Distance delivery of graduate programs

These guidelines concern distance-education graduate programs, their admission requirements, instruction and supervision, instructional resources, and program approval.

The term "distance education" is used here to describe academic programs offered to students through printed instructional materials, audio-visual materials, and computer technologies where most of the interaction between students and faculty is by mail, telephone, fax or electronic mail. Limited face-to-face interaction may also be required. (The term is not being used to refer to situations in which full-or part-time staff travel to, or live in, other locations and teach McGill courses.)


  1. The academic unit must make the same commitment to distance-education students as to on-campus students regarding the availability of a complete program of study.
  2. The content of courses offered at a distance should be equivalent to comparable courses offered on campus.
  3. The students' workload in distance-education courses should be comparable to the prescribed workloads for on-campus courses, recognizing that distance-education students will generally not spend time in a classroom.
    In most distance-education programs around the world, students are provided instructional materials that they use on their own. Depending on the design of the course, students may spend some time communicating with staff and other students either face-to-face, online, or by telephone/fax/e-mail. Nonetheless, the notion of "contact time" has no meaning in distance-education courses.
  4. It is desirable that distance-education programs include an on-campus component to be defined by the university and, if so, the component should be clearly explained to students before they register.
    It is beneficial for students in distance-education programs to become aware of the resources available at McGill and to make personal contact with program faculty. An on-campus component should be included in an individual course if doing so promotes the educational goals of the course. At McGill, one clinically applied distance-education program for practicing physicians and nurses requires an on-campus practicum for many courses. Another program, which offers a certificate in educational technology for experienced teachers, consists of courses that have been taught effectively through printed instructional materials, structured activities, and assignments, with the course tutor available by fax or telephone.
  5. There should be sufficient time to permit opportunities for independent study, reflection, and investigation within each course.
    This guideline should apply equally to all courses. In addition, extensions may be necessary for distance-education courses because of unavoidable delays due to unforeseen circumstances (e.g., mail delays in remote areas due to inclement weather).
  6. Distance-education programs should offer students a choice of elective courses sufficient to ensure that the objectives of the program are met.
    Far more time is involved in developing distance-education courses than in developing on-campus courses, in part because what constitutes class time for on-campus courses must be provided through printed instructional materials, activities, and audio-visual materials. Communication between students and course staff must be specifically planned and prepared for. Therefore, a wide choice of electives will usually not be possible when a distance-education program is first offered, but providing a wide choice should be a program goal.
  7. Time limits for completing distance-education programs must be equivalent to the limits for similar on-campus programs that enroll part-time students.
    Rationale: Most distance-education students enroll part time. Job responsibilities, economic factors, and family obligations are the main reasons that students cite for enrolling in distance-education programs.

Admission requirements

  1. Admission criteria of distance-education programs must be consistent with those of equivalent on-campus programs.
  2. Unclassified or occasional students who are allowed to register in individual courses of a distance-education program must meet the same admission criteria for "special students" as required for courses in equivalent on-campus programs.

Instruction and supervision

  1. Opportunities for on-going interaction with the course instructor or other appointed course staff must be available.
    Rationale: If, as is generally the case in distance-education programs, students are dispersed across the province or country, interaction must be arranged by telephone or other communication technology.
    Note: The word "course instructor" may not have the same meaning in distance- education programs as in on-campus programs. For example, a distance-education course may be developed by one or more experts in the course content, but another person may be the contact for students and may mark and return assignments and exams. This is the model currently operating in many well-established distance-education programs and is the chosen model for some of the courses in one distance-education program at McGill.
  2. The quality of supervision or advising must be consistent with that available to students in equivalent programs on campus.
  3. Units should ensure the consistent quality of distance-education programs and courses. Consultation and on-going support should be available to those involved in the development and/or delivery of distance-education courses.
    International surveys of university faculty involved in distance education have highlighted the need for guidance in developing distance-education courses. Faculty are often overwhelmed with the time required to write materials and with the need to develop alternative teaching methods that involve, for example, audio-visual and computer technologies.

Instructional Resources

Programs must include strategies to ensure that distance-education students will have access to library holdings and any other instructional resources necessary for graduate study.

Rationale: A number of innovative approaches have been taken by many distance-education programs. For example, an inter-library loan network was set up for distance-education students in Ontario, and the Open University in Britain supplies lab kits by mail. It is important that distance-education programs, rather than individual students, make such arrangements.

Program Approval

  1. A proposal for a distance-education program must include a rationale for the usefulness and necessity of delivering the program by distance education.
  2. A proposal for a distance-education program must include evidence of consultation with staff experienced in instructional design and course and program evaluation.

Approved by Graduate Faculty Council April 8, 1994
Approved by APPC April 21, 1994
Approved by Senate May 18, 1994

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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