A Basic Guide for OER/Appendix 2: The Components of a Well-Functioning Distance Education System
Appendix Two: The Components of a Well-Functioning Distance Education System
1. Course Design and Development
a. Well-designed courses
In good distance education, the course, rather than the educator, provides an appropriate learning environment for students. Rather than simply referring to a set of materials, however, the course is the structure of learning that is designed into the materials. It has three basic elements:
i. Conceptual pathways to command of its knowledge, conceptualizing skills and practical abilities.
ii. Educational strategies for helping the student find his or her way through these pathways.
iii. Summative and formative assessment should be integral to the learning process.
The materials and presentation of the course as a whole must excite, engage, and reward the student. Courses should be designed so as to involve students actively in their own learning and should allow students quick access and clear movement through them. Although there is no need for courses to use advanced technologies, most, but not necessarily all, will make use of a variety of media. Provision should also be made, in the design of courses, for the necessary practical work. In order to be as flexible and open as possible, courses should be organized in modules.
b. Programme and course development in a team
An essential component in the successful design of courses is collaboration. This can be achieved by using an approach where a group of people, each with particular skills and competencies, develop a course as a team. Although there is no golden mean, nor indeed an absolute minimum, a substantial ratio of staff course design time to student study time will be inevitable in developing courses. Some of the better courses in more challenging subjects, however, might have ratios of fifty to one hundred hours of design time to one hour of student study time. This has clear implications for courses designed for small numbers of students: they are simply not financially viable if collaborative design processes are to be used.
2. Counselling and Support
Provision should be made by distance education providers to advise and help individuals who would otherwise be isolated throughout the learning process, and, in particular, to help them to make choices before enrolling for educational programmes. It should be made easily available through a variety of devices including, most importantly, human intervention.
b. Learner support
If students are to adapt to the special requirements of guided self-study, they require various forms of support, for example satisfactory access to tutors and facilitators, opportunity to interact with other students, and access to the necessary facilities.
c. Provision of adequate administrative support to students
This would involve administrative support on a number of levels, including enrolment procedures, payment of fees, delivery of materials, and in keeping channels of communication open. The aim, throughout, should be to keep administrative procedures few and simple.
3. Quality Assurance
a. Quality assurance in all learning programmes
Several mechanisms need to be established to ensure the quality of learning programmes and their capacity for self-improvement. One of the most critical of these is a mechanism which enables meaningful and reliable feedback from students and tutors into the ongoing performance of the institution.
b. Research, evaluation, and development
As with all aspects of education, continuing research, evaluation, and development is necessary for the improvement of distance education provision. Distance education providers also need to have effective research as the basis for improving the quality of their performance.
4. Effectively Managed Distance Learning
Effectively managing distance education involves establishing performance criteria and targets for the institution, together with mechanisms for publicly and regularly evaluating performance and incorporating lessons learned into improved practices. It also includes ensuring that governance structures are representative of South African society and that the student body is adequately represented in such structures.
The Rationale for Use of Distance Education Methods
Whether consciously or unconsciously, attempts to make use of distance education methods have generally been driven by a desire to build on some or all of the following lessons emerging from the history of distance education practices:
1. Providing access to students who would–either because of work commitments, geographical distance, or poor quality or inadequate prior learning experiences– be denied access to traditional, full-time contact education opportunities. This motivation has possibly been the key motivating factor behind use of distance education methods. The drive has been motivated partly by growing awareness of the importance of lifelong learning and corresponding attempts to respond to market needs. It has also been motivated by dwindling student numbers in some of the more traditional areas of educational provision, and a corresponding need to find new educational markets.
2. Seeking to expand access to educational provision to significantly larger numbers of students. This motivation is linked to, but not the same as, the previous one. Its difference lies chiefly in the scale of programmes. Many programmes motivated by a desire to provide access to students who would be denied access to traditional full-time contact education do not really have goals of reaching significantly larger numbers of students. Indeed, it is notable that large-scale distance education programmes are, in general, confined to very few educational sectors, most notably nursing and teacher education. Most other programmes tend to be small-scale interventions, although it is fair to suggest there may be a change in this regard as alignment between industry/commerce and programme providers gathers momentum.
3. Shifting patterns of expenditure to achieve economies of scale by amortizing identified costs (particularly investments in course design and development and in effective administrative systems) over time and large student numbers. This motivation draws together the above two motivations, and has been an underlying economic rationale for many distance education institutions around the world. Its success depends on limiting numbers of courses, while maximizing enrolments on these courses. Many distance education programmes we have worked with simply have no intention or capacity to exploit these economic benefits. Reasons for this are varied, but are most commonly because market demand is simply not big enough to create programmes enrolling thousands of students or because institutions or programmes have neither the financial nor human capacity to make large-scale venture capital investments in course design and development or administrative systems to support large-scale distance education implementation. The latter problem is exacerbated by the reality that administrative systems at these institutions have been so narrowly designed to support full-time, contact education that the investments necessary to adapt these systems would often be more than would be necessary to set up new systems from scratch.