Distance learning universities 'must prove their relevance'

Director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education says 'the tide is against' these specialist institutions

April 12, 2016
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Open and distance learning (ODL) universities must determine their “competitive advantage” rather than “parroting” that their value lies in convenience and flexibility, the director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education has claimed.

Richard Garrett said that the rise of online education and the trend of traditional institutions becoming more versatile means that “the tide is against” ODL universities and the “onus” is on them to clarify their relevance.

“I don’t think right now it’s clear enough from those institutions what their competitive advantage is, but there is more and more pressure for them to sort that out,” he told Times Higher Education.

He suggested that their distinctive characteristics could be their size, expertise, student support or student outcomes.

Mr Garrett was speaking to THE following the publication of the report, The State of Open Universities in the Commonwealth: A Perspective on Performance, Competition and Innovation, which he wrote for the Commonwealth of Learning. The study examined 10 specialist ODL universities in the Commonwealth.

He said that several of the universities recently experienced “some kind of stress”, such as drops in student enrolments or loss of funding.

Mr Garrett cited the UK’s Open University, which last month posted a £7 million loss after shedding a third of its student enrolment in six years amid a national collapse in part-time study.

“They’re experimenting through FutureLearn and on the Moocs [massive open online learning] side. I think in a way that kind of forced innovation is quite healthy,” he said.

“It shakes them out of the complacency of ‘well we’re the Open University, and we’re unique and special’.”

But he added: “Can they claw back some of their market share by proving that if you go to the OU you’re going to get a better experience as a non-traditional part-time adult student than you get by going to some random UK university? I don’t think they’ve answered that question.”

He said that many ODL institutions experience a “tension” between enabling access to non-traditional students and delivering a quality student experience.

“There’s plenty of scope for improvement, and technology should allow these institutions to save money on delivery and think about what human intervention they can weave in to leverage best practice in teaching and learning in that environment,” he said.


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Reader's comments (1)

Sadly, there’s less attention here paid to the difference between specialist and open/distance learning providers – i.e., those that rely on distance learning in their delivery, and specialist providers that use ODL as part of serving specific audiences. The difference is key, as it defines how institutions can prove their relevance. The Open University isn’t necessarily the best example of distance learning, as the majority of its students are ‘leisure learners’. Mr Garrett states that these ODL institutions can no longer “…parrot that their value lies in convenience and flexibility” – but these factors are highly important. Distance institutions are often specialist providers; focusing in a particular area can provide close ties to industry - and upgraded, business relevant skills. The education options offered by alternative, online, distance learning and specialist institutions are flexible, accessible, cost-effective – and global. He goes on to say that, “…there’s plenty of scope for improvement” and suggests technology as the key to this. We agree technology is vital, one of the biggest trends transforming Higher Education today is online learning; makes it much easier for people with busy lives to embark on further education in order to change careers, earn a promotion, or update their skills. Even employers are seeing advantages in hiring students who have studied online, over those who have undergone a traditional university experience, due to the dedication they prove in taking this route. Mr Garrett suggests that, “…(ODL’s) distinctive characteristics could be their size, expertise, student support or student outcomes”. Online learning students can choose where and when they want to study, yet get full support from tutors and communicate with fellow students whenever they need. Properly designed online learning programmes can provide very high levels of interaction, overcoming many of the unique challenges for vocational education.