The notion of FTE is based on a number of assumptions, which are often questioned when the issue is raised.
In the first instance, it is important to establish that what is provided through ODL is of equivalent quality to what is available in a conventional education institution. In many countries, public opinion tends to disparage alternative forms of provision as inferior to the formal education system. In such circumstances, it is necessary for providers to establish that the courses they offer through ODL are of a comparable standard and level to those provided through conventional methods. This may be done by submitting to assessment and validation procedures administered by national qualifications authorities.
A second major issue in establishing FTE is equivalent quantity of the education provided. For the most part, earners work through an ODL course on their own, which means that the number of hours they devote to such study may not be recognised. When this is compared to the number of hours that school-based students spend in the classroom, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that ODL students do not have to work as hard. However, if ODL learners were to keep a detailed record of the time required to complete their studies, in many cases this would exceed the total number of hours that full-time learners are occupied both in and out of class.
Finally, the issue of whether ODL provides an equivalent experience to institution-based education has also been raised. Some authors have argued that studying at a distance is “deficient in social and cultural learning” and thus cannot be classified as true education (Escotet 1980a, as cited in Rumble 1986, page 74). While it is true that ODL learners may not be able to take part in the range of extra-curricular activities that many full-time students take part in, it is unclear how other aspects of social and cultural learning are impaired by not being on campus.
Measures of FTE can be based upon:
- Inputs – This refers to everything that is provided to students during the course of their study. In conventional education, inputs include classroom teaching, textbooks, laboratory experiments, access to library and computer facilities, etc. In an ODL system, inputs come primarily in the form of courseware (print-based materials, as well as those in other media), tutorials (whether face-to-face or ICT-mediated) and tutor-marked assignments (where these do not form part of the assessment procedures).
- Outputs – Performance in examinations is usually taken as the main indicator of the output of an education system, though this is admittedly a rather crude measure. Nevertheless, in some countries, students from both the formal education system and open schools sit for exactly the same examinations, and these provide a convenient measure for comparison.
- Combination of Inputs and Ouputs – Such measures take into account both what is provided to registered students and what impact the experience has on their performance in terms of knowledge and skills.