Going the Distance: What We Can Learn from Distance Education Specialists

Melissa Carnahan, BS, CST
Leah Matthews, Ph.D.


As instructors acclimate to online learning, they have been identifying methods and tools that work best for their students in real-time. For distance educators, the concept is not so new. We spoke with two experts in the field to understand what can be learned from their experience regularly working in a remote teaching environment.

Featured in this Q&A are Leah Matthews, Ph.D., executive director for the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC); and Melissa Carnahan, BS, CST, surgical technology program director at Kirkwood Community College.  

Dr. Matthews has led the DEAC  for the past seven years, and previously served as the vice present for recognition services at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). She has also served as a non-federal negotiator for the U.S. Department of Education’s 2014 and 2019 Rulemaking Sessions on multiple areas that included distance education state authorization. Carnahan has been a certified surgical technologist since 2000, specializing in neurosurgery and tissue and organ donation. She has been an instructor since 2005 and leads a distance education program that serves students across the rural regions of Iowa.

What type of orientation to distance education or support is needed for students and faculty? What are some basics that are important to consider? 

Leah Matthews: Educators across the country just experienced a rapid transition to online learning. Now is the time to move on from emergency stop-gap measures to more careful and deliberate orientation for students. At a very basic level, student orientation needs to address these critical areas:

  • Verify students have the technology and internet access necessary for success. It is the responsibility of the institution to communicate the resources needed — proper bandwidth, video equipment, type of device — and verify each student is equipped properly.
  • Orient students to the platform. Do students know how to navigate to courses, learning resources and the library? Do they know how to contact the instructor by email or how to interact with other students?

Think of your students as a blank slate when it comes to online learning. Although we have certain beliefs about their technological capabilities, we must plan for distance education as a new experience.

With respect to faculty, I highly recommend creating a manual for developing online courses and programs that establishes a uniform protocol. A well-crafted manual should ensure consistency in the quality of the design of online content and address questions such as:

  • How should faculty effectively integrate video content?
  • How will students interact in groups?
  • How should instructors communicate with students?
  • How are faculty office hours scheduled?
  • How is content reviewed for digital accessibility?
  • What securities are in place to protect student data?
  • What are the steps for authenticating student identity?
  • Where can students access reports of their academic progress in a course?
  • How can a student resolve a complaint about their online course?

Engaging with a professional instructional designer is also immensely helpful. These qualified individuals can provide feedback as to whether or not course content is appropriately designed for online teaching and learning. They are experts in ensuring that online content is delivered in a way that optimizes technology and engages the students. Remember that online learning is a uniquely different experience from classroom-based learning. 

Melissa Carnahan: Our students start by talking to an advisor at the community college where they complete their general education requirements. That meeting lays the foundation for the year and sets them on the right course with classes and projects.

Before shelter-in-place, we would host an in-person orientation, helping students access and navigate the system online, handing out course materials and escorting them to pick up their books. In our current environment, we have to be a little more creative. At the beginning of virtual classes, I spend time getting to know the students and asking about their studies. In terms of the next orientation, that will be online. We’ll likely host a live video session to discuss questions about the program.

One hurdle for students is getting acclimated to taking classes on a computer and access to reliable internet. In the past, students were given access to local community college libraries if learning at home wasn’t as conducive. That’s not as easy now, so it may become a matter of identifying accommodations on a case-by-case basis.    

What tools and resources are needed for a successful distance education program?

LM: Most institutions typically have an online learning management system (LMS), so leveraging existing platforms more effectively or planning for an upgrade is likely a best next step. This is where training (or re-training) can be helpful — does your faculty know how to access all of the tools at their disposal? Take time to review and re-orient faculty to these resources as needed during this period of transition. 

If your institution does not have an online LMS, there are two options: build your own (customized but costly) or work with a trusted vendor.

Many vendors offer learning management systems that are presented as the most viable option for meeting the needs of a program, its faculty and students. However, I cannot emphasize this enough: it is very important to carefully research all vendor options, obligations and costs when determining whether to outsource distance education. Do your homework: compare qualifications and capabilities, ask for referrals and be sure to have legal counsel review any contracts closely before committing to an external vendor. 

MC: Students are successful when they have a strong support system at home — family and friends who understand the commitments of the program. In traditional distance education programs, some advisors have greater access to students than instructors do. Keeping an open dialogue with these partners is important to nurturing the student’s experience.

Our instructors are available by phone or text message, in addition to office hours via phone or Zoom. We have always felt comfortable sharing our personal cell phone numbers, with the understanding that students follow this etiquette:

  • No phone calls after 10 p.m.
  • Students can text any time, but may not receive a response until the next day
  • Students must give their full name, program location and their question
  • Anything more than a simple question should be taken over the phone, to assist the student in a more meaningful way

Our students have been very respectful of this etiquette. Setting up a system like this has allowed us to replicate “pop in” conversations to the best of our ability.

What are some considerations that should be put into place for taking exams securely?

LM: Exam security and trust are approached in a number of different ways. For example, some programs have students sign an academic integrity policy — some students even write their own code of ethics and pledge their commitment at the start of every term.

Proctored examinations should be a standard feature to verify students can produce the necessary knowledge in accordance with stated learning outcomes. But not every assignment requires proctoring. At the DEAC, our standard is typically at least one proctored exam per term, and at intervals that are appropriate to learning outcomes and the content under study. Ultimately, the cumulative assessment will signal whether the student really knows the material.

MC: Traditionally, our distance education students took proctored exams at nearby community colleges. We are now using a tool in our LMS that administers timed exams in lockdown mode, prohibiting copying/pasting from other windows. Next semester we will use a webcam that watches students take the exam. Later this year, we will join our nursing program for a pilot test to explore other security options and best practices.

Of course, we need to instill a sense of responsibility in our students. Beyond online security measures, we are having honest conversations with students. They need to know this information to pass the national certification exam, in clinicals and beyond. It is in their best interest to study the material and know it well.

What are some practices that others can adapt from distance educators, especially during this time?

LM: Some of the best practices I’ve seen include team-based approaches, with tremendous support structures in place to help faculty. Such an approach includes coaches, tutors and advisors to monitor and follow up on students’ progress. This is especially helpful when working with large classes of students in competency-based learning models. 

It’s critical to think about the support available to students, especially if they are first time learners in a distance education environment. The absence of adequate planning for an online teaching transition can result in a major challenge for students, impacting their academic achievement. It can also result in an unfortunate drain on resources for the program as it rushes to address problems along the way, rather than ahead of online implementation. Allocate plans and resources that factor in a lot of support, mentoring and cheerleading.

MC: Meet the students where they are. I had a student who was a hairdresser for 20 years. She came to the program with limited computer skills, so we worked on the basics, like uploading assignments. Her advisor helped, too. It was a true team effort.

Being flexible with students is critical, while still holding a high standard. That may mean understanding students’ home life (do they have a family or small children?) and working with them to extend deadlines or find additional support, as long as the work is complete.

It has been such an honor being part of a distance education program that has helped so many students who wouldn’t ordinarily earn a surgical technology or surgical assisting degree. I feel very passionate about it and hope all instructors see the impact of our work as a profession, distance or otherwise. 

For more information and resources, keep an eye on ARC/STSA’s COVID-19 Announcements online. The page includes the latest statements from ARC/STSA, as well as other materials, including a  resource list for educators featuring a number of online tools to enrich distance education instruction.  


Return to What's New Page »