Three degrees of innovation in designing a new distance programme

The FUTURA report that I co-wrote with Brenda Padilla, Lourdes  Guàrdia and Cris Girona was recently published by the Open University of Catalonia’s eLearn Center. It documents current and emerging practices in online teaching in higher education. We analysed over 100 initiatives from a wide range of higher education institutions which were seen as being innovative in their respective contexts. A thematic analysis of descriptions of these initiatives indicated that there were five underlying themes running through them, which could be described under the headings Intelligent, Distributed, Engaging, Agile and Situated (or IDEAS for short). The key aspects of each of these themes are outlined in the image below:


Source: Witthaus, Padilla, Guàrdia and Campillo (2016, p.6). Image available at:

One of the purposes of the FUTURA report was to inspire leaders and academics in higher education to consider new possibilities for the ways in which they provide online programmes. Of course, what is a new possibility for one institution or department may be old hat for another – innovation is a relative concept that is meaningless without knowing the context in which it is enacted. With this in mind, I would like to look at how the IDEAS model could be used to inform the design of a new distance learning programme in the specific context of a typical mainstream university that is primarily campus-based, with little or no experience of offering distance learning programmes.

In the table below, I give indicative examples of three degrees of innovation in the design of the new programme in such an institution, in all five categories of the IDEAS model.   The ‘first degree of innovation’ represents existing practices of face-to-face delivery being merely tweaked for online delivery (in this case, the only innovation is the shift in delivery mode from face-to-face to online); the ‘second degree’ represents something genuinely new being created for the purpose of enhancing or improving the learning experience for distance learners; and the ‘third degree’ represents a radical departure from mainstream practice at the institution. The degree of innovation in each case is described in relative terms, with traditional campus-based delivery as the norm for the institution I have in mind.

Intelligent pedagogy

First degree of innovation Second degree of innovation Third degree of innovation
Using the existing institutional VLE, upload PDFs and provide video recordings for students of f2f lectures, offer online multiple-choice quizzes, and use discussion forums for students to ask questions about the course or the assessment. Design new, online activities specifically for distance learners using the full functionality of the VLE, including discussion forum, blogs, wikis and webinars (e.g. Salmon’s e-tivities as developed at the University of Leicester). Abandon the VLE altogether and set up a new online learning ecosystem using open source, Web-based, mobile-friendly educational apps (see Merriman et al’s UOC/MIT report on Next Generation Learning Architecture).

Distributed pedagogy

First degree of innovation Second degree of innovation Third degree of innovation
Build on any existing partnerships with other higher education institutions, as well as with public and community organisations, that can offer a greater international dimension to the curriculum, and can enrich the learning experience for students in some way.




Structure the curriculum in such a way that students are required to choose at least one elective module from elsewhere in your institution, or from another institution altogether. Encourage students to look for suitable, credit-bearing MOOCs as electives to complement the modules provided by your programme team (e.g. Open University Netherlands, as described in Witthaus et al., 2016, p.16). Collaborate with other HE institutions to recognise non-formal, open learning and award students full credentials (such as degrees) for programmes in which many or most of the modules were studied at other institutions (e.g. the OERu). This may involve disaggregating the services your department or institution provides, i.e. separating out the course content provision, teaching, tutorial support, pastoral support, assessment and credentialling activities.

Engaging pedagogy

First degree of innovation Second degree of innovation Third degree of innovation
Offer an online version of the f2f induction week for distance learners, with ‘incentives’ (prizes) for participation. In this induction, include a walk-through of the VLE and library resources, a link to the institution’s study skills support portal, as well as a quiz on key information provided in the programme handbook. Storyboard each module of the programme in the design process to ensure that there is clear alignment between intended learning outcomes, assessment and learning activities. Within this framework, build online activities (e-tivities) that encourage learners to engage positively at a behavioural, emotional and cognitive level (Trowler, 2010).


Build in social tasks that require learners to solve complex problems collaboratively or to complete projects in cooperation with others. Include elements of gamification in the design of these tasks if appropriate (e.g. TU Delft – see Iosup & Ipema, 2013).



Agile pedagogy

First degree of innovation Second degree of innovation Third degree of innovation
Provide flexibility for distance learners by having an open-ended timetable for each module, with only one deadline at the end for assignment submission or examination. Provide a personal tutor to support each student via email or Skype, stipulating a maximum number of hours’ support per student per module.


Design collaborative learning activities that can be completed at a flexible pace but with a clear structure and regular milestones/ deadlines.

Expand the options for recognition of prior learning, for example by giving students Challenge Exams, or inviting students to submit e-portfolios (e.g. Athabasca University – see Spencer, n.d.).

Allow learners to create personalised pathways by combining modules in different ways and progressing through the curriculum at their own pace, through a series of competency-based assessments (e.g. Capella University’s FlexPath model).



Situated pedagogy

First degree of innovation Second degree of innovation Third degree of innovation
Ensure that all module learning outcomes, prescribed readings and assessment tasks include a focus on contextualising the learning in a range of real-world situations.



Seek opportunities for virtual placements for distance learners, mirroring the kinds of placements that f2f students undertake (e.g. the EU VALS project, in which computer programming students created code for businesses). Set up public, online platforms for students to collaborate with other students outside of the institution, employers or industry bodies, and community groups in practical applications of their learning (e.g. SustainabilityConnect at Arizona State University).


While in the above tables, only one example was given for each category of the IDEAS model, a great many more possible examples and scenarios would need to be considered in the case of a real planning exercise. I hope that I have shown how the IDEAS model could be used in a workshop or brainstorming process, to inspire planning for meaningful innovation in the case of a traditional institution embarking on the development of a new distance learning programme.


Iosup, A. & Epema, D. (2013). An Experience Report on Using Gamification in Technical Higher Education. Retrieved from

Merriman, J., Coppeto, T., Santanach, F., Shaw, C. and Aracil, X. (2016). Next Generation Learning Architecture. Barcelona: Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. Retrieved from

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Spencer, B. (n.d.). Defining prior learning assessment and recognition. Athabasca University. Retrieved from:

Trowler, V. (2010). Student Engagement Literature Review. York: Higher Educational Academy. Retrieved from:

Witthaus, G., Padilla, B.C., Guàrdia, L. and Campillo, C. (2016). Next Generation Pedagogy: IDEAS for Online and Blended Higher Education. Final report of the FUTURA (Future of University Teaching: Update and a Roadmap for Advancement) project. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. Retrieved from:

About Gabi Witthaus

Open educator. Blogger at Art of E-learning. Learning design consultant at University of Birmingham. PhD student in HE Research, Evaluation and Enhancement, Lancaster University. Previously Research Associate at University of Leicester (Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Institute of Learning Innovation); Learning and Teaching Facilitator at Loughborough University; Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management. Qualifications: Masters in Training and Development (USQ, Australia); Masters in English Education (Wits University, South Africa), PGC in Mediation (Robert Gordon, Scotland), BA Hons in Applied Linguistics (Wits University, South Africa).
This entry was posted in learning design and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Three degrees of innovation in designing a new distance programme

  1. journeyspace says:

    Brilliant article. Should be widely read.


  2. Pingback: Three degrees of innovation in designing a new distance programme - e-Learning Feeds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s