Preparing for the digital university

George Siemens, Dragan Gasevic and Shane Dawson have produced an excellent report with this title. I think it’s a very ambitious and also very timely thing to do. They synthesise the research of distance, blended and online learning to provider an analysis of the benefits and issues for each. As nearly all universities offer one or more versions of these forms of learning, it is very useful to have a report to start from. As we’ve often voiced in the OER field, there is a lot of research published that is of questionable quality, and in order to make good decisions we need to be drawing on sound evidence.

So, I applaud their efforts and what I offer here is by way of an addendum, not a major criticism. I have two points I’d add to the report, both of which arise from my Open University experience. I fully appreciate that in wanting to produce a readable report they can’t give the detailed history of distance education. But I’d like to add the following two items for consideration:

i) The discussion of distance education seems to be focused on correspondence tuition and then jumps straight from here to interactive, online modes. Anyone who has worked at the OU becomes sensitive to this, so maybe it doesn’t matter to others, but I think it’s worth highlighting the Supported Open Learner model developed by the OU (and then successfully replicated across the globe). This has a range of elements all specifically designed to aid the distance learner, including course material designed to be studied individually, a part-time tutor allocated for support (by face to face tutorials, phone, online, etc), a regional centre support system, summer schools, use of different media and assessment constructed to be a feedback and progression mechanism. I stress it because many universities and online providers still haven’t discovered this rich support mechanism. I expect one will reinvent it soon, amongst much fanfare, but the point is that different elements have greater significance for different students. Think of it like reversing a car: you use side mirrors, rearview mirror, reverse sensor, look over your shoulder. All those elements are useful. I feel the report rather brushed over the significance of this in a rush to get to blended learning.

ii) The report states that distance learning has high retention. This seems odd, and makes me wonder what version of distance ed is being considered here. Distance ed is not synonymous with open education, but it has often been used as a means by which open education can be realised. One of the things about open education is that it doesn’t have high retention rates. Just as MOOC developers are now discovering, if you have open entry, it makes comparison with filtered entry difficult. MOOC providers are also making claims that traditional metrics of completion rates are not as applicable. This has always been the case for truly open education. Many open ed students come in, try one or two courses, and then leave the system, quite satisfied. They have got what they wanted and they never intended to gain a degree. This is why funding systems based solely on whole course completion are a disaster if you care about social mobility, inclusion, or open education. So to claim that distance learning has high retention seems a bit at odds with some of the reality experienced.

Apart from that, thanks George, Dragan and Shane, I really did enjoy reading it, and apologies if I’ve misinterpreted anything here.


  1. Hi Martin
    I do not think it is just those who have worked at the OU who are sensitive to the Supported Open Learner Model you mention above. (Though I guess I should disclose that I am OU Alumni).
    As you say, this has been replicated around the world, indeed I would argue that here in Finland the distance teacher education program I manage is very much part of that tradition, including the use of individual learning materials, a tutor (though the face to face sessions now happen synchronously online), the use of a variety of media and open resources and assessment that focuses on development.
    Like you I await the morning when I open a news article that informs me that a start-up has just discovered this amazing way to improve their MOOC offering and then try to claim intellectual property rights for the idea. It seems to be the way of the world.
    A good review of the report. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Mark, I think there is a real task for us lot to offer an alternative narrative around open ed (including MOOCs) that shows the value of support

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