Distance Learning: Thoughts on HEFCE Study of UK online learning

Today Dave White of the University of Oxford’s Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL) team came to talk to the University of Leicesters (UoL) Distance Learning Forum about the HEFCE Study of UK online Learning. The report describes the current state of Online Distance Learning (ODL) in the UK.  The statistical findings show that the majority of ODL courses (~300 or 60%) are Postgraduate (Level 7: MA, MPhil), followed by Level 4: HE Cert, HNC (~150 or 25%).  With the focus of the the subjects study being closely related to ‘professional’ requirements, courses that would be studied for further career development i.e. Business, Law and Education. However much of the interest of today’s talk came from some of the other findings that came out of the report.

It was recognised that distance learning is going to become more and more important in higher education, with key drivers being rises in tuition fees and the limitation on the number of visa granted to international students, the number of people wanting to study at a distance is likely to rise.

One of the areas of discussion was around the marketing  and terminology used when describing ODL courses, the report found examples of institutions calling ODLs:

  • Distance Learning
  • Online Learning
  • Distance and online learning
  • Distance and e-learning

The question arises form this ‘what do these terms mean to students?’, especially international students. When discussing these types of courses within our own institutions we know what the terms mean, but it is unlikely the students do. Furthermore when signing up for such course what methods of study should students expect. Is it clear whether they are going to purely online, paper based or a blended approach (which could include face-to-face elements).  During the discussions a UoL colleague Mark Rawlinson stated that there is a requirement for this to become more transparent and consistent across the entire HE sector, with the rise in fees students are going to need to be more informed about what they are signing up for and what the will get in return.

During his talk Dave White used the analogy of a Distance Learning being like a car engine, many parts coming together to drive the vehicle. Using a similar analogue, in relation to transparency do university prospectus need to become like car brochures, in that when buying cars it is easy to compare engine size, cc, CO2 emission etc. When comparing universities should students be able to compare staff/student ratios, contact hours, employability chances and past final degree awards.

Furthermore when it come to the marketing of such courses Dave pointed out how much searching is required to find ODL courses on institutional websites, yet along the getting into the details of methods of delivery. He showed this satirical, but very true diagram of the types of considerations that go into the design of institutional website.


Another area of discussion was around student engagement and student expectation when it come to ODL courses. In face-to-face teaching students attend lectures, even though they may not always learn during these types of engagements, such gathering give students a sense of “Eventedness” (Dave White), in that they have all come together as a Learning Community and have contact with an academic. The same is required in ODL delivery, whether through facilitated online discussion or by other means, if academic contact is not received students will drop out. It is actually felt that the contact and expert delivery is what students feel they a paying for, as much of the course material and content is openly available as Open Educational Resources.

An interesting observation of this type of contact in ODL that students expected “almost instantaneous” replies to their contributions . Dave believed this to be a hangover for social media, which he said is ‘atomising’ discussion. For example on twitter or facebook you can post a small (14o character) update or contribution and with in minutes receive comments and feedback from followers. The same can not be expected necessarily in HE, however he said if ground rules or guidelines are set e.g. “expect replies within 48 hours” students are more excepting of this.

The report states to manage ODL contact effectively a ratio of 20 students to 1 tutor is required, this is a much higher figure than that expected in face-to-face delivery, but the level of engagement doesn’t need to be carried out by ‘senior’ academic, it can be done by postgraduate students or knowledgeable agents/tutors. During the discussions a quoted tweet by John Traxler said that “is industrialisation a metaphor elearning in higher education”. I would say, in some ways yes it is, in that elearning will make ODL delivery scalable,  but the contact will remain important for that feel of personalisation. Therefore elearning needs to be an enabler and not a substitute.

When these points are raised, often the immediate reaction by academics is that it is time consuming and it is an effort to redesign courses for ODL. I feel this may not necessarily be the case as the delivery of ODL and face-to-face courses is blurring, as many campus based courses now deliver much of the materials online, which could be re-purposable for ODL delivery. During the talk Dave went as far to say the that face-to-face teaching is really “ODL in the same postcode”.

When it comes to student expectations of ODL there was an interesting discussion around ‘where‘ do student associate there learning to. For campus based students this is easy, they associate learning with physical buildings where lectures are delivered and the library in which they study. It is harder for ODL students to make such associations, does the Virtual Learning Environment become the place where they learn, if so considered design is required and the environment needs to be welcoming.

A further, but unfortunately less explored discussion around student expectation was, ‘what do ODL students expect from there university experience?‘. For an 18 year-old campus based student this is an easy question to answer; disciplinary learning, socialisation, student societies and career/employability development opportunities.  It is by no means the same for ODL students. Considering the types of course offering described previously and assuming a similar profile of students, the majority of ODL students will be maturer, undertaking the course for career development. Therefore is it safe to assume they are only expecting disciplinary learning and assessment? In my opinion not at all. There is a responsibility for institutions to offer career development opportunities beyond that of the course, this is something we are attempting at Leicester with our DL Leicester Award. These sorts of schemes will become of higher importance if the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) replaces the current degree classification and certificate, as I’m sure ODL students will require recognition and accreditation beyond their degree also.

Institutional strategy also plays a key role in the delivery of any learning, Dave highlighted that in ODL in HE there have been two approaches ‘Cottage Industry’ and ‘Central Control’. He felt the best way forward would be a mix between the two. The ‘Cottage Industry’ approach refers to evangelists delivering good, innovative practice to small cohorts. Where a centralised approach would use delivery models that are sustainable and scalable to large cohorts. An example of an evangelist approach would be a tutor who has a good Learning Community, using a selection of cutting edge tools. However if the tutor is having to stay up to midnight contributing to keep the community alive this is not sustainable.

During the discussions John Fothergill described the online module that he delivers as part of his course and how the activities (etivities) he uses are based around the Salmon 5 Stage Model, which is an example of a sustainable approach. However knowing a little about this course the modeled practice is supplemented by some innovative practice, demonstrating there needs to be a good blend between the approaches.

The final part of the discussion, as many conversations about ODL do, came down the role of technology in this type of delivery. I believe academics and learning technologist alike are agreed that technology needs to be an enabler and not a barrier. And pedagogy and learning outcomes (and not technology) should drive learning design. During the discussions Dave showed a series of venn diagrams that demonstrated interesting paradigms that could influence the choice of technology. These are explored in more detail on the TALL blog, but in summary they are:

  1. The role of technology: Disappearing into use vs. Disrupting the status quo. This means do you want the technologies you use to seem invisible or be new approaches that require a new understanding
  2. Desire: Want vs. Need. In relation to the first paradigm we all ‘want’ the technology to seem invisible, but the ‘needs’ of delivery doesn’t always make that possible.
  3. Pedagogy: Pass Assessment vs. Group work. All the students ‘want’ to ‘pass the assessment’ but in order to improve they probably ‘need’ to work on ‘group work’
  4. Technology: Interestingly in terms of paradigm 1, the technologies that are required to ‘pass assessment’, tend to be more invisible and considered archaic: VLE, email and content, where as those that stimulate group work, can be seen more disruptive, but cutting edge: blogs and social media

All in all, the whole session was very stimulating and I’m sure this quick, reactionary reflection doesn’t do it justice. But I’m sure there are many points in here that will keep me thinking for a while and I will come back to at a later date.


  1. If you are looking to a school, is well worth your time and money, they can help you get a better idea. You can also check with the site itself. They are usually proud to clarify the status of their background and recognition.


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