25 Years of OU – 1999: e-learning works at scale!


I should stress that lots of people at the OU across all disciplines were working on online versions of courses. There were all online versions of existing courses, elements of online in blended courses, fully online postgrad courses, etc. So, the online course I mentioned in the previous post wasn’t a radical intervention that no-one else had considered. But T171 did have two things going for it – it was undergraduate, fully online & it had big numbers. The combination of these two helped settle the “is elearning for us?” argument pretty decisively.

On the experience of this course and getting into elearning I would write a book, Delivering Learning on the Net, which came out in 2002, but was developed around this time (unfortunately this was pre-open access days and I don’t have a digital copy any longer). I picked it off my shelf the other day, and some of it has dated, but given what’s been happening with the online pivot, what was telling was how relevant it still was. This was not due to amazing prescience on my part, but an absence of progression in the thinking around elearning. It has become part of the mainstream on campus in many respects but fully online learning still remains something of an exotic beast to many in higher ed. There is a chapter on debunking Elearning myths (including “elearning will mean declining standards” and “elearning is good for training and not education” which have both made a reappearance in various guises in the online pivot) and another on pedagogies for online teaching (ie not replicating the lecture online).

But what I really wanted to emphasise in this post was the scaling of the approach. I wrote about it in a paper with my colleague Ley Robinson in 2002, but in 1999 we were piloting the course while putting in place the systems for the large scale delivery in 2000. This involved recruiting around 600 part time tutors (Associate Lecturers), many of whom were new to the OU. We created a hierarchy of forums with each student having access to their tutor group forum and some region wide general forums. Tutors had access to a regional forum, and moderators of these had access to the module team forum, where they could bring issues to bear. This scaling worked well, and as I’ve argued before, refutes Downes’ claim that only connectivism scales.

As the article states, the key thing we needed to realise was the personal experience within a large scale course:

There was thus an inherent tension in the presentation of T171 for the course team. On the one hand, they had to implement large-scale efficient systems for the delivery of material, administering of computer conferences, dealing with assessment and putting in place support systems for students and tutors. They also had to ensure that the course accommodated students’ individual needs and provided an intimate, personal experience.

This was realised through the recruitment and training of the ALs, the forum structure, social forums and flexible assessment.

Covid 19 bit: The takeaway for the online pivot is that it is possible to create online learning that works, even for large student numbers. This can still be a personal, human experience and does not need to rely on a ‘large lecture hall’ model. It is however, not cheap to do so, and necessitates employing and developing good people.

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