Friday, 10 August 2012

Distance Learning

I was reading this post on how to get the most out of a distance learning course yesterday and reflected on how negative some of the thoughts are. There are some valid points but much of it does not reflect the approach we have developed on the Anglia Ruskin fully online BA LTT course. Words in italics are from the article.

"If you don’t have to attend tutorials and you have the flexibility to study when you want it can be easy to not do as much as you need to...You may have access to a tutor, but it isn’t quite the same communicating via email as it is talking to someone face-to-face.

As far as I am aware most f2f courses also offer optional tutorials, there is no compulsion to attend. Online tutorials via Skype, Facetime or the good old fashioned telephone are little different to f2f tutorials. Tutorials held via VOIP offer the potential for group tutorials and the advantage that the audio can easily be captured and listened to again and again to help students induct the learning and tutors review their approach.

"You therefore have to be extremely determined to take a distance learning course, as you have to be able to focus on what needs to be done.

I am not sure 'extreme determination' is needed any more so than on a f2f course, on both you need to 'focus on what needs to be done', taught time on a f2f course is fairly minimal and autonomous study prevails unless you are on a course such as geology where a lot of field-work / lab time is built into the time-table. 

"If you’re having difficulty with reading or writing essays this may not be picked up on unless you actually get in contact with your tutor.

I guess this can happen, however; in our online community of practitioners (Wenger, 2001) and dialogue based approach, students are required to participate on a weekly basis, tutors notice if a student is not participating. There is a requirement for students to read and respond to discussion posts, to share their work for peer review regularly and to offer peer review to fellow students. Tutors monitor peer review and intervene when needed to ensure that review comments are constructively aligned with assessment tasks and criteria. Tutors also provide digitally annotated reviews of work in progress. This makes sure that weaknesses are picked up at an early stage and appropriate support is in place. 

"Clearly, if you’re having difficulty understanding certain concepts you have to ask someone else, as it is better to ask for help than to give up your course because you can’t understand something." 
This is good advice, we open each module with a week where students are advised to read all course resources and raise any uncertainties in online community. They are encouraged to articulate what they think the resources are asking them to do, this in itself can help conceptualisation but also provides other students the chance to add their own interpretations and for tutors to affirm or clarify as needed. We also make sure they understand that there is no concept of  'A stupid question' and it rapidly becomes clear that other students either have the same question in mind or have the answer. This period of negotiating and clarifying meaning can be critical in developing community bonding. 

The notion of balancing work life and study is one that was identified in 2000 when I was working with North Thames Thoracic medicine students, online asynchronous learning was an emergent pedagogy at that time but very much appreciated. 

“You have the fabric there of exactly what we want; we want to go home, relax and when the kids are asleep, we can say this is the time to learn."
 Respiratory SpR. November 2000.

It was also identified as theme in our 2008 paper 'Personalised Learning and the Ultraversity Experience'. Most students manage to create a good balance fairly quickly. We provide a work focused course so a proportion of study is based in the workplace during normal working hours. A significant proportion of students reported that they were able to negotiate some study time with their employer, this ranged from a few hours to a whole day per week and varied during the course timetable with a greater likely-hood of time being given close to assessment points or at key points during the implementation of work based research projects. 

This extract from a paper, co-written by course tutors and a student provides an insight from a student that evidences the benefits of online learning and of work-based learning in helping her achieve a good balance between life, work and study:

One of the key features of the BA LTR was the autonomy that it gave me, autonomy to not only devise my own learning timetable but also the autonomy to judge where and when to apply my evolving research skills to real life situations in the work place.  Work based learning empowered me, with full support from my employers, to identify areas for improvement in the workplace, resulting in powerful impact on my academic, personal and professional development.

The action research led modules enabled a fusion of work and study, as a mother of two with an extremely busy life the ability to combine these two elements of my life so seamlessly was a significant contributing factor to the fact that I completed and committed to the course.  The sole reason that I had never undertaken a traditional degree course was my perception that I would need to carve up my time, redress my priorities and fit my life around study.  With the BA LTR course study fitted quite comfortably into my life. Whilst it was not easy and had high demands the way that it dovetailed my work allowed me to access higher education.
Arnold, Pickford and O’Dunne (2007)

Negotiation of study time with family can be critical to getting the balance right - the benefits of a higher qualified parent who is more likely to obtain a higher paid job are clear to partners and older children if they are overtly discussed and feedback from students indicates that negotiation is often successful. Balancing some quiet study time with focused family time can help younger children accept the change. We have since done some research into study patterns and identified a range of approaches to fitting in online study time outside of the study time at work.

  1. Early birds - some students set a pattern of doing an hour or so of study every day in the morning before work or before family get up at the weekend. 
  2. Evenings - a more common pattern is starting online study in the evening when family are settled, this may well be a fairly regular log-in to the online community between 7 and 10 pm.
  3. Night owls - a significant proportion of students start their study in the late evening and make use of quiet time after children go to bed. Some will study over the 11pm - 2am period although this is a minority sport it is more frequent close to assessment points.
  4. Weekends - Some students put aside a whole day at the weekend as the main study time and augment this with occasional forays into the online community during the week at convenient but not preset times.
  5.  Random scatter - study is done as and when needed or when inspiration strikes. 

These patterns are not always adhered to strictly, students may have a dominant pattern augmented by opportunity or, as Julie articulates in the short video below, will log in when inspiration strikes.

Tutors also work flexible hours and it is not unusual for a tutor to be in the online communities anywhere from 6 am to 2 am on weekdays or at weekends. This flexibility is enabled by home working and allows tutors to make use of times when inspiration strikes. For example I woke early a few weeks ago with some new thoughts about how to convey the value of using an online learning journal and recorded, then uploaded, a podcast on the topic before 6 am on a Sunday. As the thoughts were fresh in my mind and I was fairly pleased with them the enthusiasm was also conveyed in a way that might not have been so apparent were I to have waited until the normal working hours to do my work.

"It can be tough to stick with a distance learning course, but if you use all the materials provided and make contact with your tutor and other students you will find that studying in this way is a rewarding experience.

I totally agree with this statement, as with an on-campus course, participation is essential, students who have a light engagement during the earlier week of semester then try and cram it all in in the final weeks rarely flourish. Students who do not take an active part in learning, ignore the suggested learning schedule and hope they can wing it do not flourish. Fortunately we rarely have students like this and as mentioned earlier the community of practice approach makes participation visible. Tutors can also monitor attendance / interactions using the statistical trackers in the VLE software and will contact students if they have concerns about lack of attendance.

Below is one of our fairly recent 1st Class Hons students talking about her approach to study and some of the benefits of this kind of learning. Julie also gained recognition by the workplace during her studies and after graduation achieved promotion to the post of Business Operations Team Leader.


Arnold, L., Pickford, S., and O’Dunne, V. (2007) Real world research: Inquiry led undergraduate work-based learning in the virtual paradigm. Presented to the All Ireland Society of Higher Education Conference, Maynooth – 31st August 2007. Available at

Millwood, R., Powell, S., Tindal, I. (2008). Personalised Learning and the Ultraversity Experience.Interactive Learning Environments, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp. 63 - 81. Routledge.

Wenger. E., 2001. Supporting communities of practice: a survey of community-oriented technologies. Self-published report available at

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