March 1, 2017

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.


As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.


The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.


WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.

A report on university distance education in Québec

Rue Sainte Angèle, Ville de Québec

Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2015) La formation à distance dans les universités québécoises: un potential à optimiser Québec: Gouvernement du Québec

This report is now nearly 18 months old, but I did not know about it until I was given a copy when I was in Québec last week. The report is in French and there is no English version, and it contains such a lot of good information that I want to make it more widely available to anglophones.

(There is supposed to be an English version of the summary, but I was unable to locate it on their web site. In any case, the most useful information is available only in the full report in French. Si on peut lire français, on devrait lire le rapport lui-même.)

The report

The Higher Council of Education in Québec is an autonomous body, separate from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education with a mandate to advise the Minister on all matters relating to education. It can choose the topics and the themes of the reports it produces on the state and needs of education. It has 22 members chosen from the field of education and beyond.

This report examines the issues for the Québec university system arising from the growth of new methods of teaching and learning, and provides some guidelines for the medium and long term. The decision to focus on distance education was influenced particularly by the growth of non-traditional methods of study by Québec students, the growth of part-time studying, and the increased application of new technologies for teaching.

The report covers the following aspects of distance education in Québec universities:

  1. The growth of new modes of education
  2. What’s happening in Québec
  3. A quick look at what’s happening outside Québec
  4. The Council’s guiding principles and recommendations
  5. Conclusions

Pay attention to the methodology

For me, Chapter 2 (What’s happening in Québec) was the most interesting chapter, because it provides extensive and relatively reliable data about student enrolments in distance education courses and programs in Québec universities.

It is really important to understand the definitions and terminology in the data about distance education enrolments used in the report. The report itself reports on the difficulty of finding reliable data, partly because distance education comes in many forms and partly because the whole field is very dynamic and fast-changing. The report then focuses on trends over time.

Asynchronous vs synchronous courses

The report makes the distinction between asynchronous courses where students can access the courses at any time and place (e.g. courses using learning management systems), with synchronous courses (primarily using web- or video-conferencing). This distinction is made by the Ministry purely for financial reasons to identify how many teaching spaces are required in an institution.

The data used in the report refers only to enrolments in asynchronous courses. However, the report also acknowledges that the modes of distance education are rapidly evolving. There is an interesting description for instance of how L’Université Laval has moved over time from TV and print-based courses to collaborative learning to ‘virtual synchronous’ classes, the latter being driven as much by instructors in face-to-face teaching as by distance education courses.

Student enrolments vs course enrolments

In most of the tables or graphs provided in the report, the unit of measurement is a student taking at least one asynchronous distance education course. Such students may then be enrolled in just one distance course or several, but they are only counted once. These tables are derived by data collected by the Ministry.

However, there is at least one graph that is derived from data provided by CLIFAD, a liaison committee of some of the major distance education institutions in the province, that refers to all distance education course enrolments, from three specific institutions. In this case it is the course enrolments that are counted, not the students.

However, so long as the unit of measurement is the same, either can be used to track trends over time.

Time period

Most of the data refers to enrolments in the fall term of 2012, so it is already four years out of date, and four years is a long time in this area. However, data is provided  in some of the tables for a period of over 12 years, and in the case of the CLIFAD data, over a period of 18 years, allowing clear trends to be identified.

Measuring distance education in Québec

Despite the issues around measurement, the report presents some clear facts about distance education in Québec:

  • steady growth in distance education students and enrolments at a higher rate than enrolments in general; for instance the overall number of students in universities grew by 27%, whereas the number of distance students grew by 38%
  • the proportion of students enrolled in (asynchronous) distance education courses grew from 6% in 2001 to nearly 12% by 2012
  • Laval has the highest number of students enrolled in distance courses (13,000), or 30% of all its students; TELUQ (a fully distance university) and Concordia (25% of all students) both have just under 10,000 distance education students; Sherbrooke, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Université du Québec à Rimouski, and University du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) have around 1,000 distance students but in the case of UQAT this is more than a third of its students;
  • MOOCs (CLOMs in French) are fairly popular in Québec, being offered by HEC Montréal, McGill, TELUQ, Laval and UQTR.

Guiding principles and recommendations

The report identifies three guiding principles and makes 13 recommendations.

Guiding principles

  1. Accessibility to university study. The Council recognizes the importance of distance education in increasing accessibility to higher education in Québec, especially given its size and scattered population. The Council wants to optimise this potential, but to do this Internet services must be improved throughout the province.
  2. The quality of distance learning in Québec universities. The Council recognizes that distance education courses can be of high or low quality: it is the pedagogical approach and the design that matters.
  3. The economic viability of the Québec university system. The Council has a concern about the long-term financial viability of its higher education system, and recognizes that distance education can make a contribution towards the long-term sustainability of the system through:
    • sharing of resources;
    • collaboration between institutions on course design and delivery;
    • widening access to students in Québec through programs offered from beyond the immediate locality of students in Québec;
    • helping with the recruitment of students from outside Québec.


The Council makes 13 recommendations which are difficult to summarize but include the following:

  • universities need to clarify for students the differences between different modes of education, and in particular how MOOCs differ from other forms of distance education;
  • universities need to pay attention to the specific requirements of developing and delivering distance education, and should address issues such as support and training for faculty, recognizing that different categories of staff are needed, and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of faculty;
  • universities need to take into account the requirements of different modes of delivery when evaluating courses;
  • universities should ensure that students have adequate access to the technologies and human support they need for studying at a distance;
  • the Ministry should fund research on the impact of distance education on accessibility, quality and the viability of the system, and take into consideration the technology needs of universities when budgeting;
  • greater sharing of resources between the universities;
  • the Ministry, together with the universities, should reconsider the regulations regarding the admission and financing of students from outside Québec who take courses at a distance from Québec universities.


This is a thoughtful and well-researched report that provides a good picture of the state of distance education in Québec, and has a good discussion of many of the issues, even if the recommendations are a little insipid. (I don’t disagree with any of the recommendations but I don’t see them leading to any major changes). The report will go some way to increasing the legitimacy of distance education, if that is needed in the Québec higher education system.

On a more mundane technical level, the report shows how difficult it is to use existing data collected by government to measure the state of distance education or online learning in Canada. Where data has been collected it is often for another purpose, such as deciding how much to fund physical facilities, or is inaccessible to those wishing to do research. Definitions of distance, online and blended learning also vary. In particular the growth of synchronous online learning seems to be largely ignored or at least under-measured.

These are all challenges we are facing in developing our national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, but the Québec report if anything has reinforced my belief in the importance of having a systematic survey that is conducted nationally with definitions and measurements that are consistent across the country, even – or especially – if the provision of online learning and distance education varies a great deal.

The Old Town, Québec: it’s lovely in the summer!


Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.


Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?


A survey of distance education in Brazil


ABED (2016) 2015 Brazilian Census for Distance Learning: Analytical Report on Distance Learning in Brazil São Paulo, Brazil: Associação Brasileira de Educação a Distância (ABED)

“In God we trust. All others must bring data.”

W. Edwards Deming, quoted in the report.

This is the 8th year that ABED (the Brazilian Association of Distance Education) has surveyed distance learning in Brazil. The 82 page report with another 100 or so pages of tables is available in both English and Portuguese.


The report states:

Because institutions have chosen to participate voluntarily, the survey that feeds this document seeks to be comprehensive, but does not intend to establish an exhaustive scenario of distance learning in Brazil. Its analyses, instead, aim to present a picture of market trends in regards to the categories of institutions that work with the distance learning modality, the types of courses offered, the audience they reach, the execution of distance learning activities, their organization and even profitability, necessary investments and challenges inherent to this modality.

The report covers:

  • Institutions accredited by the Brazilian National Education System at all levels: primary, technical, undergraduate and graduate;
  • Formal and informal educational institutions who offer open courses.
  • Institutions operating in corporate learning.
  • Companies that supply distance learning products and services.

Blended courses are defined by Federal Law as having up to 20% of the workload offered in distance learning mode.

ABED contacted 1,145 institutions via email newsletter and an open invitation published on the association’s website, with information about the survey for all establishments operating in distance learning. In total the survey was based on 368 responses, of which 339 were educational institutions, and 69 ‘suppling’ organizations. The 339 educational institutions were made up as follows:

  • public (federal, state and municipal): 92
  • for profit: 114
  • private not-for-profit: 71
  • other: 62

Participating institutions were from 27 states across the whole of Brazil.

Results are broken down by a range of variables, such as type of organization, size, region, etc.

Main findings

This survey had a significantly increased number of participants over previous surveys conducted by ABED and confirms the growth in the number of institutions and companies working in distance learning in 2015:

  • it identified a total of 5,048,000 students in fully distance or blended courses, of whom:
    • 1.1 million were in fully accredited (degree) courses
    • 3.9 million were in corporate or non-corporate open courses
  • just over half (53%) are women and almost half are aged between 31-40
  • 70% of the students are working as well as studying
  • the most common discipline area for both fully online and blended courses is teacher education/training
  • drop-out rates for distance learning courses are higher than for on-site courses, averaging between 26%-50% for fully distance accredited courses.
  • over 50% of the institutions had a centralized management structure for distance learning courses and programs
  • nearly a quarter of the surveyed institutions intend to increase their investments in distance learning in 2016, notably in strengthening blended learning
  • the investments made by non-profit and for-profit private institutions were higher compared to that of public institutions,
  • the majority of distance learning classes have between 31-50 students
  • more than 60% of institutions used open source learning management systems, customized within the institution, of which 43% were cloud-based
  • a good deal of information is provided about private companies offering distance learning services; these private companies provide services particularly to for-profit institutions.


Professor Fred Litto, the President of ABED, in his introduction states:

One must refer to quantitative data in order to be able to efficiently discuss what distance learning (DL) represents to a nation such as Brazil

This is a statement with which I fully concur, and I have lamented many times the complete lack of national data in Canada. The report is extremely wide-ranging and covers many areas that I have not seen in other national surveys. This no doubt is one of the benefits of doing surveys over a number of years.

Nevertheless I do have some serious concerns about this survey. Without a comparison with the total number of institutions in Brazil, it is difficult to know how representative this survey is. Even within the 1,145 institutions approached for the survey, the response rate was 32%.

Furthermore although there is a definition of blended learning given, I couldn’t find a definition of distance learning. In particular what proportion of the courses were fully online and what correspondence or print-based? There is a lot in the report about how text and audio-visual materials are acquired or developed, and even more about learning management systems, but as an outsider I am left wondering about how much is done online and how much by other methods. This is an important consideration given the different levels of access to the Internet in Brazil. Maybe though it has been covered in earlier reports.

However, given the huge challenge of surveying institutions in a country as large as Brazil (a population of 200 million and an area almost as large as the USA), and the tremendous differences between the regions and between socio-economic groups within regions, the report still provides a fascinating insight into distance learning in Brazil. For instance 15%-25% of the institutions surveyed offered open, ‘MOOC-like’ courses.

As always, you should read the full report yourself and come to your own conclusions, as there are many valuable nuggets buried in the more detail parts of the report, but it is clear that distance and especially blended learning continues to grow in Brazil, and ABED is to be congratulated for wrestling such a monster to the ground.

Who are the founding fathers of distance education?

Steve Wheeler's interview: click on the image to see the vieo

Steve Wheeler’s interview: click on the image to see the video

Steve Wheeler interviewed three old guys, Michael Moore, Sir John Daniel and myself, at the EDEN conference in Budapest this summer, and has posted the video under the title of ‘Learn from three founding fathers of distance education‘.

While it’s very gracious of Steve to lump me in with Sir John and Michael, who have certainly been major movers and shakers in distance education, I don’t think any of us would claim to be a founding father. Although we are all very old, distance education existed long before any of us got involved in it.

So let’s play a little game: who do you think are the fathers (or mothers) of distance education?

I’ll start off by supplying my list and I will be asking Sir John and Michael to add theirs.

1. Isaac Pitman

Pitman as a younger man

Pitman as a younger man

An authority no less than Wikipedia states:

The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, who taught a system of shorthand by mailing texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and receiving transcriptions from his students in return for correction. The element of student feedback was a crucial innovation of Pitman’s system. This scheme was made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England in 1840.

In fact, Wikipedia has a pretty good description of the history of distance education, and my second choice is also highlighted in the same Wikipedia entry.

2. The University of London External Program

I am a proud alumnus of the University of London, having done my doctorate in educational administration at the University of London Institute of Education (recently merged with University College London).

Wikipedia states:

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1828….the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858, making the University of London the first university to offer distance learning degrees to students……This program is now known as the University of London International Programme and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths.

Unfortunately I have no knowledge of the individuals who originally created the University of London External Programme back in 1828. It’s a worthy research project for anyone interested in the history of distance education.

I was once (mid-1960s) a correspondence tutor for students taking undergraduate psychology courses in the External Programme. In those days, the university would publish a curriculum (a list of topics) and provide a reading list. Students could sit an exam when they felt they were ready. Students paid tutors such as myself to help them with their studies. I would find old exam papers for the course, and set questions for individual students, and they would send me their answers and I would mark them. Many students were in British Commonwealth countries and it could take weeks after students sent in their essays before my feedback eventually got back to them. Not surprisingly, in those days completion rates in the programme were very low.

The programme today is completely different,using a combination of study materials and online learning resources designed to foster active learning. There are even university-approved local tutors in many countries around the world. The program has more than 50,000 students enrolled.

Note though that teaching and examining in the original External Programme were disaggregated (those teaching it were different from those examining it), contract tutors were separate from the main faculty were used, and students studied individually and took exams when ready. So many of the ‘new’ developments in distance education such as disaggregation, self-directed learning, and many of the elements of competency-based learning are in fact over 150 years old.

3. Chuck Wedemeyer

In the fall of 1969, I joined the first staff of the Open University, working in offices in an old Georgian building in Belgrave Square, central London. I knew nothing about distance education (I was hired as a researcher) and was advised to go to a talk being given by a slight, stooped American. His name was Chuck Wedemeyer and he was the first to develop a modern pedagogy that was unique to distance education. Here’s an extract from the Mildred and Charles A. Wedemeyer Award site. (I had the honour of sharing the award with Michael Moore in 1995.)

Charles Wedemeyer, W.H. Lighty Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered a father of modern distance education.

An enthusiastic instructor, in the early 1930’s Wedemeyer used the University of Wisconsin’s radio station to broadcast English lessons and expand access for those otherwise excluded from the education system. As a World War II naval instructor he created effective teaching methods for thousands of sailors deployed around the world.

As Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Correspondence Study Program (1954-1964) Wedemeyer and his graduate students initiated a number of research projects on learning theory and the sociology of independent learners. The work advanced a new discipline in the field of education by integrating adult, distance, open and independent learning with instructional systems design, and applications of instructional technology, organizational development, and evaluation.

In 1965, Wedemeyer predicted today’s e-Learning:

“…the extension student of the future will probably not ‘attend’ classes; rather, the opportunities and processes of learning will come to him. He will learn at home, at the office, on the job, in the factory, store, or salesroom, or on the farm.”

“…the teacher will reach students not only in his own state or region but nationally as well, since the media and methods employed by him in teaching will remove barriers of space and time in learning…”

Charles A. Wedemeyer, 1965/1966,
Brandenburg Memorial Essays

4. Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee

Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. Jennie Lee was Minister for the Arts in Wilson’s 1964-1970 Labour government. Between them they were responsible for creating the U.K. Open University.

It may seem odd to credit politicians for the development of distance education, but the Open University was first and foremost a political idea based on opening up higher education to all (it was after all a Socialist government that created it). It was initially hotly opposed by the Conservative Party (one of its senior shadow ministers called it ‘blithering nonsense’), although when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1970, she was less hostile and eventually supported it (it fitted nicely with her self-made philosophy – she had taken a University of London External Degree programme).

Harold Wilson had the vision (originally a ‘University of the Air’) and Jennie Lee had the political smarts to drive through all the legislation and planning and ensured that it would be created as a quality university that would strive for the highest standards of teaching and research.

Jennie Lee at the Open University

Jennie Lee at the Open University

5. Sir Walter Perry

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU's course texts

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU’s course texts

I could have included Sir Walter with Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, but as the founding Vice-Chancellor of the U.K. Open University Walter Perry more than anyone really created the U.K. Open University as it came to be recognised. He never wavered from the vision, and was adamant about establishing the highest possible academic standards for OU courses and programs, but he was also the ultimate pragmatist, able to get things done and make it work.

He had to negotiate with sometimes hostile governments and uncomprehending civil servants (one top bureaucrat questioned the OU’s first budget, asking where the cost of lecture halls was). Perry also had to establish a practical and mutually beneficial relationship with the BBC, and persuade the traditional universities not only to support the OU but also to collaborate with it (the OU made heavy use of contracted faculty from the regular institutions to create its courses).

He also had to work with an unwieldy Senate that included every faculty member and all the regional staff tutors and counsellors. (A visiting American university President said to him after a particularly frustrating Senate meeting: ‘Walt, you have the perfect university: no students.’ Perry replied: ‘ Aye, and it would be a bloody site better if there were no faculty, either.’)

Perry’s ultimate achievement was to get distance education recognised as a high standard, cost-effective, and academically valid way of teaching and learning.

Over to you

That’s my list. There are many others I could have included from the Christian St. Paul for his Epistles to the Corinthians, or J.C. Stobart, who first introduced educational radio broadcasting (accompanied by broadcast notes published with The Radio Times) at the BBC in 1924, or those who set up the University of South Africa in 1945.

Who would be on your list of founding fathers?

(Remember, the statement used by Steve Wheeler was ‘fathers of distance education’, not online learning. Should those who developed the first online courses and programs be considered separately?)

So please send in your nominations, with your rationale.