One factor that has led institutions to develop online learning programs is the perception that they have lower production costs than campus-based courses, particularly as the numbers of students increase. Hülsmann (2004) noted that this view was a significant tenet in the argument supporting distance learning in developing nations. Specifically, he described the common belief that “distance education is able to deal with large numbers more cost-effectively than traditional education, and has proved to do so also in developing countries” (Introduction section, paragraph 3). To one extent, this is a valid viewpoint. Unlike earlier distance education approaches, such as print-based correspondence courses and full-motion videoconferencing, online learning doesn’t require the purchase of high-cost specialized equipment such as videoconferencing rooms or publishing systems. Although there are numerous examples of institutions spending far more per course than traditional programs—NYUonline was rumored to have spent upwards of $1 million per course (Maeroff, 2003)— a motivated instructor can create and publish components of a Web-based course on a personal computer and then upload the materials to a free Web hosting service and instantly teach online to students anywhere in the world. The relative ease of creating Web-based materials, however, can mask larger challenges that face online education providers. Providing effective online faculty support is one area that can be easily overlooked with such a myopic view of online course development.
While there has been a significant amount of literature addressing pedagogical aspects of online learning, comparably, little has specifically addressed faculty support issues, although Tait and Mills (2002) is a notable exception. In Berge and Mrozowski’s (2001) review of distance education research from 1990 to 1999, they found that the quantity of literature addressing learner support, operational issues, and policy and management issues lagged behind more frequently addressed topics such as design issues, learner characteristics and pedagogical strategies to increase interactivity and active learning.
While universities regularly spend millions of dollars erecting new buildings to support campus-based instruction, comparably, little consideration is usually given to the structural support and service needs of Web-based programs. Whether this is a deliberate budgetary decision to keep online learning expenses down or an oversight prompted by the relative ease in which Web-based courses can be created, institutions would be wise to consider the need for quality support services. Moore and Kearsley (2005) proposed a systems model that considered all of the component processes that make up education, with the recognition that the different processes interact and influence one another. They noted that the addition of technology into the education represented a significant change, and the educational system must be adjusted accordingly. “Investing in technology without regard to the other subsystems is a recipe for mediocrity at best, for disaster at worst” (Moore & Kearsley, 2005, p. 19).
Palloff and Pratt (2001) stated that institutions failing to develop an adequate faculty and student support infrastructure will eventually encounter significant problems. In a survey of online students at one university, support services were ranked in the top five issues (Aggarwal, 2001; Legon, 2002). In response to such concerns, Baker, Aggarwal and Schihl (2003) proposed the development of an integrated educational support system infrastructure to help guide online learners from application to graduation. Their integrated support systems model addressed administrative support, faculty and instructional design support, technical support, library and reference services, and student and program support services. Tait (2003) offered three reasons why an institution should consider integrating student support into an online learning system: Students want support; such support will help reduce drop-outs; and it promotes effective learning, particularly within a constructivist model. This article, thus, will highlight the faculty support-system components of instructional and administrative support.