The privileged mode: does distance learning compromise quality?

Several years ago, my employer launched a new, comprehensive online programme. I was part of the launch, and we discussed some of the drivers for the programme. One of them was an interesting research finding about distance learning itself. For many, distance learning was a positive choice, not something they were forced into.

It is necessary to remember that the concept of distance learning is not at all new – my stepfather trained to be chartered accountant in the 1940s via a correspondence course. Our company had also provided distance learning for many years, with a package including texts, guidance and access to support. But face-to-face (F2F) training was a larger part of the business and there was always an assumption that it was a “better” way of learning. Anyone who could would naturally choose to learn F2F, whereas distance learning was available for those who could not afford it, or lived in a location where it was not feasible.

Our research demolished this assumption. It turned out that a significant number of distance learning students lived close to a teaching centre and they, or their employers, could perfectly well afford F2F study. However, they opted to study via distance learning because they liked the flexibility of studying without set classes, whether because of their temperament, personal commitments, the nature of their jobs or all of these. One of our responses was therefore to offer an enhanced distance learning product, with much better use of modern technology.

And yet the prejudice has persisted, in my own mind, at any rate. Of course online education is more flexible than F2F, it has the potential to be cheaper (or at least changes the economics of education, as per my previous blog post) but can it really provide education to rival the very best F2F?

In the last few weeks, a number of factors have lead me to answering this question with a decisive “yes”. To pick some of the highlights:

  • Sir John Daniel, CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, cited the following statistic in a debate on The Economist website, “The UK Open University has created a multi-media learning system that enrols 200,000 students annually, operates at a lower cost than other UK universities, and ranks 5th, just above Oxford University, on aggregate ratings of teaching quality.” He goes on to argue that the trade-off sometimes discussed in education between cost and quality is misguided. He points out that technology now provides cars to the mass market of a quality that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. It has the potential to do the same for education.
  • In a detailed and careful study, Richardson (2009) surveyed students within two OU courses who had opted either for F2F or tutorial support. He concluded that, “…students who received face-to-face and online tuition evaluated the academic quality of their courses in a similar manner: in particular, they produced almost identical ratings of the quality of the tutoring.”
  • The discussion within our OU tutor group has highlighted some of the advantages of distance learning over F2F. In particular, because discussions build over time, they allow for more thought and reflection between contributions than may be possible in a F2F setting. Those who are less extrovert, or like to time their time to respond, may also find it much easier to take part in a online discussion than a F2F one.

Of course, none of this means that simply “putting courses online” is the answer to all our problems. Online learning needs careful design and support, using principles that are different and newer than F2F, so we have less experience of using them. Nonetheless, it is not going to be necessary to compromise on quality.

This point was summarised well in the intriguing “Manifesto for Teaching Online” produced by faculty and students at the University of Edinburgh. It begins,

“Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.”

The evidence, at least in my mind, is now there to back up this statement. But the second point in the manifesto is also important,

“The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. The best online courses are born digital.”

It is perhaps inevitable that much online learning to date has had its roots in F2F teaching, then been transferred online. But increasingly, courses are being “born digital”, designed specifically and only for the online environment, or perhaps for a blended environment, and so more effective. We should expect these courses to have increasing impact in the coming years.



Richardson, J.T.E. (2009) ‘Face-to-face versus online tutoring support in humanities courses in distance education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol.8, no.1, pp.69–85



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3 responses to “The privileged mode: does distance learning compromise quality?

  1. Pingback: The privileged mode: does distance learning compromise quality … | Distance Education

  2. Pingback: Using technology – three messages for educational institutions from students | learningshrew

  3. Pingback: Do we need physical universities for education? | learningshrew

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