After the epicurean excesses of Christmas dinner, I have returned to my studies. In addition to my PhD, I am studying for an English Literature degree with the Open University. Although distance learning is by no means new, it remains revolutionary in several senses, most especially in terms of individuality, openness and technological advances.
Distance learning, in the form offered by the Open University and indeed by many other providers, gives more breadth and scope for individual interests. As there are none of the timetable clashes that inevitably happen in traditional universities, a distance learning student can tailor their choice of modules to suit their interests and personal and career commitments. You could take a module in Japanese, then look at Philosophy, then Astronomy – in whatever combination the individual student wants. So, education is opened to people who may find it difficult to fit study into their everyday lives, or who want a more broad education.
The Open University, in common with many distance learning institutions, differs from traditional universities in that it does not select or refuse students based on academic qualifications. While academic selection would not worry some of the attendees of the OU, this openness encourages more students to return to study and to use education to improve their career or just satisfy their curiosity. Not every teenager feels able or suited for a university course at 18, whether for financial, academic or personal reasons. Distance learning enables them to return when they feel ready, at a pace suited to them. The mean age of OU students is somewhere in the 30’s, but the youngest graduate was only 16 when he completed his mathematics degree.
The OU fee’s are also generally much lower than traditional university fee’s – my English Lit degree will have cost me approximately £4,000 spread out over the 5-6 years it will take me to complete the course. Not chicken feed, but more manageable than £9000 a year, you will admit. The OU fees also include textbooks, DVD’s, audio-materials and access to forums and tutorials. No worrying about how to afford the £120 book your lecturer decides is vital to the module. There are also the bursaries and loans to help struggling students. So, distance learning really is democratically open both on a financial and academic level.
Since the earliest examples of distance learning in the 1700’s, distance learning has utilised technology to promote learning. First correspondence courses then radio, followed closely by television and finally the internet. The internet offers synchronous learning tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Skype and asynchronous possibilities through VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments e.g. Moodle, Frog etc.), forums, blogs and so on. This use of technology encourages communication between learners as much as between learner and instructor. Learning is a social pursuit and technology based communication is not only a useful motivational tool, but also fulfills valuable educative goals.
The advent of tablets and sophisticated mobile phones has opened other avenues for distance learning. Apps such as OU Anywhere, Duolingo, Notability, Google Drive and iTunes U have transformed learning. Now you can learn a new Russian phrase, edit an essay or complete a quiz while waiting for a bus, sitting in a dentists waiting room, wherever and however you choose.
My next blog post, inspirationally called Distance Learning II, will look more at apps for learning, particularly iTunes U and the design and evolution of iTunes U courses to support learning in the classroom, at home or wherever life takes you.
Happy New Year!