onlinepivot,  OU

The robustness of distance ed

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

The online pivot is perhaps better considered as a pivot to distance ed, in that it is focused on delivery and support to students remote from campus. Online is how we will mostly realise it, but it is the distance that is the key factor. For many OU students, in terms of their study (although see below), the next few weeks are as near to business as normal as can be managed, when compared with the disruption students on face to face campuses will encounter.

A long time ago (2007) I wrote an article called “The distance from isolation: Why communities are the logical conclusion in e-learning“. It argued that “the internet is built around key technology design features of openness, robustness and decentralisation. These design features have transformed into social features, which are embodied within the cultural values of the internet. By examining applications that have become popular on the net, the importance of these values is demonstrated.” It was a bit techno-determinist, and sort ‘wow, isn’t the internet great!”. But I was thinking about it last night – the key features of the internet which made it robust also apply to much of distance ed. We can now consider some of these:

  • It is distributed – students are not required to come to a central location, making it more robust if that location (or gathering) is compromised.
  • It is (largely) decentralised – if the students are distributed then the support of those students is decentralised. This is not fully true, as Milton Keynes is the central campus, employing most staff (see risks below). But we have centres in the four nations, plus many staff are already home based, or accustomed to working at home. Support is provided by part time Associate Lecturers who are based all over the country.
  • It is asynchronous – much of the distance ed approach does not rely on specific meetings (at least for students). This asynchronous approach allows much more flexibility (and therefore robustness) when things become disrupted.
  • It is open – this is not necessarily a key factor, but open entry means it is less subject to disruption caused to entry systems (eg schools, exams). Also lots of the content is made open under a CC license so when a crisis hits it can be repurposed easily without issues around rights, or access.
  • It is (already) online – not wholly, but there is a VLE accustomed to handling 1000s of students, online tutorial systems in place, content production system etc. As long as the internet stays good (see below), it is based around a system that is designed to be robust. For instance, our Library building has closed, but most of what it does is already online in serving students, so the impact is lessened compared to a campus library.


This is by no means an official OU risk assessment, but here are some thoughts on potential weaknesses or risks in the distance model in times of crisis:

  • Student’s home situation – the set up for our students is very varied. Many will have a home study set up in place, but some will be using work based access to computers. So if they are sent home they may lose that access.
  • Home disruption – related to the above, it’s fine to have a home set up in normal circumstances, but if your partner or children are suddenly at home full time also, this may disrupt study.
  • Online load – again, while your broadband is okay normally, it may struggle when everyone is at home.
  • Central staff disruption – although many academic staff may have appropriate equipment and be used to working at home, a lot of the central admin staff may not have laptops, and their work is not as easily translated online.
  • Support staff – although a lot of our support is decentralised, there are support teams in call centres who will be affected if they need to work from home.
  • Robustness of systems – our tools might work ok when some people are using them but maybe not when all staff are hitting them.

So we could do better to mitigate these risks, but if we think crises such as the current one may come along in different forms (economic, supply chain, brexit, Trump crises etc.) then considering robustness in the higher education system will be an outcome of the coronavirus situation.

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