Review of Global Distance Learning (DL) systems
Dr Gideon Polya
Distance Learning (DL) involves physical separation of student and teacher. This separation has drawbacks deriving from lack of student-teacher and student-student interaction and diminished evaluative feedback from students. However DL has major advantages of overcoming economic, geographic location and physical disadvantage problems of students. An ideal DL system would be one that is high quality, research-informed, convenient and low cost and which encourages deep learning by the students.
The aims of this analysis are generally to review existing DL systems and to critically assess, in relation to on-campus (OC) teaching, how well they provide good teaching and good learning outcomes.
Specifically, the aims are to:
1. review the scope of readily available literature on DL
2. review the different types of DL
3. critically examine specific examples of DL systems with respect to good learning outcomes.
I will then build on this review by devising a DL scheme that (subject to resources) will be directed to providing better learning outcomes than those coming from existing DL (and indeed OC) tertiary teaching systems (see the associated blog on design of a minimum cost, high quality Accredited Remote Learning system for everyone).
Good teaching (whether via DL or OC modes) encourages high quality, "deep" approaches in student learning with a resultant ideal outcome of a fundamental change in student understanding of the area being taught. The desired learning involves a qualitative change in the student’s view of reality and the aim of teaching is to facilitate such learning (as opposed to "surface" learning involving "rote" memorizing and superficial, "one-dimensional" understanding of an area). The following model derived from Ramsden (2000) summarizes the parameters affecting how students approach learning:
Student characteristics & background AND Course & departmental learning context
(e.g. course design, teaching methods, assessment & feedback) -> Student perception of context (e.g. clear goals, good teaching) -> Student approaches to learning (how they learn) -> Student learning outcomes (what they learn qualitatively & quantitatively).
The teacher can positively encourage deep learning through enthusiasm, careful course preparation in relation to content and workload, clear statement of goals, clear presentation, interest in the student, appropriate assessment procedures and responsiveness to student feedback. The following model (Ramsden, 2000) summarizes the “feedback loop” required for good, responsive teaching:
Theory of teaching -> thinking in specific situations <- -> context of teaching -> teaching in action -> reflection on teaching and student learning outcome experience -> feedback to Theory of teaching AND thinking in specific situations.
It is useful to bear these teaching and learning (T&L) models in mind in the following analysis of DL as currently practised worldwide. It is immediately apparent that the physical separation of teacher and student in DL may compromise requisite progress and evaluative feedback from students.
3. Major types of distance learning options, features, issues and models
Distance education (DE), or more precisely DL, involves the physical separation of teachers and learners and there are some major pedagogic and other differences from OC T&L arising from this separation (Keegan, 2000; Peters, 1998). Some of these major features are summarized below.
a. Information transfer efficiency. Information transfer (words/minute) is about 5 times greater with the written word (as in DL) than with the spoken word (as in OC T&L). Reading-based learning can be much more efficient than listening-based learning (although the body language, simplification and theatricality of the lecture can be didactically peculiarly effective and inspiring).
b. Multiple modes for DL. In addition to the various electronic technologies that can be applied to DL, there are some fundamental modes of DL that can be categorized, namely:
i. Single mode (purely involving guided self-study);
ii. Dual mode (involving some OC attendance or indirect class attendance through electronic technologies such as videoconferencing);
iii. Mixed modes (in which universities could offer students a mixture of options ranging from lecture-based, OC T&L to the radical and highly-independent option of autonomous self-guided learning).
Of course current economic exigencies in ostensibly low unemployment Australia mean that some 50% of students need to work and do not attend face-to-face OC lectures anyway, these students relying on transcriptions by fellow students or lecture note handouts from lecturers.
c. Socio-geographical status of students. The DL option is variously very attractive to a clientele that can differ markedly from the substantially very young, just-out-of school, parentally-supported OC students. Thus DL caters better than OC T&L for students who are: older and more mature; in full-time employment; in career-track employment; taxpayers (who thereby can reap some benefit from their taxes); involved in life-long learning; requiring re-training for different employment options; geographically isolated; disabled; caring for children; or students who in general are suffering from physical, social and economic disadvantages.
d. Support and feedback mechanisms. In the OC situation students are supported by all kinds of face-to-face mechanisms both inside and outside the classroom involving lecturers, tutors, demonstrators, administrative support staff and fellow students. In addition OC students get financial, and other advice and support from counsellors, other student services personnel, other academic staff, other student friends and family. Feedback about student learning is provided by tests, exams, face-to-face contact, assignments and tutorials. The DL mode has a major problem addressing these support and feedback requisites of an ideal T&L situation (see section 2 above). However such support and feedback requirements can be met in a DL environment (as I will endeavour to show in my design of a high quality Accredited remote Learning system in the accompanying blog). Further, many of the support and feedback mechanisms apply very theoretically to OC students (e.g. very few will avail themselves of the opportunity to see their lecturers or tutors outside formal class periods or even contact them by telephone or e-mail).
e. Different models for DL versus OC teacher-student (T-S) interaction. Peters (1998) has analysed different models for teacher-student interaction that could be applied in DL. These different models are summarized below.
i. Correspondence model. T-S dialogue, in which the interlocutors are known to each other and there is a personal, relaxed tone and a human relationship, can be effected in DL as in OC T&L interactions. The DL mechanism could, for example, be via letters or carefully annotated assignments.
ii. Conversation model. Virtual dialogue by e-mail is a rather imperfect imitation of the one-on-one tutoring of the ideal Oxbridge OC T-S experience but nevertheless permits (in “Chat Club” mode) what Peters (1998) describes as a “guided pedagogical conversation”.
iii. Teacher model. The teacher can “get” to the student via well-written text and we are all familiar with excellent texts that can do this. Thus the ideal text for DL should motivate, stimulate, have clear aims, relate to real situations, deal with common difficulties, be well-organized in digestible portions, be clear and suitably repetitive and indicate how to apply what has been learnt.
iv. Tutor model. The DL equivalent of the tutor-student model allows for a 1 on 1 relationship involving consideration, helpfulness, tact and rapport that is particularly useful for adult autonomous learning. In this model the “professor” provides the course and the local tutor (or virtual tutor via electronic technology) periodically assists the DL student.
v. Technological extension model. Modern electronic technologies permit distance learners to attend virtual face-to-face classes via audiotapes, videos and indeed through real-time videoconferencing. However the student may still remain a virtual onlooker in these virtual classrooms.
f. A continuum of options in OC T&L and DL. Peters (1998) has specified three critical areas of T&L that can be varied in OC or DL situations. These three areas are teacher-learner dialogue, course structure and student autonomy. At one end of the continuum we can have a minimal, “no frills” system involving text-based self-teaching with accreditation after expert examination by the university academics devising the syllabus. At the other end of the spectrum we have many helpful options and indeed combinations of such options to suit particular needs, cultures and economic circumstances. Peters (1998) talks of such teacher-directed learning as “heteronomous learning” as opposed to highly “autonomous learning” in which students are largely independent of teachers (except for some kind of “official” accrediting assessment).
In relation to autonomous learning one is reminded of Michael Faraday (1791-1867), the father of electromagnetism, who was apprenticed to a bookbinder and bookseller. He avidly read science books in the bookshop. After attending lectures by Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Faraday sent his notes of the lectures to Davy as evidence of his interest and his desire to work with the great man. Taken into Davy’s service, he travelled with him to
The other end of the spectrum involves all kinds of teacher inputs to assist the student (noting, however, the paradoxical caveat that student autonomy per se can be a tremendous stimulus for deep learning and as such is a desired student learning outcome). The example par excellence of such dedicated DL “teacher inputs” is the Open University of the
i. Teacher-learner dialogue can derive from having: course counsellors; e-mail connections; study centres; practical courses; residential courses; technical contacts.
ii. Course structure can involve simple text-based self-teaching and highly-organized and sophisticated correspondence course elements and a mix of both. Variables include: print and other material; the amount, sequence and level of material; simulated dialogue; self-tests, questions for repetitive learning; questions to enhance training; written individual instruction and other individualization; study notes and detailed course notes; course lay-out; and clarity of presentation.
iii. Autonomous learning can enhance the self-fulfilment, self-realization and self-actualization goals of learning. Autonomous learning can be “cramped” by teacher interventions, teacher-imposed activities and curriculum restrictions. Conversely autonomous learning is enhanced by project-oriented learning and students working to meet individual learning “contracts” as in the
g. Goals, course design, economics, evaluation and technology options in distance learning
There is a large literature on DL provision including relatively recently published books that variously deal with aspects such as economics (Keegan, 2000; Rumble, 1997), design of courses and learning exercises (Mantyla, 1999; Parer, 1993; Peters, 1998), DL for special groups (such as refugees) (Keegan, 2000; Yates & Bradley, 2000), DL assessment (Morgan, 1999), course evaluation (Yates & Bradley, 2000) and available technological options (Lau, 2000; Keegan, 2000; Peters, 1998; Porter, 1997; Yates & Bradley, 2000). There is insufficient space in this review to deal with all of these issues but some major concerns do arise from this literature, especially if we constantly keep in mind the our central proposition that “good teaching is that which promotes good learning”. Some major concerns are briefly listed below (noting that these concerns also apply to OC tertiary education).
i. Goals. Tertiary education, whether OC, DL or both, is big business. “Money-making” from “selling knowledge” is institutionally attractive in countries with declining government support for universities (such as Australia which is still, as usual, lagging behind the UK which in recent years has dramatically reversed the Thatcherite squeeze on universities). A key goal-related point derives from conversations with an economics professor writing a massive book on global corporate management, namely that “success” cannot be measured solely in terms of “dollars” - one has to consider the fundamental goals of the organization. Thus a corporation specifically making high quality cars for the very rich could possibly make a greater profit by selling basic cars for the proletariat or getting into forestry in the tropics but is simply not interested. In making a critique of DL (or indeed OC) tertiary education systems one must consider the basic institutional goals. This point will become clearer as we consider specific DL systems in various countries. For the moment, however, a good example would be the Open University of the
ii. Economics. Further to the issue of goals (“ends and means”) outlined above, once the “ends” are defined one can assess the “economic efficiency” of the system. Thus the OU-UK degree “costs” about 40% that of the regular OC degree (but this calculation does not include the otherwise foregone income of the DL student in full employment). Between the boundaries of text-based autonomous learning and sophisticated, carefully designed OU-UK-like systems, the outlays typically considered (Rumble, 1997) would include costs for provider labour, course development and materials/systems involved in course provision. The “ends” would include fees paid, grants received by the organization and degrees awarded. There is recognition that DL allows for full-time employment (either paid or unpaid, as in child-rearing). However missing from such analyses is “quality and depth of learning”.
iii. Evaluation and quality. Further to point (ii) above, the student outcomes should be properly considered, this in turn raising the matter of “learning outcome evaluation” considered below. However the “bean counting” philosophy of current DL (and indeed of OC) tertiary education provision narrows the conception of evaluation and quality. Thus an analysis of evaluation and quality in Yates & Bradley (2000) (p111) states; “The need for accountability has driven the design of many evaluation studies of national and international projects … the stakeholders … may include politicians, governmental agencies, international agencies, international/national/local education providers, employers, media organizations, wider academic/teaching communities, DE academics/teachers, DE regional/local staff, DE specialist technical staff, community leaders, learners/target groups [my italics]”. In the current Federal government review of higher education in
iv. Basic text versus highly designed courses. The nature and design of DL courses ultimately derives from the above considerations of “goals”, “economics” and “evaluation and quality”. There is a continuum from basic, no-frills, text-based, accrediting exam-oriented, autonomous learning to the expertly (and expensively) devised OU-UK-type DL systems. There is a large literature on the design and operation of DL systems and insufficient space here to review what has become a major specialist area encompassing both specialist teachers and media experts. However two major points can be made here. Firstly, analysis of any system is circumscribed by the considerations of basic goals through to outcome evaluation as analysed in (i)-(iii) above. Secondly, there is good evidence that the “teaching delivery system” does not really matter - human beings are extraordinarily adaptable and accommodate intellectually to extremely difficult circumstances (as evidenced, for example, by accounts of prisoners or soldiers maintaining self-esteem and integrity in horrendous circumstances). Keegan (2000) (pp 80-83) provides impressive student survey evidence of perceptions of “achievement of excellence” and “lack of being hampered” by students doing a satellite-TV-based course rather than doing a face-to-face option at the provider university.
v. Technological options for delivery, student support, feedback and assessment. There are many sophisticated technological options available for DL. There is insufficient space here to provide a detailed critique but the point made in (v) above must be re-iterated - humans are very adaptable to different delivery systems whether it be simple text (e.g. the shepherd boy and his Bible) or “high resolution virtual classroom videoconferencing”. Autonomous, text-based self-study can be revelatory e.g. Bach’s St Matthew Passion interpretation of both Jews and Gentiles finding salvation from Jesus’ blood - as compared to the widespread pogrom-inducing interpretation of “His blood be upon your heads”.
The various technologies available for DL have been reviewed extensively (Lau, 2000; Keegan, 2000; Peters, 1998; Porter, 1997; Yates & Bradley, 2000). The currently available technologies include (with self-explanatory amplifying notes in parenthesis): published texts (libraries, bookshops, inter-library loan, web-based, Amazon.com, texts with CD-ROM and summary text accompaniments); in-house printed material (lecture notes, study questions, answers to examination-style questions, study hints); web-based provision of the foregoing text material; surface mail (dialogue, text provision); e-mail (teacher-student, student-student, professor-local tutor dialogue and communication); audiotape (lectures, student comment); videotape (lectures, specialist and “big-name” seminars, student seminars); web site (teacher, students, institutions, departments for practical information transfer, sociability and key links); cable, closed circuit or satellite television (lectures, virtual classrooms, special technique demonstrations e.g. surgical procedures); teleconferencing (one-way or two-way audio or audio-video communication, monitors, cameras, fibre-optic cables, teacher-student interaction); desktop videoconferencing (via PCs, single or multiple student participation, teacher-student, student-student and student-tutor dialogue and as a vehicle for multimedia transmission and virtual classrooms with real-time audio-video dialogue); data bases (rapid access, remote interactive databases); telephone and radio teaching (one-on-one or group-based with real-time feedback and dialogue); teletext; computer-based audiographics; and virtual reality (e.g. virtual reality lectures and one-on-one tutorials).
The major benefit of available technologies is to enable the empowering, confidence-building, problem-solving and socializing benefits of OC life (student-teacher, student-student interactions) to apply readily to DL students (as will be exploited in my Praktikum #2 proposals next semester).
4. Major types of current distance learning systems
Keegan (2000) has provided a very detailed analysis of global DL systems in which he classifies DL systems into 4 major categories as outlined below. My research on available DL systems (essentially up-dating Keegan (2000) and relying on other published analyses and Web-based sources) is summarized below using these categories (with key attributes of particular systems in parenthesis), noting that some of the DL systems fall into more than one category.
(1) Group-based DL with full-time students:
Such non-tertiary schemes include the
(2) Group-based DL with part-time students:
As indicated above, the Dianda system in
(3) Individual-based DL with pre-prepared materials
Correspondence DL courses were made possible by improved technology from the 1840s onwards. Indeed Peters (1998) refers to the “industrializing” of teaching. In general these systems involve “scientifically” and expertly generated teaching materials (from collaborations of academic experts and expert support people), involve part-time students who are freed from streaming, operate synchronously and have been taken up in various forms throughout the world. There are 4 major models as outlined below:
a. Open universities (OUs). In general OUs involve individual-based DL with pre-prepared materials taking advantage of electronic media (TV, radio, the Internet). OUs arose in the 1970s and 1980s based on the highly successful OU-UK, can be similarly prestigious national institutions, involve large numbers of students (e.g. scores of thousands to several hundred thousand) and have a big impact because of large numbers of graduates.
Examples of OUs include the OU-UK; Indira Gandhi National OU (India); Allam Iqbal OU (Pakistan); Bangladesh OU (Bangladesh); Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning (Botswana); Malawi College of Distance Education (Malawi); Athabasca OU (Alberta, Canada); Télé Université (Quebec, Canada); Open Learning Agency of Canada (a consortium involving Royal Roads University, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, University of Victoria and University of Northern British Columbia); Canadian Contact North (audioconferencing-based for remote towns); Open Learning Australia (a multi-university consortium); Sukhothai Thammatirat OU (Thailand); Korean National OU; Universitas Terbuka (Indonesia); Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) (Madrid, Spain); Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) (Barcelona, Spain); Pajame Noor University (Iran); Elliniko Anikto Panipestemo (Hellenic OU) (Greece); the Swiss Poschiawo Project (involving technical collaboration of Swiss and Italian universities and Swiss Telecom); the Empire State College (New York, very autonomous DL involving “learning contracts” and local counsellors); the US National University Teleconferencing Network (66 universities sharing joint facilities with Oklahoma State University as the administrative and technical media expertise centre, 250 client universities).
b. Government-based DL training schemes include the US distance Education Training Council (DETC)-linked DL providers (e.g. military DL); the French Centre National d’Enseignement à Distance (CNED) (primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training, postgraduate, metropolitan and overseas); Centro par la Inovación y Dessarrollo de la Educación a Distancia (CIDEAD) (Spain, government certified, primary to University entrance, languages and professional updating); Bestuur Afstandsonderwijs (Belgium, Flemish instruction, languages, mathematics, technical and IT); Service de l’Enseignement à Distance de la Communauté Française de Belgique (Belgium, in French, professional courses and up to university entrance standard).
c. Private sector DL systems include: US DL providers grouped in the Distance Education Training Council (DETC) (Washington-centred, military, church and business DL training); Charkov Beheer college (Netherlands, half a million students); Leidse Onderwijsinstellingen (LOI ) (Netherlands, professional and university level); Danmarks Kursuscenter (Denmark, leisure, languages, merchant navy); Kilroy’s College (Irish correspondence college, high school and public service examination orientation); Deutsch Weiterbildungsgesellschaft (German Continuing Education Institute) (Germany, business, management, technology, IT and languages); DL colleges in Russia.
d. Conventional university-associated DL systems include: the US National University Continuing Education Association (NUCEA) (that links courses from member US universities to individual clients); DL linked to various regular Canadian universities (see (a)) and the Open Learning linked to member Australian universities (pre-prepared courses, TV, radio, texts and e-mail delivery) (see (a)); Chinese university-associated correspondence-based DL (notably the University of Beijing which is the biggest national provider of such DL); Anadolu University (Turkey, 30,000 OC and 570,000 DL students); Heriot Watt University (UK, MBA course); University of Oulu (Finland, serves the North of Finland); Linköping (Sweden, arts, science, health and technology); Università degli Studi di Roma III (University of Roma III, Italy, for upgrading teachers); various lesser and regional Russian universities also provide DL courses; the University of Auckland.
4. Individual DL without pre-prepared materials. This mode was established in the 19th century by the
5. Critiques of some major distance learning systems
With the background information summarized above, we can now examine some of the more important kinds of DL systems in relation to how effective they are in promoting “good learning outcomes” as defined in section 2. Of course “good learning” cannot be considered purely in isolation from special social needs and circumstances, including time and money constraints at the level of organization, teacher and student. Thus the UK Open University is regarded as the very best DL system in terms of sophisticated course design and delivery (by expert academics in collaboration with BBC media specialists) but the cost is about 40% of conventional OC learning. Conversely the
a. Important class-based DL systems include the Chinese Dianda and
b. Open Universities. The OU-UK teaching programs are devised by expert course teams and presented in collaboration with expert BBC media teams. There is face-to-face tutoring, student support and student feedback. Notably, OU-UK is ranked among the top dozen universities in the
The Fernuniversität of Hagen, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany appears to be fundamentally more research-oriented than the OU-UK but has a similar policy of expert course design and delivery and goal-orientation towards mature, employed and continuing life-long students. In keeping with the research orientation it offers Diplomas leading to Masters and Doctorates. The negatives are lack of simplicity, relatively high cost, and restricted entry.
The Empire State College (
c. Regular universities offering DL. A variety of universities have cut costs by pooling high technology facilities and expertise in DL design and delivery. Such university consortia for DL provision include the Learning Agency of Canada, Open Learning Australia, the Swiss Poschiawo Project (involving technical collaboration of Swiss universities, Italian universities and Swiss Telecom) and the US National University Teleconferencing Network (66 universities sharing joint facilities with Oklahoma State University as the administrative and technical media expertise centre, 250 client universities and 150 teaching programs sold to 1300 member and non-member client organizations). While there are clear institutional advantages in such pooling of expertise and technical resources and flexibility advantages for distance students, the deficiencies are profit-driven expense and lack of student-student and student-teacher contact. The DL purists offer the criticism that such systems are just like “normal universities” but with a different delivery mode.
d. DL with minimal DL-oriented course design. The UNISA system of
The University of London (UL) currently deals with some 30,000 overseas students who sit for the same exams as metropolitan students. UL provides syllabuses, study materials, prescribes texts, sets exams, marks scripts and sets high standards. While it does not have the same expert delivery packages as the OU-UK, UL set very high standards and has an outstanding research and scholarly achievement reputation (nearly 30 UL staff or former students of its colleges such as Imperial College and the London School of Economics have been awarded the Nobel Prize). Text-based autonomous learning (the base-line for UL DL) has tremendous advantages for student development and deep learning approaches and the institutional scholarly reputation and high standards must surely be a great inspiration. Disadvantages are minimal student support, counselling, dialogue and feedback on progress.
6. Summary and conclusions
In summary, a variety of DL options have been developed that have peculiar advantages, meet different national, social and educational goals and differ in terms of financial cost, student convenience and student learning. Relatively common problems are lack of institutional student socialization and ready student-student and student-teacher interaction (as opposed to complicated, provider-instigated student “involvements” of various kinds). Such student interactions are major positive features of OC T&L. A major problem is lack of on-going student feedback and student evaluation crucial for good teaching and encouragement of deep learning. A significant problem with many (but not all) “specialist” open universities is lack of institutional research reputation so important for both accredited degree validation and student inspiration. Well-devised DL could usefully be available as a standard option for mainstream OC students. Accordingly, an ideal DL system would attempt to marry all the best features of current OC and DL tertiary education systems.
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Peters, O. (1998), Learning and teaching in distance education. Analyses and interpretations from an international perspective, Kogan Page,
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This review was completed in 2002. Since then a major relevant advance has been the rapidly growing phenomenon of Educational Services Outsourcing (ESO) e.g. involving on-line graduate Indian tutors assisting American college or high school students at very modest financial cost (see:
http://www.hindu.com/edu/2006/12/25/stories/2006122500770300.htm ). Further, Massaachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that boasts 63 Nobel laureates (see: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/special/nobels.html )has put all its teaching materials on the Web for free access. All Governments need to do is to order their existing academics to set accrediting examinations for the MIT courses (indeed a collective of research-informed academics could do the same).
Credentials: Credentials: Dr Gideon Polya published some 130 works in a 4 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London, 2003), and is currently editing a huge book on global avoidable mortality - numerous articles on this matter can be found by a simple Google search for "Gideon Polya" and on his website: http://members.optusnet.com.au/~gpolya/links.html
and http://globalavoidablemortality.blogspot.com/ ). In addition to continuous association with tertiary education in various capacities since 1961, his scientific qualifications and 4 decade scientific career, he has a postgraduate qualification in higher education teaching.