Supporting distance learners
Supporting distance learners
University A is one of the new universities to spring up in the UK after 1992. It has a thriving business faculty which relies mainly on local students. Around 2000, it decided that it must ‘do something about distance learning’, to support the many overseas markets that its business development people were opening up. It therefore appointed a distance learning specialist to develop a plan. After some debate it agreed to pay staff to write distance learning material (the Dean had hoped that people could cobble together their lecture notes for nothing) but even with money on offer, most faculty were far too busy managing a heavy teaching load, and trying to do research, to write distance learning materials.
That was not the only problem however. All degree proposals had to go through an academic standards committee, and the planners found themselves having to think through a whole host of matters, from admissions to getting books from the library, which were geared to campus attendance and which would need to be different for distance provision. The idea was to use local franchises, but these all had to be checked to see that they could provide the right level of support. Some degree of academic support was provided by a week’s summer residential hosted by the franchisee, but faculty would complain bitterly about the disruption to their lives.
University B is one of the foremost universities in the UK, with a tradition of distance learning going back to the 19th century. Like University A, it provides teaching support through local institutions, and is responsible for delivery of materials and for assessment, although it does have a large operational infrastructure in place. The teaching support is variable (particularly at a higher level) and when it was suggested that students be asked what they wanted, the response was that they would only ask for contact with tutors, which could not be provided.
These examples are real and illustrate the difficulty, in a university with a strongly conventional teaching ethos, of setting up a convincing distance learning system. It’s hardly surprising that, except for universities which specialize in it as their modus operandi, such as the UK Open University, Canada’s Athabasca etc., distance learning tends to be the poor relation.
And yet, with universities looking to find new markets, and students new ways of studying which meet the needs of lifelong learning and a busy lifestyle, distance learning is relevant as never before.
Distance learning is normally defined as a form of learning which takes place away from the campus, where the university in some media form comes to the student rather than the student coming to the university. It is not the same as e-learning, which refers to the use of technology rather than separation of teacher and taught. (In fact, the current trend is to use e-learning in a blended context.)
Generally speaking, distance education can be understood in terms of the following five dimensions:
1. separation of teacher and learner
2. use of media
3. provision of two-way communication
4. influence of an educational system
5. an industrial base operation.
Wang and Liu (2003) quote Keegan’s (1990, 1996) definition of distance learning.
When distance learning works well, it can be a very satisfying way of learning: studying can happen at a time and place of one’s choosing, and one can take courses at places which would otherwise be too far to travel to. The general consensus of the research is that distance learners are not out performed by campus-based students, lack of time being the main reason for the former’s failure to complete.
However, because the learner is physically separated from the point of instruction, by definition he/she is also absent from the other infrastructure of university life - the whole student services side of admissions, study support, enrollment, plus library, exams etc. Because of their absence from campus, students need a support infrastructure which is campus independent. And however excellent the learning materials, the personal factor – the ability to sort out one’s own learning problems and receive the emotional support to stimulate learning – is still important: all students need human contact and live interaction.
Thus the support package which surrounds learning is critical. But what should it comprise?
Mills (2003, p. 104) defines student support as "the totality of the provision by an institution to support the learner, other than generic teaching materials produced by instructional designers/course producers…Learner support is designed to help the individual student learn from teaching materials, may be academic, administrative, or personal, can be provided through a range of media and by a range of people".
In some research on student definitions of quality in distance learning, Smith (2004) reported concern about the quality of the course materials, but also about the availability and accessibility of support: students wanted to be able to contact a real person, and to have their questions answered.
We shall now look at the type of support that should be provided, concentrating first on academic and then operational support. The Internet has revolutionized education as it has other areas of life, and much support can be provided online. However, the means are less important than the general principles, which should apply whether the support is face to face, by telephone, from the host university or at arms length with a franchise.
‘Learner support’ is often taken to mean administrative and operational support, the ‘teaching’ side being catered for by the materials used to deliver the course. However, students benefit from contact with a tutor, whilst in a quality assurance dominated climate universities are under some pressure to make proper teaching arrangements for all students.
In the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency issues standards on distance learning programmes. The QAA require that standards and quality in distance learning degrees be equivalent to those taught by conventional means.
Course design and structure
This will vary significantly from course to course, and a small modular piece of ‘just in time’ learning which may need very little support will obviously differ markedly from a full-scale undergraduate or masters course. The one overriding principle is that the needs of the student should remain paramount over those of the organization in deciding the amount and type of support required. Here are some other general guidelines:
- The student should have easily to hand the syllabus, the aims and objectives, the readings and course activities, assignments, and faculty with their contact times. A course website is a good way of ‘holding’ this information.
- Don’t overload students with material, particularly if you know that they are also working full-time. In general, delivery of content is harder and takes longer by distance.
- Cater for different learning styles as you would in a taught course but remember that the key to distance learning is independence, so this needs to be fostered.
- Make it easy for students to plan their study schedule, by providing information as to what they are expected to read, when assignments are due, what participation is expected in any online discussion etc.
- Pace the course so that elements are varied - e.g. not too much reading at one time, plenty of (varied) activities.
- Provide training for both students and staff in the use of technology.
The role of the tutor
There is a tendency in distance learning to assume that much of the teaching is carried by materials - this goes for the ‘presentation’ aspect as well as the ‘practice’. However, while this approach may work better in some subjects than in others, what is forgotten is that there is an emotional component to learning which is best sustained by a living human relationship. What happens when a learner wants to discuss a concept which he or she finds difficult? Will the loneliness of distance learning be demotivating without human support?
At the Open University, students can have tutorials from the Regional Centres, as well as residential and day schools, and research has shown a link between tutoring and retention. Lentell (2003) maintains that the role of the tutor is undervalued in distance learning, and considered second in importance to the course materials. Yet learning is very much an individual business, and the role of a good teacher is to find out what the student doesn’t know and help bridge the gap, as well as to motivate, encourage and explain.
In the light of the above, it’s hardly surprising that providing feedback is one of the most important tasks of the tutor in distance education. Feedback must be timely, clear, specific and constructive. Smith (2004) reported that one of the things that students valued most was prompt and useful feedback.
Lentell (2003) quotes Jackson (2001): "Careful reading of student work is the core of teaching…if students realize you are paying close attention to their work, they feel a responsibility to pay close attention to you."
Being available for advice
Students will have all sorts of queries, and it is important to provide real time slots when the tutor is available on the phone or via chat room. Some tutors provide responses to ‘Frequently ask questions’ to save having to answer the same common questions over and over. This can be useful, but they should still be available for individual queries. Assignment requirements in particular may need to be untangled, especially if the assignment is open ended or work related.
Introducing the subject matter
Many distance learning courses have residential sessions the function of which is to present key course concepts. Such sessions also provide opportunities for group work (see below) and can be a good way of course members bonding with one another.
Much learning happens in a group, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to support this process by setting structures, asking key questions, steering, clarifying, and encouraging shyer group members. This can happen face to face, or online (see below).
Massey University in New Zealand has a strong distance provision (Massey Extramural). It offers the option of 'contact courses' which provide "an opportunity for you to interact with other extramural students taking the same paper and to receive face-to-face tuition from your paper co-ordinator".
The role of the tutor online
The Internet, in that it facilitates discussion between learner and learner and learner and tutor via computer mediated communication (cmc), has had a considerable impact on distance learning, and changed the model of knowledge acquisition to one that supports a cognitive, constructivist approach.
Most commentators believe however, that far from doing away with the teacher, cmc has led to a new 'e-moderating' role which is often critical to the success of an online discussion. The tutor should set up the experience, and ‘moderate’ discussion by summarizing, encouraging reluctant participants, moving discussion on to another level, calm down ‘flaming’ etc.
Professor Gilly Salmon has researched and written extensively
in the area of ‘e-moderation’. Her website can be visited at http://www.atimod.com
Online discussion can be either asynchronous or real-time. The former is enabled by virtual learning environment (vle) or managed learning environment (mle) software (for example, Blackboard/WebCt, Moodle) which have dedicated conferencing areas. Live discussion can be via web cams, video conferencing or chat.
Both synchronous and asynchronous discussion have their advantages and drawbacks; mixing the two is considered good practice. Live discussion is more immediate, but asynchronous chat allows flexibility in that people can fit participation around their schedules and have time to prepare their contributions. Other advantages are that it favours those who find, for whatever reason, the cut and thrust of face to face discussion intimidating, and that it helps develop cognitive and writing skills.
Examples of online tasks include engaging in discussion based on a particular issue or a reading, peer reviewing assignments, or carrying out group projects.
Operational support covers a whole range of issues, from enrollment to buying and borrowing books, which are outside the provenance of the course tutor. The first examples described cases where establishments local to the students were used, and this is not an uncommon model. However, yet again the Internet has changed provision, with its ability to network systems and bring the campus to the student.
The student should be able to get the syllabus from the website, and distance learning options should be readily accessible at the top level of the site, rather than buried deep within it.
The University of Maine has its own distance learning option with its own web pages - see http://www.learn.maine.edu/. This site also includes basic information about online and distance learning.
Admissions and registration
Students should be able to apply online and be clearly guided through the system. The same applies for registering for courses: the process should be easy to follow with access to the course handbook so that students can be sure that they fulfill admissions criteria.
Athabasca University, Canada’s leading university for distance education, describes the application and registration procedure carefully and thoroughly on https://tux.athabascau.ca/oros/jsp/welcome.jsp
This is a crucial area for many students, and explanations should be clear, accurate and straightforward, with links to relevant online resources. The student should be able to apply for financial aid without ever visiting the campus.
Does the student have the necessary information to plan the right schedule of courses? As much information as possible should be available on the website, but the student should also be able to contact an academic, and talk in real time.
UCLA extension (the online arm of UCLA) provides a ‘Personal course finder’ in the form of an online questionnaire which probes field of interest, whether the student requires credit, when and where he or she wishes to study, and course format: see http://www.uclaextension.edu/.
Much information can be made available online, along with some useful links to self assessment instruments, resources on particular careers, as well as job ads.
This is a difficult thing to do electronically, but it is still possible to put up leaflets on general topics, e.g. making friends, insomnia, drinking etc. Massey Extramural provides a range of counseling resources on its website, including a comprehensive range of counseling leaflets.
Students with disabilities
This includes not only general university provision, but also web accessibility to all. It is discriminating to have web pages which are not accessible to those with a disability. Further information about this can be found from Watchfire and the Worldwide Web Consortium
Orientation is needed into the services available, essential requirements (e.g. how to get a password), how to use the technology, and the course website. This can be done at an initial residential session, but many organizations put their orientation online. Deakin University provides an orientation to its distance learning students via its website
Students should have secure online access to their grades. It is also advantageous to allow flexibility in exam time and place – plenty of locations, provision for those with disabilities, who are traveling or who have unforeseen work commitments.
There are generic aspects to study which, if the student has not mastered them, can affect overall performance: essay writing, note-taking, exam preparation etc. Many universities and colleges have their own dedicated units which can give students individual attention, but much advice is generalizable and can be put on the web as a tutorial or PDF document.
This is all important as distance learning becomes more and more technology-based. Technical training should be part of the initial induction, but there should also be 24/7/365 technical support which can deal with any problems that may arise, via a helpdesk.
The library should exist virtually as well as in real time and place, and as many of its services as possible should be put online, with a librarian who specializes in learning by distance. Students should be able to perform all the normal library functions this way – consulting the catalogue, putting in a request, getting a library card, renewals, and some libraries also have a postal service for borrowing and returns.
Perhaps the most useful enhancement of library services by the Internet is the ability to browse databases online. Indeed, such is the amount of information available that instruction in information literacy will prove invaluable.
Putting the infrastructure in place
The above may sound simple and practical, but it requires that student services, faculty and technical services all work together as a seamless whole. This in turn demands a solid technological infrastructure which is able to link systems, as well as staff who can co-operate across departmental boundaries – for example, do student services, the library etc., fully understand the requirements of faculty? Certainly, retraining and cross-training of staff will be required, as well as possible restructuring. Institutional commitment at the highest level is essential as is a continuing commitment to invest in technology.
Technology is not the only solution and many places have a call centre, which should be more than a place for technical queries. The call centre could be staffed by people with a customer service background who should have an excellent knowledge of distance learning.
Providing a comprehensive service to distance learners is no simple matter. There are rewards for getting things right, however: again and again it has been shown that good support makes for satisfied students and helps student retention. We all know that good customer service means that customers come back: in education, we all want customers to stay, and benefit from the full product!
- Keegan, D. (1990), "Open learning: concepts and costs, successes and failures", in Atkinson, R. and McBeath, C. (eds.), Open Learning and New Technology, ASET, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia
- Keegan, D. (1996), Foundations of Distance Education, Routledge, London.
- Jackson, M. (2001), "Making a mark", The Globe and Mail, 23 June 2001.
- Lentell, H. (2003), "The importance of the tutor in open and distance learning", in Tait, A. and Mills, R. (eds.), Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education: Change and Continuity in an International Context, Routledge, London
- Mills, R. (2003), "The centrality of learner support in open and distance learning", in Tait, A. and Mills, R. (eds.), Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education: Change and Continuity in an International Context, Routledge, London
- Smith, A. (2004), "'Off-campus support' in distance learning – how do our students define quality?", Quality Assurance in Education, vol. 12 no. 1
- Tait, A. and Mills, R. (2003), Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education: Change and Continuity in an International Context, Routledge, London
- Wang, C. and Liu, X. (2003), "Distance education: basic resources guide", Collection Building, vol. 22 no. 3