Several UK universities that offer both campus-based and distance learning present their offerings on their websites as a choice between ‘taught courses’, ‘research programmes’ and ‘distance learning’ (or ‘online courses’ or some variant thereof). I think this terminology is interesting: the distinction between taught courses and research makes sense, but the implication for distance/online learning is that there is no teaching on those courses. Of course we all know this is not true – the days of Virtual Learning Environments being used solely as content repositories are well behind us. (At least in the courses I’ve been involved with.) Nevertheless, in my experience it is still commonplace to find that the campus-based programme and the online version use different materials, have different structures, use a different approach to assessment, and are managed by different individuals.
The reasons for this are many and sometimes complicated: the course materials are often written to fit a time-based structure and course length may be different in the two modes. If different individuals are responsible for ‘delivering’ each version of the course, they may have different ideas on what the course should include, what should be emphasised in assessment and so on. Audio and video materials from the Web that are made available to distance learning students may get overlooked by campus-based course leaders. The result is that two versions of the course may coexist in parallel, and whatever innovation occurs in one strand is not necessarily shared with the other. Both modes are the poorer for this.
What if course teams were to sit down together and jointly review their parallel versions, taking the best from each, and streamlining their resources to provide a dynamic core with flexible components to cater for the specifics of each delivery mode?
And then… what if… selected elements of the programme were made open? For example, the content (in the form of open educational resources), the teaching (in the form of massive or little open online courses), and even the assessment (using secure online proctoring systems). One positive spinoff, I think, would be the higher levels of quality that course leaders would aspire to, knowing that their work was going to be available to all the world. An obvious risk would be that fee-paying students would stop paying fees, but this could be avoided by using ‘freemium’ models and not offering entire programmes in this way.
If you were asked to create radical, positively disruptive transformation at a UK HEI, you could start by gathering together the energetic, forward-thinking academics from across a range of disciplines in the institution, and brainstorming with them ways of creating permeable boundaries between ‘taught courses’, ‘distance learning’ and open education. Any takers?