When comparing open and distance learning with conventional approaches to education, we need to be clear about what we are counting. Both ODL institutions and traditional schools, colleges and universities maintain student records databases, and these can typically provide us with a figure for the total number of individuals currently registered for studies. This is often referred to as a student head count.
However, basing our comparison on the student head count measure is likely to be misleading. Many ODL programmes allow learners to progress at their own pace. Some effectively study on a full-time basis, completing the course in the same time as those studying through conventional modes. However, many ODL students are in paid employment or have family obligations that limit the time available for study. For the latter, it may take two or more years to work their way through a programme that full-time students complete in a single year. For this reason, we cannot assume that ODL learners follow the same programme or have the same course load as students in conventional education.
The concept of full-time equivalency (FTE) is intended to create a common measure for comparing the flexible nature of ODL studies with the workload of full-time students in schools, colleges or universities. This unit discusses four approaches to establishing full-time equivalency between those studying through ODL and those in conventional education.
However, while examining alternative ways of calculating FTE, we must never lose sight of the fact that ODL students are living and thinking human beings with hopes and aspirations. While the student head count measure may not be applicable in most cases, it is relevant when assessing the social benefits of providing opportunities for individuals to develop their full potential.
A student head count is also important when considering the social and political consequences of developing ODL provision. Where alternative services are required to relieve pressure on the formal education system, for each student accommodated by an open school, college or university there is one less young person or adult agitating for change. In addition, the family and friends of each individual student are less likely to feel dissatisfied with the current level of government services. Such an analysis may seem callous or cynical, but it does reflect the political cost-benefit analysis that governments need to take into account when deciding to support the development of open schools, colleges or universities.