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The 44 Distance Education Success Factors

The process of developing and implementing effective distance education happens in an iterative cycle.

Broadly considered, the three stages in the cycle are:
(1) procurement and preparation of the resources necessary to meet the distance education goals,
(2) delivery of instruction using the best practices from education, business and research, and
(3) analysis of the results of distance education to gauge achievement of the goals.

Each stage of the Resources--Practices--Results (RPR) cycle, shown in the figure below, continually revisits lessons learned in the other stages and builds upon the successes realized in the other stages (Cavanaugh 2002). Each stage requires participation of all stakeholders, including students, instructors, support and design professionals, administrators, and the community. The success factors included in each stage are based on decades of research and experience with learners from professions, higher education and K-12 education (Barker, 1999; Bruce, Fallon & Horton, 2000; Cavanaugh, 1999; Educational Development Associates, 1998; Fredericksen, E., Peltz, W. & Swan, K., 2000; Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2000; Mantyla, 1999).

Figure: Distance learning success factors

The Resources Phase of the RPR Cycle. The resources required to sustain an accessible quality distance education program exist to support students, faculty, and the program or institution toward achieving the goal of effective and appropriate learning. Responsive and flexible human resources, knowledge, skills, policies, procedures and technical infrastructure enable quality practices and contribute to quality results. Procurement, development and adaptation of resources are ongoing processes.

 Success factors for the Resources phase:

  1. Institutional policy that values distance education
  2. Strategic plan for delivering distance education to students
  3. Stakeholder analysis to determine needs of graduates
  4. Financial commitment that gives the direction regarding program implementation
  5. Team support for distance educators and students
  6. Appropriate technology infrastructure
  7. Program standards to guide course design and delivery
  8. Program review to ensure that all components of the program meet standards and to ensure that the standards contribute to program goals
  9. Effective communication of policies and expectations to students
  10. Student services: information, advising, orientation, and security
  11. Information privacy
  12. Qualified, experienced staff and faculty
  13. Community involvement in the programís goals, policies, and outcomes
  14. Information provided to faculty about teaching in the distance learning environment
  15. Instructor release time for course development
  16. Instructor training in distance education pedagogy and technology
  17. Course design and delivery assistance
  18. Well-designed and appropriate learning materials
  19. Student orientation and training
  20. Student access to learning resources and instructors
  21. Technical support for instructors and students
  22. Technology plan to communicate goals to all users


The Practices Phase of the RPR Cycle. With the right resources in place, the stage is set for dramatic distance learning performance. At this point the spotlight shifts from the institution to the instructor. Quality accessible distance teaching begins with the careful design of courses, materials and learning activities. Next, the instructional practices employed during instruction will aim at developing independent learners with the ability to transfer their learning to novel situations. Throughout the course, effective communication and community building are essential foundations for all events.

Success factors for the Practices phase:

  1. Focus on content and students
  2. Relevant and important skills and knowledge addressed in courses
  3. Structured information presented in motivating context
  4. Social strategies to promote student comfort, control, challenge
  5. Fast feedback from instructors to students
  6. Consistent and accessible design throughout each course
  7. Highly interactive activities for student engagement
  8. Authentic communication among students, instructors and experts
  9. Course activities designed to maximize student motivation
  10. Activities focused on high-level cognitive skills
  11. Development of information literacy
  12. Development of applied technical skills


The Results Phase of the RPR Cycle. The only way to know whether an accessible distance education program has achieved quality is to compare the program results to established quality benchmarks. Measures of quality are tied to institutional goals, and account for the specific context of the program. To maintain success, a distance education program evaluation must account for institutional and instructional factors as well as student factors. Evaluation of course and program results is a continual process that involves all stakeholders and requires a wide range of tools. Success is evaluated by through assessment of student learning, program review, and program accreditation.

Success factors for the Results phase:

  1. Student independence developed through opportunities for self-assessment
  2. Peer review of student work as a professional experience
  3. Creation of student portfolios to showcase accomplishments
  4. Varied assessments for an accurate view of student abilities
  5. Open-ended assignments to increase thinking skills and reduce cheating
  6. Secure online testing
  7. Ongoing course evaluation by students
  8. Evaluation of program by students and faculty
  9. Review of program outcomes and components by all stakeholders
  10. Program accreditation
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Copyright © 2006 Drs.Cavanaugh  Last modified: March 06, 2008