ERCIM News No.33 - April 1998

Transforming Distance Education Courses for Large-scale Internet Presentation

Marian Petre, Pete Thomas, Blaine Price and Linda Carswell

The value Internet technology brings to distance education lies not in direct translation from other media but in transformation of support mechanisms to exploit its potential range. The Open University, which teaches around 150,000 students at a distance, has developed a well-tuned machine for providing high-quality university education for part-time students studying at a distance.

For two years, members of the Computing Department have been developing a learning environment to support the whole instruction process, encompassing students, tutors, staff support, and administration. We have investigated mechanisms for:

The systems have been tried on an entry-level and an upper-level Computing course, involving approximately 350 students and 23 experienced tutors in 1996, and some 500 students in 1997.

Our solutions must observe the Open University ethos of begin "open and equal" with respect to technology access, both in the UK and abroad. Hence the backbone of our technology is plain-text Internet e-mail, which can cater for almost any student, regardless of the speed of the network connection or software available. Several mechanisms have been developed:

Considerable data, both qualitative and quantitative, has been collected to support well-founded comparisons of conventional and electronic delivery. Performance between the Internet and conventional student cohorts was statistically comparable; in broad terms, the Internet students performed at least as well as the conventional students.

Face-to-face problem sessions (tutorials) are a focal point in teaching, where concepts become immediate and personal through students' interactions with their tutors and each other. In translating the tutorial for Internet presentation, the priority is to preserve the immediacy of the face-to-face tutorial, despite the problems of cost, compatibility and synchronisation. Tutors devised new, appropriate structures for electronic sessions which proved effective and engaging, for example:

Taking care over the integration of the electronic tools into the existing administrative infrastructure paid off. Administration is faster and more efficient with electronic assignments. Turnaround time is reduced; less paper is consumed; access to assignments and records is facilitated; and automatic logging increases accountability.

Observed Costs and Gains



Supported Internet presentation is not a cheap option, but it may be one that can provide greater flexibility and can shift effort from administrative details to teaching. The real key to successful application of technology is good teaching: using technology only when it is a cost-effective servant of pedagogy.

More information on the web at:

Please contact:

Marian Petre - The Open University
Tel: +44 1 908 65 33 73

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