DISTANCE EDUCATION - UNIT 1
In this introduction to distance education (henceforth DE) we will be seeking to establish a suitable definition of the term and to identify the distinguishing features of this mode of education. This will involve us in establishing the difference between distance and conventional education and assessing the relative merits of the two modes, examining the advantages and disadvantages of DE. We will also explore the relationship between open and distance education, and I will present a case for 'situated learning' in the context of professional development. As part of your own work in the unit, you will also be asked to reflect on your own experience as a distance learner.
By the end of this unit you should be able to:
o offer a working definition of distance education;
o explain the relationship between open and distance education;
o list the main differences between conventional and distance education;
o state some advantages and disadvantages of distance education;
o summarise what you have learned about the experience of distance education as a participant on this course.
Keegan D. 1990. Foundations of Distance Education. Second Edition. London: Routledge.
NOTE: I've worked from my own copy of this edition, but should you wish to buy a copy I should point out that an updated third edition is available.
Introduction Task 1.1
Your ongoing task in this module will be to maintain a critical diary of your learning experiences.
You have already undertaken a similar task on the FND module, so I have included the word critical here to reflect the importance of establishing a critical perspective on the module and your response to it.
There are no strict rules about how you keep the diary, and you will not be required to hand it in, although you are encouraged to draw on it, where appropriate, in your assignment.
The following are therefore intended as guidelines only.
Use the diary to:
o record the exact time spent on study, reading, tasks etc.;
o note your responses to and feelings about different aspects of the module;
o critically evaluate the module materials (text, tasks, etc.);
o record ideas, insights etc., arising from your work;
o make notes on your interaction with me and/or other participants;
o critically reflect on your experiences as a participant and the interaction between the programme and your personal and professional worlds.
Ten years ago I wrote this in a unit on distance learning:
"The programme you are now following is the first of its kind in the world, and it is too early to say whether or not it might be the last."
Well at least that one's settled. Distance education (DE) as a means of delivering
TESOL teacher education is now securely established, in the UK at least, and
I would guess that before too long there will be more students registered for
DE Masters programmes than for their on-site equivalents. I write from the fortunate
position of someone who entered the field early and who has been allowed, as
part of a dedicated and committed team, to develop a DE programme which we believe
to be ideally suited to the educational philosophy which it instantiates. (Well,
you didn't expect me to say anything else, did you?). At the same time, I'm
realistic enough to recognise that, educational advantages aside, economic necessity
would have driven us to DE anyway: the number of TESOL teachers who can afford
to spend a year in England, or obtain scholarships to support them in this,
is falling rather than rising, and the number of Masters courses available increases
This mix of educational desirability, economic pragmatism, and perhaps practical convenience makes Distance Education (DE) an interesting, if complex, object of study. The relevance of DE will need to be assessed in the light of local circumstances, and it would be wrong to take advantage of a module like this to plough an idealistically educational furrow, but nevertheless I think it's important to make the educational case for DE. This unit is dedicated to providing an introduction to the considerations which would feature in such a case, and to advancing a specific argument for the use of DE in teacher development.
Before moving on to the necessary preliminaries for this, I'd like to make it clear why I think this is important. I recognise that you may well have chosen this module for essentially practical reasons, for example, the need to produce DE materials, or to design or manage a programme, and I hope that the relevant units will serve their purpose in this respect. However, as someone committed to the idea of education, I have to believe - and state loudly and emphatically - that the establishment of sound educational foundations is not a matter of academic niceties; it's fundamental to successful practice. To put it more bluntly, we have no business setting up a DE programme or writing DE materials unless we have some idea of what DE involves and why it's appropriate in the particular circumstances.
This unit, then, will concentrate of establishing a clear picture of DE and its relevance to teacher development, and as such its focus will be predominantly conceptual. As a counterweight to this, and in order to add a more practical dimension, I include in the TEXT section (p1.25) a warts and all account of the development of the Aston programme. This will provide you with an opportunity to reflect on some of the issues raised in the unit, but if you'd prefer a gentle introduction you could always decide to start with this.
Defining distance education
In drawing a distinction between distance education and distance learning I've already assumed that you're familiar with the terms. Of course, this is not the same thing as assuming that you've given serious thought to the issue of definition - there's no reason why you should have done. It seems to me that a careful consideration of the terms leads naturally to an engagement with the important issues associated with them, and this is the line I'll be developing in what follows. We begin with a task.
1. How would you define distance education?
You might like to consider the following points:
o Do you think the term 'distance education' is itself an adequate label?
o What elements do you think should be included in your definition?
o Which of these do you consider most important?
Are there any necessary or sufficient conditions?
2. When you have formulated a definition, or at least identified the elements
which should feature in such a definition, study the definitions at the start
of the TASK section at the end of this page:
o Do you agree with all of these definitions?
o If you had to choose one, which one would it be?
o Are there any features included here which are not part of your own list?
As you may have discovered when attempting to provide your own definition,
the attempt leads naturally into a consideration of those elements which set
DE apart from conventional systems (the term 'conventional' will be used here
to refer to what some writers prefer to call 'face-to-face' or 'traditional'
modes). The problem, as you may have found, lies in deciding exactly what we
are going to admit as a distinguishing feature of DE. Our aim now, then, will
be to identify such features in order to work towards a reasonable definition
as a basis for comparing DE with other modes of education.
We'll do this by beginning with a short consideration of the problems associated with definitions and DE. We'll then look at a couple of simple definitions and see what they have in common. When we've done this, we'll explore extensions of such definitions in order to see what lies behind them. This will help us to see the link between definitions and analysis. Finally, we'll examine a set of criteria which together make a reasonable working definition.
Before we begin with the problems, a word of acknowledgement. The most extensive treatment of this subject is provided by Keegan who could justifiably claim the rights to this territory. What follows is not based on Keegan because the aim here is different: he is far more comprehensive in his approach and while he aims to develop an acceptable definition via consideration of the key features of earlier definitions, we are asking why particular definitions go beyond a basic formulation. However, there's inevitably some overlap and in one or two cases Keegan has provided the source of definitions. More important than this is the fact that the eventual criteria used are Keegan's own. In short, what follows owes a considerable debt to him.
We find in Keegan useful expressions of three of the principle problems which need to be borne in mind, apart from the problems of formulation itself. Like the definitions themselves (all references in square brackets are to the definitions in TASK 1.2), these were formulated at a time when the need to produce a generally accepted definition was particularly acute:
o a general lack of uniformity in the use of terminology [1.2];
o specific terminology used to refer to specific systems in particular countries [1.1];
o the production of unnecessary neologisms. [1.3].
Having criticised neologisms, I have to admit to one used in the LSU: 'Situated Learning'. I explain the reason for using this term in the passage which accompanies the final task of this unit, but you might like to consider what you take the term to represent, given what you know of this programme and your own work on it.
The first problem is simply a reflection of the fact that DE as a distinct area of study has grown out of earlier systems, such as correspondence courses, some of which still exist alongside it. In addition, because the formal study of DE is relatively new, such problems are only now being perceived as problems. The second problem is related but slightly different. In this case, terms may have very specific reference in a particular country because of the system which operates there, while elsewhere they might have much less carefully defined application or refer to systems which are different in significant respects. This is not a negligible issue: where DE is conventionally referred to or treated as synonymous with correspondence education (e.g. in the Middle East) its status is usually fairly low. The third problem, viewed charitably, might be regarded as an outcome of the first two: new terms are coined in an effort to provide standard points of reference but succeed only in clouding the waters even further. One way of making sure that these problems get no worse is to avoid offering any new definition while accepting the simplest and most general available. This we will do.
Working towards a definition
At the core of the simplest definition is the characteristic identified by Holmberg [2.3]: "The main characteristic of distance education is non-contiguous communication." In a nutshell, this draws attention to the separation of the teacher and the learner. The question then becomes how much we need to add to this to formulate a precise definition. Holmberg's own expansions [2.1&2] are helpful, placing non-contiguous communication in the context of study and a tutorial organisation designed to operate where contact is predominantly indirect. Snell et al. [5.1] offer a briefer definition but one which leaves too much unexplained: there's something odd about the idea of 'teaching' taking place at a distance from the 'learner' and part of the issue at stake is the nature of the relationship between teaching and learning in DE contexts.
Once we have identified the essential characteristic of DE, the element of non-contiguous communication, there remains the question of how this might be extended. One way of approaching this is to look at other definitions which have been offered in order to see what they might contribute to a more complete definition. I'd like to do this by examining what lies behind these definitions because I think this gives a sense of the different perspectives from which DE might be viewed. Here then are some of the reasons why definitions have been produced:
1. To distinguish distance learning from other terms.
We find two examples of this. Holmberg [2.2] provides a definition more or less the same as the one above, but then admits that this would also cover correspondence education. In order to distinguish the two, he points out that while the latter refers to a form which relies on the written word, the new term covers the use of other media. WillÚn's extension  follows similar lines, regarding DE as no more than an extension of correspondence education. Interestingly enough, she refers to "oral (face-to-face) teaching" as a feature of DE, and though this seems an odd characteristic, in practice all DE institutions seem to rely on it to some extent, while correspondence courses generally exclude such contact.
2. As part of a particular argument about the nature of DE.
Here we find persuasive definitions, presented to advance a particular case which differs from the generally accepted position in key respects. Peters [3.1&2], for example, presents his definition in terms of industrial production, a perspective deriving from a theoretical position which draws on economic theory and industrial analysis. His view is now regarded as dated and to some extent undermined by his failure to reply to any of the main criticisms it has attracted. I include it in my list of definitions not because I think this debate is important to us, but because it demonstrates clearly that the search for a definition of DE is not as straightforward a matter as it may appear. In looking for a definition of DE, we are to some extent also committing ourselves to a particular position.
I don't wish to give the impression here that Peters' work is of no more than of historical interest. See, for example, his 1998 contribution.
3. To stress the important implications of the basic characteristic.
We can take this point further by considering the extent to which a definition reflects its author's view of what is important in DE. Although less obviously persuasive than the sort of definition which Peters offers, such definitions depend on the same link with a particular theoretical position. We find that Moore , for example, places stress on the communication link between teacher and learner, while Delling  analyses this in more detail, identifying materials, supervision and support as the three main elements dependent on this link, and emphasising the importance of planning and systematicity. Note how a hierarchy begins to develop, perhaps along the lines of:
o a physical gap exists ->
o this has to be bridged by at least one appropriate technical medium ->
o materials, support and supervision will depend on this link ->
o to be successful, such dependence will demand careful planning and a systematic approach.
Our search for a suitable definition is drawing us naturally towards a consideration of the essential elements in any DE system.
4. For legal clarity.
The example from French law  (provided by Keegan) illustrates this well. The emphasis here is, naturally enough, on the role and responsibilities of the teacher. I think it's worth pointing out that if your DE operations extend beyond national boundaries you may well come up against issues involving such definitions - I've certainly found myself responding to similar formulations as part of the process of making the case for the value of DE.
5. As the basis for the definition of something different.
Snell et al. [5.2] use a definition of DE as a starting point for their definition of open learning, which they take to be different in at least one fundamental respect - that of open access. This distinction is one we'll return to.
These, then, illustrate ways in which the basic definition might be extended. They also provide examples of the main characteristics of DE: physical separation, the use of technical media, the need for an effective system of communication and careful planning, and perhaps the provision for occasional face-to-face meetings. Implicit in these is the need to provide adequate support for students, but this is so important that it perhaps need to be explicitly stated. If we add it to the other characteristics, what emerges is a useful set of criteria for identifying DE, and the definition offered by Keegan is based on just such a set. The list offered below (1990: 44) differs slightly from an earlier version (1983: 30), the most notable omission being reference to Peters' concept of industrialisation.
"Distance education is a form of education characterized
by o the quasi-permanent separation of teacher and learner throughout the length
of the learning process (this distinguishes it from conventional face-to-face
o the influence of an educational organisation both in the planning and preparation of learning materials and in the provision of student support services (this distinguishes it from private study and teach-yourself programmes);
o the use of technical media - print, audio, video or computer - to unite teacher and learner and carry the content of the course;
o the provision of two-way communication so that the student may benefit from or even initiate dialogue (this distinguishes it from other uses of technology in education); and
o the quasi-permanent absence of the learning group throughout the length of the learning process so that people are usually taught as individuals and not in groups, with the possibility of occasional meetings for both didactic and socialisation purposes."
This definition has been fairly widely accepted, but it's always worth introducing
at least a whisper of dissent, which is what Kaufman & Mugridge  offer in
the introduction to their book on DE in Canada. They claim that "the lines which
hitherto existed between distance and face-to-face education are being blurred
or eliminated" as the former becomes more generally accepted and as teaching
techniques are shared. It's an interesting point of view, although I don't think
it undermines Keegan's position because it seems to me that the boundaries are
moving as a result of changes in the concept of conventional, rather than distance,
If you're interested in this aspect you could try Tait and Mills (1999). I can't vouch for it personally because I have it on order at the moment but haven't yet received a copy.
Steve Mann's position on this is that this is really a matter of mainstream pragmatism and a reflection of the fact that OC and DE courses have elements of both (use of emails, files etc.) and the methodology of DE may be feeding back into face-to-face teaching. I think these are points well worth making.
If you were asked to explain the difference between 'open' and 'distance' education, what would your response be?
Jot down a few bullet points.
After reading the next section, review your points and relate them to the issues raised.
Distance and Open Education
The distinction between distance and open education is something you need to know about if you're involved in DE because sooner or later someone will ask you about it. As with all such distinctions, you can respond on a number of different levels, and this section sets out to indicate some of the options open to you.
At the simplest level, you could draw on Holmberg's definition, or something like it, and simply say that DE refers to 'non-contiguous education', where the 'centre' is separated from the learners, while open education (henceforth OE) describes a situation where control of the learning is essentially in the hands of the student rather than pre-determined by the 'centre'.
This gives you a rough and ready distinction, and many enquirers will be satisfied with a grasp of where the essential difference lies, but when you start to think carefully about the relationship between these two approaches it becomes less easy to separate them, and this isn't helped by the fact that many distance teaching institutions, such as the Open University, have 'open' in their title.
So far we've looked at DE, so in what follows I'll concentrate on OE.
Dimensions of Openness
For the purposes of analysis, it's useful to consider three dimensions of openness. As you read these, you might like to jot down in the empty boxes provided the features of our own MSc programme which limit its openness. This might then provide a stimulus for reflection in your diary.
This refers to the conditions relating to joining the course, and it can of course be extended to cover access to such things as tutorial support and other learners. A completely open programme would be open to any person, at any time, anywhere in the world. In practice there are likely to be restrictions, either prescriptive or practical. Prescriptive restrictions would be laid down by the provider and would relate to the rules for joining the programme, involving such matters as fees payable, age, experience, educational level, location etc.
Even if there were no such prescriptive conditions, there might well be practical constraints which restrict the openness. To get an idea of this, imagine a three year old Mozart delighted to discover that age and educational background are no bar to his joining a free course on 'Composing Musical Masterpieces', only to be disappointed when he finds that it's available only in England (and in English).
This is something you might like to consider in the context of a Learning Contract (Unit 3).
I use this term very loosely to cover all aspects of the course, including syllabus and assessment. A completely open programme would allow students to start when they wish, cover what they wish, be assessed (or not) how they wish, and finish when they wish. Taken to extremes, this leaves us with no course at all. Realistically, the most that might be expected is a syllabus which allows as much choice as possible in terms of selection, ordering and emphasis, content which allows unrestricted selection, and assessment which is determined by the student. If a programme leads to a particular award, for example, a Certificate in Classroom Management, and that award is to have any credibility, then there will be inevitable restrictions on openness of content and assessment. However, it's easy to describe a situation where such openness is possible. Imagine, for example, a course on using a particular type of computer, available via the net. In this case, as a user I can examine what's available, decide what I want to do, in what order, then pick and mix to add to the skills I already possess, stopping when I feel I've made sufficient progress for my needs.
In very general terms, you could argue that academic courses are likely to require greater limitations on openness than vocational courses, but the match is probably not close enough to make this distinction tenable. I think a more useful approach is to distinguish between 'reward' and 'award' outcomes (although these terms are obviously not mutually exclusive). A course, like the computer one, offers all sorts of rewards but no formal award, which distinguishes it from an award-bearing course, which would include, in addition to the rewards involved, a formal recognition of achievement. The potential for openness in a reward-based course is much greater than that in an award-based course.
I have in mind here everything in that broad range from a highly structured course to the sort of programme which is in essence no more than an examination, where the means of arriving at the necessary state of knowledge and/or skill is left to the candidate. The extent to which particular tasks, encounters, procedures etc. are demanded of the student will determine the openness of the relevant programme. Connected with this is the issue of timing. The greater the freedom to join at any time, finish at any time and organise the timetabling of work, the greater the openness.
The link between DE and OE
The problem with offering a crude distinction along the lines I at first suggested is that it suggests that DE and OE are somehow separate. Yet it seems fairly clear from the above observations that openness is essentially a matter of degree, and we need to ask whether DE is likely to be on the whole more open than conventional education. I think that if we do it becomes fairly clear that this is the case. I can't see any basis for claiming that the content is likely to be more open in DE (although this may in fact be the case), and although it could be argued that by its very nature DE embraces the idea of independent study, there's no reason in principle why conventional education shouldn't seek just as actively to promote this. However, in terms of access it's hard to avoid the conclusion that DE is inevitably more open. In fact, the relationship between DE and OE goes deeper than this because part of what drives the former is the desire to open up courses to individuals who might otherwise be denied access to them. DE and OE, then, might be distinguishable in principle, but in practice they're very comfortable bedfellows.
You might like to consider the link between open education and learner independence, then compare your thoughts with the quotations in the TASK section at the end of this page.
There is, as you may have suspected, yet another level of response, although
it's certainly not one any reasonable person would wish to visit on the casual
enquirer. It is possible to claim, as Rumble (1989) does, that DE and OE cannot
really be compared. In fact, he goes further and argues that in practice 'open
learning' is a debased term, a label which acts as a useful lure to customers.
Needless to say, this view has not gone unchallenged, but the relevant debate
is part of the guided reading for this unit, so I'll leave things tantalisingly
in the air for now.
To conclude, I'll return to my original crude distinction and offer a rather more refined version (Escotet 1980:264) for you to consider in the light of the foregoing discussion:
"Open education is particularly characterised by the removal of restrictions and privileges; by the accreditation of students' previous experiences; by the flexibility of the management of the time available; and by substantial changes in the traditional relationship between professors and students. On the other hand, distance education is a modality which permits the delivery of a group of didactic media without the necessity of regular class participation, where the individual is responsible for his own learning."
Draw up a list of what you take to be the main differences between conventional education and DE, then compare your list with Kaye's analysis in the TEXT section at the end of this page.
Are there any differences and if so do you consider them to be important ones?
Distance and Conventional Education
Having dealt with a distinction which is in some respects difficult to sustain, we move to one which is central to the business before us. Our work on the definition of DE has moved us very close to an identification on the main differences between DE and conventional education, but we can't take these for granted. If you find yourself involved in the setting up of a DE operation, or arguing the case for one, it's essential to grasp where the differences between conventional and distance modes lie.
This section will focus on these differences, using a comparison which was originally presented some years ago but which still serves as an excellent basis for a comparative discussion. The section will begin with a task, then you'll be asked to compare your own thoughts on the subject with my own reflections. There's no right and wrong answer here because much depends on the ci
Distance Learning System
|Student Assessment and Evaluation|
rcumstances, but this should give you a rough sketch of the territory.
1. What differences between this programme and a conventional one are most apparent to you as someone following this course on a day-to-day basis and how significant are these differences?
2. What other differences can you think of?
You might like to jot down some key words on the table below (taken from Kaye 1981).
3. Compare your notes with Kaye's table in the TEXT section at the end of this page and think about the differences.
Would you like to dispute or add any points?
Having said I think Kaye's model still serves a very useful purpose, I'm obviously not about to tear into it too extensively. However, having completed the same task as you, I'm left with one or two reflections on his model which I'd like to pass on. You could compare these with your own and see if they make sense to you. If you feel that there are areas where more discussion is required, feel free to get in touch with me directly.
I think it's possible to overplay the differences here. For example, it's not necessarily the case that DE students are more heterogeneous. For all practical pedagogic purposes, it would be fair to say that groups following our on-campus programme tend to be much more heterogeneous than those on our DE programme.
It's also true that 'independence' has many aspects, and this has to be borne in mind when reading Kaye's list. For example, on-campus undergraduate students in some countries on mainland Europe are left to fend for themselves much more than they are in England, and in this respect might be said to be much more independent - though the difference is reflected in lower drop-out rates in England. Yet at the same time the former are expected to accept relatively uncritically the statements made by their teachers, while in England the emphasis falls more firmly on critical debate, and in this respect the English students might be said to be more 'independent'.
Having argued this, I think it's true that DE students have to be more 'independent', interpreting that term in its most general sense. They certainly have to be more self-reliant, self-motivated and, I think, resourceful.
All I can do here is nod my head vigorously. Failing to take proper account of this was one of the biggest mistakes I made in setting up the Aston DE programme, and it's something which we work on constantly. The headaches never quite disappear.
You can read more about this in my account in the TEXT section at the end of this page.
Having said this, I think it's only fair to balance things up a bit by noting that the increasing emphasis on accountability in education since Kaye produced his table has meant that record keeping in conventional systems now tends to be much more extensive and sophisticated. One of the main focuses of our administrative development, for example, has been on the creation of effective databases.
The fact that a whole unit is devoted to this issue reflects how important I take it to be.
I disagree profoundly with the claim that this is "automatically built-in to face-to-face systems". I don't think there's anything automatic about it, and it's something which deserves proper attention. The challenge, though, is much greater in DE. It's important to have a number of systems in place because the opportunities to pick up warning signs are less frequent and less clear-cut than in face-to-face teaching. Putting it metaphorically, because the signals are weak you need more sensitive equipment to pick them up and because there is already a built-in time lag you need to react as quickly as possible.
Student Assessment and Accreditation
I'm not sure this is a bigger problem in DE, but I would agree that we need to be more aware of it in this mode. Kaye's point about the reliability issue is a good one, but effective moderation can compensate for this to some extent, and we should remember that as far as assignments and (telephone or face-to-face) tutorials go, there's little to chose between the two modes. A bigger issue may be the perception on the part of some people that DE is suspect because of the potential for cheating, and this is where reassurance is necessary. It is possible to put adequate checks in place (while recognising that no system is foolproof), but it's also necessary to demonstrate that this has been done.
As professionals in the field of TESOL/TESP, I think we probably have a head start in this area, and as a result I may be understating the differences here.
It seems fairly obvious that at a superficial level there are clear differences between conventional and DE modes, but the differences in terms of skills may not be as significant as Kaye implies. I'm not sure quite what he means by the need for teaching skills in conventional education to be "fairly well defined", but I don't think this is a particularly important. I also think that the DE skills which were in short supply when he wrote his paper are now much more readily available. In fact, while I'm sure there are skill differences, I don't think they're much more fundamental than those which exist between different subject teachers. In a nutshell, there seems to me to be quite a bit of overlap, but DE teachers need to develop particular skills related to the media which they will use.
This is where the differences are most obvious. The essential difference, it seems to me, lies in the production and distribution process, and the consequences of this for lead-in times. The degree of preparation and the length of time required mean that careful planning, well in advance, is required for DE operations. Kaye's point about the difference between start-up and student-variable costs is also important, not least because of its implications for the level of investment required for a new DE programme.
Organisation and Administration
I feel that, largely because of developments over the last decade, Kaye's comments on administration in conventional education now seem rather na´ve, but his essential distinction still holds good. Organisation and administration require massively more attention in DE than in conventional education, and the potential problems are considerably more numerous. One thing I would wish to emphasise here is the extent of the interdependence of administrative and academic staff, so that failures in one area may have a significant impact on the other.
These points are particularly worth noting if you're involved in setting up a DE operation. It's almost impossible to extrapolate from a conventional system and if you're not careful you can find that you've significantly underestimated the level of investment required to provide adequate administrative support.
Control and Administration
I didn't include this in the table you were invited to complete because it seems to me that it's covered by organisation and administration.
The same applies to this, which was touched on under 'Courses'. The issues, anyway, are too complex, and perhaps too general, to discuss here.
Having earlier accepted Keegan's warning about creating neologisms, I now plan to set that aside and introduce the concept of situated learning. I can't claim credit for it because it emerged from our discussions in the Unit about the nature of our work, and it would be hard to pin down who first introduced it. I believe the term is important, though, and in justifying its use I'll also be arguing the case for DE in professional development. Before reading on you might like to speculate on what the term is designed to represent.
Comments in blue in what follows are designed to stimulate a critical response to my arguments and you should try and make notes after each section and question.
Most of the arguments which have been advanced for DE have centred on its openness: freedom of access, flexibility of courses and study patterns, the consequent encouragement of independent learning, etc. What I intend to do, though, is sketch out what I believe to be a more fundamental case for DE in professional development. In doing so, I take it as read that the advantages already identified apply as well, so that, for example, there are financial and professional benefits to following a course which does not oblige participants to stop work for an extended period. These advantages seem obvious enough not to need further elaboration.
I don't think I'm assuming too much in this paragraph, but in the light of your experience you might wish to question my almost casual dismissal of potential objections to the standard position.
The case for DE in professional development, I would suggest, is important because it questions a fundamental assumption implicit in the term "Distance Education". In using this term attention is drawn to the distance element, which, as we have seen, is a fair reflection of its most fundamental characteristic. However, the term carries with it - educationally if not generally - negative connotations. There is a sense in which the distance has to be 'got over', so that at times it can seem that some of the most attractive features of DE programmes (materials design, support systems, etc.) are really no more than part of a worthy attempt to compensate for the fundamental disadvantage which distance represents. If this seems to extreme a claim, it is unquestionably true that distance is never represented as a positive advantage.
In foregrounding the distance element, this term also draws attention to the importance of the relationship between:
o teachers and learners
o the organisation and the student
o the centre and the periphery
I could be accused here of deliberately charactising things in this way in order to set up my own argument.
The ordering of these terms is not accidental: beginning with an unexceptional and evenly balanced relationship, it leads to a formulation which removes the learner from the heart of things. Unsurprisingly, and quite properly, most of the work on DE has gone into understanding these relationships and developing systems and approaches designed to make them work more effectively. But notice how the organisation (and its representatives) is represented as lying at the educational heart of the enterprise.
Am I downplaying the importance of DE systems here?
The concept of Situated Learning (henceforth SL) shifts the perspective away from the organisation to the context in which the student works - and the shift is a fundamental one. It's fundamental not least because it draws attention to what is most positive about the learning situation, rather than allowing this to be obscured by less important matters relating to distance. In order to justify this shift we need to consider the relationship between professional development and situation.
Professional development can only take place within a particular profession and from a particular point. This means that those who are seeking professional development and choose to separate themselves from their professional context will sooner or later, if their development is to have any meaning, return to that context and move forward within it. However we seek to describe it, this involves a process of translation (of what has been learned and understood) and transition (from outsider to insider). Widdowson (1990: 65) provides a valuable summary of the important issues here:
"There is, of course, very extensive provision already made in the field of in-service education for language teachers, ranging from award-bearing year-long courses in universities to the relatively informal meetings of teacher groups on a self-help basis. With such programmes there is, however, a persistent problem of renewal of connection with the classroom. This is perhaps more evident in the case of longer courses where teachers are displaced from their pedagogic habitat for long periods of time, but it exists also in shorter courses. What happens very often here is that participants are inspired by the social and professional intensity of the event but find that they have little to carry home with them except a heady sense of general enlightenment which is often quickly dispersed on its contact with reality. This is not to deny the value of such courses: they provide, at the very least, a sense of professional community and there is no doubt that some of the inspiration they generate carries over into practice. But for many participants what is needed is something more definite in the way of a scheme of work of some kind which will direct and maintain the momentum of the course into a continuing programme of monitored activities in the classroom."
This could be seen as a straw man argument: what we in
fact have is situated learning in a DE context, so the challenge is to DE, not
to the preferred term, DE.
In a conventional arrangement the initial learning is not situated in the professional context, and the return to that context represents a new and important further step in the learning process. In other words, in professional terms, the relevant distance is between the only context in which development can be fully realised and the site of formal learning - the organisation. In the light of this, it seems inappropriate to describe learning and development which is situated in the professional environment as taking place at a distance. The term 'distance learning' is misleading and what is needed is something which will capture the nature of the learning process. This is why 'situated learning' is preferable.
You can see this idea exemplified in the action research orientation of the Methodology module.
Once the idea of situated learning is accepted it will have a number of important implications for any programme which chooses to use this description, the most obvious of which is the fact that the focus must be on the local situation. In pedagogic terms, this means that the programme must be sufficiently open for participants to ensure that the focus of their studies reflects their locally contextualised developmental needs. In the case of professional - and especially teacher - development, there seems to be a very strong case for adopting an approach which involves investigating one's own practice and developing the reflective and analytic skills necessary to integrate this into a process of informed professional growth.
The implications for the teacher/learner relationship are also significant: the level of self-determination and contextual knowledge required for the successful completion of such a programme mean that the role of the tutor is likely to be that of guide rather than teacher, and that there must be a genuine exchange of knowledge if progress is to be made. For this reason, students on the Aston programme are referred to as participants, and it seems reasonable to argue that this should be standard terminology within SL.
An obvious question to ask yourself here is to what extent the programme we have developed lives up to these ideals. In the light of this, you might like to consider the LSU's vision statement, which is provided in the TEXT section at the end of this page.
This, then, is an outline of the case for SL in professional development. I've gone into only the barest detail on the implications of this for the design of programmes, but this is something which perhaps deserves more detailed articulation. For the purposes of this unit, I think the general case itself is sufficient because it reminds us of the educational basis of DE and of the importance of bearing this in mind when we develop DE programmes.
I've used DE throughout this unit, rather than DL.
Do you think there might have been a case for using the latter sometimes, and if so how would you distinguish the two terms?
Note down a response.
A note on terminology
I think there is a case for distinguishing the two terms. Keegan (1990:32) quoting Rawson-Jones, argues that 'Distance Education' is preferable since it embraces both distance teaching and distance learning, but I think this misses the point since it implies that the latter term is redundant. I find it useful to think in terms of e DE when I have in mind the broader field and DL when my focus is on day to day aspects, where the emphasis falls on students or the process of helping students to learn. Another way of looking at this is to say that when the focus is on what the learner does DL is more appropriate, and when the focus is broader than this, embraces institutional issues or concentrates on the relationship between the teacher and the learner, DE many be preferable.
In fact, in the LSU we always use the term DL because our attention is on the learner and the learner's situation, and our daily concerns are necessarily practical ones. It's also interesting to note that although I've used the term 'open education' for the sake of consistency, 'open learning' is the preferred description - again, the focus is on the learner.
This unit has concentrated on developing a picture of distance learning via definitions of it and distinctions between different but related terms, and it has suggested that what lie behind these terms are assumptions about the nature of education and learning. As promised, the unit will end with a personal warts and all account of my own experiences of DE at Aston, but first I'd like to end this part on an optimistic note. The growth of distance education and the developments in information technology contemporaneous with it have guaranteed it a place on the educational stage, and I think there's every reason to agree with the optimistic note struck by Farrell & Haughey well over a decade ago(1986:35):
"In discussing the future of distance education we are in fact discussing the future of education itself and the entire range of activities and age groups it represents."
Distance learning: definitions
1.1 "'Distance education' is a generic term that includes the range of teaching/learning strategies referred to as 'correspondence education' or 'correspondence study' at further education level in the United Kingdom; as 'home study' at further education level and 'independent study' at higher educational level in the United States; as 'external studies' in Australia; and as 'distance teaching' or 'teaching at a distance' by the Open University of the United Kingdom. In French it is referred to as 'tÚlÚ-enseignement'; Fernstudium/Fernunterricht in German; 'educaciˇn a distancia' in Spanish and 'teleducacŃo' in Portuguese."
1.2 "The growing literature on distance education contains many complaints about the lack of unanimity on the terminology used in the field. This is especially true of the English-speaking world where each of the following terms is used extensively: correspondence study, home study, independent study, external studies, distance teaching and distance education."
1.3 "I feel that cumbersome neologisms should be barred from discussions among distance educators for whom, above all, clarity of expression should be of prime concern. 'Andragogical' and 'telemathic' (Delling, 1976) are two dubious terms that have appeared in the literature in recent years."
2.1 "The term 'distance education' covers the various forms of study at all levels which are not under the continuous, immediate supervision of tutors present with their students in lecture rooms or on the same premises, but which, nevertheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and tuition of a tutorial organisation."
2.2 "Distance education is a fairly new term. It denotes the forms of study not led by teachers present in the classroom but supported by tutors and an organisation at a distance from the student. This brief description allows an interpretation which equates distance education with correspondence education. The reason why the term distance education has come into being is that the word correspondence is felt to be associated exclusively with the written word, whereas usually audio recordings and often radio, TV, telephone communication and other media nowadays supplement the written word in what is called distance education. Sometimes, particularly in the USA, independent study is used as a synonym."
2.3 "The main characteristic of distance education is non-contiguous communication"
3.1 Distance teaching/education "is an industrialised form of teaching and learning".
3.2 "Distance study is a rationalised method - involving the division of labour - of providing knowledge which, as a result of applying the principles of industrial organisation as well as the extensive use of technology, thus facilitating the reproduction of objective teaching activity, allows a large number of students to participate in university study simultaneously, regardless of their place of residence and occupation."
"Distance teaching may be defined as the family of instructional methods in which the teaching behaviours are executed apart from the learning behaviours, including those that in a contiguous situation would be performed in the learner's presence, so that communication between the teacher and the learner must be facilitated by print, electronic, mechanical or other devices."
5. Snell et al
5.1 "Distance teaching is commonly defined as teaching that takes place at a distance from the learner."
5.2 "Many existing definitions of open learning encapsulate the features of distance teaching which have been described above, ie as mass education through the widespread availability of self-instructional materials supported where necessary by tutoring, assessment and counselling. The emphasis is usually on open access to education."
"Distance education (Fernunterricht) is a planned and systematic activity which comprises the choice, didactic preparation and presentation of teaching materials as well as the supervision and support of student learning and which is achieved by bridging the physical distance between student and teacher by means of at least one appropriate technical medium."
7. French law
"Distance education is education which either does not imply the physical presence of the teacher appointed to dispense it in the place where it is received or in which the teacher is present only on occasion or for selected tasks."
(Loi 71.556 du 12 juillet 1971; quoted Keegan, 1986)
"Distance education implies a pedagogical method where oral teaching is limited and concentrated to a few intensive periods spread out over a whole term or academic year. In between these periods, the student studies on his own at home, but has the possibility to consult his tutors at the university either by telephone or by letter.... The method is, thus, a further development of correspondence education."
9. Kaufman & Mugridge
"Increasingly, the lines which hitherto existed between distance and face-to-face education are being blurred or eliminated as distance education gains more and more widespread acceptance among educators in general, and as the techniques applied to both become more and more consistent with each other."
Independence and Open Learning
"Distance education is a means of providing learning experiences for students through the use of self-instructional materials and access to educational resources, the use of which is largely determined by the student and which allow the student, for the most part, to choose the time, place and circumstances of learning."
"The method of correspondence study provides simultaneously an educational
device for individualization in three distinct senses - student ability, variety
of course offerings and flexibility for time and place of study."
"A major problem of distance learning courses is that of developing ways
in which students can learn without continual dependence on prescribed study
guides and correspondence from a tutor. It is not enough for the student to
be able to master the objectives and content of a course; it is also necessary
to develop skills of independent learning."
"The essence of the dissemination orientation [in open learning] is open
access. It centres on the preparation and packaging of materials in a form that
will enable widespread availability for individualized study, free from administrative
Boot & Hodgson (1987)
"Independent study consists of various forms of teaching-learning arrangements
in which teachers and learners carry out their essential tasks and responsibilities
apart from one another, communicating in a variety of ways, for the purpose
of freeing internal learners from inappropriate class placings or patterns or
providing external learners opportunity to continue learning in their own environments,
and developing in all learners the capacity to carry on self-directed learning,
the ultimate maturity required of the educated person."
The Aston MSc: A Personal Reflection
When I set out to design this module, I decided that it would have to begin with an honest reflection on my own experiences in the field of distance education. I could fill a book with them, but I think it's possible to identify the key areas and cover the essential territory in a few pages. The reason for wanting to write such an account is not that I feel any pressing need to exorcise past failures (God knows, I've bored enough people with the gory details over the years), but because I know that writing from a perspective ten years down the line, it's all to easy to give the impression that things are pretty straightforward.
If you're registered on this module because you have to set up a DL operation, you may well face some of the difficulties I initially failed to overcome, and it can be reassuring to know that you're not alone in this. More importantly, I think this personal account brings to the fore the process by which I reached the beliefs I now have about DL, and this may go some way towards explaining, in very practical terms, why I regard a grasp of the concept of distance education fundamental to the business of actually doing it.
In what follows I use swimming as a convenient structural metaphor. I invite you to respond to some of the issues raised by taking notes particularly after the questions in blue, should you wish to do so.
Jumping in the deep end
I can't claim that the responsibility for DL (I'll use our preferred term in this account) was actually dumped on me, but that's how it seems in retrospect. In the middle of the Aston MSc, while still working as a consultant on the side, I was invited by the then Director of Studies to join the LSU in order to take responsibility for a DL version of the in-house course. The DL course had already been agreed and was due to begin in January of the following year. I would be given a completely free hand, subject to the understanding that the content and assessment of the course would have to be identical to that of the in-house programme. I'm one of those people who are a sucker for a new project, especially if they're given a free hand, so I jumped at the chance and was appointed, subject to my successful completion of the MSc. That meant I didn't start work until October, when I was presented with a pile of application forms from our first centre, from which, in conjunction with the DoS, I selected the lucky 25 who would comprise our first group. Once that was out of the way, we had three months to get the whole thing up and running.
As you can see from this description, I made no attempt to negotiate the conditions under which the new programme should be introduced. At this point, you might like to pause to consider what your negotiating position would be if you found yourself in my situation and had the good sense not to jump in blindly, as I did.
In retrospect, there were three areas which were of fundamental importance and which I more or less completely ignored, with consequences that were repairable only over time.
My biggest mistake lay in the false assumption that it is possible to take a conventional course and simply adapt it for delivery in a DL mode. The consequences of this perhaps go a long way towards explaining my position on DL today.
The most obvious consequence of this is that the mindset of the whole team was wrong. Instead of asking what were the distinct advantages of DL and what we could do to make the best of these, we conceptualised everything in terms of what we knew of in-house operations. If you like, we saw DL as very much a second best and were prepared to distort it as much as we could to get it as close as possible to what we saw as the in-house ideal (now referred to as 'on-campus' rather than 'in-house', an interesting reflection of the different view we have of the status of the DL programme);. I can understand how we came to do this: we had a successful programme and no reason to doubt the educational principles on which it was based, so in a sense our perception of its intellectual strength was entirely conventional - the shift to a whole new conception was probably psychologically beyond us and would have to wait until it was triggered by a big enough shock to the system.
Do you think there's a case for making sure all your team understand what is meant by DL?
If so, which elements in this unit, if any, would you draw on?
This mistaken perception of what we were doing had a number of practical consequences,
the effects of which shouldn't be underestimated. For example, when it came
to devising a timetable for the programme, I used the in-house model as a point
of departure and arrived at the completely unrealistic figure of 15 months for
completion of the whole programme. I also considerably underestimated the demands
which would be placed on administrative support, extrapolating from a situation
where so much went on unseen in the daily rhythms built up over many years.
On a less general level, working from an in-house perspective often landed us in situations which might have left us seriously compromised. For example, the standard procedure for in-house assignments was for tutors to write comments in the margin and a terminal comment with accompanying grade on the back page. The mark would then be recorded and before texts were sent to the external examiner they would all be collected in. Any problems could be dealt with on the spot.
At a distance, however, this system left far too much for chance, as we discovered when a participant claimed that the grade on his assignment was a notch above the one we had recorded. While not questioning the integrity of the participant, we had to recognise that in the photocopy he sent us the plus sign could have been added by someone other than the markers. We therefore had to call in the assignment itself to ensure the integrity of the final grade. This might seem like a tiny issue, but at a distance there is massive potential for misunderstanding and dissatisfaction, especially when this is seen as just one example in a wider pattern of miscalculation.
Although the roots of these mistakes lay in the adoption of an inappropriate perspective, at a more immediate level they arose from my failure to allow adequate time for preparation.
In broad terms, what sort of preparation would you expect to make in order to get a course like this up and running?
Looking back now, it's embarrassing to admit that when I took up the offer of a job in an ESP Unit I was working as an ESP consultant. It's embarrassing because I conducted no needs analysis worthy of the name and simply plunged in on the basis of the pretty skimpy analysis that was available. I certainly had no clear picture of the distance learning participants we would be dealing with, and even less of an idea of how the course would impinge on their lives. Neither did I work out a planning and production schedule based on a realistic assessment of what was needed in order to establish the programme I had devised. Instead, I accepted that I would have three months in which to get things up and running, and devised a timetable which would achieve that, paying no attention to the real time commitment involved. This would have been impossible anyway because I hadn't done the research necessary in order to make realistic calculations - nor did I have time to do so.
A list of things which I failed to do would be extensive and not particularly illuminating, but I can sum up the problems which I encountered on that first attempt is by saying that I found myself in a situation where priorities were continually distorted. What mattered most was to get the thing up and running by the agreed date, and this meant setting aside anything which could be dealt with after that (an all too familiar story in TESOL). The most obvious and damning omission was any consideration of the participants' perspective.
It's not that I deliberately ignored this; it was more a case of dealing with concrete problems such as materials production and essential administration. Even there, though, there were distortions. Effective administration depends on effective planning, and is never the result of a series of ad hoc decisions, but when there is no time for planning immediate matters are dealt with first and other issues are shunted into a rapidly growing pile. Eventually, and usually unexpectedly, this will rear its head as a monster threatening to ruin your sleep for weeks on end.
On a personal level, I found that the DL programme took over the whole of my life. Teaching the Methodology component on the in-house programme, writing a ten unit Methodology file, a Study Guide, sorting out administrative issues and coordinating the whole project left me with no time for reflection. In the end, when the other component which was due to go out with Methodology was clearly behind schedule and one of the writers had dropped out, I was forced to pitch in with an extra couple of units. By then, in everyone's eyes the DL programme had been reduced to a set of materials.
This points to the third and final problem: a failure to bring colleagues on board.
At this point you might like to consider what steps you would take to achieve this.
Having been asked to take on responsibility for a programme which had already been approved, I na´vely assumed that that process would already have resulted in a shared commitment to the enterprise. In fact, some colleagues saw the new programme as representing some fancy financial footwork, while others were convinced that distance learning would result in an inferior standard of student work and undermine the academic credibility of the conventional course. All but one of them were very supportive, but their reservations about the programme were genuinely felt.
I realise now that this was only to be expected. For all the advances which DL has made, it is still held in deep suspicion in many parts of the world. This means that anyone involved in designing and launching a DL programme needs to make sure that colleagues understand just why this is being done and what the benefits are. As a new member of staff, working with colleagues who had been my teachers only a few months before, this would not have been easy for me, but I could have made some efforts to build a team. For example, I could have:
o made an effort to work towards a shared understanding of what the project would involve and what its guiding principles would be;
o copied to colleagues easily digestible extracts from the literature to help build up a picture of DL and its benefits;
o organised some workshops to help them with their materials writing and set up writing teams;
o worked with them to set realistic targets, sharing with them details of progress towards our common goals.
All very easy in retrospect, and some of it would not have come off, but I could at least have tried.
Keeping your head above water
Somehow it all came together, and the course was up and running almost on schedule, thanks to a last minute spurt. I have particularly vivid memories of lugging a suitcase with 25 files and accompanying reading down to Heathrow and paying over ú250 for it as excess baggage. All would have been well had this marked the end of all the pressure and panic, but in a sense it was more like the starting pistol. The problem with setting up a course in the way that I had done is that you establish an essentially reactive situation and remain at the mercy of what comes your way. It soon became clear that the hard and fast rules we'd laid down at the start couldn't possibly hold, and we moved quickly to a situation where we had to balance our responsibility to be fair to all participants with the needs of individual participants who were struggling with a pretty unrealistic schedule.
One immediate consequence of this situation was that we were almost immediately committed to essential revision of certain aspects of the programme - precisely because we had not allowed enough time for planning and reflection. Somehow we had to build in as much time as possible to think through the potential effects of these new changes, while implementing them quickly enough to clear up problems which might otherwise fester and infect other areas of the programme.
In cases such as the inadequate feedback system it was possible to devise a new method confidently and quickly, but the consequences of changes to more complex areas relating to timetabling and support systems were less predictable, and we had to depend on trial and error based on student feedback and our own limited experience. The resulting process of refinement was a long and painful one. At least we recognised very early on that the system we had put in place would have to change, and that it would be a serious mistake to rely on a series of ad hoc decisions to preserve its essential shape. This, we felt, would not be fair on participants and would not engender confidence in the programme.
In retrospect, life would probably have been easier if we had established a set of principles for undertaking this sort of revision.
You might like to consider what principles you would wish to adopt.
While this painful process was taking place, we were also able to identify areas where we would have time to plan and implement changes designed to enrich the programme. The process of refining systems which started then has continued ever since; all that has changed is that we now have much more effective procedures for ensuring the quality of the end product.
An early example of such a change was the addition of a Study Companion to the Course Guide. For the first time this provided participants with an overview of the whole programme, so that they could plan their studies more effectively. The evolution of this to its current form is reflection of the sort of changes which were taking place across the programme:
Phase 1 Course Guide
Administrative information only. (Continues, with refinements, to Phase 5.)
Phase 2 Study Companion
Description of components, with essential and recommended reading.
Advice on study and academic writing added.
Component objectives included.
Phase 5 Study Guide
Incorporates Course Guide and Module descriptions, including detailed unit-by-unit descriptions (objectives, content, reading etc.).
Other changes - less tangible but no less important - were taking place at the same time and influencing the development of the programme. Perhaps the most powerful was a growing realisation of the value of distance learning. At the start of the programme there was an unspoken assumption on the part of most involved that this was in some way a spin-off from the in-house programme and it was regarded as something of a poor relation. However, the distinctive advantages of the new programme soon began to emerge.
One of the things which impressed us most was the resourcefulness of participants. It's probably fair to say that participants on all Masters programmes complain about resources, and as external examiner for a couple of programmes, one in an impressively resourced School of Education at a long-established university, I can vouch for this from personal experience. However, while in-house participants often settle for complaint only, we found that distance learners were much more willing to take the initiative in seeking out new resources and in sharing their findings will fellow participants.
This is not a trivial observation because the independent 'can-do' attitude which it promotes seeps into other areas of work and engenders an assurance which contributes to successful investigation. Perhaps this played its part in the most impressive outcome of the new course: the extent to which participants were able to relate their study to their work and explore professionally valuable local applications. Ultimately, it was this realisation which would help fashion a completely new programme with a distinct educational philosophy.
You might like to consider the nature of this connection and perhaps to predict some of the other changes which might have influenced the transition to a new programme.
Realising the value of this new programme was a spur to learning more about distance education, so, for me at least, this was a period when I read extensively on the subject. In retrospect, it's hard to believe that I could take on the responsibility for a new DL programme in a state of such profound ignorance of the principles of distance education, and I have to admit to a few toe-curling moments when I discovered in the literature information and advice which could have saved me a great deal of trouble. Perhaps, though, if I had been more aware of the problems, my approach would have been more timid and ultimately less productive - or at least it does me good to believe that.
Learning how to swim
The next phase was an exciting one, perhaps because there was at last a sense that most if not all the steps were heading in the right direction. Rather than present it as a narrative, I'll identify the elements which seem to me to be particularly important and comment on why I've chosen to include them.
The four elements are presented in rank order of importance - in so far as such a thing is possible - starting with what I take to be the most important.
You might like to compare your own ranking with mine.
1. Forming a team
Of all the factors, I think this is the most significant. In distance education it isn't just the students who feel isolated: without regular face-to-face contact, it's hard to sense the mood of a course and develop a sense of what is and isn't working. Written and even telephone exchanges simply don't convey the same signals, and visits to centres, which can't provide a longitudinal perspective, are distorted by local circumstances and pressures of time.
Working alone or in a small sub-group, surrounded by people who are suspicious of the whole enterprise, it can be very easy to lose faith in what is possible. On the other hand, a supportive team not only provides important psychological and intellectual support, but acts almost like a series of receivers, picking up signals from participants at a distance and providing a means of getting a reliable 'fix' on the mood 'out there'.
I was very lucky because I was appointed DoS within about six months of the start of the DL programme and had a direct say in who joined the Unit just at a time when a number of people were about to move on. It always unfair to pick out individuals, so I'll simply mention two of the earliest additions to the team as illustrations of why I've put this aspect at the top of my list of priorities.
Peter Roe was appointed shortly before I took over as DoS and made a very important contribution to the development of the programme. Inevitably, colleagues who had been part of the old system tended to look back to that as the yardstick against which to measure change, but Peter's great strength is his ability to question conventional perspectives and to look at things in new ways. This, combined with an enthusiasm for systems-building and titanic energy, placed him at the heart of the struggle to develop something new which would transcend the limitations of the first DL programme.
Julian Edge joined the Unit a couple of years after I was appointed DoS and brought with him massive experience in teacher development and, more important than even this, a coherent and persuasive vision of teacher research and development around which a completely new philosophy was to develop. The timing was fortuitous, because insights from experiences with the DL programme were pointing towards positions which Julian was able to articulate elegantly and persuasively. His intellectual contribution to the new programme was invaluable.
There's a lot of luck involved in the development of a successful team, and the process of growth depends on the will of all those already in the team to identify and attract the right colleagues. In that respect, we were all lucky.
If you're part of a team, you might like to reflect on those qualities in your colleagues which might be particularly valuable in a DL situation.
2. Forging a philosophy
The developing voice of the new team provided the basis for the educational philosophy which eventually emerged, and in that sense we didn't start from scratch. The two ideas which are now central to our philosophy developed in practice long before they were explicitly formulated:
o Researching practice
Because it was based on an in-house programme, the original course didn't set out with this in mind. However, the opportunities to exploit the local professional context became quickly apparent to participants and, via their work, to us. The fortuitous growth of action research contemporaneously with the programme provided a sound theoretical foundation for this approach, as well as a sense that we were part of a wider movement.
o Situated learning
This reflects the fact that the learning, and the investigations central to it, are situated in the participant's own professional context. The term 'distance learning' reflects the gap between the learning situation and the teaching source; 'situated learning' shifts the emphasis to the point of learning and underlines the fact that, for post-experience courses focusing on professional development, the advantages of the local situation far outweigh the disadvantages of being separated from the administrative centre.
I've made this the second point in my list because I believe that educational decisions which can refer back to an explicit philosophy are more likely, as part of a coherently developing programme, to be effective in the long term. They can certainly be defended with confidence.
Is this philosophy reflected in the MSc in TESOL/TESP, and if not, what changes would you make to the programme as it now stands?
3. Researching and reflecting
This was something else which grew up with the programme only to be explicitly formulated later. Finding ourselves as pioneers in the field, we were quick to seize on the chance to find out more about it by researching different aspects of our work. The initial papers, and even the DL collection edited by Peter Roe and myself, were outcomes of this interest, but as our educational philosophy developed we came to realise that research and reflection were as integral to our own work as to that of participants on the course. We continue to learn.
4. Setting new targets
I place this last on my list conscious that without clear targets it's hard to generate momentum or sustain a sense of progress. However, in the absence of a clear philosophy such targets are inevitably to some extent random, and without a commitment to research and reflection the target becomes an end in itself rather than a means to personal and professional discovery and development. Our first big target was to design and develop a new modular DL programme.
This will be the shortest of all the sections in this brief history. The story is a simple one which leads to where we are now. Having developed an educational philosophy shared by all members of the team (our vision statement is reproduced below) and an accumulated fund of knowledge and experience stretching back nearly ten years, we were well placed to forge a new programme which would reflect our shared ideals. In the event, we were able to complete our planning within the two year target we had set ourselves and to move on to the process of gaining university approval while writing the new modules.
The result of this was the programme you're following, so you're in an excellent position to judge its strengths and weaknesses. At the time of writing it has been running for just one year, so we're in the process of identifying areas which could be refined or improved. Here are some of the things we're currently working on:
o the establishment of a coherent and effective participant support system, coordinated by Steve Mann;
o the establishment of a fully integrated system of evaluation and feedback to ensure quality of provision, coordinated by Sue Wharton;
o a review of grading criteria, with the aim of developing a system transparent to participants and tutors alike, coordinated by Sue Wharton;
o a programme of professional development linked to research into forms of cooperative discourse and aimed at improving our practice, coordinated by Julian Edge;
o refining and improving an overloaded administrative system in the face of externally imposed financial constraints which exclude the appointment of new staff;
o the development of a productive relationship with International House, which will draw on the strengths of both our institutions.
Another case of keeping our head above water perhaps - but this time we know the strokes and we know where we're headed.
Central to the LSU vision is the figure of the consciously developing English language educator. This self-motivated professional, working through cooperative inquiry towards an increasing sense of socially responsive and culturally sensitive authority, ability and responsibility, represents both the goal which we seek for ourselves and that which we seek to foster for our course participants.
Inasmuch as we seek this continuing way for ourselves, it represents the focal point of our research, as we strive better to understand and to model the personal and professional dimensions of our language use and pedagogy. Inasmuch as we seek to foster this goal for others, it represents the focal point of our teaching, as we facilitate for new entrants to our discourse community an increasing understanding of, and ability to model, the personal and professional dimensions of their language use and pedagogy.
Our research paradigm is constructivist, in the sense that we see cognition as a situated phenomenon, knowledge as a local process, and theory as a grounded epiphenomenon. Our philosophers are Vico and Dilthey and our methodology proceeds through contextualised experience, as distinct from controlled experiment. Our preferred mode of teaching is what is commonly known as distance education, as this makes possible the type of insider-led investigation which we seek to facilitate, and which stands in a reflexive and mutually emancipatory relationship to our own explorations.
Conventional and DE Systems Compared
Distance Learning System
|Students||- relatively homogeneous
- same location (eg. classrooms)
- largely 'dependent' learners
|- probably heterogeneous
- scattered, at-a-distance
- independent learners
- relatively uncontrolled
|Student Records||- do not need to be highly developed nor very detailed||- accurate student records essential (addresses, allocation to tutors, assessment grades, correspondence etc.)|
|Student Support||- automatically built-in to face-to-face systems||- need for special provision of local back-up services to
help student with learning problems and to minimise drop-out
- ways of bridging the gap between student and central institution need to be designed
- distance implies control and response (time) problems to be met
|Student Assessment and Evaluation||- problem of validity and reliability minimised
- relatively 'cheat-proof'
|- assessment at-a-distance increases problem of validity
- use of large numbers of correspondence tutors decreases reliability (need for monitoring procedures)
- cheating/impersonation a potential problem: credibility
|Media/ Methods||- essentially face-to-face teaching
- labour intensive
- teaching skills need to be fairly well defined
|- essentially 'mediated' teaching
- capital intensive
- skills needed generally not readily available
|Courses||- relatively simple, few and well-defined creation, production
and distribution processes
- low start-up costs but high student-variable costs: tendency for many options/courses with a few students on each
|- more complex, course creation-production-distribution processes,
with specialised staff functions arising from divisions of labour
- high start-up costs but low student-variable costs: tendency for few options with many students per course, to achieve economies of scale (if latter an objective)
|Organisation Administration||- little administrative support required: vast majority of
staff in schools and colleges are the teachers
- main administrative problems are concerned with time-tabling of teaching periods and with management of teaching staff (personnel functions)
|- strong administrative framework needed to link together
student support and record functions, course creation functions, course
production and distribution functions (industrial and quasi-industrial processes)
- some specialist functions may need to be carried out outside the DLS (eg. printing, broadcasting)
Distance Learning System
|Control and Regulation||- conventional problems of planning, scheduling, evaluation, leadership, decision-making||- these problems are magnified and in certain cases are qualitatively different (eg. the capital intensive and multi-media nature of the institution imposes longer planning horizons on many more fronts; integration of multi-media creation production - distribution and teaching systems control)|
|Cost Structure||- basically labour-intensive, and directly and primarily related to numbers of students; unit costs per student/year do not vary significantly with numbers per course||- basically capital-intensive, and related more to course creation and production costs than to student costs; unit costs per student/year drop significantly with increased numbers per course|
Kaye A. 1981 .Origins and structures. In A Kaye & G Rumble (Eds) Distance Teaching for Higher and Adult Education. London: Croom Helm.
A note on discussion and case papers
The structure of these sections should be fairly clear, but here's a breakdown of what's involved.
These sections which will appear in every unit:
First I'll provide full references for the articles. This will appear in a box.
I've chosen the articles because I think they provide a useful extension to the unit and could make a contribution to your studies, so I'll begin by providing a very brief account of why I think they're worth reading.
I'll then indicate the issues which I think arise from a reading of the two articles. This will provide you with a focus for your reading and, if you wish, something to think about before you actually read the articles. Questions and comments will appear in a table, with a space for your response.
Finally, I'll provide responses which occurred to me when reading the articles. These will appear in a table, with space for your notes next to them.
What I want to emphasise here is that there's no obligation on you to follow this pattern. You may well decide that you'd prefer to read the articles yourself and draw your own conclusions before seeing what I have to say. You might decide, even then, that you have no interest in looking at my more specific comments. The choice is yours and will be determined by preferred learning style and your level of interest in the topic.
There's also a case study in each unit, and here I'll provide boxed bibliographical details, a brief introduction and then some brief comments. My assumption here is that you won't look at my comments until after you've read the article and noted your own reactions to it, but again the approach is up to you.
Cowan J. 1995. The advantages and disadvantages of distance education. In Howard & McGrath (Eds) Distance Education for Language Teachers pp 14-20. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Richards K. 1994. The challenge of distance education. In Richards & Roe (Eds) Distance Learning in ELT pp 9-19. London: Modern English Publications in association with the British Council.
I've chosen the Cowan article not just because it overtly addresses the advantages and disadvantages of distance education, but because I think its treatment of the relationship between open and distance education is interesting. My own article is there because it too deals with this, and because it adds some background to DE which isn't in the unit.
The really interesting issue in these papers, it seems to me, is the relationship between distance and open education. Cowan admits that distance education doesn't have to be open, but seems to assume that in practice this is nearly always the case. What's interesting in his paper is the way that advantages and disadvantages connect with OE and DE: it seems that all the advantages derive from openness and all the disadvantages from distance. This might throw some light on the debate which Richards summarises.
In reading these papers, I'm left with a feeling that 'dimensions' of openness, though a valuable descriptive categorisation, doesn't help much in pinning down the relationship. There seems to me to be a heavy evaluative load attached to these terms which further adds to the difficulties here.
One way of approaching these papers is to start from the assumption that thinking in terms of openness raises one set of issues and thinking in terms of distance another. The question then is what are these issues and how to they relate?
1. What do you think of the link between separateness and openness here?
2. Is this account culturally loaded in any way?
3. Is "deep thinking" encouraged by DE?
4. Do you have any comments on the disadvantages of DE mentioned here?
5. What do you think of his point about "distant-but-not-open" (p18)?
1. Do you have any thoughts on the language teaching issue?
2. What are your thoughts, as a participant, on the lack of 'incidental contact?
It's interesting to note to what extent Cowan draws on Escotet's definition of open learning as presented here.
3. How do you react the claim that there's a continuum?
How does Rumble's position compare with that of Cowan?
4. Do you think these arguments are also culturally loaded?
1. The essence of the definition lies in the idea of separation, the first of Keegan's points and the most fundamental characteristic of DE. The openness to some extent follows from this. Notice the link between freedom and openness. The advantages of DE seem to derive from this freedom: the power to take control of learning and to exploit materials on a way that suits the learner. Of course, this must depend to some extent on how the materials are designed.
2. What set my antennae buzzing was the point where he seems to be saying that the "burden of self-evaluation" is an advantage - which is an odd way of putting it. I wonder to what extent the positive presentation of this, and the other aspects of freedom, is culturally loaded, an output of a liberal view of education which values freedom of choice and the responsibilities which it brings. I'm a firm believer in it myself, but sometimes I'm made very aware that the assumption of it can mask important issues.
3. I'm not convinced that DE encourages a sort of 'deep thinking' (I take this
term from his summary on p20) to an extent which is not available in face-to-face
teaching. In the latter, the teacher can put participants on the spot in seminar
and tutorial situations. It seems to me that there are just different pedagogic
design issues here.
However, the idea of exploiting local resources is fundamental to situated learning, although where Cowan is pointing to an advantage, the concept of situated learning represents an educational philosophy.
4, I thought that communication was perhaps one-sided but he picks this up on p19, in a more positive in tone. The degree to which group work is difficult will probably depend to a large extent on openness. The programme which preceded the modular one was much less open but founded on group work. You could say that in order to introduce the current degree of openness, we've sacrificed the group concept (so far, as far as we know, nobody has made use of our group contracts).
5. I think the concept of situated learning calls his main point here into question. There may be many advantages to studying at a distance, even when the degree of openness in terms of the course itself (which is what he seems to have in mind) is limited. A degree of openness is good, even necessary, in any course. The issue is one of balance, and I'm not sure he's addressed this.
1. Although the OU has since developed courses in languages other than English, it's only now that attention is turning to English. I think this is probably not entirely unconnected with developments in information technology.
2. Your response is the only valid one here, but I think this aspect can be a problem. A lot depends on the quality of the support offered and the extent to which learners have been introduced to and accepted the realities of study at a distance.
3. Rumble's point about the continuum is an interesting one, but there doesn't
seem to me to be anything impossible in principle about a two dimensional continuum
for DE and a three-dimensional one for OE, which to some extent undermines his
case. The real, issue, though, is clearly the financial one.
It's interesting to compare this with Cowan's representation, where 'openness' seems to have all the appeal and 'distance' to represent all the drawbacks. This separation, though, is perhaps an artificial one.
4. I think my arguments here also raise the issue of educational culture. Why should open learning be an educational 'ideal', except in a cultural context where a particularly high value is placed on individual freedom?
Hallam B. 1995. Formation Ó distance: Learning Strategies. In Howard & McGrath (Eds) Distance Education for Language Teachers pp 182-192. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
I chose this case because I liked its honesty: it's an account which describes failures as well as successes. It also touches on three areas which feature prominently in this module: DE/OE, materials, and support.
Notice how the materials here are designed for both face-to-face (henceforth F2F) and distance use. Does this mean that it's possible to produce materials which can be used in both modes without adaptation? I'm not sure that there is any set of materials which will work equally well in both modes, and I suspect that she might be assuming that F2F teachers will as a matter of course adapt them, if not physically then in the way they exploit them. (This is an issue to bear in mind when you tackle Unit 4)
Open access seems to be the most important dimension here. Notice the emphasis on flexibility and the use of terms like 'autonomy', 'self-directed', and 'flexible'.
I see in the "copious activities and tasks" Cowan's openness of choice. Personally, I'm all for it, but I don't think it's unproblematic. I know within the LSU there are those who think it's better to take the number of study hours associated with a module and design materials so that they can all be worked through in that time frame, leaving choice to matters of reading and the assignment, and I recognise that we differ in our views on this score. Their argument - and it's a powerful one - is that however much you say participants can concentrate on what appeals to them and omit what doesn't, in practice if the materials are there they place an almost irresistible pressure on the user. I recognise this and play up the importance of guiding people to make their own module out of the materials provided. It's a difficult argument to resolve and we all seek to find our own balance within it.
Notice how the course is structured around the following progression:
Activities (+ scope for reflection) ->
Notice, too, how scope for extension is built into the basic package. It's
interesting to reflect on why the intensive two-week course might have failed.
All sorts of ideas occur to me. The project, I think, may have had a lot to
do with it, and not just because it would involve work in a holiday period (and
we all know that projects always involve a lot more time and effort than we
expect them to). Inevitably, if work is to be handed in, there is an element
of evaluation, however innocent. Perhaps participants wanted to avoid this.
Does a network of materials centres really amount to a support system? Clearly not, and the writer seems to recognise this. I find the comments on p.191 particularly honest and helpful. One of the most revealing to me is the outcome of separating teachers/administrators from the materials.
Boot R L & Hodgson V E. 1987. Open learning: meaning and experience. In Hodgson et al (Eds) pp5-15.
Boud D J. 1981. Independence and interdependence in distance education: responsive course design. In F Percival & H Ellington (Eds) Aspects of Educational Technology Vol 15: Distance Learning and Evaluation. London: Kogan Page.
Cowan J. 1995. The advantages and disadvantages of distance education. In Howard & McGrath (Eds) pp14-20.
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Gough E. 1981. Distance education at Deakin University and University Sains Malaysia. Open Campus 3(1) 10-15.
Hallam B. 1995. Formation Ó distance: Learning Strategies. In Howard & McGrath (Eds) Distance Education for Language Teachers pp 182-192. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
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