UNISA still undertakes f2f teaching through a network of Study Centres. Though my informant says (quote) “However, e-tutors are the in thing, moving ahead fast!”
5. The Korean National Open University
The Korean National Open University (KNOU) based in Seoul is another useful case-study as South Korea is a roughly similar size to the UK in area and population, but has a much higher level of high speed internet access. Nevertheless KNOU (a similar size to the OU with nearly 200,000 students) still maintains a substantial face to face teaching programme based in 13 campuses around the country5.
As the KNOU introductory 2014 guideline manual for freshmen states:
‘To overcome limitations in distant education and to encourage interactions between faculty members and students and also among students, KNOU requires its freshmen through juniors to take face to face classes for three courses, and seniors are required to take face to face classes for three courses (except for Early Childhood Education majors) at their regional campuses (generally students are supposed to take 6 courses a semester). These face to face classes are held consecutively for two or three days in a semester and there are tests at the end of a course.’
The decision to retain the f2f facilities was partly made on the results of a student survey (see Appendix 3). In the survey students responded that they valued the f2f sessions mostly because of difficulties in understanding study materials on their own. They also wanted to overcome feelings of isolation from studying alone.
Some 50% felt the current proportion of f2f sessions was appropriate whilst nearly 40% wanted more.
6. Dublin City University Connected
The KNOU approach is similar to that of Dublin City University Connected (DCU Connected) in Ireland who comment:
‘On our undergraduate programmes, we offer students the options of all tutorials f2f, all tutorials online or a mixture of both. Due to concerns about socialisation, we insist new students take the 'mixture' option.’
They further comment:
‘The future of f2f teaching is something which greatly exercises us. There is not the level of online interaction in online classrooms that one gets in f2f classes and, as mentioned above, we are concerned about socialisation.’
7. The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand
OPNZ undertakes a variety of f2f teaching activities. The B Teaching (Early Childhood Education - ECE) and Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students are required to participate in face-to-face workshops (and assessments) throughout their studies. A small number of communication and psychology courses run compulsory face-to-face assessment workshops. ECE and Social Work students are also required to complete several overnight stays at maraes (cultural centres for Maoris) where they gain face-to-face teaching and experiences on Maori culture.
On campus at Lower Hutt some lecturers run optional tutorial sessions for students for some accounting, and statistics courses. There are also weekly study support sessions for some of our trades courses and horticulture programmes have block courses run at hired venues.
For Engineering (B Engineering Technology/NZ Diploma in Engineering): Only the workshop block courses held at other polytechnics, and at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia continue (these qualifications require a practical f2f component).
For Trades: Some voluntary support drop-in sessions are run across the country (this is in areas that either Industry Training Organisations or apprentices have specifically requested it)
A blended model is still preferred by our partners/clients and also appropriate for some learners in the Primary Industries. Examples would include: Horticulture and Agriculture which are distance and supported by face-to-face workshops.
From 2015 level 1 and 2 programmes courses require f2f teaching to maintain funding allocation from the Government. F2f components are also an accreditation requirement for initial teacher education so will continue. This includes a mix of practicum visits to ECE services, workshops and tutorials. This is supported by Open Polytechnic lecturers who are regionally based. ECE also has an office in Christchurch and Auckland. However OPNZ no longer has a network of regional centres. We have offices in Auckland and Christchurch which are the area base for our network of off campus regional lecturers in ECE and a contact centre for some face to face real estate assessments. Our practice is to hire venues in areas most practical for the location and requirements of particular programmes. For B Teaching (ECE), our School of Education Studies organises the venues, which could be a conference centre, hotel venue or some other suitable space. For horticulture courses we use a community facility in the centre of the North Island.
Our agreement with the Department of Corrections sees us send tutors into prisons to provide f2f teaching for level 1&2 courses. We also hire community venues for other Level 1&2 courses that must meet the Government’s requirement to have a f2f component for this level of study. Our model of delivery continues to be open and distance learning in the main with some additional specialist face to face workshops/sessions/study support for some courses/programmes. As long as the funding rules for L1 and 2 require f2f and the Polytechnic wishes to keep teaching at this level then f2f teaching will be maintained.
8. FernUniversität - Germany
Study at the FernUniversität is based on a blended learning concept with written study materials, ICT and media and f2f-teaching and learning. F2f teaching takes place mainly at the campus in Hagen and in regional centers. Use of the virtual classroom or hybrid facilities (real and virtual combined) is increasing.
The FernUniversität has 13 regional centers and 19 study centers. Study centers in Germany belong to their nearest regional center. One Study center is in Hungary (Budapest). We cooperate with the Austrian university of Linz (= 6 study centers and agencies). We offer support in Switzerland.
There are a) compulsory seminars and b) optional tutorials or other supportive events and lectures. The number of compulsory seminars depends on the study programs. We try to keep them to a minimum so there are probably one or two during a bachelor or master program. They take place in regional centers or on the campus in Hagen or elsewhere (special educational establishments which offer seminar rooms, accommodation and boarding).
More and more the academic staff prefer regional centers, because they find all the facilities they need and get support by the staff of the center.
The regional centers offer tutorial sessions and counselling to the students. For example see the tutorials offered in the regional center in Berlin under http://www.fernuni-hagen.de/regionalzentren/ and all events underhttp://www.fernuni-hagen.de/stz/berlin/veranstaltungen/.
Teaching is organized by the faculty. They decide who becomes a mentor or tutor. The regional center does the on-the-spot organization. Regional Centers belong to a unit of the university administration but they have close contact to the faculties and to the faculty staff.
The FernUniversität intends to maintain that network and f2f teaching having reorganized the network of study centers into this current structure of regional centers (with a reduced number of study centers) about 10 years ago.
9. Colorado State University (CSU-global)
CSU is a private exclusively online institution (although it will experiment with some hybrid teaching in 2015). It takes students who have started degrees elsewhere and has around 12,000 students on 27 degree programmes. It runs 8 week courses which start every month and offers 24/7 live tutoring outsourced to Pearson.
CSU believes that new students need an intensive orientation programme right at the beginning of their enrollment. This consist of what is described as a ’boot-camp’ - a synchronous but recorded online ‘lecture’ from their faculty with a phone call which uses a process called MAPS - examining a student’s Motivation, Admissibility, Payment ability and allocating a Start date. This looks a little like a more intensive version of the OU’s ‘Proactive Motivational Support’ programme.
Thus although CSU describes itself as being 100% online it makes extensive use of the phone for both its orientation and teaching. The Provost and Senior Vice President Dr. Jon Bellum believes that “Retention is about people: technology can help cut costs, but it can’t do it all.”
Doing the research. It will always be challenging to get clear findings from educational research, given that it is almost impossible ethically to devise the large controlled randomized trials characteristic of medical research. When relying on a literature search for evidence probably the best that can be achieved is to find meta-surveys - surveys of surveys - which attempt to control for reliability and experimental validity.
But such searches still throw up a vast literature from which it is difficult to draw strong conclusions. In addition there are difficulties about the best way to measure the effectiveness of different modes of delivery in distance education. Some evaluations use questionnaires to measure student satisfaction, but this seems to me to be inadequate as it is not always clear what the survey population is. If, like the UK National Student Survey, the population is those students who survived to near the end of a course then it is hardly a fair sample. A better measure would be to measure the survival rate and ask the casualties of the process as well.
So this survey has tried to focus on those studies in which the main focus is on student retention. Certainly many studies will have been missed, but using this criterion the following conclusions can be reliably drawn from both the literature and institutional case studies.
Blended teaching. It is clear from the research that for distance institutions to succeed in increasing student retention they need to invest in blended teaching in some form. In particular they must find ways of orienting and integrating new students at the earliest possible point in their studies. They must also try to ensure that students are on the right course and are as well prepared with as many sources of initial anxiety dealt with as possible. An institution which relied solely on online teaching via computer forums and a VLE is likely to do little better than MOOCs where course module completion rates are around 10% (THE 19 June 2014), even given the shortness of the courses and the high level pf previous education of participants. Since a MOOC degree will be made up of a series of such modules each perhaps with a similar dropout rate, the graduation rate of such an institution is likely to be negligibly small.
Media for blended teaching. It is less clear what media are best for blended teaching, whether it is email, phone (including text messaging), f2f or other contact. There appears little research into the relative effectiveness or costs of different media. Even where it would appear possible to make comparisons between different institutions this is not really possible as there are so many other competing variables apart from the media used for blended teaching.
Given that difficulty, perhaps the best evidence that can be offered for the effectiveness of f2f teaching is that the case studies in this report show a number of distance institutions still insist on it. Indeed institutions as different as the Korean National Open University, Dublin City University (Connected) and the FernUniversität in Germany not only offer f2f teaching but make it compulsory. KNOU is a particularly interesting example given the very high level of high-speed broadband in that country.
But perhaps the choice of one media over another does not matter. The biggest variable in any educational system are the students. As Thomas (2012 op cit) notes about retention amongst UK full-time students, “Early engagement is essential to student retention and success. Information may be better delivered via a range of media, as students’ learning styles and needs will differ from each other and over time.” So perhaps it is important to use a range of media to support blended learning so that students have a choice of what works best for them. It may not matter therefore if not all students use f2f teaching when it is offered. What matters is if those who do not want it, or cannot avail themselves of it for whatever reasons, have alternative choices of media for support. But note that the evidence strongly suggests that it is especially important to ensure that there is f2f teaching in the first few weeks of a module to enhance student engagement and allay anxieties, even if that is followed by more online teaching activity.
Costs and benefits of various forms of blended teaching. But choice is expensive and one of the disappointments of the findings from this survey is the absence of attempts at the analysis of the costs and benefits of various forms of blended teaching. As noted earlier Rumble and Hulsmann (op cit) maintain that e-teaching is as expensive as ordinary correspondence teaching, but there appear to be few more recent follow-up studies. In particular there appear to be no studies which link blended learning provision to retention outcomes with cost-effective results.
There is evidence for the cost-effectiveness of blended teaching in the form of outreach phone contact (Simpson 2014 op cit), but this is only a small example of the kind of analysis that is needed to decide on the relative proportions in the blend. Within the OU it shouldn’t be too difficult to compare the costs of an online tutorial with a f2f tutorial but it will be more difficult to link that with retention outcomes.
Imponderables. Apart from the effects of f2f teaching on student success there is also the effect on student recruitment which needs analysis as well. Does the availability of local f2f teaching act as a motivator for new student enrolment? Indeed does the existence of f2f teaching act as a motivator for existing students whether they use it or not? Might merely knowing that f2f help is available increase the sense of confidence and security amongst new students even if they then don’t use it? And what is the effect on the morale and commitment of Associate Lecturers of a reduction in the f2f element of their work?
Future research. It is something of a traditional get-out of any survey to end with a conclusion calling for more research. But without such detailed analyses the only possible conclusion that can be drawn from this survey is that it is imperative to maintain blended teaching in its various forms, including f2f teaching. Certainly it would be dangerous to alter the mix fundamentally without considerable additional research into the topics outlined above.