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Editor’s Note
: Technology has transformed distance learning into a growth industry. It began after World War II using broadcast television, supplemented in the late 1950s by Airborne Television in the Midwestern United States, and cable television in Hagerstown Maryland and Anaheim California. Instructional Television Fixed Service provided a low-cost broadcast option for schools. Satellite teleconferences and interactive television using ISDN telephone lines came later.

Popularization of personal computers in the 1980s and the World Wide Web in the 1990s revolutionized the logistics and economics of distance learning for groups and individuals. Online learning is now widely used for training and education. Despite explosive growth of distance learning, a disproportionately small number of institutions offer programs for distance learning providers, teachers, and administrators. This is a study of graduate programs that provide academic preparation and leadership in distance education.

The Study of Distance Education
by Distance Education

Nathan K. Lindsay and Scott L. Howell

Keywords: distance education graduate programs, degrees, certificates, specializations, discipline, online learning, distance education trends, distance education textbooks, distance education dissertations, growth industry, educational administrator, instructional coordinator, delivery models


Distance education has become what analysts call a growth industry, and they predict it remaining so for many years to come. The term distance education was formally introduced into the U.S. government’s Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) thesaurus on October 24, 1983 (Wright & Howell, 2004). One government study reported that distance learning had a presence in only ten states in 1987 but by 1989 it was in all 50 states (Perelman, p. 1992). The most current studies on distance education enrollment trends available at the time of this writing show that this enrollment growth “was a rocket-like 27.64%” for those 71 established distance education programs surveyed for the academic period September 2003 to January 2004 (“The Survey,” 2004). An economic study shows that the “U.S. education and training industry will grow from $2.1 billion revenue in 2002 to $33.6 billion in 2005” (“Six Higher,” 2004).

As academe continues to observe this growth phenomenon, many from within the educational institution and outside have asked what role universities, especially graduate schools, have in preparing a future workforce to accommodate such a shortage in distance education expertise. The newest release of the government’s Occupational Outlook, 2004–5, projects both the education administrator and instructional coordinator job outlook as growing “faster than average” for all occupations through 2012, which equates to a predefined categorical growth rate range of 21 to 35 percent (U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d.). While distance education educators are part of this general category of education administrator and instructional coordinator, many would agree that the distance education administrator and specialist subcategory are in even higher demand than the other administrators and coordinators.

The questions this study sought to address include (a) who the distance education graduate programs are that have emerged to provide academic preparation and leadership in distance education, (b) what some of the characteristics of these programs are, and (c) whether or not the growth in the academic discipline of distance education is keeping pace with growth in the distance education industry.


The authors’ initial review of the most recent graduate program reference books
(i.e., Peterson’s Graduate Programs in Business, Education, Health, Information Studies, Law, and Social Work) and online databases (e.g.,,, and revealed only a few programs that actually focused on the study of distance education as an academic discipline of its own. What the authors found instead was that most databases and search engines confused the plethora of academic disciplines delivered by distance education with what appeared to be just a few graduate programs that actually specialized in the study of distance education.

The other means by which this graduate program list was both validated and appended was through an analysis of the 109 dissertations and theses completed in 2003 by North American university students on the subject of distance education and cited in the ProQuest® Digital Dissertation Index. While the list of distance education graduate programs generated herein is not exhaustive, it represents a majority of the graduate distance education programs extant in North America.

The researchers generated a pool of 18 informal questions from which graduate programs could be queried. Before any program representative was contacted, each program Web site was reviewed for what information was available so that the follow up e-mail and/or phone contact would be minimized. A sample of some of the questions asked of each program include the following:

  • What types of certificates/degrees do you offer with distance education specialization?

  • What is the focus or primary goal(s) of your distance education courses/program?

  • When was your distance education program (or courses) first established?

  • What is your primary delivery model/medium (e.g., online, face-to-face [f2f], hybrid [online and f2f], satellite, two-way audio/video, correspondence, etc.)?

  • What is your foundational DE primer(s) or textbook(s)?

  • Do you foresee any significant changes in your program in the next few years?
    If so, what are they?

Description of Results

While this informal study of distance education degree and certificate programs is not exhaustive, the authors believe the effort to identify and provide some meta-analysis of the extant programs does contribute to a better understanding of the state of distance education graduate programs. At least ten institutions were identified that offer certificates or degrees in distance education, while many more graduate programs were discovered that integrate individual courses and emphases or specializations in distance education as part of a broader curricular scope (e.g., educational technology or instructional science).

The significance of this integration cannot be overlooked since graduate students from 74 different universities wrote the 109 distance education dissertations completed in 2003. Clearly, many institutions have either integrated distance education or allowed their graduate students to study distance education within a larger context to have so many institutions researching distance education and so few specializing. Assistant Vice Provost for the College of Extended Learning at New Mexico State University, Mark Workman, may have said it best:

“From what I have seen, few institutions are looking at DE as a discipline. They typically embed it into some other discipline. We saw the same type of thing happen in the early ’70s with computer science. No one offered computer science as a stand-alone discipline. It was always part of engineering, chemistry, business, or some other discipline” (Electronic Communication to author, 7/9/2004).

Integrated Distance Education Courses and Emphases Courses

Many graduate programs offer only one or two courses within the field and study of distance education as part of a large curricular sequence and program. For example, students in the MEd Educational Technology program sponsored by the University of South Carolina–Aiken (USCA) and USC–Columbia can take Design and Evaluation of Information Access and Delivery, a course with significant focus on distance education. Similarly, the University of North Texas has a Theory and Practice of Distance Education course. Other examples of universities with instructional technology programs containing a small distance education focus as part of a large program of study in education and instructional technology include Brigham Young University and San Diego State University.

Emphases, Concentrations, Minors, and Specializations

In other programs, however, the emphasis on distance education extends beyond a class or two. For example, graduate students at the University of Florida can pursue a minor or a certificate in distance teaching and learning, while those attending Florida State University in the Instructional Systems Master’s Degree Program can pursue a major in open and distance learning, even though only one course and one practicum are specifically focused on distance learning. Syracuse University’s Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation Program offers courses and a concentration within the master’s degree devoted to distance learning. At Capella University, master’s students in education can specialize in teaching online and can also earn a certificate in online instruction. Similarly, the University of Phoenix Online offers a master’s degree in education, with a specialization in adult education and distance learning. About 8 years ago, UCLA Extension began offering a sequence of quarter-long courses collectively called the Online Teaching Program that has been used by other universities as well. Jones International University offers a master’s degree with specializations in e-learning that focus on corporate raining and knowledge management, technology and design, and general studies. Penn State offers a master’s degree in adult education and a certificate in distance education. Many similarities among the graduate programs listed here are apparent, but the program titles and curricula reveal significant differences as well.

Distance Education Certificates

Other institutions, in addition to Florida, Capella, and Penn State, offer certificates in distance education. The Distance Education Certificate Program, sponsored by the State University of West Georgia and entering its thirteenth session, is for professionals, teachers, and trainers preparing for leadership roles in distance learning. The six-month program is offered completely online and incorporates conceptual knowledge into practical learning experience. Areas explored include foundations of distance education, course planning, design and implementation, evaluation, faculty and student support, administrative and management issues, and technologies. The University of Wisconsin–Madison, Indiana University–Bloomington, and the University of Maryland–Baltimore County also offer certificates in distance education. In a related discipline, andragogy, Saint Joseph’s in Maine offers a certificate in adult education and training as well as an associate degree in adult education and training.

Distance Education Master’s Degrees

Graduate programs with some curriculum and degrees/certificates in distance education are numerous, but the only master’s degree focused entirely on distance education in the United States was established in 2000 by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). As described on their Web site, the program is “designed to produce individuals who are capable of managing the distance education enterprise within educational, business, government, and non-profit organizations” (2004). To accomplish this, the program provides “a broad view of the field of distance education and training, including such areas as history, theory, technology, organizational structures, marketing, management, and business skills” (2004). All courses are conducted entirely online. The UMUC master’s program also has an institutional partner from Germany, Oldenburg University, and together they have been able to provide academic leadership and research within the field.

Distance Education Doctoral Programs

Beyond the master’s degree at least three opportunities exist in distance education for doctoral students. Nova Southeastern University offers an Ed.D. in instructional technology and distance education, and this program delivers content in a blended or hybrid modality, combining face-to-face sessions with distance education. Duquesne’s School of Education offers an Ed.D. in instructional technology with a specialization/strand in teaching with distance learning. In 2000, Regent University launched a limited residency doctor of education program with a number of cognate areas, one of which is distance education.

Some International Degrees and Certificates in Distance Education

Outside the United States, numerous distance education degrees and certificates are offered. There are master’s degrees in distance education in Canada (Athabasca University and Royal Roads University), the U.K. (the British Open University and the University of London), Australia (the University of Southern Queensland), and India (Indira Ghandi Open University)—although the latter’s program is primarily aimed at training distance teachers. As another option, the Staff Training and Research Institute of Distance Education in Ignou, India, offers a postgraduate diploma in distance education (P.G.D.D.E.) and a master’s degree in distance education (M.A.D.E.).


This study suggests that distance education as an academic specialization is still narrow; limited; dependent on other, more established disciplines, usually in the field of education; and new. However, it is encouraging that more distance education specialized programs have begun to emerge within academe. Most of the programs identified started in the last decade, the oldest programs being offered through the University of Wisconsin (1993), Athabasca University (1994), and Nova Southeastern University (1996). The most recent programs are at the University of Maryland (2000) and Regent University (2000). While many of the instructional/educational technology programs which sponsor some distance education interest are much older, the programs studying distance education are much newer.

Other Distance Education Program Features

Distance education graduate programs are administered by a small number of full-time faculty complemented by adjunct faculty, part-time instructors, or other teachers who help the full-time faculty carry the teaching load. Most students are adult learners who are working full or part time. The enrollment numbers are typical for graduate programs, with 15 to 25 students admitted each year. Most distance education courses and programs are hosted by colleges of education, but there are a number of exceptions, including Athabasca University’s program seated in the Centre for Distance Education and Maryland’s program in the Graduate School. Most distance education courses and programs are sponsored by traditional, nonprofit academic institutions, but corporate exceptions such as the University of Phoenix and Capella University are noteworthy.

Most distance education graduate programs emulate what they teach by using distance education delivery systems and teach distance education at a distance using distance education technologies. Most instruction occurs online using asynchronous communication; some programs have a residential and face-to-face dimension.

In looking over the course requirements and curricular sequences, it becomes apparent that greater emphasis is placed on practical applications and applied research as contrasted to theoretical principles. This is expected since the majority of distance education students are in certificate and master’s programs, rather than the more research-oriented doctorate programs. In terms of objectives, programs emphasize the goal to produce skilled professionals who can lead distance education programs and initiatives during the coming decades.

Little consistency existed concerning the seminal books on distance education theory, systems, and delivery being used in each of the programs. However, some of the texts that emerged as more common and foundational than others include Moore and Kearsley’s Distance Education: A Systems View (soon to be released in its second edition); Simonson, Smaldine, Albright, and Zracek’s Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (second Edition), and Distance Learning: Principles for Effective Design, Delivery, and Evaluation, by Mehrotra, Hollister, and McGahey.

Future Trends

One of the final questions of our survey given to program representatives was, “Do you foresee any significant changes in your program in the next few years? If so, what are they?” Many responded that it was uncertain how their programs would change (or that they would not change), but others had clearer expectations. Athabasca University is planning to develop a doctorate in distance education, the University of Maryland is expecting growth in student numbers, and Nova Southeastern University is striving to place increased emphasis on applied dissertation research. Regent University’s program anticipates possible course additions or the creation of an instructional technology cognate for students interested in educational technology, but not distance education in particular.


With millions of students across the world involved in distance education, it is essential that the leaders and administrators of such programs receive adequate training for their responsibilities. Graduate programs in which students can explicitly study distance education will help meet this critical need and advance distance education theory and research. Graduates of these distance education master’s and doctoral programs are in demand and are being successfully placed in the workforce better prepared for the challenging complexities inherent in distance education.

Even though the growth of distance education graduate programs has not kept pace with the explosive growth of the distance education industry, there is evidence that more and more representation and integration of the distance education discipline is finding its way into formal academe. Only a few mainstream distance education graduate programs exist, having come into existence during the past decade. As noted earlier, 74 unique institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and Canada sponsored research on a distance education topic in the year 2003 alone.

The authors believe that distance education scholars can and should do more to promote the study and discipline of distance education within their institutions’ graduate programs. Many educational programs across the continent are already positioned with existing graduate programs to formally introduce a distance education course or two within their curricular scope. The authors invite more institutions and colleges to consider adopting distance education emphases, concentrations, minors, and specializations in content-related graduate programs. Academe needs to step up and help educate a distance education workforce, while at the same time make an increasing contribution to the theory and discipline of distance education so as to better inform distance education practice.


Graduate programs in business, education, health, information studies, law, and social work. (38th Ed.). Lawrenceville, New Jersey: Thomson-Peterson.

Mehrotra, C., Hollister, C. D., & McGahey, L. (2001). Distance learning: Principles for effective design, delivery, and evaluation. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Moore, M G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

Perelman, L. J. (1992). School’s out: A radical new formula for the revitalization of America’s educational system. New York: Aron Books.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2003). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Six higher education mega trends—what they mean for the distance learners. Retrieved July 28, 2004, from

The survey of distance & cyberlearning programs in higher education, 2004 edition. (2004). Primary Research Group, Inc.

University of Maryland University College. (2004). Retrieved July 28, 2004, from

U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Education administrators. Retrieved July 28, 2004, from

Wright, T. & Howell, S. (2004). Ten efficient research strategies for distance learning administrators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration,7(2). Retrieved July 28, 2004, from


About the Authors

Nathan Lindsay

Nathan Lindsay received his Master's degree in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University where he taught three courses and worked at the Center of Instructional Consulting.

He is currently a doctoral student in Higher Education at University of Michigan. His interests are improvement of teaching and learning, student development, and technology in higher education.

Nathan K. Lindsay, Doctoral Student ,
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
University of Michigan School of Education, Room 2117
610 East University Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1259  (734) 763-0504


Scott L. Howell

Dr. Scott L. Howell is the assistant to the dean for the Division of Continuing Education at Brigham Young University. He has also been the director of the Center for Instructional Design, director of the Bachelor of General Studies, and assistant director of the Department of Independent Study.

Dr. Howell received his Ph.D. in instructional science, his M.S. in community education, and his B.S. in business management. 

Scott L. Howell, PhD, Assistant to the Dean,
Division of Continuing Education and Adjunct Faculty, Instructional Psychology and Technology
Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602  (801) 422-6280


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