Degree Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education



First Advisor

Acacia Nikoi

Second Advisor

Laura Wangsness Willemsen

Third Advisor

Jonathan Clemens


The purpose of this comparative, longitudinal case study was to explore the distance operations system implemented in U.S. colleges and universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Embedded in a larger two-year study of distance education in the U.S. before and after the health crisis, this study combined a grounded theory methodology with a critical realist approach to identify the components of the distance operations system and illuminate the generative mechanisms that promote or inhibit effective distance education. Primary data for this study consisted of interviews of faculty, staff, and administration of four higher education institutions at two collection points: first during the spring and summer academic terms of 2020; and second, during or immediately after the fall 2020 academic term. Secondary data included participant-provided and public-facing documents, communications, and artifacts related to the transition to and continuity of distance operations. This study refines the construct of transactional distance (Moore, 1993) and offers a typology of distance in two domains: the physical domain, which includes temporal and transportational distance; and the psychological domain, which includes socio-personal and cognitive distance. This research has the potential to both disturb and inform higher education thought and action regarding the ways distance and distance education have been discussed, researched, and practiced. This study reveals that participants variously acted or reacted to, altered or shaped, and measured or adjudged the effects of distance. Thus, this dissertation argues that distance is a construct that higher education can and should distinguish, control, and wield for its purposes. Findings contribute to what is known about distance education at the macro level of theory and systems (Zawacki-Richter, 2009) and point to a need to evaluate the different types of distance and further explore how and under what circumstances distance may be most effective for any institutional activities.