Making Distance Education Ineffective by Credit Hours: A New Study

May 11, 2014


Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba

By Farhad Saba, Ph. D.

Distance in education is a variable that is different for each individual learner. Some learners are more comfortable than others with exercising autonomy in:

  • Setting their learning goals,
  • Selecting their learning strategies,
  • Monitoring their metacognitive states,
  • Ensuring that they have reached their pre-determined goals, and
  • Assessing when they have surpassed mastering pre-determined goals and have achieved the ability to be creative, solve problems, and deal with unique situations when they arise suddenly and unexpectedly.

More autonomous students tend to decrease the level of transactional distance between themselves and their instructors.

Other students require more structure in their learning. They:

  • Are less likely to set their own learning goals and rely more on what is set for them in advance,
  • Are more comfortable with pre-selected learning strategies as compared to selecting such strategies for themselves,
  • Prefer to receive assistance in how to monitor their metacognitive states,
  • Rely on standardized tests to make sure that they have reached the predetermined goals of instruction, and
  • Arrive at critical thinking, problem solving and creativity with the assistance of a community of learners.

Less autonomous students tend to increase the level of transactional distance. However, both groups of students and the many more that fit in between them benefit from flexible distance learning that accommodate their tolerance for autonomy and fulfill their need for structure.

Distance in education in-and-of-itself has no value other than serving the learning of students according to their aptitude (ability to perform specific tasks under certain circumstances.  More transactional distance is not better or worse, its appropriate level depends on the aptitude of each individual learner while performing a task. The goal for all students is to succeed, some may take more time, some less, but all of them would amaster the standard learning objectives. Distance education created based on the theory of transactional distance is, therefore, output oriented; it measures the performance of the learner under specific situations as the important element in the teaching-learning equation.

Traditional classroom instruction, however, has been input oriented. It is not concerned with what students learn. Institutions are funded based on how many hours a student is present in a classroom regardless of how much they learn. Students are graded differently, some receiving passing grades, and others receive failing grades. However, their grades are not directly related to other major variables, such as, funding a course or a program of study.

A recent study by Prasuhn (2014) in the American Journal of Distance Education describes “credit hour” as the unit of time spent by students in a classroom as well as outside of the classroom in fulfilling the requirements of a specific course. The study reveals that most states that have a credit policy for online courses require that students spend the same amount of time online as in classroom instruction. The study explains that credit hour as a uniform standard for brick and mortar schools was set a 100 years ago when institutions idealized industrial models of organization.

Flexible distance education, however, is a post-industrial idea. It requires that all students attain certain standard level of competency; however, the method to achieve it in a standard amount of “seat-time” would make distance education ineffective. A standard seat time for all learners increases time-to-degree and the cost of education by offering a curriculum models that are designed based on the ideals of the bygone era of industrialization.

For institutions to benefit from distance education, they must measure their success by students’ performance and achievement, and break away from measuring success based on the number of hours that a student sits in a classroom or spends on line. The study by Prasuhn provides the necessary information for starting a dialog on this needed transition.


Prasuhn, F. C. (2014). Credit hours with no set time: A study of credit policies in asynchronous online education. The American Journal of Distance Education. (28) 1, 4-13.