First Monday

Hello, Out There: A Look at Distance Education in Alaska

This study examines the state of distance education in Alaska. Providing public education has offered long-standing challenges to educators and policy makers in the state since the indigenous peoples of Alaska were introduced to Western education. This is especially so at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Factors such as a low population density, isolated and remote villages, a high teacher attrition rate, a low number of Alaskans (particularly Alaska Natives) in the classroom as licensed teachers, and a challenging environment contribute to the situation.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has had a longstanding commitment to provide post-secondary education to students in rural Alaska. By surveying individuals involved in distance education in the state, this study found that distance education is primarily being delivered by audio conferencing and prepared curriculum modules. In an effort to meet the educational needs in rural Alaska at the post-secondary level, administrators and faculty are working to increase the number of courses delivered by distance education using asynchronous communication.

There were over 1,000 distance-delivered courses at the post-secondary level in Alaska delivered by the various campuses within the University of Alaska System during the 1999-2000 academic year. The typical distance education student in UA System is female, in her 30's, and likely to be White. Twenty-five percent of students taking distance education courses in various UA campuses were identified as Alaska Native, which is significant since they constitute 15 percent of the state population. Students taking distance education courses from any of the University of Alaska sites took an average of two courses per semester.

There is a need for greater coordination among the different sites delivering distance education courses and training for faculty in a more consistent manner. Information and access to course work should be made more readily available to all post-secondary students within and outside the state. Further research is necessary on gender disparity and on the relatively high number of Alaska Native students taking distance education courses.


Data Collection
Limitations, Terms and Other Misunderstandings
Final Comments



Although Alaska (270,374 square miles) is about two and a half times the size of Texas, it has a low population density with an average of 1.07 persons per square mile. Anchorage, one of two major urban areas, holds 41.7% of the state's population (Boucher, 1998). However, large areas remain uninhabited, and most towns and villages are not on the road system. Some villages are so remote that they are accessible only by air, snowmobile, or dog sled during the winter (although travel is possible by car or truck over some frozen rivers especially when they connect one village to another).

Solutions to providing a quality education to students in rural Alaska, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels, have historically been piecemeal. Recently University of Alaska System administrators have sought to address the "brain drain" caused by the loss of students attending colleges outside the state by offering in-state scholarships to retain some of these students.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), a Doctoral II institution, is the primary research institution in the state and serves over 9,000 students across its main campus and at extended sites in rural Alaska. Of the three University of Alaska campuses (Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau), UAF has been historically committed to providing education to students in rural Alaska.

To meet this objective, distance delivery course work at UAF is administered to over 100 Alaskan communities. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 4,423 students took distance education courses from the University, the largest number of students served by distance education in the state.

This paper attempts to assess the development of distance education in Alaska and its delivery to students at rural sites. Today's technology has made geography almost irrelevant. New technologies in offering distance education are presently being used throughout the U.S. and in many areas elsewhere in the world. In spite of these technological advances, most distance education courses at UAF are still being delivered primarily by audio conferencing. For this study, we sought to find out exactly how distance education was being delivered in the state, in an effort to understand the different forces affecting the quality of distance education.

This paper directly addresses the present and the potential client base for educational resources in rural Alaska. The results of this study may be useful to educators with student populations located great distances away from higher education centers. As distance education comes of age, demand for college courses is exploding across the U.S. (McGinn, 2000; Carr, 2000). As noted, the demand for distance education has existed in rural Alaska for quite some time.

Research comparing distance education to traditional instruction indicates that it can be effective (Young, 2000; Carnevale, 2000). Schutte (2000) found that students in a virtual classroom scored 20 percent higher on course examinations than those in a traditional class. Hiltz (1998) found that online courses using collaborative learning strategies and small classes, where the instructor actively monitors students, are as effective as traditional classroom courses.

Most of the research on distance education so far has been positive. Problems that have been associated with distance education include students' isolation and lack of effective advice (Abrahamson, 1998; Brown, 1996; Rahm and Reed, 1998). Hara and Kling (1999) reported three sources of student frustrations in one, Web-based distance education course: lack of prompt feedback, ambiguous instruction, and technical problems.

Many educators within the state believe that the answer to solving educational problems in rural Alaska is to recruit and train Alaska Natives to become teachers, since they would be more likely to remain in village communities. After all, the role of "teacher" in an Alaskan village is often one of status and respect as the culture highly values education. It is also one of the few professional jobs available in the villages.

According to the U.S. Census, those identified as Alaska Natives belong to various tribes, most of which are indigenous to the state. These tribes include Eskimo (the largest), Aleuts, Alaska Athabaskan, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, American Indian, and "Tribes Not Reported or Specific" (U.S. Bueau of the Census, 1996). Recent research found that distance education courses present an important, college-entry point for successful Alaska Native college students at UAF (Reyes, 2000). Reyes found that the poor quality of the state's secondary schools prevented these students from pursuing a traditional path to college. In fact, time-to-degree for students was extended an additional two to three years due to the poor preparation at the secondary level.

Students in Reyes' 2000 study reported distance education courses as an important type of institutional support. These courses, according to students, provided the means to begin their college education. Students also highly rated the quality of the instruction received, preparing them for 'real college work.'

Institutional data confirms that a relatively high number of Alaska Native college students take distance education courses. While Alaska Natives constituted 15 percent of the state's population, they constituted 25 percent of the students taking distance education courses within the University of Alaska System for the 1999-2000 academic year (UAF Office of Institutional Research, 2000).

White students constituted the largest group taking distance education courses, representing 69 percent of the total student body taking distance education courses in the University of Alaska System during the 1999-2000 academic year. At UAF, Whites (self-reported) made up 63 percent of students taking distance education courses during this period (UAF Office of Institutional Research, 2000).

Distance education offers an important solution to meeting the state's educational needs at both the K-12 and post-secondary levels. A well-developed distance education program has the potential of solving the state's significant and long-standing problem of providing licensed teachers to rural public schools, by making available college education and teacher licensure to students already residents of village communities.

However, to assess the potential of distance education in Alaska, we first sought to investigate its current conditions. This paper attempts to provide a snapshot of distance education in Alaska.


Data Collection

Descriptive research includes survey research, the method used in this study. An institutional survey was developed by the researchers and was conducted in May and June 2000. The survey in strument was administered to key staff and faculty involved in distance education in Alaska. These included the administrators involved in distance education at the various University of Alaska campuses and an administrator of the largest provider of distance education at the K-12 level, and other educators.

Data were collected, recorded, and organized in May and June 2000. We then interpreted, discussed, and drew conclusions from the data (Leedy and Ormrod, 2001). Measures of central tendency were the primary procedures used to analyze the data (Gall, Gall, and Borg, 1999).


Limitations, Terms and Other Misunderstandings

Two terms used in the survey, "teleconferencing" and "online interactive delivery" provided confusion to those answering the survey questions. In designing the survey, the terms teleconferencing and online interactive delivery were meant to include "synchronous conferencing," defined as real-time interaction using audio or video connections and shared screens or applications.

In every case, the survey respondent did not distinguish between synchronous communication and asynchronous communication. In asynchronous communication, such as e-mail, discussion forums, or notice boards, students can access posted information anytime they wish. For example, at the beginning of the semester an instructor may post a syllabus, a lecture, or any notice on a board for students in a particular class. However, in synchronous interaction every student in the class participates simultaneously.

The terms teleconferencing and online interactive delivery provided no small amount of bafflement to those being interviewed. As we reviewed the data, it was clear that, except for the audio conference courses, little or no synchronous communication in distance education was being utilized to deliver course content. This was directly confirmed by a respondent with extensive experience in distance education.

However, the data indicated that effort was being made in some cases to expand online offerings using asynchronous communication. Many educators and students seem to favor asynchronous communication in distance education due to its flexibility. Both can check into a class as their individual schedules allow.

Another term that provided confusion and "muddied" the findings was "distance education." The term includes course work delivered by correspondence in addition to course work delivered by audio conference and different Web-based instructional technologies. Only one respondent clearly differentiated his answers to reflect this distinction.

The way in which distance education courses were counted also provided an additional problem. Researchers in the UA Office of Institutional Research maintained accurate records of distance education courses offered during 1999-2000. However, two or more sections of the same course could appear as one course in the data. According to one UA researcher, "... (the term) 'courses' is a bit misleading in its terminology if used to describe individual, distinct courses."

One respondent stated that distance education course work was all delivered by correspondence with minimal interaction (primarily by e-mail) between instructor and students or parents. From these findings, which are incomplete for the reasons stated, it seems that correspondence course work continues to be a large and important part of distance education in Alaska.



All respondents reported that their institutions provide distance education work. One respondent qualified her response by stating that the parents who used her institution's program, which targets K-12 home schooled students, purchase specific curriculum modules, pre-school through grade 12, from them. She described the course work as correspondence courses, which assists parents in educating their children. As she put it, "Parents who home-school can now get a high school diploma for their children."

Respondents stated that over 1,000 courses were offered at the seven sites surveyed. This number was not precise because some respondents included correspondence courses while others did not. The data provided by the UA Office of Institutional Research was incomplete and did not list data for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), the largest urban campus in Alaska. The UAA respondent reported that approximately 1,200 students enrolled in one of the 50 distance education courses offered. However, she added that these numbers were an estimate as data for that institution was not available.

The following table lists the number of courses offered by the three UA campuses, as reported by the UA Office of Institutional Research for the 1999-2000 academic year:

UA Distance Education Courses for 1999-2000
* Complete data was not available.
Source: Olson, UAF Office of Institutional Research

These figures include all distance education courses in the UA sites. However, since two or more sections for one course were counted as one course and the numbers were not available for courses offered through UAA, these numbers are imprecise.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, a total of 8,124 students from seven sites surveyed were reported to be enrolled in distance education courses. Two respondents did not provide an answer to this question as they did not have an accurate count as of June 2000. One respondent stated that course work is offered using a traditional classroom setting.

The majority of respondents did not provide data on the student dropout rate for distance education courses, as this information was unavailable. One respondent stated that the dropout rate for students taking courses by correspondence from the UAF Center for Distance Education was about 40 percent, but the drop rate for students taking "audio conference" courses from the Rural College Cross Regional course offerings was less than 10 percent. His definition of distance education included correspondence courses.

Description of Students Taking Distance Education Courses

A majority of students taking distance education courses from the sites surveyed were students within the state. The respondent from the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) reported that there were students registered from outside Alaska.

The typical distance education student was in the 30's, very likely to be female, more likely to be married, likely to be employed full-time, more likely to be working on an undergraduate degree, and much more likely to be White. Twenty-five percent were Alaska Native. Three respondents did not provide an answer to the question of students' race/ethnicity.

It is interesting that a relatively high number of Alaska Native students are enrolled in distance education courses. Although the Alaska Native population was 15 percent in 1995, four of the respondents reported that 40 percent or more of their students were Alaska Native. Two of these reported an Alaska Native student population over 50 percent.

Statistical data for the 1999-2000 academic year (as provided by the UAF Office of Institutional Research) supported survey findings. The average age of a student taking distance education courses across the three institutions in the UA System was 34.0. The typical student taking distance education course work took an average of two courses per semester.

The survey results confirm our own experiences and observations: females represented 68 percent of students taking distance education courses within the UA System. In addition, we have observed a much higher number of Alaska Native females than Alaska Native males taking courses. This pattern was noted previously by Kleinfeld (1992). Kleinfeld, Kruse, and Travis (1983) observed that males were more likely than females to follow subsistence lifestyles.

The following data were for students taking distance education courses in the UA System for the 1999-2000 academic year. It gives an overview of the students taking distance education course work from one of the UA sites and supports survey findings.

Student Profile
Total Male Female White AF-AM Latino Asian AK Native Ave Age
4342 32% 68% 69% 2% 2% 2% 25% 34
Source: Olson, UAF Office of Institutional Research

Use of Instructional Technology in the Content Areas

Several survey questions addressed the use of instructional technologies in content areas: science, mathematics, education, English, developmental, and other courses. The responses were very similar across different content areas. The use of audio conferencing, fax machine, and communication by mail in all distance education course work were the most commonly reported types of course delivery.

Seven of the ten respondents reported using audio conferencing in their distance delivered courses. Seven out of the ten also reported using e-mail with students, when it was available. One respondent stated that e-mail was easier when students worked in schools as these were usually wired allowing the students to use school computers and Internet servers. All respondents reported the use of fax machines.

Several reported offering online interactive delivery and/or teleconferencing. One respondent with extensive experience in distance education in Alaska reported that less than one percent of courses from the UAF Center for Distance Delivery used synchronous communication. Much of what was reported to be "online interactive delivery" actually referred to communication through electronic message boards, videotapes, or CD-ROMs mailed to students, satellite TV, or courses posted on a Web site.

Professional Development

The majority of respondents thought that instructors of distance education were not receiving adequate training. A couple of respondents stated that they were "working on it." One respondent stated that the UAF Instructional Technology Development Center offers some courses for instructors. However, he added, "... not everyone gets it [training], and it is not uniform. Typically, an instructor assigned a distance ed course will seek out someone who has taught a distance ed course to get information on how to set up the course."

One exception was the respondent from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) who stated that extensive efforts were being made at UAA to provide each faculty member with training in educational technology.

The Need for Distance Education

All respondents reported that if they were to offer more distance education course work, students would sign up for the courses. Shirley Grubb from the University of Alaska Southeast stated that many people want a degree from Alaska both within and outside the state, but she added, "We are not yet set up to meet this need. We want to ensure that the quality will be built in before we can begin to think of meeting this need."

According to anecdotal data, in several cases students from Fairbanks ready to register for audio conference or distance education courses were not allowed to do so. One respondent added that some regional campuses offer course work only for students in their region. A faculty member from one of the rural campuses who teaches distance education courses made this comment:

"The audio conferencing faculty and courses constitute an underground university for rural students. The 'rules' for on-campus faculty and for faculty and students teaching or taking distance ed courses are often very different. There is an attempt to maintain similar policies, but the environments and the students are radically different."

Answers varied, but most respondents reported that an effort was being made to upgrade and expand the use of technology in course work offered in their institutions.

A common theme was the need for improved coordination among the different campuses within the UA System.

All respondents thought that distance education filled an important need in the state. One respondent stated, "It's the future. It will never replace teachers, but we can replace how we offer instruction." Another said, "I would like to see the same course offered on and off campus and in different modes - correspondence, interactive, audio with another component, etc."


Final Comments

The preliminary findings of this survey provide an interesting look at the students taking distance education courses, delivery methods used to provide course work, and the institutions providing instruction.

For the past academic year, UAF Rural Services staff estimated that 18 percent of the on-campus student population were Alaska Native. Yet, this study found that in some of the rural sites a much higher Alaska Native student population taking distance education courses. For educational researchers in Alaska, this information merits consideration as does the question of gender disparity in the student population taking distance education courses across the UA System.

As we found out, care should be taken in planning and conducting this sort of research. The use of survey terminology affected the results. Even the term "distance education" proved problematic as respondents defined it differently. Only one respondent clearly distinguished between correspondence courses, which were distance delivered, and other courses using audio conferencing or other forms of communication, which were also distance delivered. In addition, the majority of respondents failed to differentiate and to indicate an understanding of the differences between synchronous communication and asynchronous communication in distance education.

Information on distance delivery courses ovvered by the various UA sites was often difficult to locate. For example, in the UAF Catalog for 2000-2001, no mention is made of distance education courses at all. We discovered that the UAF College of Rural Alaska (CRA) has six regional campuses each with its individual course offerings. These include the Bristol Bay Campus, Chukchi Campus, Interior-Aleutians Campus, Kuskokwim Campus, Northwest Campus, and the Tanana Valley Campus. CRA offers both regional and cross-regional courses. There are courses that are taught in all five regions, and there are courses taught only for students in a particular region. In an attempt to address this problem during the 1999-2000 academic year, five of the sites published their course offerings in one consolidated bulletin. Course offerings by the Tanana Valley Campus in Fairbanks were are advertised through the UAF Course Bulletin.

Distance education in Alaska - considering the development of instructional technology over the last ten years and the state's pressing educational needs - requires more study. A study of how distance education is funded, especially in comparison to on-campus programs, needs to be explored. Everyone surveyed reported that their institutions were not currently meeting the demands for distance education in their service area.End of Article

About the Authors

María Elena Reyes is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Claudette Bradley is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


We would like to thank Ron Illingworth, Academic Program Head for the UAF Center for Distance Delivery, who provided a broad and historical view of distance education in the state and within the UA System. We also want to thank Ian Olson, a researcher for the UA Office of Institutional Research, who provided additional data for this study, and Shirley Grubb, Assistant to the Dean of Faculty Outreach and Distance Education at UAS. Finally, we wish to thank our dear friend and mentor Jerry McBeath, Chair of the UAF Political Science Department, for his suggestions, support, and general sense of humor.

Funding was provided by the University of Alaska Schools Research Fund in the spring of 2000.


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Editorial history

Paper received 11 August 2000; revision received 18 September 2000; accepted 20 September 2000; revision received 23 September 2000; revision received 24 September 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Hello, Out There: A Look at Distance Education in Alaska by María Elena Reyes and Claudette Bradley
First Monday, volume 5, number 10 (October 2000),