Distance Learning

While distance education involves any type of education that is delivered away from a main college or university campus, online education is the focus of this section. Online education now includes more than one million students in online degree programs out of the approximately 15 million total students enrolled today in higher educational institutions in the United States.1

The Sloan Foundation’s report, Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005, documents that online education has become part of the mainstream of university education. For example, the report includes the following findings:

  • The number of students taking at least one online course grew 18.2 percent in 2004 to 2.35 million students.
  • 65 percent of schools offering graduate face-toface courses also offer graduate courses online.
  • 63 percent of schools offering undergraduate face-to-face courses also offer undergraduate courses online.
  • Among all schools offering face-to-face master’s degree programs, 44 percent also offer masters’ degree programs online.
  • 43 percent of business schools also offer online business degrees.2

The Wall Street Journal reports that, despite the publicity focus on the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools, it is the public universities that are going online “big time.” According to Gary Miller, associate vice president for outreach at Penn State University,3“Public universities are moving into the online environment extremely rapidly.” In fact, there are more than 51,450 students enrolled in the online University College of the University of Maryland, more than 9,200 at the University of Massachusetts and nearly 20,000 at Troy University in Alabama.4

Yet few public relations courses are currently being taught online in American universities. No complete undergraduate programs have been found online in public relations.5 The six universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents system (Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee Technological University, Tennessee State and University of Memphis) come close: they have a five-course sequence of public relations courses available in their organizational leadership concentration for an online bachelor of professional studies degree. The five courses are the typical ones covering the suggested topics in the 1999 Port of Entry: public relations principles, writing, research, case problems and campaigns. An internship is also available.

At the graduate level, there is no program that is totally online and entirely a public relations program. West Virginia University has an integrated marketing communication online program. Austin Peay University has an online master’s degree in corporate communication. The University of Maryland’s University College offers a master’s degree in management and public relations. Syracuse University has a campus component plus online instruction for its master’s of public relations and management. The University of Memphis has an online master’s degree in journalism with a concentration in public relations available.6

2006 Recommendations

To have quality online programs, several issues must be considered by public relations program administrators and faculty. These include resources (incentives, design and development costs), pedagogy and quality assurance.

Resources: University administrators must provide additional resources to develop online programs if a school decides to undertake the task of developing a program, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. While a single course may be done without more assistance, public relations faculty members typically have heavy teaching loads, advising responsibilities and research agendas, which don’t allow extra time for many additional duties. Many major universities with well-designed programs and courses often provide teaching/learning-center support with instructional design assistance as well as production assistance for preparing materials for online instruction. But the university should also provide a teaching load reduction for the designer of a new online course. As an incentive, the designer often will also receive extra compensation, or a stipend, for preparing the course(s).

The intellectual property rights for the newly designed online course usually go to the designer/ instructor. However, the university will retain the right to use the course, should the designer leave the university.

Pedagogy: Different skills and methods of teaching are needed for online instruction. Fifty years of research show students learn more when they collaborate with each other, receive prompt and trusted feedback, have more interaction with the professor and have more options of learning style. This can all happen with online instruction.

No longer is the instructor the key person; instead, the key is the student learner. Emphasis is on how to best meet the learning objectives of the course. The instructor is much more a course manager, rather than the center of the learning process. The more the student can be involved with the course material through assignments, online discussions and group exercises, the more likely the learning objectives are to be obtained. Typically, there are several students in a classroom setting who are reluctant to ask questions. However, with online classes, students are much more likely to be involved with the professor and other students through e-mail, discussion postings, assignments and chat rooms.

Online courses may not always be the ideal choice for students, but are the realistic choice because of work schedules, home responsibilities and/or special needs. The successful online student tends to be an adult learner who is highly motivated, mature and focused on learning. In one major online statewide program, the typical student was found to be 40 years old and female with two children.7

Lessons learned from students taking online courses include these:

They tend to be motivated, focused and appreciative of the opportunity to learn, no matter where they live or how much they travel. Their work is often superior to on-campus students. The students often get to know one another better than they would in a classroom setting. Some material is even easier to master online than other types of coursework.8

Instructors report that class size needs to be small (typically 25 or fewer for a lecture course and 15 or fewer for a writing or graduate course).

At least weekly involvement and considerable contact with students are essential. The instructor and students need to be comfortable with computers. Courses need to be evaluated differently, and there needs to be a technology hotline for immediate help.

Regional college and university accrediting agencies require that the services provided to online students are similar to on-campus students. Lessons learned from administrators suggest these services should be the same or similar to those provided by these campus offices: financial aid, admissions, bursar, registrar and advising.

Opportunities for career counseling and other services also may need to be provided. Library services need to be available from a distance; therefore, students should be able to access electronic journals, databases and even books as well as interlibrary loan. Administrators must be prepared to deal with copyright and other intellectual property rights issues. They need to provide incentives to faculty to develop courses as well as teach them and to provide instructional design assistance. Administrators also must provide oversight to insure that all programs, courses, instruction and faculty are able to meet accreditation standards when delivering online courses.9

Quality Assurance: The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has led the way in developing standards evaluating online degree programs.10 The other regional accrediting associations have joined together to use the standards developed by North Central and approved by all eight regional groups. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has developed guidelines for quality assurance in online and distance education. Various other groups also have developed online guidelines, including Blackboard, a major course management software vendor, and the Sloan Consortium and Educause, both educational- based associations which work with distance education issues and research. Problems in quality assurance that continue to be addressed include testing and evaluation, student involvement and quality of student services.


Public relations education in the next decade will need to include online education in its mix of delivery methods if it is to keep pace with the rest of professional education. Professional education has led the way in online programs because the demand among the adult learners (persons 25 years old and older) is for those programs. Business, education and health care are those areas most in demand by the adult student.11 Those are the programs most offered, not only by for-profit institutions such as Phoenix and Strayer, but also by traditional state and private colleges and universities. The traditional higher education system has been slower to enter into online education, but is now moving into it much more rapidly because of the public demand for quality online education from credible higher educational institutions.


1 Carol Aslanian, higher education consultant, presentation at Association for Continuing Higher Education, Region VII Annual Convention, Fort Worth, TX, April 21, 2006.

2 The Sloan Consortium, “Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005.”

3 Daniel Golden, “Degrees@StateU.edu,” The Wall Street Journal Online, May 9, 2006.

4 Ibid.

5 Survey done by Dan Lattimore of all PRSSA schools, Spring 2006.

6 Ibid.

7 Regents Online Degree Programs, Tennessee Board of Regents, Nashville, TN.

8 Dan Lattimore, “Regents Online Degree Programs: What We’ve Learned,” ETHED Conference, Nashville, TN, April 2003.

9 Ibid.

10 http://www.ncahlc.org/download/Best_Pract_DEd.pdf

11 Aslanian, April 21, 2006.