Distance education in project management
The rapid growth of project management and its applications, the increasing demand for education, and the remarkable expansion of information and communications technologies (ICTs) and online/distance education (DE) technologies have led to an explosion of interest in distance education in the field of project management. These factors have also enhanced the opportunities for delivering such educational programs throughout the world.
This paper provides a review of the main issues in distance education in the field of project management and describes and compares experiences with this technological and pedagogical development at major U.S. universities and discusses the current and emerging trends in distance education.
Traditional education paradigms are experiencing a rapid change at Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) due to the increase in demand for online/distance education (DE) courses and programs. “Distance education refers to any educational arrangement in which the instructor and student are not in the same place at the same time.” (Hantula & Pawlowicz, 2004) The “distance” element of this new model of education poses specific challenges that are causing IHEs to re-think face-to-face pedagogical methods, organizational and administrative structures, financial strategies, and the centrality of technological innovations in all disciplines. Schrum and Ohler (2005) note that “institutions are feeling particularly vulnerable, because the advantage of location no longer ensures them a market based on geography, and instead they must reach out to lifelong learners using a variety of distance delivery techniques.”
Interest in education and training in project management has been growing at an extremely rapid pace. This interest is being propelled by the growing recognition of the important contributions of project management to an organizational competitive position in the marketplace, individual career progress, economic and societal development, and remedies for shortcomings of project outputs and outcomes. Opportunities for delivering project management education and the availability of academic programs in project management have been steadily increasing through research, applications, and the development of courses, curricula, and degree programs in this field. Growing interest in education, globalization, opening of political and virtual boundaries, developments in Informtion and Communication Technologies (ICTs), and expansion of distance education technologies have strengthened these globalizing tendencies.
Understanding the major issues and current trends in distance education in project management allows educational institutions to take advantage of promising practices, deploy their resources more efficiently, manage barriers to success more effectively, and enhance the contributions they make to their local, national, and international communities.
Growth of Project Management
Projects and project management can trace their roots to the dawn of history, with major examples such as the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, Roman roads and viaducts, and Greek architecture (Anbari, 1985). Modern project management can be traced to the 1950s and the 1960s, with major examples such as the Polaris project, space exploration, highways, nuclear power plants, and defense systems. Since then, the interest in project management has been growing rapidly throughout the globe. This growth has been strengthened by new applications of project management in engineering, construction, information technology, pharmaceuticals, and government, as well as a better understanding of the effectiveness of project management for increasing resource productivity and producing successful project outputs and strategic outcomes.
Project Management Institute (PMI)® was established in 1969 and has been the fastest growing professional organization in North America. In 2010, its membership reached about 320,000 members. The International Project Management Association (IPMA) started as a discussion group in 1965 and held its first international conference in 1967 and currently comprises about fifty national project management associations, primarily in Europe. Project Management Institute (2001) estimates that as many as four and a half million people in the United States “may regard project management as their profession of choice.… the size of the profession in the rest of the world may be more than 12 million.” Currently, PMI estimates that the number of people involved in the profession globally is between 16 and 22 million.
Recent funding through economic stimulus packages throughout the world has often included major components targeted for various types of projects, particularly infrastructure construction projects. This is further invigorating the demand for qualified professionals in project management.
Project Management Education
Constant growth in project management applications and increasing demand for highly skilled professionals in the global knowledge society are fueling the demand for project management training programs, professional certificates, academic degrees, and distance education as an approach for delivering needed training and education. Distance education is becoming increasingly attractive as new technologies, media, and experience expand the content that can be offered using this mode of reaching distant student bodies. Hantula and Pawlowitz (2004) contend that computer and other core technologies have been integrated into higher educational methodologies due to industry demands for skill sets of suitable employees for the modern workplace.
Educational institutions and training providers have been attempting to meet the rapidly growing demand for knowledge acquisition in the project management community. During the 1960s and 1970s this need was met by training and consulting organizations. Some universities and colleges started offering project management courses in the 1970s and 1980s, often through their continuing education divisions. A very small number of IHEs offered full graduate degrees in project management. The number of academic project management programs leading to degrees in project management increased greatly from 1990 onward. Today, project management education is typically offered at the graduate level in Western universities. Among the IHEs with programs in project management in the United States are: Boston University, Capella University, Colorado Technical University, DeVry University, Drexel University, Eastern Michigan University, New England College, Northeastern University, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Stevens Institute of Technology, The George Washington University, University of Alaska, University of Houston, University of Management and Technology, University of Maryland—A. J. Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland University College, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Wisconsin—Platteville, Western Carolina University, and others. Project management programs are offered internationally by several IHEs, including RMIT University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, SKEMA Business School, University of Limerick, University of Quebec at Montreal, University of Technology at Sydney, and others.
The positive growth trend in project management training and education is being further strengthened by stronger emphasis on project management in the public sector, particularly within the United States government. Ford (2003) points out “A new requirement for project managers at work on large government IT programs has launched a trend: Experienced IT professionals are headed back to school. As the IT project managers search for ways to get the now-required training, universities turn to partnerships with private technology training providers to meet the demand.… Under the Office of Management and Budget mandate, project managers must qualify for their positions if they manage projects with budgets of more than $5 million.” The Lifelong Learning Market Report (2003) indicates “project management instruction, with a U.S. market estimated by Simba Information at $1.4 billion, is in great demand as many organizations increase the breadth and depth of their project-based work.”
Project Management Distance Education
During the 1990s and 2000s, several IHEs started offering graduate degrees in project management using distance education, many of which were off-shoots of on-campus programs. The George Washington University (GW) started to offer its Master of Science in Project Management (MSPM) as a traditional on-campus, specialized Master’s degree in the School of Business in 1996. The MSPM immediately became the fastest growing program at GW. In 1998, GW started offering the same MSPM via distance education. Admissions to the distance education mode of the MSPM has surpassed admissions to the on-campus degree mode since 2000. The number of active students, taking one or more distance education courses each semester has exceeded the number of active students taking on-campus classes since 2003.
Programs at other universities are experiencing similar growth. The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) started a distance education version of its MS in Management with a concentration in project management about two years after the start of its on-campus program. Enrollment in the UTD distance education program has reached about the same level of enrollment as its on campus mode. Western Carolina University (WCU) established its Master of Project Management degree on-campus in 1987. WCU replaced its traditional program with an entirely online approach in 1998. The online program has a substantially higher enrollment than its on-campus forerunner. The University of Wisconsin – Platteville (UW-P) Master of Science in Project Management is offered entirely through UW-P’s online distance education program. Similarly, the Master of Science in Project Management at Drexel University (DU), which was started in 2009, is offered entirely online.
Umpleby and Anbari (2004) point out that the “mission of universities as it relates to project management education is to conduct research, develop and disseminate knowledge, and educate the next generation of project management practitioners and educators.” They maintain that “opportunities for collaboration in project management education among universities, faculty members, and students, are now far greater than just a few years ago. It will take time to learn how to make the best use of these opportunities. Experimenting and sharing the results widely is an approach compatible with the traditions of universities.” In this spirit, specifics of project management programs at some U.S. universities are discussed in this paper.
Examples and Practices in Project Management Distance Education
At The George Washington University (GW), the structure, course and degree requirements, and tuition are the same or very similar for both on-campus and distance education modes of project management instruction. The MSPM degree requires successful completion of 36 semester credits, typically completed in 1 1/2 to 2 academic years on a full-time basis, or 3 years or more on a part-time basis. The distance education mode at GW has been structured to include some required student presence on campus at the beginning and at the end of the degree program to ensure face-to-face interaction with instructors and peers. This integration of traditional elements into the distance education program seeks to incorporate some of the interaction and social dimensions of learning in the program.
At GW, the principles of instructional design for the project management distance education courses have attempted to adhere to the idea that the same quality of instruction should be available to distance education students as is available to traditional students. Initially, the lectures were professionally recorded while they were being delivered to on-campus students or recorded in a studio with no students present. Videotapes were sent to distance education students weekly and the virtual distance education class day took place one week after the on-campus class was recorded. Later, a CD was sent out weekly instead of a videotape. After careful consideration, all CDs from a previous semester were duplicated and sent to course participants prior to the beginning of the semester in which they were enrolled in a given course(s). Later, the same lectures were compiled on three to four CDs and sent to course participants prior to the beginning of the semester. This approach avoided recurring delivery issues and allowed making the virtual distance education class day the same as the on-campus class day. As such, distance education and on-campus sections had the same due dates for various course deliverables and were conducted in the same fashion. After GW School of Business moved to its new building, project management lectures were recorded in class while they were being delivered to on-campus students and made available to distance education students through the Internet shortly after conclusion of the class.
Initially, the MSPM program at GW used Prometheus course management software, which was developed at GW and licensed to several other educational institutions. In 2002, Prometheus was sold to Blackboard; adequate training was provided to faculty and teaching assistants, and all MSPM courses were migrated to Blackboard in 2003. Banner software is used for student registration and grade submission. Blackboard is electronically populated with the names of students registered in a given course by Banner. Blackboard software is used identically for the on-campus and distance education sections of classes. Initially, deliverables completed by distance education students were printed, marked, and mailed back to them. Later, on-campus students submitted their deliverables electronically in the same way as distance education students. Subsequently, all deliverables were reviewed in their electronic format, marked, and posted to Blackboard for both on-campus and distance education students.
On-campus and distance education students at GW are invited to come in or call during regular office hours. Distance education students are generally able to interface with professors, graduate teaching assistants, librarians, resources, and peers through technological links and the chosen electronic means. To answer questions and discuss various issues, a virtual classroom is held weekly using Elluminate Live software, an electronic discussion board with chat session capabilities. The session is archived for review by those who could not participate in it. These sessions tend to be popular at critical times in the course. Despite these tools, it is common for both on-campus and distance education students to send their questions via e-mail.
As an example, in a course taught on project estimating and cost management at GW, a case study scenario is used and student teams must submit bids to win a contract. The team with the lowest responsible bid wins the contract and some associated bonus points are awarded, which equal their profit margin. A pre-bid conference is held during the on-campus class and another one via the virtual classroom for distance education students, so that remaining questions are answered. This session tends to be particularly popular due to the intense competition among teams.
Course deliverables, including examinations, are generally handled through Blackboard for both on-campus and distance education students at GW. “Take-home” examinations are posted with a due date often a week later. In some courses, multiple choice examinations are posted and timed for about two hours. Academic integrity appears to be well respected and no difference in the seriousness of students with regard to academic integrity issues was observed between on-campus and distance education students.
At GW, distance education students are required to participate in an on-campus orientation at the beginning of their program. During the orientation, distance education students are encouraged to begin forming teams required for completing some assignments in several courses. Team members may differ in various courses, because students may move through the program at different speeds. During their last semester, students are required to participate in a one-week, on-campus residency as part of their capstone course. In that course, individual students and teams prepare project management handbook chapters, best practices, and case studies throughout the semester and present them during residency week. Results of their work are presented to their colleagues and faculty, and as appropriate, shared with managers of the studied project. Selected, edited products of student work have been published as learning tools for other professionals, students, and educators; in particular, several case studies have been published by PMI.
Graduating students at GW often say that they were pleased with their residency and that it enhanced their educational experience and ability to work together effectively with both instructors and peers. Some students support the idea of having another residency in the middle of their program. However, some students point to the additional cost of such a requirement.
At Drexel University (DU), the MSPM program was started in the fall of 2009. DU had a long tradition of online learning and project management education; its MSPM program is designed to be entirely online, taking advantage of various electronic tools and resources, such as Blackboard, discussion boards, video recording, and multi-media presentations. Weekly dialogues through Blackboard discussion boards are required and scored to ensure continual student engagement. The MSPM at DU consists of 15 three-credit courses: 10 core courses and 5 elective courses. DU operates on a quarter system, with four ten-week terms per year and its MSPM degree can be completed in two years. The content delivered in this program is similar to widely accepted content for the MSPM degree, with appropriate adjustments and updates. The MSPM program at DU does not require students to participate in any on-campus residencies.
Some IHEs have residency requirements. For example, a two-week residency is required by UTD and is usually conducted in Europe, typically in France or in Germany. Some other IHEs do not have a residency requirement, such as DU, UW-P, and WCU. Morgan (2004) indicates that “more and more students are showing up for commencement at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville who are seeing the campus for the first time.”
Issues and Trends in Distance Education
Connecting Practice to Theoretical Underpinnings
Brooks (2009) highlights the growing popularity of online courses and suggests that each institution’s approach to online education “goes to the heart of its mission, and the examination process involves debate and discussion about how that mission will be carried out using the newest technology.” She specifies eight reasons why colleges should proudly offer online courses, including (1) enhancing students ability to be actively engaged in learning, (2) reaching students with diverse learning styles, (3) allowing students to have a variety of experiences outside the classroom, (4) teaching students how to do independent research, (5) making college more accessible to students, (6) making attending college more affordable, (7) teaching students values and ethics, and (8) making sure that students’ degrees are valued by employers through continuing the institution’s efforts to ensure that its online courses and programs meet the same high standards as its traditional ones.
To create a workable framework within which meaningful student virtual team interaction can occur, each student group may be required to create a team charter (written contract) that embodies early trust in the collaborative effort by specifying the work to be done, project risk, conflict resolution techniques, communication management, and expectations in terms of timeliness, respect, and commitment to mutual goals. These contracts help to foster a clear understanding of what the community of practice each team represents has as a task and it facilitates academic performance and cooperation. The concept of structuring trust to facilitate team performance is supported in the literature on distance education and pedagogy (Shields, Gil-Egui, & Stewart, 2004). These same authors also suggest that defining basic rules and principles to guide student interaction creates a set of norms about “netiquette” and can significantly improve interactions in the virtual classroom. The use of self-managed work teams (SMWTs) in educational settings is designed to mirror other organizational settings that students may encounter in the workplace and to create autonomous units that are responsible for managing assignments and deadlines (Hantula & Pawlowicz, 2004).
One of the important student support innovations is the online library and distance education librarian, which cater to learning needs and research questions that distance education students encounter. Distance education students are given access to an institutional Intranet, which includes library materials that are increasingly electronic. Those materials that are not available through electronic databases can be requested by students and are located by library staff, scanned, and sent to students in electronic form. This innovation in the institutional support provided to students is significant. A study by Schrum and Ohler (2005) found that “access to library resources varied depending on the type of resource. However, at best, approximately between 35% and 45% of distance education students were not provided with institutional support resources that would be available to on-campus students.” The quest to understand this new pedagogical model and the support services it demands in order to promote meaningful learning for distance education students is underway, but “the challenge is to understand the relationships between the user and the technology, the instructor and the participants, and the relationships among the participants.”
Distance education needs to stress content quality instead of emphasizing the latest technological advances and ICT innovations. The technology is admittedly important, but the basic functions it must carry out are providing the ability for learners to access course documents and other resources independently, to permit successful collaboration with instructors and peers, and to maintain a focus on achieving the learning objectives of each course and the educational goals of the program. The social aspect of learning is carried out throughout the program virtually through teamwork and extensive communications with instructors and peers.
The constructivist theory of learning is pedagogically and theoretically interesting when applied to distance education, as it gives students an active role in creating and sharing knowledge. Collaboration between peers and the instructor is essential to this understanding of how learning takes place, because the topic under investigation becomes the focus of interpretational activity by all members of the virtual learning group. Knowledge is thought to be born from experience, and constructivism assumes that interpretations are a result of the interrelationships within the group. Thus, knowledge is thought to be born from social activity and human reality and is understood to be socially constructed (Berger & Luckmann, 1965). In terms of distance education, this means that group members collectively engage in sensemaking for the purposes of achieving commonly accepted interpretations.
A systems theoretical approach to project management distance education means that inputs and processes for courses are instructor controlled. Web-based course management software is used to teach and manage various course activities, which provide the instructor with control over content (inputs) and allow for the structuring of student/instructor interaction (communication and feedback processes).
Growth and Trends of Distance Education
Distance education issues in project management are similar to those of other disciplines. Distance education in general is expanding to play an extremely important role in organizational competitive position and societal progress and well-being. Toffler (1990) points out that “the most important thing about a country’s scientific and technological base may not be what information is in it at any given moment, but the speed with which it is continually renewed and the richness of communication carrying specialized know-how to those who need it.” The emerging distance education model provides required education to a larger population, including those whose work requires travel and those in remote locations, and allows cooperation among students in various parts of the world. As enabling technologies progress, students are able to perform projects with students in other countries via the Internet (Umpleby & Makeyenko, 1997).
Turner and Huemann (2000) indicate that new trends in project management education include cross-border cooperation, and new modes of delivery contain case studies, shared experiences, simulations, and web-based training. They point out that, although some universities are hesitant to develop distance education tools, some private providers “have online courses, which are already used in university programs. These programs often use different teaching methods like theoretical inputs, case studies, and reviews. However, experienced participants state that the shortcoming of the distance education approach is that they miss the exchange of experience that occurs in a peer group that is relating face-to-face.”
Bullen (2003) defines e-learning as “a term often used synonymously with distance education and distributed learning, which means using new multimedia technologies and the Internet to provide high-quality education and training.” He specifies some of the advantages of distance education as “flexibility, interactivity, collaboration and the ability to connect learners and provide access to online resources from around the world. E-learning technology must be combined with innovative course design that makes use of collaborative and interactive approaches requiring the active engagement of learners to construct and share their understanding of the topics they are studying.”
The cyberspace collaboration of virtual student teams is particularly significant to the field of project management. The field itself sets out to arm students with an arsenal of tools to effectively conceptualize, develop, implement, and measure strategic initiatives intended to help secure the successful completion of projects of all sorts. Teamwork is the very essence of project management and project work, and the ability of students to apply the tools to collaborative academic projects allows them to test the usefulness of many of the processes they have come to see as effective. Shields et al. (2004) state that “the degree of success or failure in setting goals, completing tasks, and ultimately finishing the projects we give groups and teams reflects on the processes that are employed. Consequently, learning the processes of virtual collaboration is crucial to both individual and team achievement.”
Foreman (2003) maintains that despite “waves of IT-driven transformation sweeping through the higher education system, many obsolete academic structures remain obdurately intact. Among these, a leading candidate for the title most worthy of change is the large lecture.” Gourlay (2004) points out that some societies “are growing so quickly that they would have to build one university a week or month if they had to provide the traditional model of higher education for all the people who need it in this knowledge society. That is simply not an option. They are embracing open and distance education and readily acknowledge the UK Open University as their model for showing the way.” Demand for distance education is expected to continue to grow. Carnevale (2004) states “The recent explosion in distance-education enrollments is likely to continue over the next 10 years, forcing many institutions to seek outside help to manage rising student populations and demands for the latest technology.”
Issues of Quality
Quality is a paramount issue in education and it is more acutely critical in distance education. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) Distance Learning Task Force report (2007) specifies “quality distance learning requires careful attention to learning design, effective faculty training, organizational commitment to adequate program support, selection of appropriate delivery technology, and a focus on student learning outcomes.” Vincent and Ross (2002) point out that “distance learning requires a special set of teacher and learner skills. Teachers should be able to interact well with students through electronic media. Teachers and students must be highly motivated to make the experience successful.” They indicate that “accrediting agencies are very aware of the guidance, monitoring, and evaluation tasks at hand.”
Innovations in ICT have helped distance education/online learning to become ubiquitous, but in opposition to the obvious quantity of options, questions still remain about content and quality. Distance education programs have responded to market pressures and consumer demands for greater flexibility, students’ ability to structure their own time, and the need for new qualifications for the knowledge economy. The marketplace has opened up and there is increasing competition for market shares. Universities and their programs are trying to differentiate themselves, create brands, and enhance their offerings. Yet, evaluations and the assessment of online courses and degree programs have been generally anecdotal. In response to this dilemma, private sector program rating instruments are being developed that may help shape pedagogical methods and technological tools as they are able to determine what attracts students.
Colleges and universities want a return on investment and want to secure their distance education programs financially, but winning strategies, products, and pedagogy in this emergent knowledge delivery medium have not been fully cemented. Institutional support is still developing as needs are better understood and assessments are undertaken. Throughout the literature on distance education, many authors cite the fact that studies about the design, implementation, and pedagogical success of this new mode of educational outreach are severely flawed in terms of experimental design and are most often anecdotal in nature (Van Dusen, 2002). At the same time, there is also an acknowledgment of the fact that the assessment of student learning associated with new electronic modes of instruction challenges traditional assessment tools and methods (Van Dusen, 2002).
Activities of the Global Accreditation Center for Project Management, sponsored by PMI, are helping enhance the quality and recognition of degree programs in project management throughout the world (Project Management Institute, 2008). These activities cover face-to-face as well as distance education programs.
Orientation and Interaction
It is important to provide adequate orientation to distance education students at the beginning of their program. This needs to cover program structure, faculty, staff, students, and technology. Pattison (2003/2004) indicates that “the orientation booklet had a positive effect on course satisfaction among those who received it. Moreover, those who received the booklet had 47% less negative thoughts and 33% more positive thoughts on entering the course than other participants.”
Regular meaningful interactions between the instructor and students and among students and teams in each course throughout the distance education program are essential to learning. A study by Gregory (2003) show that “although library and information science students in web-based distance education course environments remain generally satisfied with the quality of the instruction and education that they are receiving through courses with significant web-based content, it is nevertheless clear that they have generally come to perceive that the quality of their educational experience is significantly improved when there is included within or as an integral part of the course offering some meaningful level of real-time interaction.”
Content, Feedback, and Instructors’ Use of Technology
Although technology may fascinate many of those involved in distance education, it is critical to remain focused on the importance of course and program content. Therefore, the reliability of technology is more important to successful education than the level of superiority of the technology itself. Vincent and Ross (2002) point out “while some level of technological sophistication may be important, teaching expertise may be the primary criterion for teaching success in the online classroom environment.” Appropriate training should be provided to all involved in the selected technology. Perreault et al. (2002) collected data from 81 business professors who taught distance education courses at 61 AACSB accredited business schools in the United States. Their findings indicate that “the professors (1) primarily used self-training for the design and delivery of on-line courses, (2) believed that the technology was not sufficiently reliable, (3) believed that the greatest benefit of distance learning was flexibility for students, and (4) perceived a student-centered teaching approach as necessary for successful distance-education courses.”
Lao and Gonzales (2005) found that professors of distance education courses recognized that timely feedback was a key to student satisfaction and the online educational success of course offerings. The intensive effort that this requires was a source of frustration for some, while others felt that this was necessary in order to make this new form of remote instruction a rich, high-quality learning experience for students.
Teaching distance education courses provides great opportunities for faculty to learn new technologies. Based on responses from 254 faculty members at Boise State University, Belcheir and Cucek (2002) found that faculty “had multiple reasons for teaching distance education courses, with the most common being that they enjoyed trying new things and they believed the classes benefited the students. Faculty members reported both rewards and disincentives to teaching distance education courses. Increased flexibility of scheduling and opportunities to learn and apply new and upcoming technologies and teaching approaches were the most commonly reported rewards. The most frequently reported disincentive was that teaching distance education courses took significantly more time and effort than teaching traditional courses, and faculty reported lack of recognition or financial compensation for the extra effort and instructional challenges of the delivery method. Overall, however, faculty members were generally satisfied with teaching distance education, and were satisfied with the training they had received. The major stumbling block to distance education at Boise State appeared to be the preparation time for distance education courses.”
Faculty members may need to gain further insights into online pedagogy and enhance their skills in using the relevant IT tools. At the Goodwin College of Professional Studies at Drexel University, all faculty members must successfully complete a training course for online education called the Instructor Certification Course, conducted online, before they can teach any online courses.
Based on responses from 379 distance education students at Boise State University, Belcheir and Cucek (2001) found that the “main reason for taking distance education courses was that the time was flexible and convenient. Another reason was the difficulty respondents had in getting to the campus. About 30% were taking distance education courses because they liked the technology. Slightly more than one half indicated that in the absence of the distance education option, they would take the course at some other institution or not at all. Students were generally satisfied with their distance education courses, with interaction with other students and the instructor being the areas of least satisfaction. They reported that their course-related behaviors were similar in distance education and traditional classes. Students identified delivery method and lack of interaction as the biggest barriers to distance education. These findings, from a student perspective, suggest that distance education is convenient and satisfactory.”
Lao and Gonzales (2005) conducted a qualitative study of student and faculty experiences with online learning and also attributed the growth of distance education to the desire of graduate students to have flexibility and convenience in their educational experience in order to make the pursuit of their academic goals more feasible. “This entails being able to go to school while meeting the needs of work and family schedule.” In addition, the students they surveyed cited the particular benefit of distance education for those who live in remote areas.
In terms of the challenges that students associate with e-learning methods, the study conducted by Schrum and Ohler (2005) collected data on what was and was not working for students in terms of distance education. They achieved a 16% response rate to their survey of students who had taken at least one distance education course. “Students felt relatively strongly that distance learning was working for them, but were less favorable about interactions with other students. In addition, they missed the interaction with mentors and still needed advice and information about financial aid… The most significant obstacles were related to the instructor, and these were primarily related to lack of response, interaction, and support.” In this study, the students also cited other barriers to institutional excellence in the use of the distance education model and highlighted poor customer service and administrative and technical support, as well as a need for teleconferencing technologies when working in virtual groups.
On Campus and Distance Education Programs
Dede (1996) predicted “in a few years, high performance computing and communications will make knowledge utilities, virtual communities, and shared synthetic environments as routine a part of everyday existence as the telephone, television, radio, and newspaper are today. Distributed learning experiences will be seen as vital for all learners even when the same content could be taught face to face, and all teaching will have some attributes of ‘distance education.’”
Some contend that it would be helpful to base distance education programs on existing on-campus programs. Clarke et al. (2004) specify that a lesson they learned from their experience at Brunel University is that distance education programs must be based on existing full-time programs “and where possible, common examinations and assessment [should] be used.” However, through careful design and implementation and effective use of appropriate technologies it is possible to ensure that distance education program participants are provided with at least as good a learning experience as on-campus students.
Business and Sustainability Issues
Van Dusen (2002) comments on the need for institutions of higher education to reevaluate their pedagogical goals and marketplace in terms of the current and future roles of distance education. “As more and more colleges and universities explore the pedagogical implications of the Internet and the World Wide Web, traditional distinctions between distance education and residential instruction are beginning to fade. The ubiquity of digital technologies necessitates a reconsideration of target markets so that institutional mission comes under review at the same time that a new vision of learning emerges.”
The business model for distance education should be clearly understood, manageable, and sustainable. Otherwise, smaller steps in implementing distance education and simpler technologies might be in order to help manage various risks associated with distance education. Examples of failed distance education ventures point to the fundamental importance of this issue. Beam (2003) points out “after investing four years and $30 million in Fathom.com, the university-sponsored for-profit online education project, Columbia has decided to call it quits…. Fathom became available three years ago as an online source of e-seminars and courses from a consortium of 14 schools and institutions, of which Columbia was the primary investor. Other investors included the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Cambridge University Press, and the London School of Economics and Political Science.” This occurred because Columbia deemed the online learning venture to be too great a financial risk. Carlson (2003) adds that “for-profit online-learning ventures have already closed at New York University, Temple University, and the University of Maryland University College.”
Parry (2009) points out the financial pressure on online programs caused by budget constraints, which resulted from the 2008–2009 recession. He stresses the importance of re-examining the business model and evolving in response to economic conditions. He cites the closure of the Utah eLearning connection, which gave students access to courses offered by ten public colleges, “but most seem to prefer their distance education straight.”
There are much fewer examples of closures of distance education programs in project management, with the main example being the MBA in Project Management at Athabasca University (AU). This program has been discontinued in light of other initiatives being undertaken by AU, particularly in the doctoral program. One of the reasons for the apparent resilience of project management programs might be the built-in extensive potential student population and the growing demand for project management education, which appears to be outpacing the supply of educational programs. The growing immense popularity of project management education may allow more tolerance of various mistakes in implementation, at least temporarily. Institutional commitment from the top and throughout various levels for distance education in project management may be another underlying necessary success factor.
In terms of the successful implementation of distance education strategies and the re-orientation of academic programs toward adult learners, change management and deep reflection about the future landscape of higher education are essential for IHEs. The re-conceptualization of institutional vision and mission statements, as well as concomitant strategic and financial planning can help to make investments in online learning worthwhile.
For the foreseeable future, the need for distance education in project management can be expected to continue to increase. ICTs and distance education technologies, and online education experience can be expected to continue to advance allowing the expansion of project management content that can be offered using the distance education mode of instruction. More institutions of higher education are likely to offer project management programs in the distance education mode, entirely online or as an extension of their on-campus project management programs. There is also likely to be an expansion of project management courses being offered to extend existing distance education programs in other fields, or project management as a completely new initiative. The demand and availability of project management degrees and certificate programs in the distance education mode can be expected to continue to grow. Enrollment in such programs can also be expected to increase. However, the distribution of participants among the various existing and emerging programs may change, since the physical location of the institution is a minor issue when dealing with distance education. The quality of education and the reputation of the institution and degrees are likely to be the main determinants of success for many of these programs.
The author wishes to acknowledge the review and valuable contributions to the manuscript of Ms. Laura Olson, Research Scientist, The George Washington University, the review and constructive comments of Dr. Fredricka K. Reisman, Professor, Goodwin College of Professional Studies at Drexel University and Director of Drexel/Torrance Center for Creativity and Innovation, and the review and valuable editorial enhancements of Ms. Jacqueline R. Kardon, Congress Content Coordinator, Project Management Institute.
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© 2010, Frank T. Anbari
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC