Posted by: Gillian | June 6, 2011

Savvy distance learning

Distance study centres and QA processes

There are two main aspects to ensuring that distance learning students receive quality education. The first is the definition: what is education? Rather than try and write a complete philosophy, the text below gives some of the key modern concepts that need to be defined in order to avoid confusion.  It also covers the more minor point of defining ‘distance’ education.  The second major point is: what is good quality assurance?

Education concepts

The biggest problem in educational quality assurance is agreeing what is meant by ‘good education’. There are so many vested interests in preserving the meaning of degrees, not losing face in international comparisons, preserving jobs within the education industries, meeting government targets and other similar issues that having an open discussion with more than a handful of people at a time can be very difficult.  However, two key – and often conflicting – educational concepts need to be considered: competence and cognition.

Competence is a technical term. Rising in popularity in the late 1980s, assessing competenc(i)es became the way to show that students could ‘do’ things and that qualifications were rigorous, comparable and useful.  Perhaps the most important of those three attributes was ‘comparable’ as accreditation agencies were beginning to spring up everywhere.  Competences tend to be very strictly defined and a student is tested on whether they can demonstrate they have a particular piece of knowledge or can perform a particular skill on a particular occasion.  Sometimes derided as tick-box education, it has its uses not just in highly skilled occupations (pilots) but also in academic disciplines that require significant sequential building of knowledge (maths being a standard example).

The issue of cognition is another way of saying ‘education is supposed to teach you to think’.  There are various taxonomies of learning[1] but they distinguish between, on the one hand, having knowledge and being able to repeat it (that is a tick-box competence link!) and, on the other, being able to assimilate a variety of information, sort it all out and come up with something new that fits a previously unknown situation. Politicians and employers both tend to get in a muddle about which they want: people leaving university with known skills able to do current jobs or people leaving university able to adapt to a wide variety of future jobs. Educators tend to divide into those with an eye to the finance and those with an eye to developing their academic discipline.  Amidst all this, quality assurance raises its head – but so does ‘distance learning’.

‘Distance learning’ used to be fairly easy to recognise: a student received materials direct from the university and sent assignments back to the university. Candidates often had to go to the university or a special exam hall to sit the examinations. As technology improved and populations increased, a wide variety of programmes emerged and it can sometimes be difficult to justify calling one student a ‘distance learner’ and another a ‘campus’ learner as both may do most of their work online, liaise with fellow students round the world, meet with their tutors online or face to face the same number of times, and so on.  While the educational differences can sometimes be hard to detect, however, the differences in social perception may be very strong.  In the UK, for example, a 19 year-old that does not ‘go away’ to university but lives at home and studies in their home-town university is somehow not quite a student because they have not made that socially perceived statement of maturity.

Quality assurance

This is vital for all stakeholders: universities, students, families, employers locally and internationally. The important business of protecting the use of logos apart, it is also a business; and a very lucrative one that gives individuals and teams both power and status. It is perhaps not surprising that it can sometimes be a lot easier to set up an evaluation team for a good university in a pleasant tourist location than it is to do the same in a place no-one has ever heard of but the pressures on well-known, rigorous accreditation bodies are enormous and the harsh reality is that experts need paying, there are only so many of them and time is a problem; so ways have to be found to make local accreditation work. That, in my book, means the accreditation has to work on an international stage because an engineer from back-of-beyond can easily find him- or herself working anywhere in the world alongside people with the same level of degree from universities ‘everyone’ has heard of.

Study centres are not, in the general international scheme of things, awarding bodies: they are simply places that are authorised to offer courses ‘leading to’ a qualification offered by somewhere else. The onus is on the awarding body.  Assuming this is a university, the standard process is both simple and cumbersome.  The university first and foremost needs to protect its reputation so it will check for:

  • Existence in real estate (what the British call bricks-n-mortar)
  • Location – is it in a place likely to damage reputation if seen in the Press?
  • Financial probity of the Chief Executive and senior team (this can be difficult!)
  • Stability of senior team
  • Experience
  • Systems
  • Content

Existence is easily handled and I’ve seen people’s living rooms and patches of ground on a given evening accepted as ‘existence’.

Location can be fun because of cultural issues.  The university that found itself operating from above a laundry by day and turned into a brothel at night did have to react fairly swiftly even though it was reaching its outreach audience in a place with very few buildings.

Financial probity is a huge problem. Genuine educators in small centres may have no money and the corrupt with lots of banking documents know exactly how to work the systems.  Although ‘finance’ is hugely high on the agenda of accrediting  authorities and the paperwork tends to be thick, I have observed that places that are genuinely interested in outreach are pragmatic and build in ‘if you have them’ statements and make calls to assure people that newcomers are welcome and not expected to have everything.

Stability of senior team can be really helpful provided all members are available independently.  I have lost count of the number of times the junior member of the family has included Grandfather and all the uncles plus a sister or two but strangely none of the senior members of the family will return an email or be available on the phone.

Experience is an odd one.  The big agencies tend to work in qualification shorthand: ‘all teachers must have qualification X’.  In my experience and in that of many of the people in those agencies, this is convenient but not really defensible.  For many markets, this could be very wrong.  Pressure on people to have qualifications can be enormous.  Whole nations are not immune to that pressure.  As an academic journal reviewer I have seen post-graduate papers from Eastern Europe and East Asia that would get ‘fail’ for a 17 year-old in a good school in England but I know the nations are in turmoil and other papers ostensibly at the same level from their nations are genuinely world class.  Some nations have many auto-didacts and people who happened to have the luck to be in a location with someone who had huge knowledge and educational capacity. Other nations have many people ahead of the curve of education as a commodity and they have only basic degrees or professional qualifications but they have experience and research that is hugely more relevant than ‘doctorate required’.

Systems.  Hugely expensive and very useful for fighting court cases. May have to fit into other even more expensive systems.  May be very useful for helping students.  In short: get the priorities straight!

Content. This is usually the first check because, at headline level and on paper it is the easiest to do. In practice, everyone knows putting ‘Theory Y’ on the curriculum is expected but how it is taught and, crucially, the contexts in which it is allowed vary so enormously that paper checks are not enough even within the same institution.  Yes, the distance site needs to list the same stuff – but there’s much more to ‘content’ than that.  For certification purposes, it goes back to assessment.

Savvy distance learning

If you cannot attend a high quality university campus and want a high quality education, think:

  1. Does the awarding body’s website list this study centre?
  2. Do the professional bodies to which I want to belong/already belong accept the awarding body’s off-site version of the award?
  3. Does the awarding body in any way qualify its marketing when it gets to the ‘expected careers’ bit?
  4. Is there a large network of well-placed professionals that are happy to either acknowledge themselves as graduates or (if the place is new) to lend it support.

[1] Bloom’s Taxonomy is one of the most well-known and is now in a second version which may lead to confusion as it moves to a more active mode. Action implies reaction to context, so much less absolutist fact-based old-style “tests”.


  1. […] the text below gives some of the key modern concepts that need to …Read this article: Savvy distance learningRelated posts:What kind of accreditation should I look for when evaluating a distance learning […]

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