For some years those of us working in distance learning institutions have been encouraged to see ourselves as simply part of a continuum of ‘blended learning’. Our older siblings: traditional or face-to- face institutions, declared that they could use e-learning technologies to offer distance education at least as good as dedicated distance learning institutions; perhaps even better since they could draw on a bigger reservoir of expert teachers and researchers. The most recent issue of Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, is dedicated to examining distance learning in dual mode institutions. It questions whether many institutions whose primary student body is geographically present have been able to offer distance learning in a sustainable way. Such institutions often do not have the policies and processes – including appropriate quality assurance – the IT back office systems, the skilled support staff for students and academics, the work practices and culture, the values, or indeed the business skills to understand the cost structures of distance learning. Thus distance learning provision is the domain of a few departmental individuals (academic and administrative). Once these early adopters and enthusiasts move on – or burn out- the systems are not there to support others to continue the work as a normal part of their activities, and a normal part of the institution’s teaching.
The case studies and discussion papers included in this special issue are well worth reading, especially by distance learning enthusiasts in traditional universities, where there is still a policy enthusiasm for distance learners who seem to offer new markets and potential economies in teaching. The lesson seems to be that this enthusiasm needs a comparative level of financial investment and systems development.
Maybe these nice pictures we are so used to of the distance learner in splendid isolation in some national park are more real that we thought. Maybe there is just the poor student and his laptop, and a bit on Blackboard when his tutor remembers to update the readings.
[Image from http://www.crossculture.com/services/distance-learning/]