PCF5:Developing a Curriculum Framework for a Master’s Level Programme on Open, Distance and Online Learning

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Developing a Curriculum Framework for a Master's Level Programme on Open Distance and Online Learning

A Workshop-cum-Presentation

Dr. Sanjaya Mishra, Indira Gandhi National Open University, India.


Statement of purpose: With the popularity of distance education and greater need for trained human resources in the field, many institutions are offering short-term and long-term professional programmes in Open and Distance Education. What constitutes the curriculum of distance education at different levels (certificate, diploma, masters)? At the current state of knowledge in the domain of distance education, this is probably a difficult question to answer. Moreover, curriculum is contextual. And, therefore, it is obvious that people in different institutions and countries will respond differently to this question. There are already few efforts to list the role and competencies required in distance education (eg. O’Rourke, 1993; Thach & Murphy, 1995; Williams, 2003). But, so far no effort has been made to list the topic/ areas that should form part of the curriculum of distance education at different levels. There is a great deal of variation in the curriculum content and practices of the Universities (UKOU, Athabasca, IGNOU, Deakin) offering Masters level programs in distance education (Harry, 2003).

Intended outcomes: The intended outcomes of the session shall be to: - Develop a common understanding of the core of Open, Distance and Online Learning (ODOL); - Identify the curriculum requirements for a Master’s level programme in ODOL; - Discuss common resources available in the Commonwealth to develop human resources in ODOL; and - Initiate processes to develop a detailed common curriculum framework and adopt/adapt it.

How it will be organised: The session shall be organized as a presentation-cum-discussion workshop, where the lead contributor shall present the findings of an international Delphi study on the theme of the session. This shall be followed by discussion in small groups (5-6 groups, each having about 4-5 persons) for about 30 minutes addressing the issues arising out of the presentation, and any other related issue. Each group shall present a summary of their discussion to the plenary. The lead contributor shall facilitate the discussions and summarize the outcomes at the end.


The spread of distance education is overwhelming. An alternative system that started as an asynchronous mode of teaching-learning to facilitate increased number of individual to have access to relevant education and training has now developed into a system that is almost integrated in the mainstream educational channel. With the advent of technology, the system of distance education has undergone tremendous changes incorporating the qualities of synchronous mode of teaching-learning. From providing access to those unable to get entry to the portals of synchronous learning and providing additional opportunities to working adult to improve their knowledge and skills, it has now become a way to democratize education for the disadvantaged — physical, social, cultural and economic. Thus, it is easy to find courses and programmes for street children learning business skills to farmers learning new methods of grape cultivation offered through distance mode. A close look at the list of courses and programmes offered by the India Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) would prove the point. It has more than 1300 courses and 135 programmes in agriculture, engineering, health sciences, management, computer science, law, commerce, management, social sciences and humanities at certificate to doctoral level with target groups as wide as farmers to doctors (IGNOU, 2008). While the spread of distance education as a mode is overwhelming, the same can't be said about distance education as a discipline. Distance education expertise is still being considered as something that can be developed in-service through short-term ad hoc training programmes (Mishra, 2003). Only a limited full-scale master's level training programmes are available at Athabasca University, Canada, Deakin University, Australia, IGNOU, India, Open University, UK (Mishra, 2007) and University of Maryland University College, USA. While the debate on distance education as a discipline is a matter of past (see Sparkes, 1983; Holmberg, 1986; Rumble, 1988; Devlin, 1989, Coldeway, 1989), the issue still threatens the sustainable development and progress of distance education as a mode applied in all domains of knowledge and learning. Without serious considerations for the human resources requirements vis-a-vis the spread of distance education, the overall quality is being compromised.

There has been an erroneous thinking that the capacity of distance education is infinite, and can cater to any number of students. Both quantity and quality of human resources for design, development and delivery of appropriate distance education are areas of concern for all of us. Continuous in-service training is a way of quality improvement, but in order to develop distance education as a discipline capable of providing solution to many experiential problems, pre-service training is must to develop specialists (Koul, 1990; Mishra, 2003). However, a close look at the distance education curriculum of the three World Alliance in Distance Education (WADE) universities offering master's level training in distance education shows a great deal of variation in content as well as practices (Harry, 2003). While curriculum should be contextual, any discipline that purports to be scientific and follow the 'method of science' should exhibit more commonality whether taught in India or Canada. All professionals in the discipline should be able to articulate the core of the discipline, which would also cover local variations within the overall framework. There have been attempts to list the roles and competencies required in distance education (O'Rourke, 1993; Thach & Murphy, 1995; Williams, 2003), but there is still no consensus as to what constitute the core of distance education. This is primarily due to the fact that distance education is practiced in different ways in different countries. It is also at different stages of developments or generations of distance education ( Taylor, 2001) in different countries — while print is the mainstay in India, use of technology is strong in North America. However, the contextual practices should not be the determinants for curricular practices in totality. Curricular practice is the common philosophical and epistemological underpinnings of a discipline and that should be portable across boundaries, irrespective of contextual practices. For example, the taxation practices or accounting practices may differ from country to country, but the principles of business management would not.

This paper makes an attempt to advocate for a distance education curriculum framework at the master's degree level through an international Delphi study.


The objective of the study was to develop consensus on the common topics to be covered in a two-year master degree programme on open, distance and online learning (ODOL).


In order to involve an international community of experts, it was decided to conduct Delphi surveys via the World Wide Web (WWW). Delphi method was developed at the RAND Corporation, USA in the 1950s by Norman Dalkey and Olaf Helmer as a tool for long range planning (Fischer, 1978). Since then it has been considered to be a good research method to develop consensus amongst a group of geographically dispersed experts (Linstone & Turoff, 1975). It has been used in various disciplines including library science (Fischer, 1978), journalism (Smith, 1997), Healthcare (Whitman, 1990), teacher education (Koster et al, 2005), project management (Brill et al, 2006) and distance education (Thach & Murphy, 1995; Williams, 2003).

Delphi is a multi step process that can be characterized by identification of the experts; active consultation to identify and articulate the research topic, anonymity and number of rounds with opportunity to revise participant’s opinion. For the purpose of the study a web-based approach was decided to have anonymity, and reach experts from all over the world to participate and share their ideas. Web-based surveys are also more efficient in terms of data collection and analysis (Zhang,2000).

Selection of expert has been a major criticism of the Delphi study as to who is an ‘expert’ (Sackman, 1975). So for the purpose of this study, an ‘expert’ was defined as one :

  • who has contributed scholarly works in the field of distance education in the last five years, and
  • the scholarly publication included journal articles in American Journal of Distance Education, Distance Education, Open Learning, Journal of Distance Education and Indian Journal of Open Learning, and the Handbook of Distance Education edited by Michael Moore and Open and Distance Learning Series of Routledge.

Round 1

Using the above criteria, a list of 512 experts was generated and an invitation to participate in round 1 of the Delphi study was sent. A total of 114 emails bounced back, thus reducing the list of experts to 398. This is sufficient as a panel size, as Wild and Torgersen (2000) suggests a panel size of 300-500. In Round 1 the expert panel was requested to list at least 10 topics/subject areas that they would like to see in a master’s level programme on Open, Distance and Online learning. Only 56 persons replied with different set of 10 topics. The response rate was less than 15%, and was a matter of concern. But as first round of topic identification it was useful as a purposive sample for the study.

Round 2

In round 2, a web-based questionnaire was prepared and the 398 experts were sent invitation to participate. Besides, the survey was also posted to DEOS-L mailing list. Thus, two collection methods were used: embedded web link in email and open invitation web link on mailing list. A summary of the round 1 was also posted to the blog: http://teachknowlogist.blogspot.com. The mail resulted more response this time with 81 responses (usable only 77) and the open invitation resulted in 27 (usable only 23) responses. At this stage the study collected basic demographic information about the participants and their opinion about a select list of topics in a 3 point scale, where 1 = it is not necessary, 2 = it is useful, but not necessary, and 3 = it is essential. Using the data gathered, the Content Validity Ratio (CVR) of the 17 topics were calculated using CVR formula given by Lawshe (1975).

Round 3

In round 3, the results of the round 2 were listed under seven groups to elicit responses in more detailed manner on the topics. The seven groups are based on the criteria for selecting content given by Ornstein and Hunkins (1988).

  • Self-sufficiency: Can the topic help the learner attain maximum self-sufficiency in the most economical manner? Economy of training efforts and educational resources, economy of students efforts, and economy of subject matter generalization.
  • Significance: How significant is the topic so as to contribute to the basic ideas, concepts, principles, generalization and overall curriculum?
  • Validity: How much valid is the content in terms of accuracy and obsoleteness?
  • Interest: Can the topic sustain the long-term interest of the learners?
  • Utility: How useful is the topic in terms of its application value?
  • Learnability: Is the topic easy to understand? The less difficult the topic, the more is the learnability.
  • Feasibility: Is it feasible to teach the topic through distance education/online learning?

Respondents were asked to rate the 17 topics under the seven groups in a five point rating scale of, Very Low (1) Low (2), Average (3), High (4) and Very High (5). The web-based questionnaire was this time sent to the 398 members in the original list. 91 participants responded to the round 3. The response rate is about 22.86. Interestingly the response rate has increased from email in round 1 (open ended), to email in round 2 (demographic data + ratings) and email in round 3 (only ratings). In round three 2 reminders were also sent, while in round 1 and 2 only one reminder each was sent. In a true Delphi, the initial 56 respondents would have been continued as panelist, however in this study to gather participation of as much international experts as possible to share their views, the study continued with approaching all the experts in the group. Thereby there are variations in the group demography in all the three rounds. This was primarily done as the results of the study would become preliminary basis for further consultations and deliberations on a curriculum framework for teaching distance education at the Masters level.


Round 1

On the invitation to list 10 topics, 56 responses were received with more than 560 topics. On grouping these, a list of 17 topics/areas could be developed (Appendix-A). At this stage, some respondents emphasized 'case studies' be separately dealt with, while others considered that cases be included across various courses. One respondent went on to the extent of questioning the topic-based curriculum design:

“... I do not believe it is reasonable to expect to construct an adequate curriculum based on the conventional model of generic topic-based course. There is not, in my view a generic body of content to draw on. Consider the range of skills related to instructional design, on-line tutoring, assessing, using and maintaining learning management systems, technological competencies – and it becomes impossible to develop these competencies through one generic program”

While a topic-based curriculum development for a discipline like distance education is difficult to develop, as this study also exhibits, it would not be impossible to develop a common understanding of what is the core of distance education. Moreover, recent literature on instructional design advise to think of the contents and design of learning tasks in the beginning (Merrill, 2002; van Merrienboer & Kirschner, 2007). The first round created a buzz and generated lot of interest from different parts of the world.

Round 2

Table 1 shows the profile of the respondents, with 25.12% responses in total (whereas only 20.35% through email) that included 56% male and 44% female respondents. Mostly respondents were in the age group of 50-59 years. The average age of the respondents was 49.8 years, and they had an average experience of about 15 years in the open and distance learning system. They described their primary role as teaching (36.73%) and research (26.53%), while 11.22% were administrators. Majority of the respondents were working in the university and college sector (83.67%), and had doctoral degrees (70.40%). About fifty per cent of the respondents were from the social science background. More than 65% had studied distance education/ online learning as a subject, and more than 74% has studied some courses through distance learning/ online learning. Eighty percent of the respondents had contributed at least a paper in conferences or a peer-reviewed journal in the past 5 years, and these respondents belonged to 19 countries (23 from USA, 19 from India, 13 from Canada, 10 from UK, 6 from Australia, 4 from Germany, 3 each from new Zealand and Sri Lanka, 2 from South Africa and one each from Japan, France, Indonesia, Philippines, Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal, Mexico, Mauritius, and Cambodia. The study can be said to be truly international in nature due to this participation and the profile of the respondents.

Table 1: Respondents' Profile in Round 2
Characteristics Frequency Percentage
Male 56 56
Female 44 44
Age Groups (n=99)
30-39 years 18 18.18
40-49 years 28 28.28
50-59 years 30 30.30
60 years and above 23 23.23
Mean: 49.8 years
ODL Experience (n=98)
1-5 years 8 8.16
6-10 years 32 32.65
11-15 years 16 16.32
16-20 years 18 18.36
21-25 years 12 12.24
26-30 years 4 4.08
>30 years 8 8.16
Mean: 14.93 years
Working in (n=98)
University and Colleges 82 83.67
Higher education Institutes 7 7.14
Corporate sector 1 1.02
E-learning sector 1 1.02
Others 7 7.14
Primary Involvement in (n=98)
Teaching and training 36 36.37
Research 26 26.57
Material development 6 6.12
Administration/Management 11 11.22
Instructional design services 5 5.10
Technology services 2 2.04
Policy development 4 4.08
Library services 1 1.02
Others 7 7.14
Highest qualification (n=98)
PhD 69 70.40
MPhil 5 5.10
Master Degree 18 18.36
Bachelor Degree 6 6.12
Discipline (n=87)
Social Sciences 43 49.42
Natural Sciences 4 4.59
Engineering and Technology 8 9.19
Health Sciences 3 2.44
Humanities 13 14.94
Others 16 18.39
Studied Distance Learning/Online learning (n=99)
Yes 65 65.65
No 34 34.34
Studied through Distance education/Online learning (n=99)
Yes 74 74.74
No 25 25.25
Publications in Last 5 years (n=100) (multiple responses)
Book 28 28
Book Chapter 67 67
Paper in peer-reviewed journal 80 80
Conference paper 80 80
Book review 28 28

The participants were also asked to rate the 17 topics in a 3-pooint scale from not necessary to essential. The mean ratings of the score and Content Validity Ratio (CVR) for these 17 items are given in Table 2. Instructional design received the highest average rating as well as CVR. Only eight topics/ areas received CVR more than 0.5. Three areas — costing, staff training and case studies received negative CVR indicating these did not get favourable response as essential. Similarly, a project/dissertation at the master degree level received a null value indicating such a course may or may not be included in the programme.

Table 2: Content Validity Ratio of the Topics
Topics/Areas Average Ratings CVR
Instructional Design 2.84 0.78
Learner Support 2.80 0.69
Assessment of Learner Performance 2.80 0.75
E-Learning 2.79 0.68
Educational Communication Technologies 2.75 0.59
Quality Assurance and Program Evaluation 2.73 0.57
Curriculum Design and Development 2.73 0.59
Material Development and Production 2.72 0.53
Research Methodology 2.57 0.22
Copyright and ethical issues 2.54 0.23
Management of Distance Education 2.52 0.15
Foundations of Distance Education 2.47 0.12
Educational Multimedia 2.47 0.07
Cost and Economics of Distance and Online Learning 2.37 -0.09
Project Work 2.37 0
Staff Training and Development 2.35 -0.18
Case Studies 2.26 -0.23

Round 3

In the round 3, the 17 topics were subjected to review by the respondents using seven criteria — self-sufficiency, significance, validity, interest, utility, learnability and feasibility. Table 3 shows the mean score of the 17 topics on all these and the overall average score. Only two topics received average more than 4 (high). However, if we consider a range of 3.49 and above, there are 10 topics/areas that can be considered to have received high grading by the respondents to be included in a Master's level programme in ODOL. Learner support and assessment of learner performance received considerable importance in all the groups, while instructional design received high ratings in terms of self-sufficiency, significance, validity, and feasibility. E-learning received high ratings in utility, learnability and feasibility.

Table 3: Results of the Round 3
Topics/Areas Self-Sufficiency Significance Validity Interest Utility Learnability Feasibility Overall Score
Instructional Design 4.08 4.35 4.12 3.15 3.38 3.30 4.21 3.80
Learner Support 4.10 4.31 3.94 4.07 4.50 3.67 4.15 4.10
Assessment of Learner Performance 4.12 4.26 4.07 3.96 4.47 3.86 4.18 4.12
E-Learning 3.44 3.56 3.38 3.83 4.47 3.47 4.18 3.76
Educational Communication Technologies 3.54 3.69 3.39 3.83 3.74 3.36 4.03 3.65
Quality Assurance and Program Evaluation 3.59 3.89 3.78 3.84 3.84 3.34 4.04 3.76
Curriculum Design and Development 3.94 4.05 3.84 3.29 3.80 3.09 4.00 3.72
Material Development and Production 3.77 3.84 3.71 3.67 4.05 3.36 3.90 3.76
Research Methodology 3.48 3.49 3.75 3.71 4.03 3.60 3.75 3.69
Copyright and ethical issues 3.07 3.29 3.32 3.20 3.61 2.90 3.90 3.33
Management of Distance Education 3.50 3.56 3.32 2.82 3.30 3.22 3.85 3.37
Foundations of Distance Education 3.00 3.25 3.18 3.13 3.55 3.32 4.05 3.35
Educational Multimedia 3.34 3.41 3.25 2.78 2.97 3.36 3.68 3.26
Cost and Economics of Distance and Online Learning 3.27 3.36 3.22 3.61 3.54 3.26 3.92 3.45
Project Work 3.54 3.38 3.10 2.97 3.49 3.03 3.57 3.30
Staff Training and Development 3.51 3.44 3.37 3.40 3.50 3.33 3.88 3.49
Case Studies 3.24 3.20 3.15 3.13 3.49 3.42 3.93 3.37

Curriculum Framework

Fig.1: Distance Education: Curriculum Framework

An analysis of the opinions of the respondents in all the three rounds show significant changes from round 1 to round 3. Though some of the respondents were not in continuous participation, a majority continued in all the rounds, and thus, the changes can be attributed to conscious thinking and leading towards group consensus. E-learning was at the top five areas in all the rounds. It is interesting to see learner support and assessment of learner performance reaching the top level in round 3, emphasizing the importance of learner-centric approach and concern for the student who is separated by time and space in the distance education system. The next major emphasis is on the content areas, their design, development and delivery with instructional design as the over arching umbrella topic. Using the data gathered in this Delphi study, a curriculum framework is being suggested here as depicted in Fig.1. The core of distance education is learner at the centre, followed by design, development and delivery of content using appropriate media and technology, followed by management of the system and an overall understanding of the models and foundations of distance education. Research methods, training and technology can be considered peripheral, but can add value to the core competencies of distance education professional.


the results of the study is not surprising in any way. It only reiterates our common understanding of distance education. A framework, as is in this case, would be useful if it is put to practice. A master degree programme in distance education may cover subject areas as per the curriculum framework suggested here. It emphasizes that a distance educator is a learning technologist who understands his/her learners and design, develop and deliver appropriate content materials using different technologies. He/She is not a technologist per se. He/She is also a manager, a project coordinator, who should have knowledge and skills to administer a programme/course through distance and/or online learning. He/She also need to understand the philosophical, psychological, sociological, economic and cultural contexts of distance education and various models adopted across countries. Having trainer skills, research skills and technology skills are additional to the core of distance education. This proposition may be questioned, but this is what the Delphi study revealed. With this, the author would like to identify some questions/issues that need further discussion and/or developmental work:

  1. Is the framework suggested useful? What changes could be made? Are distance education programmes at masters level organized in this manner in different countries?
  2. How we can organize this framework into courses within a master degree programme? What would be the courses and their detailed syllabus?
  3. What educational resources are available to teach these courses? Can we develop a directory of learning materials (whether copyrighted or Open Educational Resources)?
  4. Can we adopt a common curriculum? If yes, what are the advantages/disadvantages, and what areas of concern we need to address? How to address the credit value and equivalence issues?
  5. How we can further this idea? Who are the stakeholders to collaborate? What would attract other institutions to offer distance education programmes at masters level?

Certainly, the study has only achieved a small bit. It is important to work on each of the 10 topics/ areas (Appendix B) to develop short courses. The first step would be to list the content elements for each of these areas. This should be followed by setting of learning outcomes, and assessment strategies. The 3rd step shall be to do a resource mapping and content development. Last but not the least is implementation. Such a gigantic task can't be handled by any one individual or one institution. Therefore, a project like this needs to be adopted by inter-governmental institutions like the Commonwealth of Learning and support the development of the discipline of distance education and also overall implementation of the development projects using distance learning. After all, the professional development of distance educators and distance education is at the heart of 'Learning for Development'.


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Round 1 of the Delphi Study

The list of topics generated (with multiple responses) is as follows:

  • E-learning (13.84%): Includes virtual learning environments; learning management systems; learning objects; computer mediated communication; open educational resources; e-learning standards; online facilitation; online assessment; designing online learning; online communities; computer supported collaborative learning; online tutoring; web-authoring; web accessibility; digital divide; web 2.0, mobile learning, etc.
  • Material Development and Production (13.29%): Including writing aims and objectives; preparing activities; converting materials to online; editing; printing.
  • Instructional Design (10.1%): Includes theories of learning; pedagogy vs. andragogy; self-directed learning, autonomous learning; learning styles; models of instructional design.
  • Learner Support (9.67%): Includes understanding distance learners; academic advising; retention; mentoring; building relationships; types of learner support.
  • Foundations of Distance Education (9.2%): Includes theories of distance education; philosophical, psychological and sociological foundations; history, growth and developments; distance education and national developments; distance education in the developing world, models of distance education; globalization and distance education; distance education for special needs.
  • Educational Communication Technologies (7.69%): Includes technology integration; synchronous and asynchronous technologies; emerging technologies; satellite communication; Interactive technologies; radio, TV.
  • Research Methodology (7.47%): Includes research in distance education, research as reflective practice.
  • Management of Distance Education (6.81%): Including change management; policy development, leadership, marketing; resource sharing; project management.
  • Assessment of Learner Performance (5.93%): Including feedback to learners.
  • Quality Assurance and Program Evaluation (4.83%): Includes quality standards; benchmarks, performance indicators; national and international scenarios; quality assurance agencies; tools of quality assurance; evaluation of programs.
  • Curriculum Design and Development (4.39%): Including course design.
  • Staff Training and Development (2.85%): Including competencies of distance educators, online teachers; supporting tutors; training techniques and approaches.
  • Cost and Economics of Distance and Online Learning (2.63%): Including budgeting, economies of scale.
  • Educational Multimedia (2.19%): Includes audio, video preparation; interactive multimedia development.
  • Project Work (2.4%): A research report/ dissertation on a topic/ problem.
  • Copyright and ethical issues (1.97%): Includes copyright laws; digital rights management; ethics in distance education; open source and open content issues.
  • Case Studies (1.53%): Includes application of distance education in various levels such as Open schooling; open basic education; technical and vocational education training; tertiary education, non-formal education, corporate education.


Ten Topics/Ares that received Highest Favorable response in Round 3
Topics/Areas Average rating
Instructional Design 3.80
Learner Support 4.10
Assessment of Learner Performance 4.12
E-Learning 3.76
Educational Communication Technologies 3.65
Quality Assurance and Program Evaluation 3.76
Curriculum Design and Development 3.72
Material Development and Production 3.76
Research Methodology 3.69
Staff Training and Development 3.49