Distance education - more than 10 rows from the front
Distance education – more than 10 rows from the front?

This is a bit of a hoary old chestnut, as the future of distance education has been questioned for over 100 years. However, it think it is worth returning to in the light of several recent developments.

Distance education is still alive and well – but for how long?

I wrote earlier about attending the RUEDA conference in Argentina, with nearly 300 participants from 42 public universities. The 25th International Council of Distance Education (ICDE) World Conference on Open and Distance Learning held 16-18 October in Tianjin, China drew to a close having attracted approximately 700 participants from 40 countries – down somewhat from earlier international conferences, but given the location (not the easiest place to get to) still quite impressive.

Massive open universities in Turkey (over 1 million students), Indonesia, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Nigeria still draw hundreds of thousands of students each. These are all institutions dedicated to distance education. UNESCO estimates that there are over 21 million students enrolled in university-level distance education programs in developing countries alone.

There are several reasons for this still impressive support for dedicated distance education institutions in developing countries:

  • these institutions achieve massive economies of scale;
  • in most cases, the cost for students is much lower than through conventional universities;
  • there are just not enough places available in conventional universities;
  • print and to a lesser extent broadcasting remain the key media of delivery, more accessible in many of these countries than the Internet;
  • they offer in most cases nationally recognized qualifications.

Even in more economically advanced countries, there is still a considerable amount of dedicated distance education provision at a university level. The U.K, Open University has more than 250,000 students, but is facing severe challenges because of cuts to funding from government. The Dutch Open University remains strong. Athabasca University in Canada has 30,000 students. Many of the main state universities in the USA and in Canada have thriving distance education programs. The University of Maryland University College has about 100,000 distance education enrollments, many of whom are U.S. servicemen. The University of Southern New Hampshire has 25,000 online distance students. The Babson College/Sloan annual surveys show fully online learning – thus a form of distance education – still growing in the U.S.A at a rate of over 10% per annum, with one in three students in the USA taking at least one fully online course.

So what’s the problem?

Developments that threaten the concept of distance education

The first and most significant is the rapid development of online learning, and particularly more recently, the development of MOOCs. There are deliberate attempts to ‘brand’ these new developments as something completely different from and even replacing ‘distance education’, particularly since the charge is being led by Ivy League universities who have previously disdained any off-campus distance programs.

The second is the trend towards open educational resources (OERs), such as open textbooks, learning objects, video recorded lectures from Ivy League universities such as MITs OpenCourseWare project, and resources from iTunes University, including the U.K. Open Universities OpenLearn materials, all available (as are MOOCs) to students anywhere and at any time, and generally for free. Thus students do not have to enroll in a ‘dedicated’ distance education organization to obtain access to such resources.

The third is the development of blended or hybrid learning, where students can combine campus-based and online learning. With much more flexible opportunities for studying, there could be less demand for fully distance learning.

Thus there is now a growing range of competitors for the traditional distance education market.

Some implications of this development

All these developments mean that for on-campus universities, what was previously a specialized activity somewhat on the periphery of an organization (and hence organized and often funded differently) has now moved into the core. Thus there is a tendency for distance education to be swallowed up in online learning, OERs, and hybrid learning.

In fact, in my own organization, the University of British Columbia, an external review team in 2002 recommended the closure of the Distance Education and Technology unit in Continuing Studies, and the integration of its activities into the regular teaching faculties, since, in the review team’s opinion, it didn’t make sense to treat distance education separately from a faculty’s regular teaching – it was just another method of delivery.

Indeed, it is quite significant that the members of the Canadian Association of Distance Education agreed to merge with AMTEC (the Association for Media and Technology in Education) in 2006, to form what is somewhat confusingly called the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education, and in doing so, distance educators have tended to play a an increasingly diminishing role in the new organization. (CNIE’s conferences in recent years have struggled to attract more than 100 participants, compared to often 200-300 for CADE conferences in its heyday.)

In a recent article for the journal Distance Education (Vol. 34, No.2. 2013), Barrie Todhunter, of the University of Southern Queensland, an organization with a long and illustrious history of distance education, bemoaned the fact that institutions are ‘selling the open and distance education message short.’ In particular, he challenges the tendency now to use ‘online’ as an all-embracing term for all off-campus teaching and learning. He points out that online courses are not necessarily ‘open’, nor do they target the traditional distance education market, adult and lifelong learners. OERs are all well and good, but on their own they do not provide qualifications or more importantly, access to programs that require pre-requisite academic qualifications for entry.

So what does this mean?

I tend to agree with Todhunter. It may sound pedantic, but online, open and distance are not the same things, though they often overlap. They reflect somewhat different values and priorities, and there is a danger that if they are not clearly differentiated, specific student groups will suffer. For instance in the argument about online learning and productivity, it is easy to forget that distance learning is particularly important in terms of increasing access to not just isolated or rural populations, but also working adults in large urban areas. This is a different market from hybrid learning aimed at mainly younger and technically full-time campus-based undergraduate students. Thus even if online learning does not cost less or is not as ‘productive’ for traditional campus-based students, it may still be important for increasing access for specific groups such as distance learners.

Even more important is the difference between open learning and online learning. MOOCs may be open but if they do not provide recognized qualifications they do not meet the needs of many students seeking open education. Similarly OERs will not meet the needs of students who want qualifications but can’t be admitted to institutions that are using OERs. Thus open textbooks may allow some students who could not afford to attend university to participate, but more likely they will reduce somewhat the debt burden of students who have already been admitted. While of course this is a good thing, it still does not help the students who want a qualification but don’t have the grades to be admitted in the first place.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important implication, open, online and distance learning will each need in most cases a different approach to course design. For students who do not have academic qualifications returning to study for the first time, course design that eases them into study and provides the heavy support that they will initially need is crucial. MOOCs can probably get away with poor course design for professional graduates who want to update – but not for students who can’t access a local university because they don’t have the high school grades.

The same thing applies to choice of technology. Frankly most MOOCs are useless in developing countries because they need high bandwidth for streaming video lectures. LMS-based courses make more sense for economically emerging countries, because they require less bandwidth. This doesn’t matter if access is not the main requirement. There will always be an elite in even the poorest country who can afford to go to a campus with its own server and Internet access, and online learning, MOOCs and OERs will likely give them a better education, but it won’t be either open or distance education. Distance education in many poor countries will continue to need to use very low cost, accessible technologies such as print and broadcasting.

So is there a future for distance education?

Certainly, there should be a future for distance education. Lifelong learners will continue to need access to programs without the need to attend campus. There is also still a massive need for open education that leads to recognized qualifications, especially in a world where immigrants, older but experienced people, and disadvantaged groups do not fit with provincial or local admission rules and regulations drawn up mainly to regulate high school transfers.

However, I am more ambivalent about the need for separate departments or institutions, at least for distance education. Ironically, following the external review at UBC, and after more than three years of wrangling, the academic departments realised that they could not handle the management of a large number of distance students, so distance education was again centralised, but integrated within the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (which was what the Distance Education and Technology Unit originally proposed to the review team.). In other words, academic departments were not ready at that time to absorb the specialist activities needed to support off-campus students.

However, 2013 is not 2003. With academic departments embracing hybrid learning, this experience will encourage more faculty to provide fully online courses, or even the same course in different delivery modes. While it may make sense for Continuing Studies to still manage marketing for off-campus students, and for a university or college to have a central unit to provide instructional design support for faculty, academic departments really need to think about their market in a holistic way, especially given demographic changes which at least in Canada mean that lifelong learners will become as important as high school leavers.These are all an academic department’s potential students, and they should be thinking about developing programs and methods of delivery that will suit the whole range of students they will need to serve. Lifelong learning will be life support for many academic departments in the future. But they must be properly prepared to manage these shifts, which comes back to institutional leadership and management.

I also think though that there remains a need for institutions dedicated to open education. There are unique challenges in providing for students who do not meet university or college admission standards. I doubt that most universities are ready for truly open education leading to qualifications that are the same, whatever the entrance qualifications, although at least in Canada, many two-year colleges are much more open. Prior learning assessment and competency-based learning are important approaches to widen access, but they are quite specialized. Few traditional universities are ready for such approaches, and I fear that students who come in through ‘exceptional’ rules or procedures will always struggle, because the whole institution is not geared to support them.

Thus, distance education should be considered as having its own requirements within an integrated approach to student markets, and there will still be an ongoing need for institutions dedicated to open learning. But in the end, what should be is not necessarily what will be. I fear that the hype and hysteria around MOOCs, OERs, and online learning are more likely to overwhelm those who try to focus on student needs, rather than the technology.


  1. Thanks Tony for yet another pithy contributioin to your body of ideas regarding online education; plenty of provocative thoughts to ponder and discuss. Allow me here to comment on just one aspect of your notions re: the future of DE- the question of maintaining separate online ed units within institutions, vs.amalgamating this delivery system into the larger whole. There are compelling arguments on both sides of this one, but I must confess to some serious reservations about a recommendation from an outside observer that all instructional and support functions that have been separate and distinct from conventional F2F activity should be merged.
    Here is one cautionary tale that contributes to my skepticism- at my home institution, a major effort was initiated some years ago to capture all the ‘orphan’ non-traditional programs under a new college that would become the epicenter of innovation. A period of agressive program consolidation and development ensued with much success. Meanwhile, the rest of the university continued with its usual menu of conventional programs and its preservation of the medeival ‘guild’ style of providing higher education.
    When I stepped down as dean of that new college to devote more time to teaching, research and writing, the then president decided that the many diverse and often atypical offerings could be dispersed to and delivered by the various other existing colleges and units. It was no surprise to me that within two years, most of these well enrolled and highly effective courses and programs had shrunk to shadows of their former selves. A case in point was the continuing education portfolio that had been built up from nothing to a vigorus and dominant unit in the region, but once in the hands of traditional departments, they once again became neglected orphans.
    True, every institution has its idiosynchracies and variables that affect outcomes when such structural changes are made, but I fear that if online activities are delegated to disparate units that may not recognize the power and potential of that alternative to their prevailing mode of operation, online ed could likely die of loneliness, especially if there is no solid central unit guiding and supporting these online efforts, which are often unfamiliar to mainstream providers.
    It is an interesting debate and one which is certain to increasingly come to the fore as we contemplate and shape the future of this exciting field.
    Kind regards,
    Michael Beaudoin

    • Thanks, Michael
      Yes, it’s a difficult decision about whether to centralize or decentralize specialized units, such as DE departments. I couldn’t agree more that there are many different factors that could make what might appear a rational decision not work. The readiness as well as the willingness of academic departments to absorb additional, non-traditional activities are key factors, as well as the support or opposition of the administration.

      I know at least one Canadian institution that is at this moment struggling with this kind of decision (which partly prompted me to write the post). The real danger of centralization is that experienced, highly skilled specialists such as instructional designers or learner support staff or adjuncts experienced in dealing with distance or online students are not appreciated or understood by academic departments, and in the end such staff are either forced out or quit.

      The timing of such moves is also critical. Done too early, when departments aren’t ready, there is chaos and off-campus students suffer. Done too late, central units build up a costly and often ineffective internal operation which results in the external unit being closed, despite the fact that they have all the expertise.

      Such decisions above all require highly skilled management that is transparent both in its purpose and in the way the re-organization is done. Too often the decision is made behind closed doors, with the external unit left out of the centralization process altogether. This is a sure recipe for disaster, as the UBC case illustrated.

      Having said all that, if an institution has made a decision to move online learning into the core of its activities, and the academic departments have agreed to this, then the expertise built up in the external department will be heavily required within the central departments, and these relocated staff will help the academic departments pay specific attention to the needs of off-campus students as well as the warm bodies in front of them.

      In the end, instructional design and learner support staff need to be as close to the faculty as possible. The actual organizational location is less important than the willingness of faculty to work with such staff, and there is a variety of ways to bring about this closeness, besides physically locating them together.

      Other comments on this issue will be very welcome

  2. Great read as always, I always thought that the only that at risk of disappearing was traditional face-to-face component. It just seems an ideal fit. However, both ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology continues to show that students want to interact with their teacher, and will be expecting them for assistance with technology.

    Speaking of change, I can’t help but read this and think about how the cloud is affecting the dynamics of education and business. For instance, the cloud is creating great opportunity, in developing countries, for businesses using fax and phone as their means of transactions. The cloud is going to allow these businesses to start using technology they couldn’t because of costs and lack of technical expertise. On the other-hand, we in Canada have to deal with all change required to move from legacy systems to the cloud. It’s extremely expensive, difficult, requires legal privacy documents, and technical expertise.

    Thanks again Tony.


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