Internet Delivery of Education: Who Is the Driving Force?

ABSTRACT - This paper addresses the question 'Who is driving the development of the Internet as a mode of delivery of education?’. From a review of the literature, an analysis of the activities of Australian university’s Internet offerings, interviews with students and the results of a survey of current students, the answer is that the providers of education are driving this development and not consumers. Student perceptions are that while the Internet can offer some advantages there too many costs and technological drawbacks. This lack of consumer demand is confirmed by the finding that when students have a choice of study mode less than 5 percent of their time is spent using the Internet. The implication here is that universities need to identify consumers’ expectations and needs and design Internet courses accordingly.


Meredith Lawley and Jane Summers (2001) ,"Internet Delivery of Education: Who Is the Driving Force?", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 263-268.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 263-268


Meredith Lawley, University of Southern Queensland, Australia

Jane Summers, University of Southern Queensland, Australia


This paper addresses the question 'Who is driving the development of the Internet as a mode of delivery of education?’. From a review of the literature, an analysis of the activities of Australian university’s Internet offerings, interviews with students and the results of a survey of current students, the answer is that the providers of education are driving this development and not consumers. Student perceptions are that while the Internet can offer some advantages there too many costs and technological drawbacks. This lack of consumer demand is confirmed by the finding that when students have a choice of study mode less than 5 percent of their time is spent using the Internet. The implication here is that universities need to identify consumers’ expectations and needs and design Internet courses accordingly.


Many educational institutions, universities, colleges and private providers of education, are currently engaged in developing and offering courses through the Internet (Burnett 1998). The literature details the many motivations for this trend. However, in the rush to develop Internet delivery, it appears little attention has been given to whether students actually want to study via this mode. Hence, this paper addresses the question of who is driving the development of the Internet as a mode of educational delivery, students or providers. This is done by firstly reviewing the literature regarding both students and institutions perceptions of the Internet and secondly by reporting the results of an analysis of the Internet offerings of all Australian universities. Next, some qualitative results of interviews with students currently studying with a choice of modes of delivery, including online, are reported and finally some survey results are given.


At this stage, the literature indicates the move to Internet delivery is supported and actively campaigned for only by some within the institutions. The proliferation of courses offered through the Internet does not seem to be the result of an identifiable student preference for courses of this type. Studies focussing on student choice of delivery mode and the Internet are uncommon, few, and largely unrepresentative (Lawley, Summers, Gardiner & Jocumsen 1999).


Some studies (Lawley et al. 1998) have shown students believe there are potential benefits to distance education and studying through the Internet. But studies (Ryan 1998; Ayer & Smith 1998; Barrow 1998; Jones & Jones 1996; Miller 1998) have also shown predominantly, what students want is face-to-face contact with lecturers and peers (Noble 1998). Certainly, students want choice of location independent resources, which can be provided through the Internet, but perhaps most importantly they want face-to-face contact. Students want flexibility and interaction. It would seem the Internet has the potential to offer to students both flexibility and interaction, but whether it will be utilised in this manner by education providers is yet to be seen.

The rationale for developing and offering Internet delivery takes many forms. There are a number of key arguments and many of these are used in combination. What is common, however, is the lack of studies investigating whether students actually want to study through the Internet (Noble 1998).

Factors influencing student choice of the Internet as a mode of delivery.

Table 1 below summarizes the factors identified from the literature influencing students’ choice of the Internet a s a mode of delivery. However it should be noted that these factors are largely based on the views of authors rather than research of students themselves.

Thus, briefly summarized, the literature suggests that an 'ideal’ pure Internet course as perceived by a potential student should exhibit the following characteristics:

$it fully exploits available technology,

$it allows students problem-free technological access,

$it is 'lifestyle friendly’ to students,

$it represents value fo money,

$it utilizes appropriate pedagogies (rather than, for example, simply 'dumping’ existing materials onto the net),

$it is delivered by well qualified academic staff experienced in internet delivery,

$it is supported by simple and user friendly administrative procedures,

$it is offered by an institution with a perceived good image, a preparedness to commit appropriate resources to internet delivery and exhibiting evidence of well established networks, and

$it is promoted with appropriate, accurate, comprehensive and readily accessible information (notably through web sites, preferably with a sample course available for perusal online).

While this literature has considered the student perspective, it remains to consider the university or institutional perspective.


Funding cuts to the education sector.

In general, education is becoming increasingly consumer led, or student centred (The British degree goes on sale 1997). This implementation of market principles into higher education is caused perhaps primarily by a gradual decline in government funding to educational institutions throughout the world. Governments are gradually reducing the size of the public sector and giving publicly funded agencies no choice but to operate with greater efficiency and effectiveness (Cunningham 1998). This has motivated Universities to create innovative and cost effective modes of course delivery which will attract students (Barrow 1998; Farquhar 1999). Education is increasingly becoming a commodity which institutions must deliver at a competitive price in order to attract students (Ayer & Smith 1998; Blumenstyr 1998). Institutions which fall short of enrolment targets are often penalised financially both in terms of reduced government funding, and loss of direct revenue from students, particularly full fee paying overseas students (The British degree goes on sale 1997).

To further economise, it has been suggested the Internet has the potential to offer previously unobtainable economies of scale (Hamalainen & Whinston 1996; Oblinger & Maruyama 1996). Savings may be realised with increasing numbers of students in one class (Gallick 1998). This is impossible with face-to-face on-campus delivery of courses. With such economies of scale, universities and education providers potentially have the ability to offer students cheaper alternatives (Denning 1996) and thus the ability to attract more students. There is, however, doubt in some sectors concerning the validity of the promises of economies of scale (Ryan 1998).



Most importantly, it appears the implementation of market principles has caused educational institutions to question whether their current modes of course delivery are sufficiently versatile to meet the needs or the perceived needs of purchasersBstudents and their employers (Ayer & Smith, 1998). The competitiveness and consequently, survival of higher education institutions will depend on attracting students and some believe this will be achieved through offering the benefits of Internet delivery to prospective, particularly non-traditional, students (Oblinger & Maruyama 1996). Internet education, justifiably or not, is increasingly seen as the solution to the funding problem (Ryan 1998) in that it is cost competitive and will attract students.

Costs of infrastructure.

As a result of the funding cuts government funded universities are facing, some universities justify the huge amounts spent on developing courses to be offered through the Internet on the basis they will be cnsiderably cheaper than constructing the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the expected rise in student numbers in the coming years (Farquhar 1999). This saving in infrastructure, in theory larger than the cost of developing and maintaining these courses, can be passed to students, particularly those who are more inclined to study off-campus. Such non-traditional students are seen as being potential high volume users of Internet delivery modes because of the relative cost and ease of access.

Increasing numbers of non-traditional students.

Universities cite increasing numbers of non-traditional students. This is largely due to demands for continuing education to maintain competence and upgrade skills once people have joined the workforce and cannot interrupt their careers by studying full-time and on-campus to gain these skills (Ayer & Smith 1998; Brands 1997; Cunningham 1998; Farquhar 1999; Gubernick & Eberling 1997; Hamilton & Miller 1997; King 1995). The non-traditional student is variously defined as an older, perhaps 25 years and over, working full-time, with family and work commitments precluding her/him from physically attending classes (Hettinger 1997; Markel 1999; Morabito 1997; Oblinger & Maruyama 1996). Universities see non-traditional students as a source of income and believe Internet delivery will be an attractive and popular form of delivery for these students because of its flexibility and the fact it uses 'technology’ which is more often being used in the workplace.

Competitive advantage.

There is also a push from the business sector, including such Internet courseware development companies as Real Education, other education brokerages such as Western Governors University (Real Education launches expansion after whirlwind multi-city road tour 1998; Hamalainen & Whinston 1996; Hettinger 1997), and from some within universities themselves for conversion to Internet education before the competitive edge is lost (Ryan 1998; Flew 1998). The West Report (1998 in Flew 1998) states "the only lasting protection against the threat of world competition is to be world competitive, both domestically and internationallyBnow!". The technology is available and the perception of some is that it must be used before someone else uses it (Noble 1998). Others have warned of the potential risks of developing courses before sufficient research has been conducted into financial viability and pedagogical legitimacy. Universities must choose between the risks of entering the market to gain competitive advantage and the risks of holding back and learning from the mistakes of others and potentially losing any competitive advantage.

Current Use.

Internet technology is not only envisaged for distance education students, many universities are currently using it for on-campus students. The technology allows for students and teachers across different campuses to communicate in real time via multimedia (Distance learning network to serve eight Philadelphia area colleges 1995). Similarly, an Interactive Multi-Media (IMM) package was introduced for on-campus students studying first year accounting at James Cook University of North Queensland, in part to allow students to develop technical skills at their own pace leaving more time in tutorial classes for constructive discussion (Benson, Alison & Arger 1996). Various other universities post lecture notes and assignment tasks on the Internet for student access.

University students have been described by many as technologically competent (Marketers Focus on College Students 1997; Farquhar 1999) and more likely to find Internet delivery an attractive mode of study. This view, though, is strongly questioned by some (Ryan 1998).

In summary, there are a range of reasons education providers cite for developing and providing Internet delivery modes, all of which seem to follow to some exent from the movement of education into a market environment, primarily the result of government funding cuts. The competition from overseas universities and private education providers and the race to conquer the technology is also another reason. The Internet is seen as a way to decrease course and infrastructure costs and attract students, thus solving funding problems. But in the rush, education providers appear to have assumed students want to study through the Internet. The recent shortfall in enrolments in the Western Governers University (Ridder 1998) would seem to indicate, in some way at least, that students do not yet have the enthusiasm for studying through the Internet which universities and education providers perceive.

Having briefly reviewed the current literature on both student and institutional motivations, the next stage of this research gathered primary data using three different approaches with the methodologies used described next.


Firstly, all Australian universities were contacted on at least two occasions, once via their homepage or website and at least once by telephone through their main switch number, to determine if they currently offered courses either solely or predominantly via the Internet. This information was gathered in November/December 1998.

Next, five students currently studying via distance education were interviewed regarding their perceptions of Internet delivery. These students were postgraduate students from a Faculty of Commerce and were chosen because their course offered them a choice of modes of delivery including traditional study packages, CDRom and online. Thus it was felt their exposure to all modes would be a good indication of how students would actually respond to choice of mode.

Finally, based on the results of the previous stages of the research a mail questionnaire was designed and administered to 111 Australian students enrolled in the same course as those interviewed previously. Again, surveying students who actually had a choice of modes was felt to better reflect students preferred and actual choice of mode. Thirty-nine responses were received for a response rate of 35 percent. With such a small sample the survey results should be considered as exploratory only.


Findings from each of these three stages will be presented next.

Australian Universities.

The key findings of the review of the Internet offerings of all Australian universities were as follows:

$12 of 37 universities appear to offer courses either solely or predominantly using the Internet;

$all of the former Distance Education Centres are in this group;

$considerable difficulty was experienced in obtaining information with many universities being slow to respond, sending general brochures that did not correspond to specific enquires and providing contradictory findings depending on the source of information;

$in general within universities it is difficult to get information with many queries ending up with unit leaders or coordinators;

$many staff were unaware of the information provided on their websites;

$communication across faculties within universities appears to be extremely limited;

$course delivery varied from totally and solely Internet based to the Internet being used for limited functions;

$commonly indiviual units were available on the Net rather than entire courses; and

$for prospective students interested in studying via the Internet, information search is likely to be quite difficult due to the lack of information on a faculty by faculty basis. There appears to be no central authority within universities to field these types of enquires.

In summary, this analysis indicated that while most universities are joining the rush to put courses on the Internet, most are still at the early stages of achieving this and many are still not communicating the availability and nature of their Internet offerings well to consumers, that is, prospective students.

In-depth interviews of current students.

Four of the five students interviewed had experience with both external and face-to-face modes of delivery. In all cases selection of courses was based predominantly on the course itself rather than a desire to study at a particular university. The preferred sources of information for this group when looking for a course were professional bodies and university handbooks. The key determinants in their selection of a course were the flexibility of course delivery and willingness to accept credit from previous studies. When selecting a particular mode of study, the Internet component was not seen independently from other modes but all modes were considered based on ease of access, ease of enrolment, support from the university and the cost of the course.

When asked to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet as a mode of delivery the key strengths were seen as information was quick and easy to access, up-to- date, fast, flexible and it eliminated the need to physically carry texts and study books. The key weaknesses were seen to be the time spent staring at a computer screen, the information overload, and the restrictions of technology in terms of server connections and access.

When asked their views on an ideal study mode students indicated that they preferred the flexibility of mixed modes, that is, having access to study packages, CDRoms and the Internet. An ideal Internet course was seen to be one with high level support from academic staff, lots of reference site links, group access, chat rooms and that the format and navigation simple to use and operate.

The survey.

The respondents were predominantly male (59 percent), between 25 and 39 years of age (59 percent), married with no children ( 68 percent), earning between $20,000 to $40,000 a year (29 percent ), and self funding their study (71 percent ). Most had completed one to three units of study ( 49 percent ).

In relation to the decision process employed by students in selecting a postgraduate course students took between one and six months to decide on a course (58 percent). While the professional body was a key source of information for these students, other frequently used sources of information were information from the university via the post and information from work colleagues. The key factors influencing selection of a course were seen to be competitive pricing, appropriate content, the ability to enhance career prospects with the availability of flexible modes of delivery ranking next.

General perceptions of the Internet were positive, however students did not indicate that their preferred mode of study as via the Internet. Rather they indicated that a combination of modes was preferred.

These students were most likely to have their Internet access at home. On average students spent 5 percent of their study time using the Internet, around 20 percent of their time using the CDRom, with the vast majority of their time spent using their traditional hard copy study packages.

In relation to study habits, most students preferred to study regularly, by themselves, could study anywhere if necessary, iked to organise there own study schedule and were comfortable spending large amounts of time in front of a computer screen.

In summary, students did not start out looking for an Internet course, rather they were looking for a course and by chance the one they chose happened to have Internet delivery as part of the package. While students liked the idea and were positive about the Internet, the reality was that it was seldom used by the majority of respondents.


When the findings of all stages of the research are integrated the picture that emerges is of a service being developed and pushed by providers with little to no input from consumers. In terms of the product lifecycle the provision of Internet education is currently in the growth stage with most institutions either already having entire courses online or moving towards that goal.

In contrast, the students currently studying online could be classed as the innovators with only very small numbers choosing to study via this mode of delivery. Prospective students like the idea of studying with a university that offered the option of online study as this indicated to them the institution was at the cutting edge. However, they did not necessarily want to study via this mode.

In order to address this discrepancy between oversupply by universities and underdemand by prospective students, universities need to go back to basics in terms of their marketing efforts. This research indicates that universities have tended to 'dump’ courses on the Internet without asking students how and why they would choose to study via this mode. Compounding this, universities appear to be communicating very poorly to prospective students about the courses that are available.


The results of this study, while exploratory in nature, show a clear need for universities to undertake further research into consumer wants and needs in relation to the Internet as a mode of delivery if they wish to capitalise on the theoretical benefits of the move to Internet delivery. This research should be used in all aspects of the marketing of these courses, from design of the product, through pricing and to communicating the availability and benefits of this mode of delivery to students.


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Meredith Lawley, University of Southern Queensland, Australia
Jane Summers, University of Southern Queensland, Australia


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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