Three ways to save distance universities

TELUQ logoToday brings another bit of bad news for a distance education institution, with TELUQ’s future looking uncertain, though it is good to see that its importance and contribution is also recognized, and it is a long way from dead yet. Though rumours of Athabasca University’s own demise resulting mainly from our acting president’s message that has widely been construed as a suicide note to the world are greatly exaggerated, and repudiated by the acting president himself, similar issues are reflected here and in the Open University, UK, that has lost a quarter of its students over the past five years.  I have heard informal whispers from Europe that the OUNl is in similarly dire straits, though have no references to support that and it might just be hearsay – I’d welcome any news on that.

We are all institutions that were established within a very few years of one another (AU and OU-UK within months of each other) at a time that there were no viable higher education alternatives for students without formal qualifications, who were stuck in a location without a university, who were in full-time employment, or for whatever reason could not or would not attend a physical institution.

Moving on 40-50 years, times have changed dramatically but, fundamentally, we have not. Sure, we have mostly dropped the archaic technologies that we used when we were founded, but paper course packs and associated processes and pedagogies lurk deep within our organizational DNA even if the objects themselves are mostly a memory. Sure, we have, collectively, been leaders and prime movers in establishing the research, the pedagogies and the technologies of distance education that are now widespread in most physical universities, but it is notable that most of our innovative practices have been taken up more widely elsewhere than in our own institutions. And there are lots of alternatives elsewhere nowadays, from MOOCs to the massive growth of distance courses on face-to-face campuses, and much else besides.

Competition is only one of many reasons for the peril distance institutions are now in. It is odd, at first glance, that we have reached this point because we were first past the post for decades and, thanks to our relative independence of physical infrastructure and our research leadership, should have been more agile in adapting to what, from the early 90s, has clearly been a rapidly changing educational and technological landscape to which we should have been perfectly adapted. But there are some critical structural flaws in our design that have held us back. All of the open universities of this era originally adopted an industrial design model, based heavily on the work of people like Otto Peters and Charles Wedermeyer, who talked of independent learning but actually meant anything but when it came to teaching. This was essential in pre-Internet times, because communication was too slow and cumbersome to do anything else, both pedagogically and in business processes. But it had systemic consequences.

We have been and to a large extent remain driven by process in all that we do. We were designed primarily as machines for higher education, not as communities of scholars. Just as we structured our teaching, so we structured our organizations and, as transactional distance theory suggests, the result was less dialogue, especially in places like AU that had a distributed workforce. We have inherited a culture of process and structure, and consequent sluggish change. This has been improving in places thanks to things like the Landing at AU and similar initiatives elsewhere, but not fast enough and, certainly at AU and I gather also in our sister institutions, there have been steps backwards as well as forwards. At AU we have, of late, made some very poor ICT choices and retrograde organizational restructuring that actually increases, rather than reduces the amount of structure and process, and that reduces the potential for the spread of knowledge and dialogue. Meanwhile, thanks to our traditional course model, with its lack of feedback loops, we have till now mainly designed our teaching around quality assurance, not quality control: courses can take years to prepare and tend to be pretty well written but, for the majority, their success is measured by meaningless proxies that tell us little or nothing about their true impact and effectiveness. Though there are plenty of exceptions, too few courses use pedagogies, processes and other technologies that allow us to know our students and gain deep understanding of their concerns and interests.

Three things that could save open and distance universities from irrelevance

Given the imminent peril that open and distance universities appear to be finding themselves in, the solution is not to tweak what we have or to seek even more efficiencies in processes that are no longer relevant. Now is the time for a little bit of reinvention: not much. All of what is needed already exists in pockets. We have learned a lot – far more than our physical counterparts – about the challenges of distance learning and many of us have discovered ways of doing it that work. And, for all the path dependencies that claw at us, we do have innate organizational agility, so change is not impossible. More to the point, it is worth doing: distance education has innate advantages that physically co-present education (there must be a better term!) cannot hope to match.

At least part of the solution lies firstly in capitalizing on and enhancing the natural benefits that distance learning brings, notably in terms of freedom. Secondly, it lies in reducing as many of its disadvantages as we can.

Distance learning is all about freedom, but we have inherited two things from our physical forebears that unnecessarily constrain that: fixed-length courses, and accreditation umbilically linked to teaching. We need to rid ourselves of fixed-length courses, and disaggregate learning from assessment, so that learners can choose to work on things that really matter to them and gain accreditation for what they know rather than what we choose to teach. Right now, a course is like one of those cable TV packages that contains one or two channels you actually want and a whole load that you do not. The tightly bound assessments force students to bow to our needs, not theirs, which is awful for motivation and retention. This means that those with prior knowledge are bored, those who find it difficult are over-pressured, and the point of learning becomes not skill acquisition but credit acquisition. This in turn reinforces an unhealthy power relationship that only ever had any point in the first place because of the constraints of teaching in physical classrooms, and that is ultimately demotivating (extrinsically motivating) for all concerned.

This is ridiculous when we do not have such constraints – lack of need for teacher control (unless students want it, of course – but that’s the point, students can choose) is one of the key ways that distance learning is inherently better than classroom learning. Classroom teachers need control. Indeed, it is almost impossible to do it effectively without it, notwithstanding a lot of tricks and techniques that can somewhat limit the damage for those that hate sticks and carrots. At the very least they need to get people in one place at one time, and organize behaviour once everyone is there. We do not.

We need better tailored learning, and to support many different ways of doing it. Smaller chunks would help a lot – the equivalent of unbundling channels on a cable TV package – but, really, courses should be no bigger or smaller than they need to be for the purpose. Only rarely is that 15 weeks/100 hours, or whatever standard size universities choose to use. We do it for reasons that are solely related to organizational convenience and that emerged only because of the need to schedule students, teachers, and classrooms in physical spaces. Some students may need no tuition at all – all adult learners come with some knowledge, and some bring a lot. Some may need more than we currently give. We need to recognize and accommodate all that diversity. One of the most effective ways to handle our accreditation role under such circumstances is to have separate assessment of learning, unrelated to the course in any direct way. Our challenge and PLAR processes at AU are almost ready for that already, so it’s not an impossible shift. The other effective way to handle accreditation when we no longer control the inputs and outputs is to negotiate learning outcomes with the students through personalized learning contracts. There are plenty of models for such competency-based, andragogic ways of doing things: we would not be the first, by any means, and already run quite a few courses and processes that allow for it.

The second part of the solution lies in reducing or even removing the relative disadvantages of distance education. The largest of these by far is social isolation and its side-effects, notably on motivation. We need to build a richer, more connected community, to employ pedagogies that take advantage of the fact that we actually have about 40,000 students passing through every year at AU (OU-UK has many more, despite its losses), and to better support our teachers and researchers in engaging with one another and/or learning from one another. In too many of our courses and programs, students may never even be aware of others, let alone benefit from learning with them. This does not imply that we should always force our students to collaborate (or force them to do anything) and it certainly doesn’t mean we should do truly stupid things like give marks for discussion contributions, but it does mean creating ubiquitous opportunities to engage, and making others (and their learning) more visible in the process. This matters as much to staff as it does to students. The Landing is a partial technological solution (or support for a solution) to that problem but it does not go nearly far enough and is not deeply embedded as it should be. Such opportunities to engage and to be aware of others should be everywhere in our virtual space, not on a separate site that only about a quarter of staff and students visit. And, of course, it only really makes sense if we adapt the ways we support learning to match, not just in our deliberate teaching but in our attitudes to sharing, engaging and connecting.

There are lots of other things that could be done – whole books can be and have been written about that – but these three simple changes would be sufficient, I think, to bring about profound positive change throughout the entire system:

  1. valorizing and enabling the social,
  2. variable length courses and lessons, and
  3. disaggregating assessment from learning

Physical universities would equally benefit from all of these but, apart from in their social affordances (that are certainly great, if sometimes under-utilized), have far less innate ability to support them. I think that means that distance universities still have a place at the vanguard of change.

It has long annoyed me that distance education is seen by many as a poor cousin to face-to-face learning. In some cases and in some ways, sure, physical co-presence gives an edge. But, in others, especially in terms of freedom – pedagogical and personal freedom, not just in terms of space, pace and place – distance education can be notably superior. To achieve its potential, it just needs to throw off the final shackles it inherited from its ancestor.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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