Academic, Economic, and Technological Trends Affecting Distance Education

A foundation for informed planning

A number of prominent distance learning journals have established the need for administrators to be informed and prepared with strategic plans equal to foreseeable challenges. This article provides decision makers with 32 trends that affect distance learning and thus enable them to plan accordingly. The trends are organized into categories as they pertain to academics (including students and faculty), the economy, technology, and distance learning.

Recently, Beaudoin (2003) urged institutional leaders “to be informed and enlightened enough to ask fundamental questions that could well influence their institution’s future viability” (p. 1). Decision makers often rely on long-term demographic and economic projections, based on current trends and foreseeable influences, in their strategic planning (Reeve & Perlich, 2002). While identifying trends does not offer solutions to distance learning challenges, decision makers will benefit by carefully considering each trend as it affects their institution and goals.


The trends presented in this article were identified during an integrative literature review, conducted to summarize the current state and future directions of distance education. Resources were selected based on their currency and relevance to distance education, information technology, and impact on the larger, higher education community. As themes emerged, the citations were then ordered in sub categories and specific trends, and condensed for publication.

Academic trends

Knowledge and Information are Growing Exponentially

One cannot dispute that there is a proliferation of new information: “In the past, information doubled every 10 years; now it doubles every four years” (Aslanian, 2001, p. 5; see also Finkelstein, 1996). This growth in information will certainly continue to dramatically impact higher education and learning in general.

The Institutional Landscape of Higher Education is Changing: Traditional Campuses are Declining, For-Profit Institutions are Growing, and public and private Institutions are Merging Changes in institutional landscape may magnify competition among educational providers and allow new models and leaders to emerge. Currently, only 4-5% of all higher education students are enrolled with for-profit providers, but 33% of all online students are enrolled with these same providers (Gallagher, 2003). Dunn (2000) projected that by 2025, “half of today’s existing independent colleges will be closed, merged, or significantly altered in mission,” and that “the distinctions between and among public and private, for-profit and nonprofit institutions of higher education will largely disappear” (p. 37).

There is a Shift in Organizational Structure Toward Decentralization

Much of a distance education program’s success or failure can be attributed to how it is organized. Hickman (2003) has observed a movement “from a highly centralized core of administrators, coordinators, [and] marketing and support staffs to a more ‘institutionalized ‘ approach in which continuing education personnel were assigned to academic units within a university” (p. 6).

Instruction is Becoming More Learner-Centered, Non-Linear, and Self-Directed

Instructional approaches are becoming more learner-centered, “recursive and non-linear, engaging, self-directed, and meaningful from the learner’s perspective” (McCombs, 2000, p. 1). Whereas most instructors previously followed a “transmission” or lecture-style approach to teaching, more instructional diversity is occurring among teachers who are trying a larger variety of approaches (Eckert, 2003).

There is a Growing Emphasis on Academic Accountability

In a recent poll by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, university presidents, administrators, and faculty members rated increasing demands for accountability (80%) and expanding use of distance education (78%) as the highest impact trends on future NCA (i.e., regulatory) activities (de Alva, 2000). Distance educators must plan to accommodate this emphasis on accountability to maintain accreditation and meet consumer demands.

Academic Emphasis is Shifting from Course-Completion to Competency

Related to accountability trends, there is a slight shift from “theoretical” and “seat-based time” to “outcomes-based” or “employer-based” competency. In many cases, “certification is becoming more preferable than a degree” (Gallagher, 2003). Diplomas are less meaningful to employers; knowledge, performance, and skills are what count to them (Callahan, 2003). With an emphasis on competency, course content will be dictated more “by what learners need, [than] by what has been traditionally done” (de Alva, 2000, p. 38).

Education is Becoming More Seamless Between High School, College, and Further Studies

As universities shift toward competency and institutions cater more closely to learners’ specific needs, distinctions between educational levels will dissolve. “Incentives will be given to students and institutions to move students through at a faster rate [and] the home school movement will lead to a home-college movement” (Dunn, 2000, p. 37). As leaders in the effort to cater to learners’ needs, distance education programs may be a dominant influence in this trend.

Higher Education Outsourcing and partnerships are Increasing

Universities are traditionally independent, freestanding, and competitive (Hawkins, 2003). In contrast, distance learning institutions have been more cooperative and accommodating with partner institutions. Interestingly, Rubin (2003) has noted that “traditional universities are becoming more like distance learning universities and not the opposite” (p. 59). With this shift, more institutions are creating partnerships with other colleges, universities, and companies to share technology and to produce and deliver courses (Dunn, 2000; Carnevale, 2000a; Cheney, 2002; Primary Research Group, 2004).

Some Advocate Standardizing Content in Learning Objects

Frydenberg (2002, para 38) noted that “the central issue in courseware development at the moment is the potential for developing reusable learning objects, tagging them in a systemic way, storing them in well-designed databases, and retrieving and recombining them with other objects to create customized learning experiences for specific needs.” Such customized learning, allowing for “true” individualized learning, is the future and strength of educational technology (Saba, 2003).

student/enrollment trends

The Current Higher Education Infrastructure Cannot Accommodate the Growing College-Aged population and Enrollments, Making More Distance Education programs Necessary Callahan (2003) noted at a recent UCEA conference that the largest high school class in US history will occur in 2009. In corroboration of this projection, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics predicted that college enrollment will grow 16% over the next 10 years (Jones, 2003). With this growth in population and enrollments, and the need for more lifelong learning, many institutions acknowledge that within the decade there will be more students than their facilities can accommodate (Oblinger, Barone, & Hawkins, 2001).

Students are Shopping for Courses that Meet their Schedules and Circumstances

More learners are requiring flexibility in program structure to accommodate their other responsibilities, such as full-time jobs or family needs (Penn State Strategic Plan, 1998). With these constraints, students are enrolling for courses that best accommodate their schedules and learning styles, and then transferring the credit to the university where they will earn their degrees (Carnevale, 2000a; Johnstone, Ewell, & Paulson, 2002; Paulson, 2002).

Higher Education Learner Profiles, Including Online, Information-Age, and Adult Learners, are Changing

Online students are “generally older, have completed more college credit hours and more degree programs, and have a higher all-college GPA than their traditional counterparts” (Diaz, 2002, pp. 1-2). Information-age learners prefer doing to knowing, trial-and-error to logic, and typing to handwriting. Adult learners need to know the rationale for what they are learning and are motivated by professional advancement. However, they tend to feel insecure about their ability to succeed in distance learning, find instruction that matches their learning style, and have sufficient instructor contact, support services, and technology training (Diaz, 2002; Dortch, 2003; Dubois, 1996).

The percentage of Adult, Female, and Minority Learners is Increasing

While the number of 18- to 24-year-old students increased only 41% between 1970 and 2000, the number of adult students increased 170% (Aslanian, 2001). More women than men now enroll in college (57% of students are women), a trend supported by the fact that growing numbers of women are entering the workforce (UCEA, 2002). If enrollment follows population projections, higher education can expect the increase in minorities to continue—for example, the Hispanic population in the US is expected to increase 63% by 2020, reaching 55 million people (UCEA, 2002).

Completion and Retention Rates Concern Administrators and Faculty Members

A Chronicle of Higher Education article in 2000 reported that “no national statistics exist yet about how many students complete distance programs or courses, but anecdotal evidence and studies by individual institutions suggest that course-completion and program-retention rates are generally lower in distance education courses than in their face-to-face counterparts” (Brady, 2001, p. 352). However, many concerns are unwarranted, and institutional results are mixed. Brigham (2003), in a benchmark survey of four-year institutions’ distance education programs, found that 66% of the distance learning institutions have an 80% or better completion rate for their distance education courses; 87% have 70% or better completion.

faculty trends

Traditional Faculty Roles are Shifting or “unbundling”

Paulson (2002) noted that “rather than incorporating the responsibility for all technology- and competency-based functions into a single concept of ‘faculty member’, universities are disaggregating faculty instructional activities and [assigning] them to distinct professionals” (p. 124). Doing this involves a “deliberate division of labor among the faculty, creating new kinds of instructional staff, or deploying nontenure-track instructional staff (such as adjunct faculty, graduate teaching assistants, or undergraduate assistants) in new ways” (p. 126).

The Need for Faculty Development, Support, and Training is Growing

In Green’s (2002) survey on computing and information technology in US higher education, chief academic and information technology officials rated “helping faculty integrate technology into their instruction” the single most important IT issue confronting their campuses over the next two or three years (p. 7). An EDUCAUSE survey supported the issue’s importance: “faculty development, support, and training” was rated the fifth overall strategic concern, as well as the fifth IT issue most likely to become even more significant in the next year (Crawford, Rudy, & the EDUCAUSE Current Issues Committee, 2003).

Faculty Tenure is Being Challenged, Allowing for More Non-Traditional Faculty Roles in Distance Education

Faculty tenure status is coming under fire as new state, private, and for-profit distance learning universities are created. The results of deAlva’s 2000 survey support this trend: governors rated “maintaining traditional faculty roles and tenure” as the least desirable characteristic of a 21st century university (p. 34). Currently, contributions to distance education seldom move faculty members toward tenure, a problem in the present system that needs to be rectified by administrators and faculty.

Some Faculty Members are Resisting Technological Course Delivery

As long as distance education contributions are not considered in tenure and promotion decisions, and as long as professors have their own, traditional ways of delivering courses, many faculty members will hesitate to participate in online courses (Oravec, 2003). Concerning this reluctance, Dunn (2000) predicted that many faculty members will revolt against technological course delivery and the emerging expectations their institutions will have of faculty members.

Faculty Members who participate in Distance Education Courses Develop Better Attitudes Toward Distance Education and Technology

Despite some resistance, the results of a study by McGraw-Hill showed a strong increase in overall faculty support for technology in education, with only 22% viewing it as important in 1999 and 57% in 2003 (Chick et al., 2002). Another 2002 study showed that “most teachers (85%) were not philosophically opposed to distance education” (Lindner, Murphy, Dooley, & Jones, 2002, p. 5). Further, teaching at a distance improves perceptions of distance education: “Faculty members who had not taught distance education courses perceived the level of support as lower than those who had” (Lindner et al., 2002, p. 5).

Instructors of Distance Courses Can Feel Isolated

Despite growing support among faculty members for distance learning, there are acknowledged drawbacks. “Design teams and instructors must anticipate isolation that can be felt by instructors who are separated from their students. This isolation may affect instructor satisfaction, motivation, and potential long-term involvement in distance learning” (Childers & Berner, 2000, p. 64).

Faculty Members Demand Reduced Workload and Increased Compensation for Distance Courses

An NEA survey reported that faculty members’ top concern about distance education was that they will do more work for the same amount of pay, which apparently is a merited concern. The NEA (2000) found that most faculty members do spend more time on their distance courses than they do on traditional courses, and 84% of them do not get a reduced workload. Similarly, 63% of distance faculty members receive no extra compensation for their distance courses.


There are Competing Interests and Limited Resources for Higher Education and Higher Education Initiatives, Such as Distance Education The Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently calculated the combined deficits of the nation’s 50 state governments to total $85 billion within the next year, “the highest number since the Great Depression” (White, 2003, p. 54). These scarce resources will prompt all universities to seek additional external sources of funding. To worsen the problem, university costs and enrollments are growing (UCEA, 2001).

Funding Challenges are the Top IT Concern for Many

A study from the Colorado Department of Education reported that “the cost per student of a high-quality online learning program is the same as or greater than the per-student cost of physical school [i.e., traditional] education” (Branigan, 2003, p. 1). EDUCAUSE reported similar results: “IT Funding Challenges has become the number-one IT-related issue in terms of its strategic importance to the institution, its potential to become even more significant, and its capture of IT leaders’ time” (Crawford et al., 2003, p. 12).

Lifelong learning is Becoming a Competitive Necessity

Some have estimated that people change careers, on average, every 10 years (Cetron, 2003). Undoubtedly, “the changing nature of the workforce in the Information Age.. .[will require] a continuous cycle of retraining and retooling” (Dasher-Alston & Patton, 1998, p. 12). In such circumstances, “the opportunity for training is becoming one of the most desirable benefits any job can offer,” and employers are coming to “view employee training as a good investment” (Cetron, 2003, pp. 6, 22).

technology trends

Technological Devices are Becoming more versatile and ubiquitous

One obvious trend affecting distance education is the advancement of technology. Infrastructures are expanding, computers are doubling in speed while decreasing in cost, and high-speed network connections are continuing to increase. Computer, fax, picture phone, duplication, and other modalities are merging and becoming available at ever cheaper prices (Cetron, 2003). IT functionalities not imagined 10 years ago are being realized.

There is a Huge Growth in internet usage

Not only is technology becoming more ubiquitous, it is being used more competently by more people from all nationalities, age groups, and socioeconomic levels (Murray, 2003). As Cetron (2003) reports, the number of current Internet users is approximately 500 million worldwide (1/12 of the population) and will almost double by 2005. A primary reason for the expansion is a growing percentage of users outside the US.

Technological Fluency is Becoming a Graduation Requirement

Since the networked world is dominating the economy, increasing the power of the individual, and changing business models, no one can afford to be without computer competence (Oblinger & Kidwell, 2000). Accordingly, universities are beginning to list the fluent use of technology as an outcome skill, encouraging students to take online courses, and even requiring students to take at least one online course before they graduate (Young, 2002).


More Courses, Degrees, and universities are Becoming Available through Distance Education programs

The literature is replete with evidence of the growing demand for distance education, and organizations from within and outside higher education are adapting to accommodate such growth. The annual market for distance learning is currently $4.5 billion, and it is “expected to grow to $11 billion by 2005″ (Kariya, 2003, p. 49). Some analysts predict that demand for distributed education will grow from “five percent of all higher education institutions in 1998 to 15 percent by 2002″ (Oblinger & Kidwell, 2000, p. 32).

The Internet is Becoming Dominant among other Distance Education Media

Distance education has always existed in one form or another. However, accompanying the growth in Internet usage, “today’s distance education focus has dramatically shifted toward network-based technologies (in general) and Internet-based delivery (more specifically)” (Kinley, 2001, p. 7). Not only is online learning more common now, but it is increasing 40% annually (Gallagher, 2002).

The Distinction Between Distance and Local Education is Disappearing

As universities digitally enhance more courses, the distinction between distance and local education is becoming blurred (Primary Research Group, 2004; Dunn, 2000). In fact, most online students live in the local vicinity of the institution offering their course (Carr, 2000). Traditional in-state, out-of-state, and international student distinctions are being eliminated, as are the course delivery formats distinctions, and the corresponding fee structures for the respective groups are breaking down (Carnevale, 2000b, 2000c).

The Need for Effective Course Management Systems and Web Services is Growing

Web services is “a relatively new term used to describe new software standards that allow for integration of different applications as well as the secure exchange of data over the Internet” (Crawford et al., 2003, p. 24). Web services ranked number six on the EDUCAUSE list of IT issues becoming more significant in 20032004, and instructional/course management systems were ranked number nine on the same list (Crawford et al., 2003).

There is an Increasing Need for Strategies that Better utilize the Capabilities of Technology

Technological advancements have caused distance educators to ask how “new technologies such as wireless, mobile laptop computing, personal digital assistants (PDAs), videoconferencing, videostreaming, virtual reality, and gaming environments enhance distributed learning” (Crawford et al., 2003, p. 24). Distance learning research should focus on delivery strategies that improve instructional effectiveness and help solve capacity constraints, economic concerns, and higher education consumer needs.


In response to trends outlined in this article, distance learning has the potential to respond to student needs and overcome funding challenges that traditional institutions cannot. Although higher education institutions are changing to favor distance education, the complexities of major transformations will require time and patience. As Bates (2000) suggests, perhaps “the biggest challenge [in distance education] is the lack of vision and the failure to use technology strategically” (p. 7). Institutions will strengthen their distance learning strategic plans by identifying and understanding distance education trends for student enrollments, faculty support, and larger academic, technological, and economic issues.

key terms

Academic Accountability: The emphasis from society, government, and academia that education should lead to beneficial outcomes and learning that can be measured.

Competency: The recent focus on competency that comes from employers stands in contrast to previous ways of acknowledging learning, such as seat-based time or diplomas. To an increasing degree, graduates are being judged by what they can do, not by what they know.

Decentralization: Represents the move away from a tightly grouped core of administrators and personnel that facilitate distance education, to a system that is more integrated into the different units of an institution.

Learner-Centered: Education that focuses on students and their learning, rather than on teachers and their methods. There has been a significant paradigm shift toward learner-centered education in the last decade.

Learning Objects: Available information (usually on the Web) that is reusable and applicable to many different learning contexts.

Lifelong Learning: Learning that extends beyond formal instruction and beyond the classroom. Distance education is facilitating the education of countless individuals in later stages of their lives.

Outsourcing: The growing practice in distance education of using external organizations to perform functions necessary to postsecondary institutions or programs.

Seamless Education: Seamless education refers to learning where boundaries between educational levels dissolve. For example, the transition between high school and college is becoming less distinct.

Technological Fluency: In addition to traditional literacy, technological literacy is increasingly becoming a necessity in higher education and in society. With the abundance of available information, information literacy is also growing in importance.

Unbundling of Faculty Roles: Entails the division of traditional faculty tasks. No longer are all faculty designing their instruction, implementing it, and then conducting the assessment of learning. More and more, different people or technological devices are performing these and other functions.

Next post:

Previous post: