Long arm of learning: Interactive computer technology is adding impetus to the shift toward education at a distance. Anne Nicholls reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BUZZ WORD in education and training today is flexibility. The format of a course with compulsory lectures that begins in September and ends in July, is rapidly giving way to a scenario where students dip in and out of tailored programmes, using a mix of resource material - printed, recorded and broadcast - that is supplemented by interactive and other computer-aided learning technologies.

Some will attend courses on site but many will study at home, using multi-media learning packages based on interactive compact discs and personal computers (PCs) to supplement the standard print-based correspondence courses. Students in the UK may be able to tune into education programmes and lectures on US television, and even participate in seminars via satellite telephone link-ups.

Distance learning, an approach based on self-study with little or no face-to-face contact with tutors, is becoming more and more popular as students, educators and publishers realise the benefits of the flexible approach. The Educational Counselling and Credit Transfer Information Service, a database of award-bearing qualifications in the UK, reports that there are about 900 distance learning courses available, leading to a range of degrees, diplomas and professional qualifications.

Most are paper-based correspondence courses, with assignments marked by a tutor, like those offered by the National Extension College since 1963.

Multi-media distance teaching came with the creation of the Open University in 1968, with broadcasts that kept students up late or got them up very early. Then in 1987 came the Open College, providing further education and vocational training through workbooks and audio and video cassettes.

The Open Polytechnic, renamed the Open Learning Foundation, was established in 1990 to help the polytechnics translate their taught courses into self-study distance learning formats. The impetus from the Government was to increase student numbers and provide access to higher education for a wider band of people, many of them working adults.

'It is not always possible to take someone out of work to become a full-time student,' said David Hardy, chief executive of the Open Learning Foundation. 'There is a huge pent-up demand for education and a need to expand in a different way, which means moving away from traditional lectures into new systems using new technology.'

The main function of the Open Learning Foundation, which has 20 of the former polytechnics as members, is the development of multi-media teaching and learning materials which institutions can incorporate into their courses. The idea is that students register for a programme or degree with a university (by-passing the UCCA entry system), then supplement their text, video and audio course materials by visiting lectures, seminars and tutorials as they wish.

Thames Valley University, for example, offers certificates and diplomas in training management through self-study packs with written work-based assignments, backed up by telephone tutorial support and a number of optional workshops. 'The result is a considerable blurring of the distinction between full and part-time students,' said Mr Hardy.

The demand from universities participating in the Open Learning Foundation network is mainly for business and management, accountancy, languages, engineering, health and social work, particularly from health sector personnel who need to update their skills and knowledge. The University of Sheffield has taken a slightly different route, adapting some of its Master's degrees in Education for students both at home and overseas. Since 1990 it has offered a modular-based MEd for qualified teachers in Singapore. It involves written assignments, attendance at two summer schools, a written examination at the end of the first year and a research project in the second.

At the same time, publishing companies have been producing high-quality distance learning materials, predominantly in management, including packages leading to a Master's degree in Business Administration (MBA). Pergamon Open Learning offers the NEBSM programme (National Examining Board for Supervisory Management) through a series of workbooks and audio tapes. It claims to be 'the UK's most popular open learning series'. Another leading commercial publisher, Henley Distance Learning, offers multi-media management packages that can be taken as free-standing courses, as credits towards an MBA, or as resource material for other qualifications, such as those offered by the Institute of Personnel Management.

The most innovative work is in multi-media education and training packages that integrate text, graphics, animation, audio and video into a seamless web. Programmes are being produced where screen images, sound and print are woven into an interactive programme controlled by the user. And this kind of system does not require sophisticated equipment. The learner needs only fairly basic equipment: a PC, a mouse, a hard disc and colour monitor.

So while print will remain the basis of most distance learning programmes, the future will see the refinement of interactive multi-media technologies. The 'social transformation' of the student away from the campus to the home and workplace - as described by Terry Evans and Daryl Nation in Reforming Open and Distance Education (Kogan Page) - will be followed by a media transformation from print to electronics.

(Photograph omitted)