In 2000, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) published ‘Quality On the Line: Benchmarks for success in internet-based distance education’. In summary, the institute indicated that online distance learning could indeed be a quality learning experience and identified 24 benchmarks that they found to be essential to ensuring excellence. The benchmarks were grouped by the following seven themes and covered the areas indicated in brackets:
- institutional support benchmarks (i.e. a reliable technology delivery system and centralised systems for the creation and maintenance of distance education infrastructures)
- course development benchmarks (i.e. guidelines for minimum standards in course development, design and delivery)
- teaching and learning benchmarks (i.e. student instruction in scholarly skills, student interaction, and timely and constructive feedback)
- course structure benchmarks (i.e. access to library resources, explicit learning outcomes and management of student expectations)
- student support benchmarks (i.e. study skills advice, access to technical assistance, student support services)
- faculty support benchmarks (i.e. technical support to develop courses, training and peer mentoring for educators)
- evaluation and assessment benchmarks (i.e. collecting comprehensive enrolment data and monitoring the course’s educational effectiveness).
A recent report by the BBC (2012) would suggest that a number of high calibre US universities are embracing distance learning. So why are so many UK universities lagging behind when distance learning has enormous potential for education, widening participation and business development and there has been evidence such as the IHEP report for how to develop quality distance learning for some time? When UK universities are grappling to find new income streams after significant government funding cuts, distance learning is open to the global market. But how do UK universities that are just dabbling in distance learning intend to compete with the likes of the innovative EdX collaboration between Harvard and MIT who have a clear strategy and are producing quality distance learning?
In my opinion, UK universities need to decide whether they want a part of the US $36 billion market (Worlock, 2011) or not. If they do, then they need to invest in the infrastructures that will enable them to address the benchmarks outlined above and develop ‘quality’ distance learning that will compete on the global market. And they need to do it swiftly, before the US universities flood the market.
With the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web and the growing demand for lifelong learning, the educational landscape has changed forever. I personally think that distance learning is the way forward, but as a distance learning enthusiast I guess I would say that. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.