Tag Archives: distance education

Smart higher education: both face-to-face and online

The number of participants in higher education is growing rapidly worldwide. Apart from the growing number of adult participants, the variety of students in general is increasing. However, the organization of universities is hardly able to deal with this growing variety. Students can chose between campus or distance-teaching universities and between full-time or part-time studies. A thorough redesign must offer relief.

The value of personal contact between students and teachers

Whether students are enrolled in a campus or a distance-teaching university, they spend most of their time on independent study: At home, at work, on the train or in the library. The difference between the two types of universities is the way they support these activities. The majority of campus universities are deploying a combination of lectures and seminars. Distance-teaching universities offer a sequence of assignments, which students have to submit in order to receive feedback. When it comes to getting acquainted with knowledge or theoretical insights, both ways are effective. However supporting independent study online is definitely outperforming lectures and seminars with respect to efficiency and scalability[1].

Unknown-1The value-added of campus universities should rather be sought in teaching methods where the degree of interaction between students and teachers goes beyond incidental questioning and answering in lectures and seminars. Think of tutorials (meetings a few students with a tutor), projects (intensive meetings of students, occasionally attended by a teacher), working groups in problem-based learning (10-15 students, who meet with a tutor regularly) and some types of training. Activities like these outperform the capabilities of education online with respect to the support of aims like critical thinking and problem solving. Unfortunately, the domination of lectures and seminars prevents that campus universities take advantage of this potential value.

The value of self-paced learning

The majority of educational programs – campus-based or distance teaching – are starting once or twice a year and their length is fixed. For the rapidly growing group of students who combine study with a job, music or sport, a family and a social life, this system is untenable. Students differ with respect to the time they can spend on their study each week, to the distribution of the available time during the year, to the speed at which they learn and to the knowledge and skills they already possess.

Fortunately, a growing number of distance teaching institutions is able to deal with differences between students with respect to the time they need to complete their studies. These institutions offer unlimited opportunity to enrol as well[2]. In order to stimulate that students prioritize their study as much as possible, they offer active mentoring and count a fixed monthly fee under the motto learn as much as you can. Unfortunately, the majority of online programs fail to realize the benefits of flexibility.

Distance teaching and campus-based education both have potential advantages, whose benefits are not fully used. However, students will benefit best, if these advantages are made available for all of them.

The value of blending learning

Education online is perfectly well equipped for enabling educational aims like the acquisition of knowledge and the development of theoretical insights. With respect to this aim, campus-based universities can economize by substituting lectures and seminars by online teaching methods. As mentioned before, some types of face-to-face interaction between teachers and students are superior in the realization of educational aims like critical thinking and problem solving. All students – in campuses or online – will benefit from occasional participation in tutorials, projects, small group meetings or intense trainings like boot camps. For some students it will be feasible to be on campus daily, for others one day every week suits best or they prefer a few residential weeks a year. By offering a variety of blends of face-to-face meetings and activities online, university campuses could become nodes in educational networks and be able to host many more students than at present. The functional combination of independent study with both face-to-face and online support is representing the best of both worlds at lower costs.

The value of freedom what or where to learn

The body of scientific knowledge is doubling every nine years, disciplinary borders get blurred and best research is interdisciplinary. As a consequence, the disciplines that emerged in the 19th century have become obsolete. Nonetheless, they still dominate the educational landscape. It is time to exchange traditional subjects for broad fields of study that offer ample opportunity to chose introductory and advanced course and projects.

At the same time, students will increasingly obtain their degree by visiting several universities within their country or abroad. Thus, students take maximum advantage of the differences between institutions. In order to assess students, universities should describe their examination rules in terms of competencies to achieve instead of courses to follow.

A variety of blends of face-to-face and online activities to support students’ independent learning could become the new normal.

[1] Read my post: The lecture is the iconic symbol of wastage in higher education: http://wp.me/p3lna5-6M

[2] Self-paced learning is a common characteristic of the most innovative educational institutions in the USA. For instance, the College for America, which is a part of the Southern New Hampshire University (60,000 students) and the Western Governors University (70,000 students). See: Alana Dunagan College transformed. Five institutions leading the charge in innovation http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/College-transformed.pdf


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Higher education in US is ready for disruption

Changes in higher education in the US are worth looking at, because they will turn up worldwide in due course [1]. Higher education in the US is ready for disruption[2]: During the past 30 years, fees have increased 538%, which is 4 1/2 times more than average. Until recently, the earnings of alumni allowed them to repay their loans. The past five years saw a dramatic change in their prospects. As a consequence, debt has quadrupled in 10 years to $1,1 trillion now.

At the same time, employers complain about alumni’s lack of skills. According to Gallup[3] 95% agreed with the statement Graduates are woefully underprepared. 40% of all vacant jobs cannot be realized.

distance educationThe number of students who combine study and work is almost 50%. These students prefer programs that are beneficial for their careers and utilize their work experience. They do not fall for the charms of campus life but feel attracted by the flexibility of distance learning.

The problems mentioned above are not new. However, higher education institutions, fearing disruptive innovators, seem more willingly than ever to act.

Higher education policy has always cherished three aims: affordability, accessibility and quality but failed in realizing these aims simultaneously. Exactly this happens right now. Educause, together with Next Generation Learning Challenges launched a call inviting institutions to co-develop bachelor and master programs with fees that do not exceed $5000 a year[4]. Many institutions hurried to redesign their educational offerings, the most prestigious universities of the US among them.

Solutions for the problems and challenges mentioned so far come from four different directions: competency-based learning, flexibility, e-learning and specialization.

Competency-based learning

One of the first institutions that offered competency-based learning in the US is the Western Governors University (WGU) [5]. Its courses of study are based on specified competences and they are preceded by a pre-assessment. This is screening students’ deficiencies resulting in a dedicated offering of materials[6].

New culture of learningImproving the alignment between education and labour market has many other implications. In their book ‘A New culture of learning’ Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown introduce entrepreneurial students. They assemble their own curriculum by taking courses from several universities. In addition, they opt for intensive skill trainings like DevBootcamp, Hackbright en General Assembly[7]. The Apollo Education group has developed the program ‘Balloon’ for this kind of students. It offers 15.000 courses, grouped by learning objectives, level, price and type of education. Many universities facilitate this explorative behavior of students and a variety of experiments are set in place[8].

Organizations like Degreed and the Mozilla Open Badge Platform are able to validate students’ extra-curricular activities. They map students’ competences and also how these competences relate to existing grades and diplomas[9].

One of the most fascinating ideas is Stanford’s imaginary Open Loop University. It will enable students to interrupt their program of study with two years of extra-curricular activities that have potential relevance for the core-curriculum, like work, externships, voluntary activities and studying abroad[10].

Open Loop2Competency-based learning, combined with personalization will dismiss the notion of fixed seat-time. This is weighting the workload of a course by the number of class hours. It will even go beyond the system of credit-points that express nominal study load. What counts is the mastery of competencies irrespective of time and effort to realize these.


Flexibility is connected with competency-based learning. Focussing on mastery of specific competencies, students are free in the choice of course materials. Tutors or consultants are available to help them selecting the most appropriate ones[11].

FlexibilityThe Western Governors University allows student to start a course of studies nearly each day of the year and to take as much time as they need. Students pay $6000 per year, an amount of money that allows them taking as many courses of study as they want.


e-Learning is seamlessly connected with competency-based learning, and is enabling flexibility and affordability at once. In fact we envisage a second e-learning revolution. The beginning of the 21th century gave birth to the first Internet universities. Though, their programmes were technology-pushed, their supervision was unsatisfactory, they were too expensive and above all, their status was low. Now 15 years later the landscape has changed dramatically.

The initiative came from the well-established universities, like MIT, Harvard and Stanford. They started with Open Educational Resources, useful for teachers in the first place. Then MOOCs showed-up, valuable learning materials, though without credits. But change is ahead. MOOCs become integrated in regular education of both high-end and low-end educational institutions. Most of the first mentioned ones opt for blended-learning. For instance, Harvard is considering one year online learning, resulting in the selection of an elite group of students who will be on campus for two years, followed by a combination of work and study[12].

Availability onlineMIT believes ‘modularization’ will be the solution and plans to disaggregate courses in small packages, which can be combined. MOOCs provided by EdX will help students acquire the basics. In addition, they visit learning villages. Here practicals and other group activities take place[13]. The same applies to Duke University, in cooperation with Coursera.

The prestigious Georgia Tech University is moving into another direction in cooperation with Udacy, another supplier of MOOCs[14]. Together they offer a $7000 master program in Information science that results in the same grade as its $40.000 equivalent on the campus. The university feels that the difference in target groups will prevent cannibalization of the expensive programme by the cheap one. The free courses of Udacy are available too but without additional assignments and credits.


Specialization is another strategy to survive. Institutions like WGU are able to offer an affordable programme because they renounce the development of learning materials of its own.

Learning materials like MOOCs are developed by well-known universities and distributed by companies like Udacy, Edx and Coursera. Publishers, like Pearson are developing and delivering e-learning programs too. Google plans with MOOCs.org to become the YouTube for MOOCs.

Many universities in general and community colleges in particular will survive as campus universities only if they deprioritize research and cease competing with Harvard or other high-end institutions. Their niche is training for the local or regional labour market in tight collaboration with local or regional companies.

Lastly, institutions like the Pacific Gas & Electric Power Pathways and the Clemson University International Centre for Automotive Research opt for topical specialization in order to educate dedicated labour force.

The higher education landscape will change fast. Students will build unique portfolio’s combining a diversity of resources. Specialized institutions will validate their competences and probably even reward them. Sometimes, these grades will match with existing programs  However, the most distinguishing students will prefer unique profiles that might not be academically recognized but that will be priceless for employers. Guess who is better off!

[1] Comprehensive essay about the development of higher education in the US. It inspired me to write this blogpost. http://dupress.com/articles/reimagining-higher-education/?id=us:2sm:3tw:dup758:eng:fed:111914:du_press:sxswedu

[2] See the publications of Clayton Christensen and colleagues. After ‘The innovator’s dilemma'(1997) and ‘Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary'(2011) http://goo.gl/ogr5r is ‘Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution’ (2014) a description of ongoing desruptions: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/hire/

[3] See: https://chronicle.com/article/The-Employment-Mismatch/137625/#id=overview

[4] Overview of winning initiatives. http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/NG1233.pdf

[5] See: http://3jrru23si058xyg03oiyzu9p.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-engine-behind-WGU.pdf

[6] See https://www.edsurge.com/dreambox-learning

[7] See http://devbootcamp.com

[8] In particular, universities try to improving labor marked-oriented skills of students in cooperation with companies and other organizations.

[9] See: https://degreed.com/about

[10] See: http://natalie-whearley-a9si.squarespace.com/open-loop-university

[11] Short video about Flexpath: http://youtu.be/A4GMc71RGHg

[12] interview with director Edx Anant Agarwal https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/11/25/massachusetts-institute-technology-names-edx-key-component-educational-strategy

[13] See: http://web.mit.edu/future-report/TaskForceOnFutureOfMITEducation_PrelimReport.pdf

[14] Massive (but not open): The motives behind the new online program of Georgia Tech: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/14/georgia-tech-and-udacity-roll-out-massive-new-low-cost-degree-program

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e-Learning: Boost to education in developing countries

Distance education is the principle way for developing countries to cope with the fast growing educational needs of their population. Worldwide from 2000 until 2010, the number of students in higher education has increased from 100 to 150 million. Primary and secondary education is challenged even more[1].

In the long run, acceptance of distance education requires the application of quality standards likewise in f2f and distance education. Worldwide agreement prevails that the quality of education is better if it promotes:

  1. Active learning
  2. Frequent and timely interaction between students and teacher
  3. Co-operation between students
  4. Personalization

These standards have in common a high degree of interactivity between students, teachers, resources, and the outside world. In developed countries distance education can comply with these standards: The availability of IT-support in particular enables a high degree of interactivity.

At first sight the potential contribution of IT-support to high quality distance education is beyond reach in many parts of the world. Capacity for implementation of IT appears to be inversely proportional to the perceived needs. However, new opportunities come from an unexpected direction: In developing countries the use of mobile technology as a substitute for computers is booming.

The availability of mobile phones in developing countries is increasing apace. In 2000 the mobile access in Africa was 1%. Now 60% of the total population (1,1 bln) is in easy access of a mobile phone. Many mobile phones offer Internet connection, albeit slow. Consequently in Nigeria 42% of the population has some form of Internet access.

Afrikaans meisje beltThe number of M-learning applications is also growing fast. For instance, mobile phones are used to increase language proficiency and as tools for education in mathematics. A large number of (small) companies is developing content, gratefully using the abundant worldwide offer of Open Educational Resources. Several applications enable students to listen to Wikipedia content[2]

Mobile connectivity and other connected Lo-Tech applications are enabling emerging countries to cope with the four above mentioned quality standards .

Active learning

Active learning is based on a balanced delivery of content and assignments requiring students to apply the content in their own workplace or in cases. Among others, the African Virtual University distributes videotapes and CD’s with lectures. These lectures could be accompanied by assignments in students’ home environment. CD’s have one major advantage over ratio and television; they can be used during periods when electricity is available! Mobile technology is enabling interactivity. Quite a number of experiments have taken place with tutorials where students receive automated feedback by mobile telephones. Mobile phones are also in use for the delivery of short instruction and material of a limited size.

Frequent contacts between students and teacher

One of the best applications of M-learning is the submission by students of results of their assignment by mobile telephone. Mostly, the messages of students will be gathered in a mailbox and teachers can edit their commentary in messages for different group of students, based upon common mistakes or failures[3]. Feedback to students is possible also in educative radio broadcasts. In order to prepare feedback, teachers must listen to a selection of the submitted answers.

Co-operation between students

Collaboration between students from different places benefits highly from the use of mobile phones. In particular, if students work together in order to create knowledge by solving problems. Communicate by forum, mail of phone is improved significantly by the opportunity to have incidental meetings in study centers every now and the. The African Virtual University has invested in the creation of study centers, although its number stays behind significantly the growing demand.


The African Virtual University is developing a ‘digital library’ in which students will find manuals, study books and relevant articles. The number of computers and printers still is limited and therefore benefit for students is restricted. Equally promising is an application for mobile phones that allows students to search in Wikipedia and subsequently to listen to the content (‘audio wikipedia’). This application complies with the oral tradition in many African countries.

Three conclusions can be drawn. It will take decades before the availability of computers in emerging countries compares with that of rich countries, also because of the necessity to have a reliable supply of electricity and enough expertise to maintain the network. In the meantime mobile learning will be a substitute, especially in combination radio, television and CD’s and an accessible network of study centres. In the third place a distance learning infra structure has to be developed that is characterized by an adequate mix of faculty (course developers, tutors and supporting staff) and that develops adequate didactic solutions to deploy the growing Lo-Tech infrastructure.

[1] Altbach, P., Reisberg, L., & Rumbley, L. (2009). Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution; A Report Prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

[2] See a comprehensive overview by Saga Briggs: How Educators Around The World Are Implementing Mobile Learning http://shar.es/1Xbbay

[3] Visser, L., & West, P. (2005). The promise of M-learning for distance education in South Africa and other developing nations. In Y. L. Visser, L. Visser, M. Simonson & R. Amirault (Eds.), Trends and issues in distance education: international perspectives (pp. 111-129). Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.

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