White, D. et al. (2010) Study of UK Online Learning Oxford: Department of Continuing Education/HEFCE.

This is a report funded by the Higher Education Funding Council of England and Wales. It is one of the first attempts to measure the extent of online learning in the higher education system of England and Wales.

The study identified over 2,600 HE level online and distance learning courses offered by, or on behalf of, UK HE and FE institutions, between one third and a half of which are delivered online

These included:

  • 1,528 courses offered by 113 HE and FE institutions; of which 510 were identified as being delivered online (including blended learning);
  • 952 courses offered by the Open University
  • 175 courses offered in partnership with commercial partners.

The Open University breakdown is interesting:

  • 257 ‘web supplemented‘ courses (online participation optional);
  • 600 ‘web dependent‘ courses (participation required through interaction with content and/or online communication tools);
  • 95 ‘fully-online‘ courses.

Most fully online courses in this survey were at post-graduate level:

data collected on the 424 courses delivered online without attendance shows that Masters level courses, in particular MAs and MScs, are the most common awards, followed closely by postgraduate diplomas. (This excludes the Open University courses)…..Over half of the UK‟s current offer of ODL courses is at postgraduate level.

They also noted that the majority of ODL courses are in disciplines closely related to professions (i.e. courses for lifelong learners). This resulted in an interesting conclusion:

If the ODL market continues to expand following this emphasis on ‘professional‘ courses, the character of the ODL student body may become increasingly distinct from that of campus-based students. We could be seeing the emergence of a parallel form of HE as a result of this particular mode of delivery.’

The study also found that 175 of the ODL (open and distance learning, but not necessarily online) courses offered were through partnerships between HE institutions and commercial providers (i.e. outsourced to some extent), mainly in the Business area.

The study also included interviews in a smaller sample of institutions to look at the primary issues identified by the institutions around the development and delivery of open and distance education courses. The main conclusion from this section:

The key message to emerge was that institutions felt the substantive challenge was not the pedagogical model they chose to use for ODL, but planning the configuration of the supporting infrastructure, resources and business models required to support the development and delivery of ODL programmes. Addressing these structural issues was seen as a prerequisite for success in expanding provision.

Well, I suspect then they will find the importance of the pedagogical issues when it’s too late.

Methodological issues

This study is beset by methodological issues. Indeed perhaps the most significant finding is this, from the Executive Summary:

‘The study … found that there is no reliable or accurate consolidated source of information about ODL courses offered in the UK that is readily available to students, or other parties, interested in finding ODL programmes, and much of the information on ODL currently remains ‘hidden‘ in labyrinthine institutional websites.’

Another problem here is defining a course. It appears from the report that courses varied considerably in length. Most ‘full’ courses at the Open University are 32 weeks long, thus roughly equal to 2.5 x 3 credit courses in North America, or 7.5 ‘credits’. (Can someone from the UK help me with this? What is the meaning of a ‘course’ these days in conventional universities in the UK? How many Bologna – or UK – credits for example?). However, without knowing how many courses are needed for a Masters, for example, counting courses alone makes it difficult to interpret the findings.

A third problem is the definition of an online course. The authors tried to use something similar to the Sloan definitions, but found that information was often lacking from the institutions to be able to describe accurately what type of online courses they were offering. Their recommendation is very sensible:

For this mode of delivery, it is particularly important to be able to track fully-online courses as these courses are likely to have the widest potential market. We recommend that:

(a) a simple taxonomy of ODL is agreed to act as a framework for data collection;

(b) the HESA data collection process is refined to collect ODL-specific information;

(c) other national methods of data collection, such as the National Student Survey, are reviewed to see if they would be suitable to collect metrics on ODL.


First congratulations to the HEFCE and the authors for a valiant effort to find out what is actually happening in the UK regarding open and distance learning. This goes much further than anything happening in Canada at the moment.

The report makes clear though that given the vast amount of effort going into using technology for teaching, we need basic data on what types of courses are being offered, in terms of the mix of classroom and technology-based delivery. This data can be collected in a consistent and useful manner only if there are government requirements for institutions to collect and report such data. The main beneficiaries of such data collection will in fact be the institutions themselves, because not only will it enable them to see what is happening within their own institutions over a period of time, it will allow them to ‘benchmark’ against other institutions or jurisdictions. In particular, it is not enough now just to collect figures on ‘distance education’. With blended and hybrid learning as well as fully online learning, we need to know what types of courses are being offered.

Despite the valiant efforts of the researchers, the results left me with more questions than answers. Given the size of England and Wales, these figures for online learning seem very low.

Let’s start with perhaps the most reliable information. In 2010, the Open University is offering only 95 fully online courses. This suggests that the majority of their courses are still print and TV based, or at best a ‘blend’ of print and web. Even allowing for the longer length of Open University courses I find this astonishing, given that it was experimenting with online learning as early as 1988. Some campus-based universities here in Canada have more courses/credits online than the Open University.

The second is that the efforts of the campus-based institutions in the UK to move to online learning seems feeble, to say the least, compared with what’s happening in North American institutions. In particular they do not seem from this study to have appreciated how much technology is going to change the teaching of their mainly on-campus students. For instance, at the University of British Columbia, many of the undergraduate students are taking one or two or three online courses as part of their on-campus studies, because of the flexibility they provide. This is being multiplied in institutions all over North America. The UK survey did not seem to pick up the influence of online learning on campus courses, either. It is true that this is only just beginning to happen in North American, but hybrid courses which change the amount of time spent in classrooms without removing the classroom element altogether will become more and more important, giving more flexibility but more importantly, making better use of the technology and students’ interests. Asking whether courses are ‘web dependent’ does not pick this up.

Of course, and this is a very strong possibility, the study may have grossly underestimated what is happening in UK universities. However, the universities have only themselves to blame for this, burying their online offerings in ‘labyrinthine institutional web sites.’ At least many jurisdictions in North America have one place where students can go to find the range of online courses available from all the institutions within a particular sector, and also within an institution through their Online Learning or Distance Education web pages.

Another report also tries to measure the extent of the e-learning market in the UK:

Patterson, D. et al. (2010) The UK e-learning market 2010 Sheffield UK: e-Learning Centre.

Although the full report will cost you $650 (£500) the executive summary is available free. The report contains not only estimates for the UK market but also for other countries in Europe as well. It is focused mainly on the commercial aspects of e-learning, and forecasts growth of only 6% for 2011, which again seems low compared to North America.

I’d really like to hear from colleagues in the UK on these two reports and whether my comments are totally off the target, because I’m a hell of a long way away!

Thanks to Jim Ellis of the Open University for directing my attention to these two reports; the views though are entirely mine!


  1. I’m not as knowledbable as yourself, but recently read this report and I’d concur that the UK has a long way to go on ODL. It seems strange when we have such an excellent example to follow in the Open University. Perhaps that’s the problem, our universitites are so preoccupied with the cuts etc, that they’re happy to leave it to the OU. At my own (v. small) institution a lecturer recently put together an excellent proposal for an ODL course, but was turned down as the feeling was the financial/time outlay was too much to invest in these uncertain times. Perhaps shortsighted?

    • Thanks for your comment, Clare.

      While it’s understandable that your colleagues were quite rightly worried about the time and work involved in developing an ODL course, they need not be more work in the long term. We’ve found that although there are significant start-up costs in the first year, with good course design the workload can be no more and indeed often less in subsequent years than teaching a face-to-face class. However, this requires good design, professional instructional designers, and project management. It’s difficult to move in this direction with just one program or course – the institution needs to make a strategic decision to move in this direction, and put in the up-front resources needed. It will pay off in the long term, as there are some economies of scale, meaning that increased enrollments can actually bring in additional revenues.

      Incidentally, with fees at £9,000 a year, it should be possible to easily recover the money invested for an online program – I have worked on online Masters programs (one year equivalent) that break even with fees at £8,000 (C$12,500), including institutional overheads, and paying full research professor salaries. They require a minimum of 60 enrollments a year, which was easily reached, because the courses were global. With more experience, I believe these costs could come down even more, while maintaining quality.

      I think it is a national tragedy that the universities in the UK have gone the route of increasing student fees to ridiculous levels, rather than looking for more cost-effective ways of delivering courses/programs.

  2. About your query regarding UK terminology: an American ‘programme’ is a UK ‘course’, and a UK course is made up of several ‘modules’ which are generally worth 15 credits each (though not always: 20 and 30 credits are possible variants). A UK Masters course usually requires 180 credits, with the thesis (or ‘dissertation’) worth 60 credits.
    I hope this helps

  3. Many thanks, Florence, that’s very helpful and explains to some extent the differences in volume of courses. For instance in Canada a Masters is usually between 30 – 36 credits (including dissertation) of which a minimum of six credits would be for the thesis. Thus there would be between 8-10 ‘taught’ courses in a Masters, although there is no ‘standard’. Thus if a Masters is say 10 ‘courses’ in Canada, we should be multiplying the UK figures by 10.

    However, this would not explain the difference in undergraduate online programs/courses, which is still much higher in North America. I think it’s still fair to say that UK conventional universities haven’t realised the importance of online learning for the flexibility now required by students who increasingly are having to work their way through university (which of course will get much worse with the increase in tuition fees).

    Its a pity that the Oxford study didn’t measure the number of course enrollments. This would have been a better indicator of the level of ODL, and would have enabled better comparisons with data from North America.

    Incidentally, the large difference in course and module structures is one reason why the Open University has been unsuccessful in marketing in North America. It is very hard to ‘deconstruct’ OU courses to fit the North American system. My first job in Canada was trying to do just that back in 1988.

    In the end the North American system is so different and varied (despite Bologna) that it is very hard to make straight comparisons.

  4. Thanks for your reply Tony, really interesting. I agree, I think we could have made the proposed ODL course work. Hopefully we’ll revisit it soon. Also agree with your point about needing a strategic decision, however I suspect if we did start up any ODL provision it would be a one course ‘toe in the water’ approach, thereby missing out on the economies of scale you rightly point out.

  5. In Australia we also use ‘course’ (the award) but instead of ‘module’ it is usually ‘unit’ (in which one enrolls during a term). Typically a degree course has about 24-26 units, and a standard unit is 3 points – but some combined or research units can weigh up to 6,9,12 points. A course requires the completion of units adding up to a certain number of points.

    Sometimes a course requires the completion of a major, which also has a minimum unit total requirement as a subset of the course.

    (Note, some institutions use a different unit atomicity from 3 points, such as 6, but the methodology is the same)

    Just FYI


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