Distance Learning: Assessing its Potential in Higher Education for the Tourism and Hospitality Sector
Sheryl E. Spivack, The George Washington University, USA
William N. Chernish, Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management, 
University of Houston, USA 
May 1999 / Although distance learning programs have been available in many areas of education for more than a century, the rapid proliferation and popularity of the Internet has given great impetus to reshaping the way in which much educational material is distributed. Distance learning now depends heavily upon personal computers, sophisticated software, and effective telecommunication networks to permit interaction of student and teacher while separated by both time and distance. This paper examines some of the issues facing educators when considering the development of distance learning programs in the tourism and hospitality fields. 


The 1990's have witnessed dramatic changes in how we live, how we work and how we learn. Although many forces have been at work, one prevailing common denominator of these changes has been global information and communications technology. 

Within the tourism and hospitality industry, technology appears to be driving the whole industry toward globalization from both supply as well as demand  side  perspectives.    The  information intensive tourism sector has been one of the largest beneficiaries  of  improved  telecommunication Systems, which allow its vast growing number of clients and potential travelers easy access to every type of information needed to facilitate travel. It is now standard practice for many travelers to inspect their hotel rooms electronically before making a reservation, or virtually visit a vacation spot via a web site before selecting their next holiday. Travelers can shop for and seek best prices for airfares and hotel rooms using the Internet. Technology has helped open thousands of new destinations   through   not   only   massive communication systems, but improvements in transportation systems which greatly reduce the time and stress involved with travel, while at the same increasing travelers' safety.   New global positioning satellite navigation systems are not only improving the efficiency and safety of air traffic control, but are making it impossible for a traveler to never be lost again, whether exploring a remote glacier site or trekking through a deep rain forest. There  are  countless  other  examples  where technological developments are changing the travel landscape for both the consumer and the travel industry alike.  Guided computer controlled cars and buses, self controlled airport trams, maglev trains that travel 300 miles per hour, alternatives to fossil fuels such as photovoltaics and biomass for inexpensive travel, trips to outer space and trips to amusement parks on the ocean's floor will become commonplace travel experiences. 


While this all appears to be good news for the travel industry, there is growing concern among industry professionals that this labor intensive industry will face severe staff shortages in the coming years. While consumer demand for travel products and services is steadily increasing, the labor pool to fill jobs in tourism is steadily decreasing due to lower fertility or birth rates in industrialized countries.   These industrialized countries account for 80% of all person trips. This clearly casts a shadow on the future prosperity of the global tourism industry, but at the same time, clearly creates a rainbow of opportunity for those who are preparing for international careers in this field. 

There is a condition, though, to consider in exploiting these  opportunities.  The  tourism industry is a service - based industry and a very competitive one.  Many tourism enterprises will open and soon close unless they have educated and trained manpower to deliver what has come to be expected by customers throughout the service sector, i.e., quality service. 

To  fully  take  advantage  of  the  career opportunities that await tourism and hospitality students today, students must be well educated and have excellent technical, personal as well as interpersonal skills. They must understand the nuances of marketing, from multi-level marketing to niche marketing, and at the same time be able to understand the basics of a business, such as, - this hotel room clean?"  They will need to have within their basic management arsenal working knowledge of countless software programs for improving the performance of their business. Working knowledge of software programs such as spread  sheets,  statistical  analysis,  desktop publishing, web site publishing, graphics design, database management, and others will become standards for anyone wanting a mid or upper management level job in tourism.   In sum, the tourism manager for tomorrow must be prepared to wear many hats, with the most important one being, that of a "continuing student." 

To be recognized is the fact that there is no one institution, or no one business that can provide in one single program all of the skills, knowledge and training needed to work for a lifetime in the international tourism market place.  This will require a change in educational focus from 'just-in-case" learning to 'just-in-time" and "anyplace, anytime" learning. One of the best responses to this industry and labor force dilemma has been the growing sophistication of higher education and skills training delivered through the Internet. The value-added aspect of becoming savvy in the Internet for education purposes, is that, one is simultaneously improving skills to better function in the intensive information technology tourism sector. 

Higher Education in Tourism: Potential of the Internet 

The amazing aspect of this computer linkage which evolved from ARPANET to Internet, only in 1989, is that by 1997, a large percentage of computer users were not even aware of the Internet.(Gates 1996)  Today,  the number of Internet host servers in North America is estimated to be over five million strong.  Though much discussion and debate prevail as to where the Internet is headed, what is clearly observable is that a handful of industries are turning the Internet into a highway of commerce and not just a highway of information sharing, as its original intent.  In retrospect, it is not surprising that Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, predicted that there would be three industry  sectors that would be  chief beneficiaries  of  Internet  commerce:  health, entertainment and tourism. What he failed to see and what appears to be taking center stage, is the value of the Internet as it relates to higher education, continuing education, and professional development. (Gates 1996) 

For all aspiring tourism students--whether full-time  young  learners, or older  labor  force participants developing new skills, the Internet can be a valuable resource in three ways: 

  1. meeting students' immediate knowledge needs; 
  2. expanding one's awareness of other places, events and cultures;  and 
  3. broadening one's educational experience through distance learning offerings of other institutions. 
There are perils along the information super highway, as it was chaotically developed with little regard to customers future ease of transport. To take advantage of the educational resources  of  the  Internet  requires  careful assessment of the roadwork and often roadblocks. 

The purpose of this paper is to provide students, teachers, and industry professionals with basic information that will be helpful in optimizing the time they have for either adding content to their respective curricula or personally engaging in additional  education,  training  and  learning appropriate to international tourism. 

Defining Distance Education 

First, it is important to understand what distance  education,  or  distance  learning is. Distance education and distance learning are used today in literature as synonymous terms. In some instances, the term "distributed learning" is used interchangeably with distance learning; the intent is to stress that learning may take place away from an instructor, and perhaps among learners.  The concept had its early footings in "correspondence schools," dating back to more than one hundred years in both Europe and the US.(Sherry 1996) Although technology advances of recent decades have greatly changed the panorama for delivering distance education programs, the fundamental concept remains intact to this day: the delivery of instruction when the teacher and student are separated by physical distance. Studies during the past five years have reported large and growing numbers of individuals who are making use of distance learning resources.   In Europe, an estimated 2.25 million people per year are involved with distance learning programs.(1993)   Several states in the US have been particularly aggressive in embarking in state funded distance learning programs. In Colorado, where distance education has been introduced throughout the state through the Extended Studies Program, more than 10,000 courses are offered annually, with a total annual enrolled of over 125,000. (1994) 

While distance learning today encompasses a wide variety of communications technologies, an Internet search revealed that distance education delivery, which relies strictly on correspondence between the teacher and student, is still very much present.  For example, the Independent Learning program of University of Wisconsin-Extension offers nearly  550  correspondence  courses.  Other universities  listing  correspondence  programs included:  Metropolitan State College of Denver, Central Metropolitan College, Australia, University of Iowa, University of Reno, Queen's University, University of Alabama, Seattle Central Community College, Carey College, and others.   Though correspondence schools appear far from becoming extinct,  the predominant trends in distance education programs, whether for professional development (certificate programs) or at the post secondary or university level (degree programs), is to incorporate various communications technologies, particularly those  that  incorporate  two way communication channels between the teacher and student. 

Research  by  the  American  Broadcasting Company (ABC), Computer Editor, Gina Smith, reported the astonishing growth of online distance learning  education  among  fully  accredited universities.(Smith 1997)  She observed that today there were approximately six such schools in the US which offer an entire degree on line, from registration to graduation with no residency requirement. By the year 2000 she predicts almost every college will offer a university degree program on-line. The costs to students of those programs can be great, as is shown in Table 1. 

Table 1. Some Comparative Program Costs to Students
Institution Distance Learning Tuition Cost of Degree Degree Offered
Central Community College $41 - $42.60 per course $410 - $426 per year Associate
Duke GUQUA School of business $85,800 (entire program) $42,900 per year Master's of Business Administration
Indiana University $300 per course $3,000 per year 
$2,400 per year
New School for Social Research $540 per course $5,400 per year Bachelor's
Salve Regina $900 per course $5,400 per year Bachelors
University of Colorado - Silver Springs $650 per course $6,500 per year MBA
Source: (InterEd 1999)

Internet Education in Tourism & Hospitality Management 

In determining whether distance education is appropriate for an individual or for incorporation into an education institution's tourism curriculum the following technicalities must be addressed. Distance education is delivered in several forms: 

Delivery Modes: 

  1. Correspondence Programs (postal systems)
  2. Computer Based Training (in the form of CD ROMS, training videos, etc.)
  3. Internet (world wide web)
  4. Compressed Video and Audio Instruction (through telephone lines)
  5. Satellite  Transmitted  or  Cable  Carried Broadcasts
It is also possible that a distance education program include a combination of delivery modes. For example, a course delivered over the Internet but supplemented by video tape lectures, audio lectures, text mailed materials, etc. 

Distance Education through the Internet, relies on the World Wide Web, which is a graphical Internet interface, or on the Gopher, a text only interface.  While it is difficult to determine the actual number of institutions that are delivering classes or course material over the Internet (due to the massiveness of the Internet and the constant stage of flux and growth of programs), several sites were identified on the Internet which provided comprehensive  information  on  online  college courses.   Clearly, NOVA Southeastern University made an early commitment to distance education, beginning in 1972, and substantially expanding the program in 1983 to include graduate education programs delivered through interactive electronic telecommunication systems (Kontos 1995) and in 1994, to be the first institution to use compressed video (Mizell 1995). 

Current leading institutions in the field, based upon the number of courses and program offerings include: University of Minnesota Independent and Distance Learning Program (over 340 courses); University  of Wisconsin-Extension  (over  150 courses); Mind Extension University (which is comprised of offerings from several universities); Open University in the UK; and NOVA Southeastern University. The University of Phoenix Online claims to be the largest private university in the U.S., with more than 30,000 students.(1999).  There are several Internet sites that provide master listings of distance learning programs, such as The World Lecture Hall (1999).  The World  Lecture  Hall contains links to faculty throughout the world who are using the WWW to deliver class material in over 98 different subject areas, from biotechnology to travel industry management. The largest proportion of courses listed are in the area of the science. 

Only a handful of universities, though, offer courses over the Internet in tourism or hospitality management.    The  most  extensive  tourism certificate and degree program is offered by the Canadian government supported Humber College. This university uses regional industry mentors and an array of tourism internship sites to deliver both certificate as well as degree programs in tourism and hospitality management. Other universities which have tourism course offerings include Alberta Distance Learning Centre, the University of Las Vegas, The George Washington University, and the University of Houston's Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. 

Table 2. Some Colleges and Universities Offering Programs
Program Description
Humber College, Canada Degree, certificate http://www.hrtalliance.com/
Alberta Distance Learning Centre Course http://www.adlc.ab.ca/
University of Las Vegas Course http://www.nscee.edu/index.html
George Washington University Course http://www.gwu.edu/~distance/
Conrad N. Hilton College, University of Houston Degree: BS and MHM http://www.uh.edu/academics/ 

Other models for educational delivery are also evolving: the consortium or  "virtual" university.  Who is Best Served?  

The major benefit of distance learning in tourism is the ability to reach special population 
groups who can expand their career opportunities for international tourism education by enrolling in programs and courses which are not offered at their respective institutions, or courses which will enhance  their  understanding  and  skills  for professionally functioning in  a multi-cultural international tourism marketplace. (Boger and Brewer 1997) 

At the same time, distance or Internet education is not for everyone.  Studies have shown that successful distant education students have certain characteristics, which will determine their success. The successful individuals in these programs are commonly ones who are motivated, goal directed, highly disciplined and generally, more mature degree-seeking students. (Riddle 1994; Reed 1997; Dessinger, Brown et al. 1998) 

How to Evaluate?  

Since the past few years have witnessed the proliferation of higher education and professional 
degree programs delivered through the Internet it is challenging, at best, to determine those that are creditable and potentially worthwhile.  Certainly, those   institutions,   which   have   achieved accreditation by official national governing bodies, are most likely a better road to consider than those who have not are. (Schutte 1999) The quality of traditional classroom and laboratory instruction in any institution, may or may not translate into effective distance education courses or programs. 

Thoughts about the Future  
Institutions considering becoming involved with distance education and the Internet may wish to consider some of the following issues challenging the entire distance education field. 

Cost Factor  

Distance education can be more costly than traditional education for the student, and also costly for any institution that decides to expand into this area.  Distance education has real and recurring costs, and also significant investment in the development of the technological infrastructure. Kenneth Green, who is director of the Campus Computing Project, suggests that, "Only when educational institutions view distance education as a fully capitalized business will they begin to understand the options and opportunities, the real risks and real costs."(Cole 1997)   The costs of developing distance learning programs may be viewed in three categories: 

  1. costs of class or program development, 
  2. costs of technology and hardware necessary to implement the initiative, and 
  3. costs to the students. 
The costs associated with program design, development and implement are not trivial. Faculty must invest significant time and energy in preparing effective modules, time which is generally a multiple of the time required for traditional classroom delivery. The preparation also requires a paradigm shift in faculty thinking in order to develop effective offerings to be delivered at a distance. (Verduin and Clark 1991; Dekker and Flach 1995; Noblitt 1995; Chute, Thompson et al. 1999)  Costs associated with technology and hardware will vary according to the base of installed technology in the school or college. Personal computers, network connections, software, communications, and possibly satellite costs can represent a significant initial and ongoing cost.    Students generally undergo an additional cost in engaging in distance learning programs. Students must have access to computers, video players and other electronic equipment necessary to complete the course. In some cases, this equipment will be available in a public place without additional cost to the learner, in other cases the learner will bear those costs.  Depending on the method of program delivery, communications costs may also represent a significant cost.  Technical limitations to program delivery must also be recognized. North American faculty and students have become used to personal computers with high speed chips, sufficient memory, internet connections and good telephone lines to support modem access at reasonable rates. Technical and telecommunications in other regions may require significant adjustment in design of program content and delivery methods. 

Training Teachers in Technology 

Finding and training teachers to accommodate new technologies for delivering courses may be a significant problem as more and more institutions incorporate this mode of education.(Pietras 1995) Distance learning is occurring in an environment that requires sophisticated technical knowledge by not only the potential student but also the instructor. Radically changing technologies require instructors who are on the "cutting edge." It is not surprising that the greatest number of distance learning courses is offered in the sciences. What can be done to assist current educators in expanding their grasp and comfort level in the use of appropriate technology? (Bardo 1994) 

Assessment & Evaluation  
One of the most difficult challenges in distance learning deals with assessment and evaluation. In exaggerated instances, assignments and course work could be completed and delivered by a paid or sympathetic third party. This could suggest that a degree or certificate could become a matter of economic privilege, stimulating a "diploma mill" situation, where degrees and diplomas are bought and sold rather than attained for scholarship and academic merit. (Gubernikc and Ebeling 1997) 
Copyright Laws 

The Copyright Law of 1976 in the United States was established to provide special provisions for the education environment.  Essentially, a "fair use" provision within the law provides copyrighted materials for use without express permission when the purpose for educational use. Since the rapid advancement in technology for distance education occurred  after  the  copyright  law,  recent amendments to the law applies in the distance education classroom. (Boettcher 1999)  The major question is can copyright materials (including print matter, videos, and multi-media materials) without express permission is placed in closed circuits for use in a particular class? When dealing in an international marketplace, additional issues are raised which will make it more difficult to protect course content and  provide collateral materials such as articles, reprints and related items. 

Delivery of Interpersonal Skill Development vis-a-vis the Net  

Recent studies have pointed to overwhelming need of education and training institutions to focus on the development of interpersonal skills in order to meet the needs of the tourism sector in all industry segments. (TEDQUAL 1997) If this is, indeed, such a critical need, how can this skill set be facilitated in situations where the instructor and student are in remote locations? Is not distance learning at the opposite end of the education spectrum in improving skills in this area? 

Information Skill Development for an Information Intensive Industry  

In addition to requiring strong interpersonal and customer service skills, most segments of the tourism  industry  are  information  intensive, requiring workers, from front line personnel to managers,  to  be  adept  in  all  forms  of communications technology.   Is not technology driven distance education  the  platform  for reinforcing skills in this area? 

Conclusion and Recommendations 

In consideration of the rapidly changing technology environment and the need to provide continuing education for those who are currently employed within the tourism and hospitality sector, as well as to those who are current students, the following recommendations are offered: 

Tourism Hospitality Web Site for Distance Learning Programs  

The difficulty in locating distance learning tourism and hospitality programs that are delivered within the current Internet architecture points to the need to establish a common site where information can be more readily delivered to potential students, teachers and individuals needing re-training.  This could be a cooperative endeavor between  international  and  regional  tourism organizations,  such  as  the  World  Tourism Organization  (WTO)  (http://www.world-tourism. org/), the World Travel and Tourism Council (http://www.usadata.com/), the Council on Hotel, Restaurant,  Institution  Education  (CHRIE) (http://www.chrie.org/), and the Pan American Federation  of  Hotel  and  Tourism  Schools 

Power of Partnerships In Tourism Education and Training  

Providing education programs for the diverse tourism and hospitality sector could be better served by a pooling of resources between education and training institutions.  Cooperative distance education could allow institutions which have specialized expertise in a particular segment of the tourism and hospitality field to partner with another institution which has a different area of expertise, thus increasing the breadth of course offerings for students at both institutions. 

Without a solid educational infrastructure, a country or region may be precluded from establishing or expanding its presence in the competitive, technologically driven, international tourism marketplace. The quality of a country's or region's educational system will largely determine whether or not there will be a sufficient supply of workers who can deliver the type of services that will allow destinations to effectively compete. It is also unlikely that any one institution or one business can single handedly provide the total education and training required to equip students for a life long career tourism in a technology evolving society.  Distance education and the Internet may be one important element in improving the current education infrastructure to better meet the current and future needs of tourism employers worldwide. 

Next Steps  

Clearly further development and implementation of programs for tourism and hospitality education holds  great  promise.    That promise,  and expectations must be tempered with a realistic assessment of the costs and benefits. Expansion into the Americas and the Caribbean can be accomplished effectively with adequate planning, coordination, and funding. 


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©First Pan-American Conference
Latin American Tourism in Next Millenium: 
Education, Investment and Sustainability
May 19-21, 1999 / Panama City, Panama
Editor: Professor Kaye Chon, University of Houston

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