countries have governments with  written and enforced policy which calls for certain major cities and hubs to be heavily saturated with distance education compatible technology.  Moyo (2003) makes mention that in Africa many nations do not have the financial capability for government intervention and outside companies come in and contract technology on the local level.  Many third world nations attempt to abstain from the expensive programs and applets of the technology industry and instead implement open source software in order to limit their dependence to hardware only (Baggaley, 2005).

Distance learning someArial unintentionally carries political, social and cultural messages that are instilled as deeply as the framework in which the content is created and delivered in.  A someArial overlooked and even unintended result of political bias involving culture in distance education is the writing of curricula (Larreamendy, 2006).  Curriculum is often written with considerations taken for the local learner and the writer, often incorporating bits of bias and culture that are not intended for the geographically removed distance learner (Dhanarajan, 2001).  The manner in which distance education is someArial conducted in brings with it social, cultural and political undertones (Lee, 2004).  For example, online discussions, open ended forums and message boards all transmit elements of westernized democratic learning culture emphasizing personal choice and freedom (Lee, 2004). 

Critical Evaluation

Critique of the Literature

The literature on this topic is sparse yet rich at the same time.  There is not much specific literature on political factors as topic.  However a significant amount of the literature on distance education discusses political and influencing factors to some degree, either directly or indirectly.  Almost all of the information on this topic carries trace elements of useful data; however the task then becomes one of sifting and searching. Overall, there is a large amount of literature involving political influences and impacts on distance learning, however there is little which focuses on this aspect as a topic.

Research Questions

How can the latent effects of culture transmitted unconsciously through distance education content and even program framework be assessed?

How do the organizational politics of administration and faculty respond to national and international political climate changes?

How much of the advancement in the field of distance education is driven by learning need and positive research opposed to the leveraging of influence and money by governments, the technology industry and other third party variables?


Altbach, P. G. (2004). Higher education crosses borders: Can the United States remain the top destination for foreign students? Change, 36(2), 18-24.

Baggaley, J., & Hoon, M. N. L. (2005). PANdora's box: distance learning technologies in Asia. Learning, Media and Technology, 30(1), 5-14.

Coupal, L. (2004). Constructivist learning theory and human capital theory: Shifting political and educational frameworks for teachers' ICT professional development. British Journal of Educational Technology, 35(5).

Dhanarajan, G. (2001). Distance Education: promise, performance and potential. Open Learning, 16(1).

Fuggetta, A.(2003). Open source software––an evaluation. The Journal of Systems and Software, 66, 70-90.

Garrison, R. (2000). Theoretical Challenges for Distance Education in the 21st Century: A shift from structural to transactional issues. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 1(1).

Jones, C. (2004). Networks and learning: Communities practices and the metaphor of networks. Research in Learning Technology, 12(1).

Larreamendy, J. (2006). Going the distance with online education. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 567-605.

Lee, D. (2004). Web-based instruction in China: Cultural and pedagogical implications and challenges. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(1).

Leslie, D. (2003). Substance versus politics: Through the dark mirror of governance reform. Educational Policy 17(1), 98-120.

Moyo, S. (2003). Distance Learning and Virtual Education for Higher Education in Africa: Evaluation of Options and Strategies. African and Asian Studies, 2(4).

Naidoo, R. (2003). Repositioning higher education as a global commodity: Opportunities and challenges for future sociology of education work. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24(2).

Natriello, G. (2005). Modest changes, revolutionary possibilities: Distance learning and the future of education. Teachers College Record, 107(8).

Ntshoe, I. (2004). The politics and economics of post apartheid higher education transformation. Comparative Education Review, 48(2), 202-221.

Oravec, J. A. (2003a). Blending by blogging: Weblogs in blended learning initiatives. Journal of Educational Media, 28(2-3).

Oravec, J. A. (2003b). Some influences of on-line distance learning on US higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(1).

Post, D. (2004). World Bank Okays Public Interest in Higher Education. Higher Education, 48(2), 213-229.

Potashnik, M., & Capper, J. (1998). Distance Education. Finance & Development, 35(1).

Saba, F. (2005). Critical Issues in Distance Education: A report from the United States. Distances Education, 26(2), 255-272.

Stella, A. (2004). Quality assurance in distance education: The challenges to be addressed Higher Education, 47, 143-160.

Valentine, D. (2002). Distance Learning: Promises, Problems, and Possibilities Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(3).

Vrasidas, C. (2003). The nature of technology-mediated interaction in globalized distance education. International Journal of Training and Development, 7(4).

Whitworth, A. (2005). The politics of virtual learning environments: Environmental change, conflict, and e-learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(4), 685-691.

Yang, Y., & Cornelious, L. F. (2005). Preparing Instructors for Quality Online Instruction Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(1).

About the Author

George Konetes is currently a Teaching Associate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the department of Communications Media.  He is also a Doctoral Student in the Ph.D. in Communications Media and Instructional Technology program at IUP.  His research focus is distance education

Email: G.D.Konetes@iup.edu

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