Reality check for open, distance learning institutions

The open and distance learning – or ODL – vision of accessible, low-cost, high-quality provision has never been more relevant, as conventional higher education the world over continues to be beset by access, cost and productivity challenges.

But ODL – conventional online learning included – succeeds in accessibility and convenience much more than in experience and outcomes. These institutions also have yet to make a convincing case for the pedagogical merits of scale, according to a new report.

As mature providers and amid new competition from both conventional universities and start-ups, specialist ODL universities offer many lessons but need to speak more directly to their strengths and the new reality, says the report released by the Commonwealth of Learning, or CoL.

ODL specialist universities should call out their founding ideals but more explicitly evaluate their progress. Immense benefit would come from constructive tracking and disclosure of key student and institutional performance metrics, as well as diagnosis of what moves the needle, says the report.

“The tide is turning in favour of niche ODL solutions that will be difficult to mainstream, and ODL adoption by conventional universities that fragments innovation and inhibits economies of scale,” it says.

The findings released by CoL highlight how ODL universities are pioneering instructional and support methods and opening pathways for non-traditional students to undertake tertiary education.

The report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education Director Richard Garrett critically examines 10 specialist open and distance learning universities and questions the relevance of these institutions when most colleges and universities now offer ODL courses and programmes.

“ODL institutions were formed to address the access, cost and efficiency limitations of conventional universities … it is [now] appropriate to review progress against these founding ideals,” he says.

The report considers the characteristics and trajectories of specialist ODL institutions, specifically focusing on student performance and institutional productivity data. By comparison, it benchmarks 18 other ODL institutions or companies in and outside the Commonwealth.

Garrett says today dedicated ODL higher education institutions are no longer first and foremost the domain of specialists. In the 1990s the rise of online learning promised a range of enhancements to ODL institutions via interaction, engagement and simulation – and thus attracted both conventional universities and the private sector.

New models advanced the ODL institutions’ perennial goals – widening higher education access and lowering the costs while maintaining quality – and as tools to address affordability and productivity in mainstream higher education.

“The online learning explosion paralleled the massification of higher education worldwide, creating new capacity, cost and quality pressures,” Garrett says.

Consequently, the past two decades have witnessed numerous institutional and commercial experiments with different iterations of online learning. Regardless of the country, most higher education students still study in person at conventional institutions – but a growing proportion do so wholly at a distance and a ‘traditional’ student experience is increasingly a blend of conventional methods and new technology.

Garrett says as an example, reports from the US-based Online Learning Consortium, formerly Sloan-C, chart the growth of higher education students taking one or more online courses. The latest report shows more than seven million students, or roughly a third, take at least one online course.

Hundreds of US universities and colleges now offer online courses and full degree programmes, while in Malaysia, the Asia eUniversity initiative is a government-backed attempt to enable domestic universities to offer their growing array of online degrees to wider audiences.

The Sri Lankan government has invested in a national online distance education services operation to grow online learning capacity across public higher education.

Assumptions questioned

Garrett says the massive open online course, or MOOC, phenomenon is the most recent major ODL development, driven primarily by conventional, elite universities. MOOCs, exemplified by free, non-credit courses from top faculty and delivered to vast numbers of students, both echo long-standing ODL goals and question assumptions about product and provider.

The related open educational resources movement, attempting to boost the scalability and minimise the cost of educational materials, has also gained momentum, but Garrett says widespread adoption remains a distant hope.

“Not surprisingly, the level of interest in online and open learning and the range of institutions and organisations involved, has led to outstanding successes, dismal failures and much in between. There is greater awareness of ODL and its potential; however,
contemporary modalities are evolving through trial and error and ODL’s reputation remains complex,” Garrett says.

The report draws three conclusions about ODL institutions today, namely they experience mixed enrolment patterns; have limited performance data and there is a tension between the typical ODL student experience and the capabilities, situations and preferences of many students.

Mixed enrolment picture

Garrett says while mature ODL institutions embody great achievements over time, the recent enrolment picture is mixed. Although about half of the sample institutions have continued growing strongly, the balance have suffered enrolment decline and market share loss along with financial difficulties.

The report also concludes despite decades of experience, many mature ODL institutions sustain a mixed reputation for academic quality – and none in the sample squarely reports on student performance. Garrett says reasons including graduation rate are why ODL institutions do not report ‘simple’ student performance data.

“The open nature of these institutions means some students may enrol in courses casually rather than completing a degree or may transfer to a conventional institution. Some ODL institutions encourage significant credit transfer, complicating graduation rates,” he says.

While acknowledging these ‘thorny issues’ are not insurmountable, Garrett believes if conventional graduation rate metrics are inappropriate, the onus lies with ODL institutions to put forward alternatives.

Lastly, the report considers the limitations and potential of ODL institutions, arguing these institutions either serve non-traditional students for whom the conventional university is impractical or address a traditional campus capacity gap for traditional-age students.

The typical ODL student experience, including limited contact with faculty and other students, requires greater dedication and self-discipline than expected from conventional students.

Consequently, the model does not work equally for all students and its context can render the delivery mode as much a hurdle as an enabler unless expertly handled.

The 10 universities in the study were Athabasca University, Canada; Indira Gandhi National Open University, India; National Open University of Nigeria; Open Universities Australia; the Open University,UK; Open University Malaysia; Open University of Sri Lanka; University of South Africa; University of the South Pacific, Fiji; and University of the West Indies.