Friday, February 25, 2011

Campus or distance?

We still tend to see campus-based courses and distance courses as two separate worlds. The former is seen as having higher status since students and teachers meet face-to-face every day and there is a high degree of interaction. The latter is seen as a poor relation where students sit alone with their computers with only a discussion forum or e-mail to interact with faculty or fellow students. The stereotype online course is basically a traditional correspondence course and therefore no surprise that the success rates on such courses are generally rather low.

This is however a sadly stereotyped view and if you look more closely the boundaries get seriously blurred. Many universities have extremely large classes in the first two undergraduate years and the standard teaching model is the good old lecture, often one way communication with audiences over 100. How much interaction is involved there? How much learning takes place in the lecture hall? Isn't the lecture hall a case of distance learning? Is there any great difference between sitting in the lecture hall with 100 other students or watching the performance later on my laptop? This point is well described by Paul Hillsdon in an article called Why universities should ditch the lecture and go digital. Although there will always be room for inspired lecturing and some performances are best viewed live, there are still far too many that are niether inspiring nor interactive.

The real benefit of campus is being able to participate in seminars and tutorials in smaller groups where real discussion and reflection can take place. That is the most crucial element of all education and that is where real learning and insight can occur. However many cash-strapped universities have cut back on this, the one real trump card the campus model possesses. Many students complain that teacher contact hours have been cut over the last few years and as a result many campus students have alarmingly little "quality" teaching time apart from the customary lectures. In such cases you may start to wonder if some campus students are actually involved in "distance" learning. A good deal of my own student years were glorified self study to be quite honest.

At the same time we are seeing an increasing amount of online courses making use of various social media to increase the amount of interaction and discussion and ironically many "distance students" have much higher quality interaction with teachers and other students than many of their campus counterparts.

Campus students tolerate lack of contact and mass lectures because they are full-time and their loans and grants are dependent on them passing exams and staying the course. Part-time distance students are not so committed and will drop out if the course is not engaging enough. It's not a campus-distance problem, it's all about quality and in particular quality of interactivity. Courses that offer plenty of quality interaction between students and teachers will always retain student interest, whether they're online or on campus. The difference shouldn't matter.


  1. I remember a quote from an educational conference, where somebody said "Anything beyond the third row is by definition distance education" :)


  2. Only in favor of Distance education because i hate campus study pattern & also i don't find peace and concentration there for learning topics.But if you want to do practicals and experiments then campus is fine place for guidance and show our skills.For working peoples Distance Learning Courses are better option. Distance Courses

  3. Hi!

    I have been searching for videos of examples of interactive lectures or best practice in large class teaching in higher education. Do you know of any links to videos that dhow lecturers in action making teaching large classes work well?


    Teresa Perez
    University of Cape Town

  4. Teresa. There must be plenty but I can't come up with anything concrete right now. Unfortunately many universities simply publish "fly on the wall" recordings of normal campus lectures and think they are online learning. Much better to record the whole thing without an audience and then all students are equal (noone has privileged access to the teacher). I use Adobe Connect a lot and there are several functions there for encouraging interaction, even during a recording. During a live session you can have one or more chat sessions, organize break-out groups and let different students step forward and present wherever they may be.
    There are v´certainly lots of colleges using this and many othet tools for more interactive classes. Just see the MOOCs run by Downes and Siemens as excellent examples.