We must go the distance

To maintain the UK's position in distance learning, we have to focus on education, not technology, argues Helen Lentell

January 21, 2010

Distance learning in higher education is enjoying a propitious moment, despite - perhaps even because of - the hard times facing the sector.

At last week's Learning and Technology World Forum in London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the UK could become a "global education superpower", with e-learning as one of its fastest-growing exports.

E-learning could also solve problems at home: as pressure continues to mount on the academy's resources, flexible distance learning may become an increasingly attractive solution.

First Secretary Lord Mandelson no doubt had this in mind when announcing the creation of an online distance learning task force last year, backed by a £20 million matched-funding scheme to support centres of excellence. The terms of reference for this group focus on exploring ways of using online distance learning to attract more domestic and international students and increase collaboration between universities and colleges.

As a champion of distance learning for 30 years, I am encouraged by this development. But at the same time, I am worried that the emerging opportunities may be wasted if policymakers and higher education leaders fail to understand what it takes to deliver high-quality distance learning.

In the past, vast amounts of money have been spent on distance learning initiatives worldwide with little to show for it. This was due to distance and e-learning technologies being mightily oversold as seemingly cheap and fast responses to an oversupply of learners and a shortage of places, teachers and institutions. Technologies have been promoted in developing countries and huge sums sunk into supplying whatever was available, instead of what was appropriate. For example, reliable internet access, viable and appropriate content, trained staff and robust administrative systems to support delivery have been in short supply.

This makes little difference to the overzealous development agencies and consultants for whom winning a stake in such projects is their business. But most schemes are so short term that no one concerns themselves with their longer-term impact.

This is not a Luddite call to preserve conventional face-to-face teaching. Rather, it is a plea to heed and build upon what we know about successful distance learning. The critical issues are not solely, or even primarily, technological, but are to do with leadership and learning, organisation and management.

Dominique Abrioux, reflecting on his vice-chancellorship of Athabasca University (Canada's distance and online learning institution), observed that quality, flexibility and cost are the three variables that have the greatest impact on the success of this kind of provision. Taking quality as an example, he argued that robust course design, development policies, frameworks and practices are essential so that academics can work effectively with librarians, IT support and copyright experts to match sound teaching practice with content, learning activities and assessment.

Here in the UK, we have also learnt a great deal about the vital ingredients of successful distance learning. The Open University, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is an international success story. Others, including the University of Leicester, have also built an impressive track record at home and abroad. We have learnt that robust administrative and operational systems, although not very sexy, are as indispensable as high-quality academic and student support.

Other factors - including marketing, course information, enrolment, fee payment, student record-keeping, tutor recruitment and training, helpdesks and proactive performance-monitoring systems - are critical when students are studying at a distance, frequently on a part-time basis. These functions cannot be dropped on top of existing systems designed for on-campus students. They need careful planning and costing, and upfront investment is required.

The task force has the opportunity to promote what makes distance learning work. The building blocks of success are not always very glamorous. Technology is part of the answer but is successful only where it is sustainable, much like distance learning itself.

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