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Frequently-Asked Questions: Open * Distance Learning

FAQs sent in by a project involved in developing an ODL programme

What is Open & Distance Learning?

There is no single definition. The following description comes from COL’s Introduction to Open and Distance Learning (ODL)

There is no single definition of open and distance learning. Rather, there are many approaches to defining the term. Most definitions, however, pay attention to the following characteristics:

  • separation of teacher and learner in time or place, or in both time and place;
  • institutional accreditation; that is, learning is accredited or certified by some institution or agency. This type of learning is distinct from learning through your own effort without the official recognition of a learning institution;
  • use of mixed-media courseware, including print, radio and television broadcasts, video and audio cassettes, computer-based learning and telecommunications. Courseware tends to be pre-tested and validated before use;
  • two-way communication allows learners and tutors to interact as distinguished from the passive receipt of broadcast signals. Communication can be synchronous or asynchronous;
  • possibility of face-to-face meetings for tutorials, learner-learner interaction, library study and laboratory or practice sessions; and
  • use of industrialised processes; that is, in large-scale open and distance learning operations, labour is divided and tasks are assigned to various staff who work together in course development teams.  

Distinguishing the types of open and distance learning

The term "Open and Distance Learning (ODL) and its definition are relatively new in the field of education, having gained prominence only in the past 15 to 20 years. The language and terms used to describe distance learning activities can still be confusing, and geographical differences in usage - for example, between North America and Europe - can add to the confusion. Among the more commonly used terms related to open and distance learning are the following:

  • correspondence education
  • home study
  • independent study
  • external studies
  • continuing education
  • distance teaching
  • self-instruction
  • adult education
  • technology-based or mediated education
  • learner-centred education
  • open learning
  • open access
  • flexible learning
  • distributed learning.

What is the difference between traditional learning and interactive teaching/ learning?

The simple answer is that in traditional learning a teacher provides instruction and the learners receive it passively. In interactive teaching and learning, there is a dialogue (in the classroom, with the teacher; in ODL a mental dialogue and engagement with the materials) and learners learn actively, eg doing learning activities rather than just listening or reading, applying what they learn, relating what they learn to their own experiences and previous knowledge.

What and who is involved in developing ODL material?

Developing ODL material has to be a team effort which involves several people and a range of different skills. Job titles and descriptions can vary, so it is easiest to list the tasks involved, then work out who will do what for any specific project.

  • Curriculum design
  • Project management
  • Subject expertise
  • Instructional design
  • Authoring and writing
  • Editing and proofreading
  • ICT skills (eg programming, animation, web design)
  • Design and layout; illustration
  • Production

How long does it take to develop a set amount of ODL materials for non-formal education?

This is difficult to answer as there are so many variables. It is said that to develop 1 hour's worth of ODL material can take anything from 10 to 100 hours. Examples of things to take into account in working out timing:

  • What media will be used? (technology-based materials usually take much longer)
  • How long is the course/ programme in terms of planned study hours?
  • How experienced are the team?
  • How complex is the subject matter and the planned materials?

How can we use ODL material for group learning, rather than individual learning?

There are several possibilities including:

  • Learners could do some preparatory study on their own using ODL materials, then meet for group sessions involving, say, discussion or collaborative projects
  • Small groups of learners could work together through the materials
  • Even in a more formal classroom setting, ODL materials could be used so that learners work individually at their own pace, but then work together at some joint activities
  • Online learning lends itself well to online discussions and collaborative activities and projects
  • ODL learners can take their learning into, say the workplace or community. The materials can give guidance on how to organise discussions or group activities with colleagues or people in the community who are not taking part in the course itself.

How long should each lesson (within a unit) be in terms of space and time it takes learners to complete?

This hard to say, and it depends on the learners. Often sessions/ lessons are designed to take 1 – 1 ½ hours, which is a reasonable attention span. It helps learners if study sessions are all roughly the same length so they can plan their time. Sessions are likely to be broken up into activities or smaller chunks of learning, taking about 20 minutes, to keep up the interest. An instructional designer will define specific learning outcomes for each of these chunks.

Is it important to have self testing material and examples included in each lesson? Why?

Yes, because they make the learners take an active part and give them opportunities to apply what they learn, and think about it. Just reading (or listening, or watching a screen) is a very passive way of learning.

How can we motivate/involve women in ODL development and learning?

Interesting question, and the answer depends on on the context.

Start by analysing why women are not involved enough in any situation. For example, are there financial barriers, domestic issues, does the course content appear male-oriented?

Primarily it must mean ensuring that there are no barriers – social, political, economic, organisational - to women’s involvement. Examples: for development, it could mean making sure suitable training is provided if needed; for learning, it could mean targeting advertising and recruitment, or providing appropriate support.

How can mobile phone (telephony) be used for ODL learning?

There are many avenues to explore here. The obvious answer is that mobile phones, by texting or by talk, make contact, between learner and learner, or between tutor and learner, easier. They also make administrative and operational support easier, eg by sending reminders or information.

As a learning technology, people are experimenting with games, quizzes, ‘just-in-time’ learning and so on. These are seen as fun, and a way of appealing to learners who may be resistant to more traditional learning. If the definition of mobile learning is extended to include pocket PCs (eg Blackberries) and wireless laptops, then the whole range of technology-mediated learning, including online learning, becomes available to learners on the move.

What are the best ways to develop and insert DVD or CD medium of learning?

It depends. The answer is in the initial planning of course/ programme aims and learning outcomes and the answers to such questions as:

  • Who is the learning for? Why does DVD/ CD seem best option?
  • What learning is to be delivered and how?
  • Budget?
  • Timescale?
  • Skills and expertise available for development?

Options include:

  • Simply providing a DVD/CD rom version of printed materials as a convenient way of distribution. This is relatively cheap
  • At the other extreme, delivery of a programme as a full interactive hi-tech learning experience which is usually very expensive.
  • In between, options to deliver parts of a programme on DVD/ CD rom once you have identified which parts could help learners achieve the learning outcomes better in this medium (examples could be filmed interviews or case study documentary material; or assessments and quizzes with automatic testing and feedback)

In terms of development this will require skills of both instructional design and ICT development and programming. In terms of delivery, learners will need access to the technology/ equipment. This may mean they can’t study at home, or away from an ICT centre of some kind.