December 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // 6IAW3

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Feedback in Distance Education: Broadening Electronic Communication Pathways

This article explores how one distance education program has maximized the use of electronic mail for exchanging information between professors and students in a distance education environment. The article discusses issues that face distance educators when using electronic mail for exchanging course materials and offers possible solutions for effective student homework submission and professor feedback. The authors recommend a practical system for exchanging written student-professor communication using the Adobe PDF computer file format which provides a cost-effective solution to many course process problems inherent in distance education settings.

Barbara Hansen
Dixie College
St. George, Utah
Internet address:

Andy Shinkle
Extension Instructor
Utah State University - Brigham City Branch Campus
Brigham City, Utah
Internet address:

Pam Dupin
Extension Instructor
Utah State University - Tooele Branch Campus
Tooele, Utah
Internet address:

As distance education continues to emerge as an alternative for delivering formal education, barriers affecting student-professor communication come into focus. These barriers confront distance educators with a variety of communication problems directly affecting the teaching/learning process. One barrier affects an essential component of the distance education process. That barrier is the submission of student homework coupled with the professor providing timely feedback to the student.

This article explores how one distance education program, at the University of Wyoming, has maximized the use of electronic mail for exchanging information between professors and students scattered throughout the distance education environment. Specifically, this article will (a) discuss issues that face distance educators when using electronic mail for exchanging course materials, (b) share possible solutions for effective student homework submission and professor feedback, and (c) recommend a practical system for exchanging written student-professor communication.


Over the past few years, a cohort of students has been participating in a doctoral program via distance education through the University of Wyoming. Students are geographically distributed across a 500 mile segment of Utah and southern Wyoming. The professors are on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, 400 miles from the nearest student. An essential component to this program is the communication pathways developed between the faculty and students. These pathways have replaced the traditional professor-student classroom interaction in a variety of ways.

As with many distance education programs, assignments are distributed to students and returned to campus via a facsimile machine or traditional postal methods. The resulting long delays without feedback and the costly FAX and mail charges are frustrating to both professors and students. From the onset of the program, both students and professors have willingly experimented with electronic mail as a cost and time effective alternative for exchanging class materials. Some of these experiments, using electronic mail for submission of homework, have created even greater frustrations due to anomalies in technology.

Many problems surfaced in the Wyoming program as students and professors used electronic mail for exchanging materials. Not all students and professors had the skills or computer equipment necessary to exchange homework electronically. When the skills and equipment were available, students and professors used a variety of computer programs for e-mail and word processing that were often not compatible. This incompatibility meant the students could not read the professor's materials and vice-versa. These technical frustrations, individually or in combination, distracted from the learning process and at times thwarted the learning process.

Experience in higher education reveals positive correlation between professor-student interaction and academic achievement. The ease of accessibility to computer and Internet technology, for all distance education participants, offers a cost effective and time-effective solution to the challenge of providing professor feedback to students. The University of Wyoming cohort recognized the importance of professor-student interaction, which in turn led to a search for an effective solution to this communication challenge.

Possible Solutions

In the University of Wyoming program, the frustration of not receiving timely feedback initiated many experiments designed to resolve this issue. Several of the experimental solutions are described below. These ideas can serve as possible solutions for similar problems in other programs.

One solution requiring a standard computer hardware and software platform was considered. This requirement in distance education courses can be easily paralleled to a traditional classroom course where the teacher requires students to buy and use specific books. Yet, the expense of a standard computer platform can be tremendous and therefore was not deemed the most appropriate solution.

A second solution requiring a computer orientation class for all students and faculty in the distance education program was evaluated. This solution, like the first, can be easily negated on cost of orientation development and orientation standardization. One specific orientation program would be difficult to implement due to the variety of computer systems available to participants.

A third solution that mandated a common software protocol was implemented and assessed. The ASCII standard computer format is universal to most personal computer systems and allowed electronic communication among all the students and professors. Yet, after implementing this minimal standard it was found that the formatting limitations of the ASCII standard drastically affected the print quality of course materials. Therefore, simple assignments that required mandatory formatting (such as APA style) were not possible. After implementation and trial, this solution was deemed unacceptable.

Recommended Solution

A successful solution to this problem arose from experimentation by various students and faculty. A statistics professor, who needed to use special characters in his handouts, suggested the use of the Adobe PDF (portable document format) computer file format. PDF files are commonly used in business to share print quality information via the Internet. The software program to view and print PDF files is free via the Internet. The computer program, Adobe Acrobat, that creates the PDF files from any computer platform is reasonably priced (no more than a good textbook) and offers a short learning curve. Professors can create PDF files from previously used computer files, or if they develop new class materials, they can create the PDF files as easily as printing paper copies of the materials. Students can also create print quality PDF files with the same ease.

PDF files work effectively as e-mail attachments. The size of the PDF file is often less than ten percent of the size of the original computer document. The reduced size of PDF files helps maximize the performance of the typical e-mail system, both on the sending and receiving end of the e-mail connection. PDF files submitted by students can easily be electronically annotated by professors and then e-mailed to students providing timely feedback to the student.


After experimenting with various electronic techniques to exchange student-professor information within a distance education environment, a practical solution was embraced. It was jointly determined, by both faculty and students, that the PDF computer file format provides a cost-effective solution to many course process problems inherent in distance education settings. For distance education participants, PDF computer files eliminate many problems associated with traditional submission of homework and professor feedback. As distance education programs continue to flourish, barriers to effective professor-student communication will continually emerge. Practical solutions, such as those described, can alleviate obstacles impeding the teaching/learning process in distance education.