When the Online Learning Task Force was set up by the previous government, the aim was to make UK higher education the first choice for online distance learning worldwide. The present coalition government is no less keen, seeing in it a way to widen participation.
There are now more than 2,600 online distance-learning courses in the UK, according to research by the University of Oxford. They offer obvious benefits to people who want to work while pursuing qualifications. They also offer the promise of economic salvation to hard-pressed universities. However, they are no financial quick fix.
The researchers heard that successful distance learning requires regular support, feedback and assessment and low student-to-tutor ratios. Here, private providers have been quick off the mark, offering innovative delivery of flexible courses that feature round-the-clock learning and prompt feedback. The demand is there: an online MBA offered through Facebook by the London School of Business and Finance last month piqued the interest of ,000 potential students in a week.
At present, most distance learning takes place at the postgraduate level and is focused on continuing professional development. But in the US, it is making inroads into traditional degree programmes, especially as public university budgets are slashed. Some 4.6 million US students took a tertiary-level online course in 2008, a 17 per cent rise on the previous year, according to the Sloan Survey of Online Learning. About 3 million of them were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses. At the beleaguered University of California, Berkeley, a search for new income streams means it now aspires to become the US' first top-tier research institution to offer fully online undergraduate degrees.
In the UK, higher education is still very much geared to the 18-year-old full-time entrant; part-time study is perceived as somehow less valuable, despite usually demanding more from students. The Browne Review made some valiant efforts to improve the lot of part-timers, but changing a vast entrenched system is always going to be a challenge.
Any broadening of provision and innovation in delivering it is welcome. But online distance learning needs careful handling. Problems will arise if courses grow out of financial and political pressures rather than considered educational strategy. Mishaps will fuel perceptions that such courses dilute qualifications, with the danger that the traditional university experience becomes the preserve of the elite. And if online learning gains a second-class reputation, so too will the academics who provide it.
Marginalised is exactly how contract lecturers delivering US distance-learning courses feel. But far from bemoaning their lot, they may find the position one worth embracing. Consider events in France after May 1968, says Paula Humfrey, an online distance-learning lecturer at Laurentian University in Canada and Eastern Oregon University in the US, in our cover story. The hiring of contract lecturers to cope with exploding student numbers sparked a scholarly revolution. Online distance-learning lecturers are, she argues, the new barbarians at the institutional gates. Their distance is a critical one, ensuring a valuable intellectual independence that will keep degree programmes relevant in our evolving digital world.