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Management Governance and Structure
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Why and which distance education?
The planner's perspective

Greville Rumble

The author discusses different distance learning systems and their purposes, learner characteristics, media choice, and organizational structure.

Rumble, Greville. 1992. "Why and Which Distance Education? The Planner's Perspective." In Greville Rumble, The Management of Distance Learning Systems. Paris: UNESCO/International Institute for Educational Planning, pp. 19-42.

Reproduced with permission.

Distance learning systems are as varied as traditional systems in respect of their purposes, size, technologies, choice, underlying philosophy and efficiency. They also vary significantly in their structure, vis-à-vis traditional forms of education. All of these differences have an effect on why they are set up and how they are managed.

Purpose: satisfying the needs of different clients

Distance learning systems are particularly appropriate for those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend a traditional school, college or university. This includes persons of school-age who live in geographically remote areas in which it is difficult or impossible to provide face-to-face teaching (as in the Australian outback, where the Schools of the Air provide distance education to children on remote settlements); those who suffer from physical disability or long-term illness, which prevents them from attending a normal school (e.g. University of Iowa extension services, USA; Calvert School, Baltimore, USA); those who have been displaced (e.g. in Somalia, Sudan); and those who move frequently (e.g. Centre National d'Enseignement par Correspondance, France; Extension Course Institute of the Air University, Montgomery, Alabama, USA). Provision may include formal education courses at primary level (e.g. Télé-Niger), secondary level (e.g. Malawi Correspondence College, Mexican Telesecundaria , Air Correspondence High School, South Korea), and tertiary level (e.g. Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, Thailand). In general, distance teaching methods can be used to meet the needs of students at secondary and tertiary education levels, but they are not appropriate for primary school students unless those students are being tutored by a parent or another adult or are in classes supervised by a monitor who keeps order.

As well as meeting the needs of those who are of school, college or university age, but unable to attend these institutions for initial education, distance education is well suited to the needs of adults who for social, economic or educational reasons missed out on the opportunities available through initial education, or who wish to retrain or update themselves, or study for personal interest and enjoyment. For a whole variety of reasons—perhaps because there are no opportunities for taking courses locally, or because they work or are tied to the home—adults may find it more convenient to study by distance means, rather than attend day-time or evening classes on a part-time basis. For some, indeed, there may be no viable alternative. Others may prefer to study by distance means. Whatever the reason, a large number of adults engage in distance learning and take a whole mixture of subjects for a variety of reasons.

Adults may therefore follow primary equivalent courses (through, for example, the programme of Radio Santa María in the Dominican Republic, or Acción Cultural Popular in Colombia), secondary courses (e.g. CENAPEC, Dominican Republic; National Extension College, United Kingdom), and tertiary courses (e.g. Open College, United Kingdom, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Spain). In some cases, provision of these 'second chance' courses is linked to the waiving of normal entrance standards, to credit transfer and advanced standing regulations, and to the acceptance of experiential learning as a means of providing equivalent entrance qualification.

In addition to programmes providing adults with a distance-equivalent of the primary, secondary and tertiary courses available through initial education, a whole range of liberal arts, community development and vocational education distance courses are also available to adults. For example, the Open College of the Arts, United Kingdom, provides its students with courses in painting, photography, etc. Community development programmes aimed at the provision of basic information (e.g. health and nutrition), agricultural extension and social behaviour (e.g. family planning) have also been provided through distance teaching programmes of various kinds (e.g. nutrition campaigns, South Korea; L'heure Rurale Radio clubs, Togo; La Voz de Atilán, Guatemala).

Distance education can also be used to support vocational education and training. For many years, it has been used as a means of training unqualified or underqualified teachers. By the mid-1980s, distance-taught teacher education programmes had been established in more than forty developing countries (Nielsen, 1990). Examples include programmes offered by distance teaching universities (e.g. Allama Iqbal Open University, Pakistan; Universidad Estatal a Distancia, Costa Rica), teacher training colleges (e.g. National Teachers' Institute, Nigeria), and government agencies or centres (e.g. Centro de Educaç@o Técnica, Brazil; Emlalatini Development Centre, Swaziland). It has also been used for many years to provide professional and management education. Foulkes Lynch Correspondence Tuition Services, based in the United Kingdom, and specialising in accountancy, began operating in 1884. Other examples include the certificate programme in computer-based information systems offered by the Unive rsity of Victoria, British Columbia; the diploma and master's degree courses in agricultural development, offered world-wide by Wye College, University of London; and the Technician Training Programme offered by the National Extension College, United Kingdom.

While many distance-taught vocational education programmes are aimed at individuals, others are specifically aimed at companies. For example, the National Technological University, USA provides a vehicle through which the graduate engineering courses of 29 universities are made available to the employees of large corporations and government agencies, which purchase access to the university's satellite-delivered broadcasts. Nearly 100 firms had participated in the scheme in 1989/90.

Distance Learning methods may also be used by firms for the delivery of their training. For example, the Banco Popular in Colombia uses distance learning to provide in-service training to its employees; in Brazil, PETROBRAS, the state oil company, uses distance education to train production workers on its oil rigs; and in Italy and France, the Banco SANPAOLO Group utilises distance education methods to train employees.

The advantages of distance learning, from an employer's point of view, are that:

  • participation does not require the employee to be absent from work. While employees may be given time off to study, some of the training may take place in the employee's own time. A major advantage of this is that some of the costs of training are transferred from the firm to the employee;
  • the employer no longer incurs the cost of sending employees away on training courses. The costs of travel and of residential training can be high. Significant savings can thus be achieved;
  • individual employees may be reluctant to take up training which necessitates absence from home. Distance learning gets round this problem;
  • relatively few trainers can reach large numbers of trainees;
  • employers can train more people more quickly than they would by traditional means;
  • employers can train dispersed workforces (e.g. PETROBRAS' programme for production workers based on oil rigs).

Thus distance education methods can enable educators and trainers to meet a wide variety of needs, many of which could not be met, or not easily met, through traditional methods of education and training. There is, however, another stakeholder in the process, and that is government. Governments often put up much of the money required to establish a distance learning system. In so doing, they count on distance educators to provide a system which will:

  • meet the needs of a large pool of frustrated demand from primary or secondary level graduates for secondary or tertiary education (c.f. the role of the Universidad Nacional Abierta in Venezuela, as a mechanism for providing opportunities for young adults who cannot get into a traditional university);
  • meet the needs of adults for educational opportunities (cf. the impetus behind the founding of the 'second chance' Open University in the United Kingdom);
  • meet the needs of disadvantaged people unable to enter traditional education for a variety of reasons.
  • meet large-scale needs for training or retraining in professional, technical and vocational fields (cf. the role of the Technical Open Polytechnic in New Zealand, and the original role envisaged for the Open College in the United Kingdom);
  • provide a vehicle for delivery of training to firms (cf. the revised mission of the Open College in the United Kingdom);
  • achieve economies of scale (a specific objective in such foundations as the Andhra Pradesh Open University, India and the Universidad Nacional Abierta, Venezuela).

Needs and markets

The previous section outlined the range of needs which can be met by distance learning systems. Needs do not, however, necessarily constitute a market. A market only exists if there are actual or potential buyers of a product or service, who see the purchase as satisfying their needs.

Markets can be segmented. In principle, each buyer has unique need, so that ideally an educational provider might design a separate product and marketing programme for each buyer. However, very few providers can customize their products to satisfy each buyer. Instead, they look for broad classes of buyers. Educational providers may therefore segment their buyers by level of qualification (degree, postgraduate diploma, secondary school certificate, non-formal community education project), subject matter (science, arts, psychology, micro-biology, nutrition, crop pests, etc.), age (school-aged person, adult), occupation (engineer, telecommunications technician), income, and cultural background.

Educational providers never have the option of designing packs, courses or programmes that will appeal to or at least satisfy most buyers, and which can be marketed through mass distribution and mass advertising. They must either go for differentiated or concentrated markets.

Providers who go for differentiated markets essentially hope, through a range of sufficiently different packs, courses and programmes, to provide <<something for everyone>>. A good example of this approach is that of the Open University in the United Kingdom, which offers research degrees, taught masters degrees, an undergraduate degree, diplomas, community education packs, and programmes aimed at industry. Providers who do this hope that a strong position in several segments will increase public awareness of the institution, and lead consumers to repeat purchasing. For example, an individual who successfully takes a community education course may subsequently enrol on a diploma or degree course. They therefore offer a wide spectrum of courses, some of which will attract large numbers of students while others have relatively low numbers of students. Many of the latter will need to be justified on the grounds that they are part of a credible programme in a given subject area, and not becaus e they themselves attract significant numbers of students.

Providers whose resources are limited may concentrate their marketing. Thus Wye College offers ten courses in agricultural development (four courses lead to a diploma; a further three out of six options lead to a taught masters degree). Such a strategy can lead to a strong market position in a particular segment. It nevertheless runs the risk that the market will collapse, or that stronger and better known competitors will enter the field and attract people away from the original provider. Niche markets of this kind may also become saturated. Thus the Indonesia Banking Development Institute developed distance learning to train an estimated 15,000 credit officers conversant with the needs of small enterprises. By 1990, when only 4000 individuals had taken the programme, it was clear that demand for the programme was dropping. Some niche markets are very small. For example, Wye College has just over 300 students on its agricultural development programme. Others can be quite large. The Universidad P edagógica Nacional in Mexico, which provides in-service training to unqualified and under-qualified teachers, had 60,000 students in 1980.

Occasionally, providers find that they have virtually captive markets. This is particularly true of those providers who meet the needs of particular firms for specific training. For example, the Banco Popular in Columbia instituted a distance learning system to train its employees. The programme is compulsory for new employees, but voluntary for existing ones. Takeup is, however, very high, because bank employees gain promotion points for successfully taking the programme or elements of it.

Consumer characteristics

Those setting up and managing distance learning systems need to have a clear idea of the characteristics of their consumers, whether these are individuals or firms. This is vitally important, since it will determine not only what courses they are likely to want (see above), but also what kind of delivery and support systems will be needed, and what level of fees or charges is acceptable.

Distance learning systems depend on a wide variety of media for their delivery. It is clearly no good deciding to use a particular delivery system if the majority of those the programme or course is aimed at are not going to be able to access the medium. For example, the National Technological University (NTU) makes use of satellites to distribute the televised lectures to reception sites which are based within firms. Such reception sites need to be equipped and coordinators need to be appointed to maintain daily contact with the students and the NTU. The minimum cost for setting up a reception site (in 1989/90 financial year prices) is US $40,800. The recurrent fixed cost, including the annualized cost of buildings and equipment, is $17,500. In addition there is a variable cost per student of US $50 for books and photocopying. Firms also have to pay a fee to join the NTU, based on the number of employees they have. The costs of the technology, and the cost of the access fee, are such that only lar ge firms (those with more than 500 employees) can afford to use the NTU's services. Before the NTU could target small and medium sized enterprises, it would need to review its delivery systems and the cost of these to its clients.

In the United Kingdom, the Open College set out to provide distance taught courses to individual learners. Early experience indicated that the fees the college needed to charge in order to become self-financing were more than individual learners were prepared to pay. As a direct result the College restructured itself and focused on the corporate market.

These two very different examples illustrate why those planning and managing distance learning systems must take account of the characteristics of their consumers before they commit resources. However, institutions may need to adopt their systems to deal with variations in customer characteristics. Many distance learning systems make use of local centres where learners can meet each other and the tutor on their course. The establishment of local centres needs to take account of when students work, and how easy it will be, and how long it will take them to travel to the centre. Locating the centres is only the first issue. The precise tutorial strategy adopted at a centre may well depend upon the number of students following a particular course at a particular centre. For example, it may be viable to appoint a local course tutor to run tutorials where there are viable groups of students (perhaps 15 or more following a common course), but not where there are less than this number. Tutorial and support service planning will depend greatly on where students live relative to local centres, and how many there are. What works in one area of a country may not work in another. For example, in urban areas with relatively high concentrations of students on particular courses, it may well be possible to arrange tutorials or self-help groups. In rural areas, with dispersed populations, this may prove impossible—unless the programme is designed quite specifically to deliver community-based education to rural areas. Isolated students can nevertheless be contacted using the telephone, two-way radio, and electronic mail.

Delivery systems also have to be suitable for use by potential students. In some countries, postal services work well in some areas but not in others. Sometimes, as in the Dutch Open Universiteit, one can assume that students will be able to travel to a local study centre. Holland is, after all, a relatively small, compact country with an excellent public transport system. In other cases (e.g. Athabasca University in Canada) this is not possible, given the distances involved. Broadcast transmissions may not be receivable in some areas. These local variations need to be considered before one becomes locked into a particular delivery and support system, to the exclusion of all others.

Media choice

Distance educators have an increasingly wide range of media to draw upon, including print, correspondence tuition, radio, television, teletext, viewdata, audio and video-cassettes, video-discs, telephone (one-to-one or teleconferencing), video-conferencing, teaching aids (such as photographic slides and experimental kits for use in the home), and computers (used to undertake computing, as a general tool for word processing and the use of spreadsheets, for electronic mail and computer conferencing, and in computer-assisted learning/computer-aided instruction). Technological development is increasing the range of such media, and increasing the way in which media can be combined (as in the case of hypermedia). For example, tutored video instruction systems use television to allow students to see and listen to their instructors, but combine this with a telephone link back to the instructor, so that the student can raise questions.

There is also a distinction between those media which students and instructors use directly, and the delivery technologies which carry them. Print, for example, may be delivered on paper, on computer disc, by viewdata systems, or by accessing and downloading from a mainframe computer. Video can be delivered by film, video-cassette, and television—transmitted terrestrially, by cable, or by satellite. Each medium has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the means of delivery will affect the way in which a student uses the material; and others it will not. For example, pedagogically it does not matter to a student whether video is delivered by cable, terrestrial or satellite broadcast-though these issues will affect the equipment students need. On the other hand, once video material has been recorded for home use, the student can use it much more flexibly, stopping it, starting it, and replaying it at will. This is something that is impossible if the material is only available through norma l programming.

There are various factors which planners and managers of distance learning systems need to take into account when deciding which medium to use. Firstly, they should only use media which their potential market can access. This involves checking not just on what is technically available within a given society, but what media the target population currently makes use of. Even if access is technically feasible, one needs to ask oneself whether the target group will be able to afford the medium. Generally speaking, print, correspondence tuition, radio, audio-cassettes and teaching aids such as photographs are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Video and computer-based systems are more expensive and hence less commonly available.

Secondly, one needs to find out whether the distance teaching institutions have or can afford to pay to have access to the necessary production and distribution systems. For example, in some countries there is a severe shortage of television and video production facilities, and television channel time.

Thirdly, one needs to decide what works best pedagogically, and why? Much depends on the specific objectives one is trying to reach.

According to Sparkes (1984), knowledge is easy to present but will only be learnt by those who are motivated to learn, (usually not a problem with adult students), provided they have survived the first few weeks of studying at a distance), have good memories (a problem more likely with older students), and who have sufficient background information to make sense of the information being offered (e.g. one cannot learn or make sense of mathematics unless one has a grounding in the subject). The method of presentation needs to match the kind of knowledge. Thus video, colour slides, etc. can be used for natural history; print for numerical data; audio for music, etc.

While this may raise awareness, the teaching of understanding requires the use of redundancy or discussion and preferably both. Redundancy simply means teaching the same idea in several different ways—using pictures as well as words, analogy as well as models, etc. The purpose is 'to drive new concepts and thought processes through the learner's mind several times and in different contexts' (Sparkes, 1984). Redundancy requires the use of various media. Discussion involves clarifying ideas and concepts, once they have been presented through discussion with teachers and other students, dialogue with a computer programme, and even with oneself (through self-assessment questions). Distance teaching texts can be structured so that they encourage learners to embark on what Holmberg (1989) calls a 'guided didactic conversation' which encourages the student to think aloud. Computer-aided instruction does something similar, providing opportunities for interaction and instant feedback to the learner. Dis cussion can also take place in video and audio, computer and tele-conferences, and face-to-face in small groups. Sparkes draws a distinction between teaching through discussion and remedial teaching where the aim is to reveal and correct the individual student's misunderstandings. The latter is best done privately, through correspondence, face-to-face, or by telephone.

The teaching of skills consists of instruction and demonstration, and of providing students with opportunities to practice their skills and have their work monitored (Sparkes, 1984). The first can be done relatively easily through video or face-to-face demonstrations. Video, which can be replayed, is a better medium than face-to-face demonstration. Some skills can, however, be taught through audio-vision (combining graphics and still pictures with audio), illustrated instruction books, and computer-aided instruction. Language and some interpersonal skills can be taught by audio tapes alone. Practice can be handled in one of several different ways, including written work (for intellectual skills), computer-assisted learning (for skills where responses can be coded), audio (for language and music skills), and self-checking using standardised test procedures (e.g. in the design of electronic circuits). However, many skills need face-to-face supervision.

Learners can also be taught in the affective domain through writing, and audio. The 'essence of the process [is] to appeal to the emotions as well as the intellect' (Sparkes, 1984). Video, fiction, poetry, powerful writing, speeches and plays can all do this.

Finally, and most importantly, one needs to ask oneself what medium will suit the learners. Some students have very limited backgrounds in formal education. Some may not be literate. Some cultures favour oral presentations (e.g. African—c.f. Sine, 1975). Others favour pictorial representation and cartoons, rather than text (e.g. Venezuelan—cf. Escotet, 1978). Such differences need to be taken into account.

Many planners feel that one should be able to settle the question of media choice by finding out from which medium students learn best. Writing in 1972, Schramm said:

"... given a reasonably favourable situation, a pupil will learn from any medium—television, radio, programmed instruction, films, filmstrips or others. This has been demonstrated by hundreds of experiments. In general, the same things that control the amount of learning from a teacher face-to-face also control the amount of learning from educational media; among others, the relevance and clarity of the content, individual abilities, motivation to learn, attention, interest in the subject, respect and affection for the teacher, emphasis and replication of the central points to be learnt, and rehearsal by the learner."

All the evidence suggests that motivated students will learn from any medium if it is competently used (Eicher et al, 1982). There are, however, certain guidelines which determine whether or not a particular medium is appropriate in given circumstances, given the nature of the content and the aim of the teacher. Finally, questions of access, availability and cost (discussed below) will determine whether a particular medium can be used in given circumstances. However, the evidence suggests that in general one needs a mix of media (allowing redundancy) and also some media which will enable discussion and dialogue to take place.

Although much that is written in distance education focuses on the latest developments in media (in rough order of developments since the 1950s, educational television, video, computer-assisted learning, electronic mail and computer conferencing), print, correspondence tuition, and audio remain dominant, not least because they are relatively cheap, easy to produce and distribute, easy to use, and accessible to students. Leading-edge technologies, for example, computer-mediated communications, tend to have high costs, and institutions introducing them may face technical and organisational difficulties which make them unattractive for general use. Technologies such as television 'have been significantly de-emphasized in a number of projects (e.g. Samoa, Niger, Colombia, Ivory Coast)' as, 'one by one', the educational television systems set up in the 1960s have 'discarded or drastically reduced [their] commitment to television' (McAnany et al, 1982). Newer systems, with one or two notable exceptions, such as the Radio and Television Universities in China, have used relatively little television or, like the United Kingdom Open University, reduced both production and transmission levels. Other technologies, such as teletext, have never really taken off.

Size, technology and cost efficiency

Distance learning systems vary in size from the very large with over 100,000 students (e.g. Allama Iqbal Open University, Pakistan; Open University, United Kingdom) to those catering for a handful of students (e.g. Wye College, PETROBRAS Project Acesso). Similarly, the numbers of students taking any particular course may vary widely. Within the Open University, for example, some courses have under 100 students enrolled each year, while others have in excess of 5,000.

Clearly, then, distance education can enable a limited number of teachers to reach very large numbers of students. It does this by substituting media and materials for labour in the classroom. As a direct result there is a change in the cost function, involving the substitution of capital in the form of investment in materials and infrastructure for the labour intensive process of conventional teaching.

Input substitution has to do with economies of scale in the delivery process and the ability of the institution to spread fixed costs over large numbers of students, either in a single presentation of the materials (as in health and nutrition campaigns), or through the use of the same course materials over several years.

There is a balance to be drawn between size, input substitution, and choice of media. In general, costs of a conventional educational system are made up of fixed costs, which do not vary with student numbers, and variable costs which increase or decrease in line with increases or decreases in student numbers. The cost function can be generalised as follows:

TC = F + VS

where TC is the total cost, F is the fixed cost, V is the variable cost per student, and S is the number of students. A significant part of the variable cost is in teacher salaries. Because the number of teachers is directly related to student numbers, and because there is relatively little spent on developing courses-once syllabuses have been defined-apart from teacher time, the cost of expanding the curriculum can be treated as a variable cost.

In distance education systems, the cost of the time invested by teachers in the development of the curriculum and the materials is a significant cost. In respect of any particular course, this is a fixed cost, but if the number of courses is increased, then the fixed costs of developing and maintaining them also increases. Hence the cost function is:

TC = F + (DC L) + MC + VS

where TC is the total costs, F is the fixed cost (of the infrastructure), C is the number of courses, D is the average cost per course of developing a course, M is the annual cost per course of maintaining a course in the profile, L is the number of years of life of a course, V is the variable cost per student, and S is the number of students. In effect, the development costs of a course are being annualized over the life of the course. It follows from this that the annualized fixed cost of development can be lowered by increasing the life of the course.

The choices which distance educators make in respect of media can have a significant effect on the behaviour of the cost function. Increasing the amount of face-to-face and correspondence tuition increases the variable cost per student, without affecting fixed costs. Choosing broadcasts—either radio or television—increases the fixed costs, since the costs of production and transmission are unaffected by student numbers, but the extent to which the total cost of the system changes varies between radio and television since the cost of the latter is much higher than that of the former (of the order of 10:1, although there are significant variations around this ratio). The production costs of video may be lowered, relative to the costs of television, if the video is put onto cassettes for distribution to students. However, the variable cost per student of delivery by cassette is considerable, so that most systems do not contemplate this as an option where student numbers are high. It may neverth eless be feasible to consider using video-cassettes on courses with low numbers of students (since total costs will then be low) or if the students can pay for the videos.

Computer-mediated communication costs are relatively high. Depending on the system used, they may fall on the student or the institution. The University of Victoria's Certificate Programme in computer based information systems initially allowed students to connect to the University's mainframe through British Columbia Telephone's DATAPAC packet switched network. The average costs were Canadian $128 per student (1989 price levels). The University charged them $50 for this service. To avoid this cost, the University would have to change the system so that students link directly to a computer at the University without using DATAPAC. However, students would then have to pick up the cost of the connection through the telephone system. For students incurring long-distance call rates, this would not be inconsiderable.

The cheapest media tend to be print, audio-cassettes, and radio. Film, television, video and computer-based systems are more expensive. Tuition, which is labour intensive, is used but the level of usage is generally restricted to keep total and direct student costs down. Media choice can have a significant impact on system costs. Each media has its own cost structure, and its own level of fixed and per student variable cost. This cost structure makes it more or less appropriate depending on the number of students in the system.

Unit fixed costs fall rapidly as student numbers increase. Overall, however, 'television remains an expensive medium for poorer countries ... educational television cannot be cheap and should not be recommended as long as a significant proportion of households are not equipped to bear a significant part of the infrastructure costs (i.e. reception receivers)' (Eicher et al, 1982). In contrast, radio is much cheaper, but even here Eicher et al (1982) indicate that they are sceptical of its use in projects where there are less than 2,000 enrolees. Not surprisingly, the media most commonly used tend to be print, audio-cassettes, and radio, in conjunction with some face-to-face contact.

Educational philosophy

The substitution of inputs, from classroom labour to materials, means that most distance learning systems offer their students relatively inflexible courses which can be taken by many thousands of students. Such systems are characterised by fixed curricula, course content, teaching strategies, assessment policy, and support services. The main purpose of such institution-centred models is to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of the educational process (Bertrand, 1979). Most large-scale distance learning systems conform to this type. Models adhering to this approach tend to treat learning as the processing, storage and retrieval of information (i.e. an information-processing or banking model of education). Such models give credence to Escotet's charge (1980) that distance education systems tend to be instructional systems relying on Skinner's (1968) behavioural approach, rather than educating systems.

Recent developments in educational thinking, including emphasis on independent study; calls for the recognition of prior learning and existing competences; pressure for more flexible routes through education via student exchanges and credit transfer arrangements; and moves to standardise the level and quality of qualifications, have all tended to emphasize the learner as a consumer of education. These developments are consistent with a person-centred view of education, in which the institution recognises and accommodates individual student wishes, and in which the curriculum is negotiated and individualized programmes of study and forms of assessment are agreed between the institution and the individual student. A good example of such an approach is the contract learning system developed by Empire State College, of the State University of New York, USA. Person-centred models analyse education from a humanistic perspective, put the learner first, and emphasize the meaningfulness and personal significance of the learning experience. Carl Roger's (1969) model for non-directive teaching, and some of the thinking behind certain approaches to experiential learning, is typical of this approach. A third approach is to concentrate on groups of learners or even whole communities (e.g. villages), designing educational programmes to meet the needs of the group or community. The role of the institution is to generate materials as a resource for group and community discussion, and to provide trained facilitators who can get the group or community to initiate action. The Canadian Farm Forums of the 1940s, the Tanzanian rural health campaigns, and Acción Cultural Popular in Colombia are good examples of the approach. The model is based on social action and social interaction approaches, in which the main purpose of educational activity is to bring about changes in society, social structures, and institutions. Community action learning programmes exemplify this approach.

Distance educators can support all three philosophies. Each, however, has significant implications for the way in which the system is structured, the purpose and approach to materials development, the purpose and need for learner support, and the approach to planning.

In general it is much easier to think about more flexible, open curriculum, and hence in terms of person or society-centred models, in systems which are small. Small scale systems cannot afford to invest large amounts of time and money in the development of learning materials. As a result, they will also tend to emphasize the use of existing materials (e.g. textbooks) coupled with increased tutorial support for students. Although the per capita cost of providing such support may be high, the total cost will be kept within bounds as long as student numbers do not rise significantly. In some systems, students can negotiate their own curriculum (e.g. Empire State College, State University of New York).

From the time that the objective is to provide mass education to many thousands of people, the total cost of providing significant amounts of student support services becomes considerable. As a direct result, effort is put into the development of materials which take the place of the teacher, thus replacing the labour of teachers by the capital investment in materials. Economies of scale are then possible. The price of this is a loss in flexibility and—usually—considerable restrictions on curriculum breadth and choice of course because one cannot afford to invest large sums in the development of courses which will attract very few students (as in distance teaching universities such as the Universidad Nacional Abierta, Venezuela and the Open University, United Kingdom).

It is possible to combine both approaches, having institution-centred 'packaged' courses in those subjects with many hundreds of students and more flexible person-centred tutored courses built around standard textbooks in subjects where student numbers are restricted. Institution and person centred systems, while not philosophically compatible and while needing different managerial approaches, can co-exist together.

The person-centred approach is to some extent consistent with a society-centred system which recognises the right of the individual to opt into different groups of learners, depending on personal interests, yet also to study alone. It is much harder to combine institution and society-centred systems because of the fundamentally different philosophies and cost structures underlying the pedagogy. Indeed, the whole approach to planning needs to start from opposite ends of the spectrum. In society and person-centred systems, planning needs to start with group and individual needs, develop appropriate learner support systems, and then identify suitable materials which groups and individuals can use. In an institution-centred system, the aim is to identify educational or training needs which are common to a large number of potential clients, develop materials to satisfy those needs, and then design student support services which will support learners in their attempts to master the materials.

Systems in the formal education sector aimed at large numbers of potential students are generally institution-centred; those in the non-formal sector tend to be person- or society-centred. In distance education, it is absolutely vital to think through what one wants to achieve before setting a system or designing materials and student support systems.

The institutional framework

One of the major issues facing those planning a new distance learning system is to decide on the kind of institution framework which should be established. There are three basic options: a purpose-built distance education system; a distance learning system embedded within a traditional institution, and drawing on it for many of its needs; and a small coordinating body which brings together and co-ordinates the expertise of other institutions in a network. These models are usually referred to in the literature as the autonomous or single-mode, the mixed or dual-mode, and the network model, respectively.

Each model has its advantages and drawbacks. Perry (1976) reports on the intense scepticism from traditional university academics which he faced when he was setting up the Open University in the United Kingdom. The only way of making progress was to establish a new institution, dedicated to distance education. This approach enabled the institution to determine its own rules and regulations, given the autonomous framework within which British universities operate. Staff interested in the challenge of teaching at a distance quickly built up an expertise, and a strong corporate culture emerged. This experience led Perry to conclude that the single-mode approach is the best. Over the years some notable colleges and universities have been set up, based on this approach (e.g. Universidad Nacional Abierta, Venezuela; FemUniversität, Germany; Indira Gandhi National Open University, India).

The mixed or dual-mode institution is nevertheless much more common. It arises when a department within a conventional institution decides that it wishes to enlarge its market by teaching students at a distance, or that a particular course or programme of study would have a market beyond the college walls, which can only be met by distance means. The actual model varies. Sometimes a department retains control of both the distance and conventional teaching operations—as at Wye College, University of London, where the Department of Agricultural Economics developed a distance taught diploma and master's programme in agricultural development. This integrated approach may be adopted throughout the institution, as at Deakin University in Australia, where most departments deal with on (traditionally-taught) and off-campus (distance-taught) students. In other dual-mode institutions, the distance education 'wing' is separated off from the on-campus activities. This may result in the operation and its stu dents acquiring second-class status within the institution, as happens in many Indian universities, where the Correspondence Directorates are seen as distinctly inferior in quality and status (Singh, 1979). This can be a serious drawback. Shott (1983) saw serious conflicts of loyalties on the part of staff working in institutions teaching both on-campus and distance students. He argued that in such institutions staff could not help but regard the on-campus students as their first priority, to the detriment of the distance students.

On the other hand, dual-mode institutions have distinct advantages. The distance education wing can draw on the academic human resources of the whole institution to create courses. Lectures delivered on-campus can be videotaped and repackaged with other materials to create distance-taught courses. While this approach does not generally result in courses suitable for weak and inexperienced learners, it can provide updating courses for professionals cheaply and effectively (as the experience of the National Technological University, which uses this approach, testifies). Such approaches provide access to a much wider curriculum than most single-mode institutions can afford, given the costs of course development, to support. NTU, for example, can draw on 7,000 courses, and while it generally only presents 125 of these at any one time, it can cost-effectively put on any course provided there are at best six students wishing to take it.

Finally, there are networks. The National Technological University, USA, provides one example of a network. The small central coordinating body acts as a vehicle for the delivery and accreditation of the video-taped versions of graduate engineering courses developed in the engineering schools of some thirty conventional universities. The NTU's clients are the large firms which buy its services and enable their employees to take NTU's courses. NTU is, effectively, a network Organisation, joining the university departments which develop the courses to the client firms, which use its training services. Its success is based on the fact that each of the partners gains financially from the arrangement: the universities and their professors in per capitation payments for students on their courses, and because the NTU provides them with a larger potential market than they could achieve on their own; NTU, in income from fees; and the firms, which reap the benefits of opportunity cost savings by not having to r elease staff to attend full-time courses, often at non-local universities where the costs of relocating staff would be substantial. Other kinds of networks bring together broadcasting organizations, materials production agencies such as publishers and film units, adult educators, etc. in a network. An example of such an institution is the Norsk Fjernundervisning (Norwegian Distance Education). Problems can arise, however, where common interests are not strong enough to keep the partners together, and where disagreements about academic and pedagogic policies, or technical and financial pressures, make collaboration difficult.


The educational philosophy, institutional framework, and choice of media have a profound effect on the overall costs of a distance education system. Autonomous, institution-centred systems utilising high-cost technologies such as broadcasting and computer-based instructional and communications systems are likely to have high fixed costs, relative to traditional institutions. These costs arise from the need to invest in the development of course materials and to establish an infrastructure to manage materials production and distribution, and student services. High fixed costs are also a feature of the courses themselves. Laidlaw and Layard (1974), for example, found that the ratio of fixed costs to variable costs in social science courses in the British Open University was 2,000 to 1, against 8 to I in traditional British universities. Although the low variable cost per student, relative to traditional education, means that economies of scale are achievable provided student numbers are high enough, the very high initial investment required to establish an autonomous institution-centred system can be off-putting to governments and private investors alike. Not surprisingly, most commercial correspondence colleges opt for low-cost technologies (print, audio-cassettes), while many state-funded systems are off-shoots of existing traditional institutions (as in the Australian dual-mode system).

The high costs of investing in the infrastructure and in the development of course materials means that the majority of large scale distance learning systems are funded by government, in whole or in part. To the extent that they are not, the debate usually concentrates on the proportion of their total costs that will be met from income from student fees, and the affect of increases in fees on the student body.

There is, of course, a strong commercial sector, but in general private institutions restrict themselves to areas where there is a known market, able to pay prices which will meet the costs of teaching, administration, and future course development. Some private correspondence institutions focus on the individual market (e.g. individuals who wish to take courses in languages or business studies). This market is notoriously difficult to penetrate, and many commercial correspondence colleges spend a very high proportion of the fees they receive on advertising and publicity. The high cost of penetrating this market has led a number of institutions to concentrate on the corporate sector-selling training services to firms (e.g. National Technological University, USA). The Open College (United Kingdom) switched from a focus on individual learners to one on corporate training partly because of the high costs of penetrating the individual market.

Experience suggests that large areas of education and training are unattractive to commercial providers because the number of students interested in the course on, for example, high energy physics, is insufficient to provide a viable economic base for operations. Equally, there are many potential students who cannot pay the fees which commercial schools and colleges must charge if they are to cover their costs and generate sufficient funds to develop new courses.

Ensuring successful planning outcome

This chapter has explored some of the main strategic issues which those planning distance learning systems need to face. What, then, makes for a successful outcome to the planning process?

Dodd and Rumble (1984) pointed to the crucial importance of political backing for government-sponsored projects, coupled with a tendency to isolate the planning process for innovative projects such as distance education institutions from the normal bureaucratic processes of government, where the countervailing arguments of traditional educationalists might water down or even stop the proposal. They noted that very often the planning bodies charged with setting up new distance learning systems had highly specific terms of reference which charged them with establishing the system, and not with questioning the need for it. Where the issue was left open, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that a new distance teaching institution would be established. Finally, planning committees tend to have prestigious members, including persons drawn from the traditional areas of education, but with a known interest in innovation. Continuity between the planning and implementation phase can be assured by offering m embers of the planning commission key positions in the new institution.

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