Faculties and Schools must consider and fulfil the following principles in the design and delivery of programmes by distance learning, whether as part of a programme or the whole programme.
Distance learning is defined as an educational provision leading to an award, or to specific credit toward an award, of an awarding institution delivered and/or supported and/or assessed through means which generally do not require the student to attend particular classes or events at particular times and particular locations.” (QAA Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, Section 2: Collaborative provision and flexible and distributed learning).
1. Market Research
Appropriate market research should be undertaken in order to ensure that a similar programme does not already exist elsewhere and to identify the student market. Potential distance learning students may be from different cultures and backgrounds with different qualifications and educational needs and these must be considered when the level, form and content of the curriculum is determined. Consultation with any relevant professional bodies would also be considered good practice.
2. Business Planning - Costing the programme.
Programmes containing distance learning should be fully costed at the design stage, to be sure that the programme is sustainable. It is important that the cost drivers are well understood and incorporated into any planning process, acknowledging that the costs of distance learning programme are inherently different to campus-based programmes. Distance learning can be an efficient use of resources; upfront investment to establish the materials / content and the underlying support structures can result in savings once the programme is established, although experiences in other institutions have shown that it should not be perceived as a significant source of income. Proposals for distance learning need to show how the initial investment will be recouped and how the ongoing maintenance will be covered in relation to planned student numbers (i.e. sustainability).
Plans should address:
- the start up costs required to develop the materials/resources (including academic time) for distance learning, and how these costs will be recouped, in relation to student numbers;
- the ongoing costs of the maintenance of distance learning material/resources;
- the ongoing administration costs of the programme in relation to the planned student numbers (acknowledging that a successful distance learning programme will normally incur significant additional administration compared to those taught exclusively on campus).
- It is also important to establish the tuition fee structure for distance learning programmes, and whether potential students are likely to be HEFCE, self or employer-funded.
Standards should be established by which the success/value of a distance learning programme is measured and monitored.
It is recommended that all proposals for a new programme containing distance learning include a ‘pilot’ stage.
There will also be costs incurred in providing an appropriate level of academic and pastoral tutor support and this should be mentioned explicitly.
The ongoing delivery and support for a distance learning programme, once established, could be out-sourced, but external tutors still need to be paid, trained, recruited and managed. Alternatively, strategic international partners may be identified to support or even provide specific learning resources (e.g. laboratory space, regional support and examination venues). Although the delivery of the academic content and the support / administrative structures may be provided in partnership with other providers, the lack of exact complementarity of structures between institutions will inevitably result in additional complexities that do need to be resolved before embarking on the programme.
All these factors must be considered in the business plan for the programme.
3. Management Structure
A management structure for the programme should be clearly defined with responsibilities attributed appropriately. A programme board may be established for this purpose. It is essential that the management structure for distance learning programmes is well organised, integrated, and consistent, and all those contributing to it know their responsibilities. No aspect of delivering the programme should rely solely on one person. There are implications for the whole student cycle, not just the teaching with a distance learning programme. This puts a premium on the effective and efficient administration of the programme so a successful distance learning programme will necessitate extra administration, whether this is at School or Faculty level, or a combination both.
4. Student Support Structures
A specific structure should be established to administer and support ‘distance learning’ students, who will have different needs than those who are taught exclusively on campus. Students should be made fully aware of their programme of study, how it will be delivered/assessed and a clear schedule for the delivery/assessment. Similarly students should be made aware of the academic expectations on them, as set out in the programme specification. Students should be informed how they may access the support services, including the library, pastoral and academic support.
Any collaborative arrangements for distance learning should be negotiated, agreed and managed in accordance with the University’s Regulations and Code of Practice for Educational Partnerships.
6. The Technology
It is the pedagogy, rather than the technology for delivering the content, that drives distance learning, but the technology must also map onto centrally-supported software, with an eye on scalability to accommodate increases in student numbers.
The technology for the delivery of distance learning, for receipt of work and conducting on-line assessment must also be robust, secure and reliable, and must be tested before use. Contingency plans must in place in the event of any failure of the technology. The technology employed in distance learning must be centrally supported and be accessible to all the proposed users.
7. Quality Assurance and Approval Processes
All new proposals for distance learning should be presented and considered in accordance with the agreed procedure for new programmes, including consultation with relevant support services such as the Library and the Student Systems Information Office. The proposal must be agreed by the School and Faculty before being presented to Programme Approval Group, Education Committee and then Senate for approval.
Distance learning programmes should conform to the University’s internal quality assurance mechanisms and the University’s regulations. A sub-set of regulations for such programmes may need to be developed where this is not possible.
8. Curriculum Design and Delivery
It is acknowledged that that the delivery of teaching via distance learning will vary by subject, depending the on the form of teaching and content that is to be delivered. The following points should be followed wherever possible:
a) programme teams should consider how the curriculum is delivered, whether in a blended format or entirely away from campus. Teams should consider whether students should be required to attend the University for an induction session and/or other taught components as a mandatory part of the programme,
b) programme teams should consider how the learning outcomes from each unit, and those of the programme, should be assessed. Consideration should also be given to whether the forms of assessment can be conducted online (this will require that assurance can be provided that the assessment is completed by the student) or whether students will need to attend the University or another designated venue to take summative assessments;
c) students should receive feedback on their formative assessment, in accordance with University policy, in good time to influence the next relevant activity or assessment, as set out in the Regulations and Code of Practice for the Assessment and Progression of Students on Taught Programmes,
d) the programme specification should make clear to students the academic, pastoral and other support that is available to them in the School/Faculty, including outlining the appropriate forms and lines of communication and expected timeframe for responses. Students should also be informed of how they can access central services. Likewise staff need to be made fully aware of the time commitment that will be required of them (to be available to respond to student requests). Good student support structures will be vital; a student away from campus, must be able to interact with his or her peer group and communicate with the University (for academic, administrative and pastoral reasons) and know they will receive a response in a set time. Cultural expectations also need to be considered particularly for overseas students, e.g. the relationship between student and tutor will need clear exposition,
e) programmes should provide opportunities for students on distance learning programmes to foster a community of learners and for inter-learner discussions,
f) the experiences of students on a programme containing distance learning should be regularly monitored, evaluated and updated, where necessary, at the Annual Programme Review meeting. Students should have appropriate opportunities to provide formal feedback on their experiences of the teaching.