In Don DeLillo's 1971 novel Americana, a Native American soothsayer predicts a seemingly bleak future for higher education. "At nine o'clock in the morning of the first day of classes, a computer would turn on the two television sets which would be facing each other," the sage says. "The videotape of the students would then watch the videotape of the instructors. Eventually the system could be refined so that there would be only one university in the whole country."
We may be closer to realising this vision of distance learning, but new research suggests we need no longer find it bleak. When psychologist Dani McKinney carried out a study into the effectiveness of lecturing by podcast, she may have been surprised by her results. The State University of New York Fredonia academic asked a group of students to watch a lecture on podcast, while another group heard the same lecture delivered live in a traditional setting. One week later, both groups were then asked to sit a test paper, in order to assess how much they had learned from the address. The students who achieved the highest scores had watched the podcast.
McKinney's results may seem surprising because they call into question the long-held view that students learn best in a face-to-face teaching environment. And while new evidence emerges about the effectiveness of learning through technology, the popularity of such methods continues to rise. Launched two years ago, Apple's iTunes University allows academics to upload their lectures and provides a forum where anyone can pay to download them. It has proved popular with students and the general public, and raises interesting questions about how universities can reach out to potential learners.
In just seven weeks, 1 million people used iTunes U to download a series of Stanford University video lectures explaining how to create applications for the Apple iPod and iPhone, making it the fastest-shared university course since the programme was launched.
Technological developments, including mobile technology, are making distance learning more attractive than ever before. Using Web 2.0 tools such as social networking and video-sharing, the computer can replace the campus bar and create a real sense of community for distance learners.
"There are opportunities to use social networks, to allow people to chat together to talk about coursework and create that community," says Dean Russell, head of digital marketing at Precedent Communications. "Lots of students who have the same challenges, who have the same issues, are spread across the country. Once they're put together electronically, they can support each other."
Taking on distance learners, while also more practical, is more attractive to universities than ever before. Changes in population demographics mean there will be a 16 per cent fall in 18- to 20-year-olds between 2008 and 2020. More non-traditional students will need to be recruited to plug this gap.
Universities are already expanding their reach. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the sector is embracing distance learning; the number of students enrolled on distance-learning courses in the UK (excluding The Open University, which as a specialist distance-learning institution would distort the picture) has risen from 36,420 in 1998-99 to 64,795 in 2007-08.
The recession has also helped encourage institutions to focus on new income sources, and using new technology to reach out to new learners could be the simplest solution. "In these circumstances, anything that reduces the cost may help stimulate demand," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
"The imperative for individuals to acquire new skills will be greater during a time of economic uncertainty, and so any mechanism that allows this in a flexible way - particularly attractive to those still in work - may well have the impact of stimulating demand."
Given the potential of distance learning, what technologies are open to universities? The benefits of social networking are obvious and are already being trialled among on-campus students at institutions including University College London. The use of websites such as YouTube means students can familiarise themselves with the campus before they arrive and can refer to the information when they need it. Students in the same cohort are able to locate each other and discuss their worries. Distance-learning students can meet.
The three-dimensional virtual world Second Life allows genuinely interactive distance learning. Students can attend lectures that are entirely within the Second Life world or meet in a virtual-world seminar group to discuss a lecture by podcast, which they have reviewed independently.
"There is no real boundary to it, in a way. It seems to be working well in the education sector," Precedent's Russell says. "You can have people 'bump' into each other and chat." The University of Hertfordshire is already hosting regular lectures through Second Life.
"It makes total sense to put lectures live online and have a Twitter conversation about it," he adds. "The broad cost is much cheaper and it is much easier to do. Because of that, universities have got the capacity and capability.
"For distance learners, in particular, what they're doing is enhancing the learning experience. It's an opportunity to do something even better," Russell says. "Because you're in China or the US, what difference should it make? It shouldn't. That's where web and social media are so crucial, because they're about bringing people together."
The technological advances do not stop at Web 2.0. Mobile technology, including the iPhone and its applications, means that lectures can be added into a "talk" application where the contents can be discussed, or even on to a Q&A programme that allows interactive questioning and continual feedback from tutors as students progress.
And the advancements go on. Kindle - Amazon's e-book reader - could be purchased by universities and distributed to all distance-learning students with pre-loaded set texts, allowing students to download other materials where necessary.
Those in industry are beginning to note the possibilities opening up to universities. In her submission to a recent review of higher education by John Denham, then the universities secretary, Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive of media company Pearson, said online facilities were key to reaching students unable to participate in the "traditional campus experience". She told Denham: "This is a way to educate more students in a more customised way and, although it wasn't satisfactory at the end of the 20th century, its time has come."
Although many UK universities are embracing new technologies on campus, little has been done to evaluate the success of distance learning academically.
"Are people doing it right? That's a good question," says Maggi Savin-Baden, professor of higher education research at Coventry University. "There have been a lot of small-scale evaluations, but not an awful lot published."
She has noted that giving students feedback via podcasts, which they can watch again and again, has worked well. "It would seem to indicate that it is helping students to use feedback better. It would question the notion of a traditional lecture and seminar format," Savin-Baden says. "They carry on learning after the seminar is finished.
"The way we can do distance learning is improving from the traditional virtual learning environment," she explains. "(It can) make things more interactive rather than being lonelier, which a lot of virtual learning environments are."
Savin-Baden believes expertise and best practice is hidden within particular courses. "The pressure (for change) has come from academics who want to use it," she says. "I think you will find that these technologies are used more widely than you might expect, but that universities are not particularly savvy about it."
Jane Williams, executive director for further education, regeneration and delivery at Becta (a government agency tasked with improving the way technology is used in education), agrees. "I think that the more progressive colleges and universities are thinking very hard about their delivery models because they see that the technological opportunity is going to enable them to reach new kinds of learners," she says.
Williams also sees the benefits of using technology, as suggested by early research. "Learners are able to progress more quickly. They're able to blend studying with the other things they need to do in their life."
But others are concerned that, although there are perceivable benefits of using technology, the potential is being overplayed. Lawrie Phipps, programme manager at the Joint Information Systems Committee, works closely with universities integrating new IT into the way they work. He agrees that new technology will help universities deliver education more flexibly: "If you're a mature student who is working, the new flexible delivery that the technology allows will let more people participate more freely in education." However, he is not convinced that technology will reach out to a new demographic.
"I think there are people who have been excluded that can use the flexible technology to access institutions, but there is still a huge part of the population that doesn't want to go to university. There isn't the aspiration," says Phipps.
At Middlesex University, Balbir Barn, associate dean in the schools of engineering and information sciences, has identified challenges that remain for universities. These include the cost of producing new course materials compatible with new mobile technologies, the need to explore new ways of teaching and the data security issues that inevitably follow. Universities will also be called upon to re-examine their role, he predicts, and asked to offer "a service to the local and wider community so that not all learning products emerging from a university need to be part of an assessment regime".
But until extensive research is undertaken into the use and benefits of mobile technology in education, it is unlikely to expand rapidly. "Without this evidence, it is difficult to see how mobile devices could play more than a peripheral role in supporting learning and accessing new learners who may not want to engage in a (traditional) university experience," Barn says.
And although social networking and virtual worlds provide an excellent way for distance learners studying on the same course to interact, little thought may yet have been given to the problems that this type of interaction presents.
Norbert Pachler, reader in education at the Institute of Education and co-author of the 2007 edited volume Language, Autonomy and the New Learning Environments, says conducting seminars or tutorials online can be difficult as any contribution made is written down and potentially accessible after the event, unlike a throwaway comment made in a face-to-face discussion. This can lead to anxiety and a growing reluctance to take part.
Students "are very, very anxious about not portraying themselves as being less knowledgeable than their peers", he says. "There is a danger that we are not thinking about these sorts of potential barriers in the distance learning environment."
Nevertheless, Pachler says this shift towards new forms of distance learning is essential. "My thought would be that universities absolutely have to embrace these changes because they are so significant in terms of the social and cultural life of learners."
All this means that The Open University is being forced to look over its shoulder. As it becomes easier and cheaper for all UK institutions to offer the personalised and interactive distance learning tuition the OU has specialised in for decades, it may find it loses its unique selling point and its core market.
"We certainly see that we're in a competitive situation and that more institutions have been developing distance learning programmes over the past few years," says Niall Sclater, director of learning innovation at the OU. "The potential for any university to offer distance learning online is growing."
But the university is confident that its experience will help it to stay ahead of its increasing competitors. "What gives us the advantage is that we have got 40 years of experience of creating and supporting distance learning. We have got the skills in developing the content and that is a vital part of learning," Sclater says.
The OU's expertise in distance administration is also a benefit, and with more students than most campus institutions, it can work with economies of scale so delivery will still be cheaper than its new competitors.
Other institutions potentially put at risk by the spread of mobile technology and distance learning appear even more sanguine. Birkbeck, University of London, offers higher education in the evenings, allowing students to fit study around work and other commitments. Adrian Tribe, web manager at the institution, says it is unlikely to offer distance learning.
"Traditionally, Birkbeck has made much of the importance of our face-to-face teaching and so has deliberately not sought to expand into the online distance learning market," he says. "Obviously our growing use of a virtual learning environment (Blackboard), and our gradual introduction of media centre systems to record lectures could increase the possibilities for true distance learning. But even these steps have been taken primarily with our face-to-face students in mind."
The London School of Economics, which has been an early adopter of new technologies for its on-campus students, has a similar message. "That's not where LSE currently positions itself," says Steve Ryan, director of the university's centre for learning technology. "Students have increasing expectations about the use of technology on campus, but importantly they continue to value face-to-face contact. It's not a question of removing face-to-face contact, it's about developing a broader and richer mix. I don't see any evidence at all of lessening demand for campus-based institutions."
What happens next depends not only on universities but on the decisions made in Whitehall and Westminster. Tom Schuller, director of the independent Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning hosted by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (England and Wales), believes that if political lobbyists support equal state funding for part-time students, the issue could become hugely important. Perhaps the biggest potential change could be the ease with which universities access a wider international market through distance learning. "If people don't have to go halfway around the world, uprooting their families, (studying with a UK university) becomes quite a different proposition," Schuller says.
Technology, however, will continue to evolve. Higher education institutions' capacity to deliver quality distance learning will continue to grow. As technologies change, however, universities will have to be savvy to keep up. "It is not just that change is happening faster, but it's in a continuous stream," Schuller warns. "This is something that's going to be happening all the time."
LIFE THROUGH A LENS: LONDON SCHOOL OF HYGIENE & TROPICAL MEDICINE
After years of expertise in face-to-face postgraduate tuition, in 1998 the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine began its first distance-learning courses through the University of London.
It runs four masters degrees through distance learning, and students may take between two and five years to complete their studies.
The courses have very few deadlines, allowing students to plan their time easily, and examinations are sat worldwide.
Since 2004, in-house students have been able to study up to two modules from the distance-learning portfolio, which are credited towards their internal masters degree.
For some time the school has distributed course materials to students on CD, meaning students can study on a computer, including on a laptop while they are travelling or commuting.
The school is also offering one degree - MSc clinical trials - entirely online and is experimenting with delivering lectures by podcast and using mobile technology.
The materials developed for distance-learning courses have been so successful that they have also been adopted by in-house students, and are used by those resitting exams outside regular term times or studying for research degrees.
These are also being used by students based at the University of the Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa, as well as distance-learning students at the Royal Veterinary College.
REMOTE ACCESS: University of the Highlands and Islands
Also known as the Millennium Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is a unique institution that brings together students from across the most remote parts of northern Scotland.
It comprises colleges across the region and is committed to offering distance learning to students who are geographically cut off from mainstream universities.
UHI achieved higher education institution status in 2001 and now has 7,600 students spread across the region. "The UHI model is revolutionising higher education in Scotland because we are enabling people to access university-level courses through a range of flexible study options," says Glenda Johnson, a UHI spokeswoman. "They're working from their local college or learning centre, from home or their workplace."
Study options at UHI include e-learning tools such as video conferencing and online tuition, alongside traditional classroom sessions in local colleges spread across Scotland, from Lewis to Orkney.
The university also offers a number of online-only degrees, including sustainable rural development, health and wellbeing, and management. Since starting in 2007, students in Europe have been able to sign up for a limited number of these courses.
Spanish student Ibai Rico Lozano (pictured below) studied for an MSc in sustainable mountain development. It is an online-only course for specialists working in, or planning to work in, mountain conservation, and makes use of the unique location of UHI and the expertise it can draw on.
Previously European students had to conduct online studies from the UK, but this course was one of the first from UHI to go international. Students are drawn from national conservation and development agencies, local authorities and private estates.