Asynchronous Distance Education

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->A Five Step Approach to Eliminate Online Problems Before They Happen



The National Center for Educational Statistics has reported that in December 1999, 44% of higher education institutions in the U.S. offered distance education courses. Dr. Phillips, acting Commissioner of the NCES, noted that a greater percentage of public than private institutions offered distance education. He reported that there were 1,190 degree programs and 330 certificate programs offered through distance education. While these numbers include more traditional methods of distance education, such as videotaped lectures, there has been a 38% increase from 1995 to 1999 in the number of institutions using computer technology to deliver courses to students (Phillips 1999).

This trend will accelerate as improved bandwidth increases access to the Internet (Moursund 1997). This paper describes a five-step approach to avoiding technological problems for students who are enrolled in a Web-based course or curriculum, and is based on the experience of the Duke-ECU Partnerships For Training (PFT) project.

The Duke University-East Carolina University Partnerships for Training project, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Duke Endowment, and the North Carolina Area Health Education Center, accepted its first cohort of students for distance-based courses in the summer of 1998. It is admitting a second cohort of 50 students in May 2000. The curriculum for the PFT project is primarily Web-based, asynchronous, and interactive, with the goal of educating mid-level health care providers in medically underserved counties. The philosophy is “grow your own”: that is, recruit and educate learners in their rural communities and they will stay in those communities. The basic purpose of the Duke-ECU Partnerships for Training project is to enable students to remain in their jobs while receiving an advanced education in their homes.


Developing an Approach

One of the project’s first challenges was to minimize potential problems with computer-based learning. We were particularly concerned about our learners’ experience and expertise in navigating Web-based materials, since the mean age of our learners was 38, all of our students lived in rural areas of North Carolina and our cohort of learners was 30% minority.

We wanted to eliminate barriers for all students, whatever their ethnic or soci'economic background. However, we recognized that the skill levels of students for managing computer technology would vary, and could cause academic failure. We had no way of knowing what skills students possessed when they were accepted into the program. We also realized that both students and faculty would need an infrastructure to support use of the online curriculum.

From the literature, case studies, anecdotal reports and meetings with other online educators, a problem list was developed to identify anticipated technological challenges for students. Clearly, the most important challenges would be factors that might bar participation in online courses. Thus, we needed to help students obtain hardware, minimize costs and establish uniform software guidelines.

We developed a five-step approach to the problems and challenges we identified, and created teams to resolve each problem. Below are the five steps in our problem solving approach:

1) Developing and implementing a Computer Skills Assessment Tool (CSAT).

2) Requiring minimum computer hardware and configuring every student’s CPU with required plug-ins and software.

3) Developing a student manual.

4) Providing computer skills practice during orientation classes.

5) Maintaining a telephone help line.


Step 1

The CSAT was adapted with permission from a tool used at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tool is a self-report inventory, or a “comfort-level index” of students’ familiarity with the computer and basic competence in completing specific tasks with their own computer. There are 40 questions rated on a Likert scale. We used Cronbach’s alpha to test the inter-rater reliability of the tool.

We made two assumptions about the CSAT: 1) completing the tool would help students self-identify weaknesses, and 2) the results could be used by faculty to prepare appropriate orientation training in computer skills. Students were urged to seek help locally to “fill the gaps” in their basic computer skills. For example, they could complete courses at community colleges or Area Health Education Centers (AHECs).

The CSAT d'es not automatically distinguish between basic, intermediate, and advanced skill levels. During the first semester of the online program, students regularly complained that the time spent learning computer skills often exceeded the time required to complete assignments. Many students reported that they had overestimated their abilities or had not realized how much they had previously relied on family members or friends for computer tips and help. One student’s husband attended orientation with her (this was not an option we offered, but he attended anyway) and it was apparent that he was the computer whiz in the family. Despite the husband’s advanced skill level, the student had to learn how to perform independently.

With the first cohort of students, we encouraged students to self-identify and seek community computer courses; however, only one student took advantage of this opportunity. She has repeatedly reported that the course was one of the most valuable preparations she made for graduate study in an online program.

After we shared the CSAT tool during an internationally attended presentation, Northwest Missouri State University (NWMSU) asked permission to adapt it to a Web format. The NMSU version provides students with immediate feedback on each section of the tool and can be used by advisors to support recommendations for further computer preparation. Having the students take the CSAT online may also demonstrate which students have such poor skills that they can not even locate the Universal Resource Locator (URL) of the CSAT online, or which do not even possess basic mouse skills. Nothing can be taken for granted about students’ skills: while in a computer lab, a student was instructed to “raise your mouse to bring your cursor to the top of the screen” and protested that nothing was happening with her cursor. When the instructor turned to help her, the student had her hand with her mouse lifted in the air to the height of the monitor.


Step 2

A list of computer hardware specifications (Figure 1) was developed and distributed to each student along with the admission offer. Every student was expected to purchase appropriate equipment and obtain an Internet Service Provider (ISP) prior to orientation.

Students reported losing Internet access abruptly and without warning; sometimes the students were bumped off the Internet during secure, timed tests that allowed only one access to the test. The problem turned out to be that some of the small, local ISPs have a policy of placing clients in queues for access to the Internet and bumping other clients who have been online for a pre-set amount of time.

Typically, the pre-set amount of time is no more than 20 minutes. From these experiences we concluded that all ISPs are not equal. Students should explore ISP policies regarding automatic disconnect. Our list of recommended ISPs has been trimmed to those which have provided stable service to current students.

The help line staff occasionally received groups of calls from students who were not able to access the online courses. The students called to report that the school’s server must be down and needed to be reset. During three years of delivering online courses, the Duke University School of Nursing server has gone offline, unplanned, only once; therefore, the students were experiencing Internet congestion when they could not access the courses. Students reported that net congestion was worst between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. To accommodate this phenomenon, they planned to study after 11 p.m. or in the early morning. Students often think there is a problem with the school’s server when the problem is with their ISP or telephone service.

A few hardware problems inevitably developed as well. We had developed a list of the lowest cost computer hardware packages we could find and provided this list to students. Leasing was also an option identified for students. Three students (7%) had significant hard drive problems that required two to six weeks of repairs. Students could not simply borrow their neighbor’s computer because the necessary software would not have been loaded. Therefore, the Duke University School of Nursing purchased five back-up laptops for student use, should their computers fail and need lengthy repairs. The back-up laptops were loaded with the software necessary to access online courses, summarized in Figure 2.

All students were required to bring their central processing units (CPUs) or have them delivered to a central drop-off point on a designated day of orientation. A technical team member analyzed every CPU for specific criteria, and then loaded all the software and plug-ins essential to accessing course materials. Analysis and loading took 20-30 minutes per machine. The time was minimized with the use of custom-made CDs with all necessary programs.

A fee was assessed each student who needed Microsoft Office 97, in accordance with licensing requirements. The fee of $54, however, was significantly lower than students would have paid to purchase the software individually. Students picked up their CPUs the next day and received a summary of what had been done, along with any recommendations. In several instances students were advised that they needed to upgrade their hardware or memory significantly, or delete conflicting programs.


Step 3

A Student Manual on the Web-based degree programs was put together with the following sections: Your Computer, Online Library, Help When You Need It, Your Mentor, Meet Your Classmates, Meet the Faculty, a Class Schedule, and Resources in Your Region. Every student and faculty member received a copy of the manual.

The manual was especially important to the distance education students because they could not have hallway conversations, drop-in on faculty, nor have immediate access to a student services staff to answer routine student questions. The manual was designed for the distance students; however, the next year, the technical sections were used for all new students because all students must use computers for assignments, literature searches, and some Web-enhanced course content. Contents of the technical section are listed in Figure 3.

We learned two lessons about using this manual:

1) Students do not read manuals before they have online problems. Proxy settings and the like are especially daunting and often require one-on-one talk through.

2) To allow for frequent updates, the manual should be online. However, to decrease cyber-frustration, the original manual given to students should be a hard copy. To correct these problems, we now require students to complete tutorials and exercises within the manual and send their results to an instructor by e-mail.


Step 4

A two-day computer orientation class was implemented specifically for PFT distance learners. The classes, along with team building and family activities, were held on two weekends. A computer lab with 40 computers was used for the computer classes. Student evaluations of the orientation praised the family inclusion, stating that it helped their families understand that taking classes by computer was just as hard as attending classes on-campus. Students also recommended more hands-on time navigating courseware and library databases. There was wide disagreement on the importance of the team building exercises; students either felt it was invaluable or a waste of time.

Time management techniques were also a part of the orientation. Questions about how students were handling their jobs, schoolwork and family life were included in focus groups held 18 months after orientation. The students all credited the time management courses with providing them good tips and helping them to think through their priorities. Therefore, for the next class of distance students, team building sessions will be replaced with more hands-on computer time and in-depth time management classes.


Step 5

A toll-free phone line with evening and weekend hours was installed for the PFT students. (Traditional, on-campus students use the Office of Information Technology.) Experts equipped with a database that lists every student’s computer man the PFT Help Line. The Help team has also made home visits on occasion. We planned to build a database of frequently asked questions on the Help Line, but have found that because of our planning, there has been little use of the Help Line services. The services tend to be used in spurts, whenever new technology is added.

To date, we have successfully provided the following healthcare courses online in an asynchronous delivery: Gross Anatomy, Theoretical Foundations of Advanced Nursing Practice, Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Nursing Informatics, Pathophysiology, Pharmacology, Physical Assessment, Issues in Health Care Organizations, Research Methods, Interdisciplinary Role Seminar, Rural Health, Emergency Medicine, and Management of Acute and Chronic Health Problems. Several of these courses have been taught in an interdisciplinary fashion, which is rare in healthcare professions.

All courses have been offered primarily over the Web, with students coming to a designated campus for lab sections. For example, students came to campus six times (on Saturdays) for their Physical Assessment/Diagnostic Reasoning course. All didactic lecture material is delivered using PowerPoint slides in combination with Real Presenter’s streaming audio. This allows students to hear the lecture and see the slides at any time of the day or night in the comfort of their home or office.


Lessons Learned

We have learned several lessons about Web-based course delivery, as it relates to faculty. If students routinely download or listen to the lectures while they are on the Internet, it is wise to break the lecture into distinct sections. It is best to limit lectures to 20-minute segments to avoid having rural ISPs automatically cut off “idle” students.

Because current bandwidth in most homes is limited to 56K at best, faculty should create CDs and provide them to students for video presentations or demonstrations. Otherwise, the video is too choppy and distorted for student use. Faculty should set electronic office hours and rigorously keep them. This tactic protects faculty from falling victim to student expectations of 24-hour accessibility while simultaneously assuring students of access and response to questions. The amount of one-on-one communication in online courses is estimated by faculty to be three times as much as in a traditional course: faculty need to teach in teams for classes larger than 30 students.

One last lesson regards discussion forums. Electronic forums generate a lot of private information about students that might not be shared in an open classroom setting. Access to forums should be password protected. Student participation should be limited to academic comments; griping about the course or the faculty should take place elsewhere. We have created a private electronic lounge for general griping or discussion.

We have had an attrition rate comparable to traditional on-campus programs. Three students have withdrawn due to personal goals or problems, one student has transferred on-campus for a specialty which is not offered online, one student transferred to an on-campus program to improve her academic standing, and another student failed to meet the requirements to remain in a graduate program.

There is speculation that learning styles testing can predict student success or failure in an online program. Central Florida University is collecting data on this subject, as is Duke University School of Nursing. Faculty need training and development in techniques which promote learning for students with all learning styles; whether the course is taught online or in a traditional format, students benefit from a variety of learning activities and presentations.

The five-step approach to eliminate online problems before they happen has been successful for our small-scale online degree programs. The challenge of delivering hundreds of online courses to thousands of students can be met by applying the principles developed in these five steps. The key to success is thoughtful planning. You can take a guided tour of the Duke University School of Nursing’s virtual university at Follow the site map to the Partnerships for Training link. You will need Real Player 7 to enjoy this video/audio tour.


Nancy M. Short is the Project Administrator for the Duke University — East Carolina University Partnerships for Training project. She received her Masters degree from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

E-mail: [email protected]

Figure 1

Summary of hardware


Pentium II or III 400 MHz (a Celeron or AMD processor will also be adequate

128 Megs of RAM (64 is the minimum acceptable)

56K baud voice modem

4.0 gig or greater hard drive

Internal zip drive

32x CD-ROM with 16 bit sound card and speakers

15”-19” monitor

Windows 98


It is highly recommended that you have a second phone line in your home that can be dedicated to your schoolwork. This will allow you to be online and speak on the phone simultaneously — very helpful when you need technical assistance. It will also allow your family to have a phone available during the hours you are online.




Figure 2

Summary of software


Internet Service provider  (required to be initiated prior to orientation)

Office 2000 Professional Edition




Acrobat Reader 4.0

Netscape Communicator 4.7


McAfee Virus


Internet Explorer




Figure 3

Technical Content


Get connected to the Internet


Managing attachments in e-mail messages

Know the basics

Online courses

Mailing lists

Electronic forums

Software used by the program (tutorials)

Library resources (IDs, accounts, passwords)

How to access the online course materials

Your Help Line team

Programs installed on your computer

File management tutorial


Selected References


Cairncross, Frances, The Death of Distance, Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press, 1997.


Cravener, Patricia, “Faculty Experiences with Providing Online Courses: Thorns Among Roses,” Computers in Nursing, Vol.17, No.1, 1999.


Gold, Larry and Maitland, Christine, “What’s the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education,” (white paper, The Institute for Higher Education Policy of the National Education Association) April, 1999.


Moursund, D., “The Future on Information Technology in Education,” Learning and Leading with Technology, 1997, 25(1): 4-5.


Phillips, Gary W., “The Release of Distance Education at Postsedondary Education Institutions 1997-1998,” National Center for Education Statistics, 1999,

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.