News - April 30, 2015

Distance learning cannot cater for all future students

Koen Guiking

The Dutch Open University has years of experience with distance learning. It has been a great success. In the recent higher education guide De Keuzegids, comparing Dutch Master’s programmes, the OU overtook Wageningen University, which has come top of the Keuzegids rankings for years. What can Wageningen learn from the Open University?

How come the Open University (OU) got such good evaluations in the Keuzegids, ‘in spite of distance learning’? The question makes Professor Carolien Kroeze laugh. Kroeze works for both Wageningen University and the Open University, which only offers distance learning. ‘Distance learning does not mean keeping students at a distance,’ she parries. ‘You can keep in touch with students through the internet and there are moments through the year when you have faceto- face contact.’ This is known as ‘online activating education’ at the OU. What is more, a typical OU student is not like a Wageningen one. An OU student opts for distance learning. The Wageningen campus student does not. So the scores in the Keuzegids are not really comparable, in Kroeze’s view.

Distance learning, Kroeze is quick to add, is neither more efficient nor cheaper that face-toface education. ‘That is another common misconception: thinking that universities can cater handle the growth in student numbers through distance learning. It is not a question of simply putting recordings of normal lectures online and making them available to increasing numbers of students on the campus. I see little added value in recording lectures for our campus students. At the Open University, if I make a short film for students studying by distance learning, we first write a script and if necessary we make several recordings until we have a good one.’

Here Kroeze touches on a crucial difference between distance learning and regular campus education. Course material for students studying through distance learning must be worked out in great detail so that each step is explained to students logically and clearly, so they don’t need too much supervision. Or, as they say at the OU: ‘the supervision is integrated into the course material.’ At the OU, it is not an option for the teacher to adapt their Powerpoint presentation at the last minute, because the students are not on campus. For distance learning students, everything has to be ready well in advance.

Preparing an education programme so thoroughly that students can work their way through it with hardly any supervision does not mean, however, that the range of teaching methods used by the OU is limited, emphasizes Kroeze. ‘There are components in which students can click on questions programmed in advance, but at the other end of the spectrum, there are also assignments in which the students have to work together through a digital learning environment, under the supervision of a teacher. An OU student can also do a virtual internship, for instance. Then they pay a visit to the NIOO in Yserke online, are welcomed and get an email straightaway with their first assignment.’

Video clips for MOOCs, online Master’s programmes and a special course for students from NTU Singapore are recorded almost every day in a studio in the Agrotechnion on the Dreijen. Multimedia specialst Dennis Anneveldt (standing in front of the green screen) would like the studio to be moved to the campus. A suitable location is being sought.
Video clips for MOOCs, online Master’s programmes and a special course for students from NTU Singapore are recorded almost every day in a studio in the Agrotechnion on the Dreijen. Multimedia specialst Dennis Anneveldt (standing in front of the green screen) would like the studio to be moved to the campus. A suitable location is being sought.

‘Teaching methods are given a lot of priority at the OU,’ says Kroeze. ‘OU teachers are born educationalists. Research certainly goes on at the OU as well, but always in the service of the education programme. At other universities research often gets more priority.’ A difference from Wageningen, in her view, is that all OU teachers are closely involved in creating an optimal curriculum, whereas at Wageningen that is left to the programme committees. She hastens to add that the teaching in Wageningen is very good too, in terms of teaching methods. And she sings Wageningen’s praises for the time and money currently being spent here on online education.

People at Wageningen University are very well aware that distance learning requires completely new educational resources and methods, says director of Distance Learning Ulrike Wild. For the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which started at the beginning of 2015, the university developed special e-learning modules and video clips, and gave teachers in-service training. The MOOCs are free to anyone who signs up, without admission requirements. Ten thousand people have taken part so far. New MOOCs are already under development, and Wageningen UR will be launching two complete online MSc programmes in September 2015: Plant Breeding and Nutritional Epidemiology and Public Health. For years, thought has been going into how to set up these complete MSc programmes in the most interesting and logical way possible. In this process, lessons have been learned from the Open University, and even more so from international universities. Wild: ‘The Open University has a lot of experience in the Netherlands, but our target group is mainly abroad. What is more, developments in interactive educational resources have been moving very fast in recent years. We keep a close eye on those developments – worldwide.’

Developing resources for online education programmes is costly, but Wild says that many of these resources can also be used for regular teaching on campus. And that is already happening. The ‘knowledge clips’ recorded for the MOOCs were immediately used in the campus programmes too. This mix of online and offline educational methods is called blended learning. Kroeze’s view: ‘It is nonsense of course to organize a virtual workgroup if you are all around on campus, but course material that is well explained in a couple of video clips can easily be used for ‘on-campus’ students.’ Another difference from the Open University, says Wild, is that Wageningen online Master’s students start the course as a cohort. That means they all do the same assignments, read the same literature and watch the same knowledge clips in the same period. ‘That way you don’t have the feeling that you are all on your own, studying like mad. Working in a group makes it easier to keep going. And you help people to keep up by sending them weekly assignments and providing supervision by an e-tutor.’ At the OU, historically, students can start a course at any time and follow a course or an entire programme at their own pace, acknowledges Frank van Belleghem, chair of the programme committee of the faculty of Management, Science and Technology, where Carolien Kroeze works too. ‘And it is still possible to do that, but we are now encouraging people to study in cohorts.’ The reason: the university needs to raise its completion rate (with fewer dropouts) due to targets agreed with the ministry of Education.

What is more, OU students get together several times a year too, both for group assignments and for exams. These are always taken in one of the OU buildings, because otherwise it is impossible to check whether students take their exams themselves. Practical work cannot be done entirely online either, so the OU rents laboratory space in Wageningen for a few weeks a year, says Kroeze.