Are we trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?

Few universities are purpose built to deliver education solely via distance learning. The UK has a long tradition of face-to-face learning, hence the infrastructures in place in the universities accomodate that mode of delivery. Over the last 10 years, numerous UK universities have made steps towards distance learning, recognising its potential to:

  • enhance learning
  • tap into new student markets
  • help the university deal with campus capacity constraints
  • meet the growing demand for flexible learning.

But how does a university develop distance learning within an infrastructure created to deal with face-to-face learning? I recently read an article published in Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning written by Helen Lentell from the University of Leicester (UK) and entitled ‘Distance Learning in British Universities: Is it possible?’ ( [accessed 3 May 2012]). Lentell’s article addresses this precise question.

Lentell argues that distance learning in traditional universities is primarily being developed by enthusiasts who are engaged in something of a cottage industry, where one person is responsible for conceiving, developing, marketing and selling the product. She suggests this is all done by ‘trying to bend on-campus provision to fit the circumstances’ and that it is not a sustainable or cost-effective way of working (2012, p.29).

David Sewart (2010) is cited as describing distance learning as an ‘industrialised form of teaching, drawing on practices in manufacturing as well as service industries, and operating on a division of labour.’ In this way the development of distance learning involves academics, learning designers, e-learning technologists, administrators and marketers all doing what they do best to create a cost-efficient quality product. However, this kind of working calls for ‘top-level strategy and policy … to ensure systemic change that embeds distance learning into institutional policies and practices, and ensures that distance learning students are held in the same esteem as campus students’ (Lentell, 2012, 34).

I agree with Lentell that distance learning is most effective when a top-down approach is applied rather than a piecemeal bottom-up approach that leads to fragmented practices. However, numerous challenges arise from this approach, including:

  • establishing new ways or working that do not adhere to clear academic and administrative boundaries or clear faculty boundaries
  • the development of a distance learning strategy and policies that have widespread ‘buy in’
  • re-allocation of resources from traditional ways of working.

I welcome your views on this paper and hope that you will post a comment.


About Cathy Thomas-Varcoe

I have a passion for distance learning and the opportunities it provides for lifelong learning. I have spent the past 11 years focussing on delivering quality distance learning. Drawing on my nursing background, I initially worked for the Royal College of Nursing Institute who ran undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes validated by the University of Manchester and then for The Open University Health and Social Care Faculty. More recently I was a learning solutions consultant for The Open University’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development. In January 2012 I was appointed as the Distance Learning Lead for the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I have been involved in courses from concept to delivery, but the bulk of my work has focussed on writing and conceptualising distance learning courses.
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2 Responses to Are we trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?

  1. Jo Mutlow says:

    A commtiment by all to develop distance or open resources as part of a learning strategy is key -there are lots of folk who do not really understand what qualities distance learning materials have in order to determine where they might best fit in delivering a blended learning experience. So shared understanding, and therefore informed strategy, is one issue. The other is cost, and linked to that, return. Distance materials have high investment cost so need be a good investment proposition, providing an effective return in relation to learning outcomes achieved and in terms of meeting target enrolments.

  2. Thank you for your comment Jo. I particularly like that you acknowledge that investing in distance learning must provide a return in relation to learning outcomes, not just a financial return.

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