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Table of Contents
                            Title Page
Chapter1: Introduction
	The Context
	The Motivation for Further Study
	Study Methodology
Chapter 2: The Changing Venues for Learning
	Access to Connectivity and Learning Technology Appliances
	The Traditional Nature of Learning Venues
	The Development of Innovative Learning Venues
	Driving and Constraining Forces of Learning Venues
	Major Considerations for the Development of Learning Venues
Chapter 3: The Continuing Evolution of ICT Capacity: The Implications for Education
	Brief Case Studies of Major ICT Applications in Education and Training
	What Kinds of Technology Are Being Used?
	Key Emerging Technologies
	Driving and Constraining Forces of the Emerging Technologies
	Policy Issues for Education Leaders
Chapter 4: Object Lessons from the Web: Implications for Instructional Development
	Learning Objects and Structured Information
	How is Structured Content Developed?
	The Standards Groups and Their Work
	What Systems and Software Are Required?
	Implications for Education Organisations
	Implications for Instructional Developers
	Implications for Learners
	What is a Learnster?
	Appendix 4.1 An Example of Object-Based Development: Open School
Chapter 5: The Provision of Learner Support Services Online
	Learner Support in Distance Education
	Form and Content of Online Support Services
	Driving and Constraining Forces to Online Learning Support
	Issues for Policy-Makers and Managers
Chapter 6: The Development of New Organisational Arrangements in Virtual Learning
	New Virtual Education Institutions
	Consortia of Institutions
	Commercial Initiatives
	Government-Education Alliances
	Driving and Constraining Forces for New Organisational Arrangements
Chapter 7: Quality Assurance
	The Need for Quality Assurance in Online Education
	The Role of Accrediting Agencies
	Other External Influences: Marketing Excellence
	The Internalisation of Quality Assurance: Quality Education Work
	Can Virtual Education Deliver on Its Quality Promises?
	Barriers to Quality
	Additional Web Resources
Chapter 8: Issues and Choices
	The Concept of Virtual Education
	An Emerging Vision
	Driving and Constraining Forces
	General Observations
	Implementing the Vision: Essential Actions
	Myths, Opportunities and Risks
Document Text Contents
Page 1

The Changing Faces of

Virtual Education

The Commonwealth of Learning
Vancouver, Canada


Page 2



The Commonwealth of Learning is an International Organisation established by Commonwealth
Governments in September 1988, following the Heads of Government Meeting held in Vancouver
in 1987. It is headquartered in Vancouver and is the only Commonwealth intergovernmental
organisation located outside of Britain.

The purpose of The Commonwealth of Learning, as reflected in the Memorandum of
Understanding, is to create and widen access to education and to improve its quality, utilising
distance education techniques and associated communications technologies to meet the particular
requirements of member countries. The agency’s programmes and activities aim to strengthen
member countries’ capacities to develop the human resources required for their economic and social
advancement and are carried out in collaboration with Governments, relevant agencies, universities,
colleges and other educational and training establishments among whom it also seeks to promote
co-operative endeavours.

The Chairman of the Board of Governors is Dr. H. Ian Macdonald and COL’s President and
Chief Executive Officer is Dato’ Professor Gajaraj Dhanarajan.

© The Commonwealth of Learning, 2001

The Changing Faces of Virtual Education
Dr. Glen M. Farrell, editor

ISBN: 1-895369-75-4

Published by:
The Commonwealth of Learning
1285 West Broadway, Suite 600
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada V6H 3X8

Telephone: 604 775 8200
Fax: 604 775 8210
E-mail: [email protected]

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The Provision of Learner Support Services Online73

services in the form of professional staff and
resources collected for their benefit.

Such a system implies that two forms of
learner support are necessary: one related to de-
velopment of the individual’s potential and an-
other related more to the needs of the system
for accountability, although these obviously in-
tersect in a society which values certification of
an individual’s achievements. Moreover, there is
no doubt that students’ perceptions of their learn-
ing environment, and indeed their learning itself,
is heavily influenced by the efficacy of the ad-
ministrative aspects of that environment.

Yet even in our simple classroom, there is a
third layer of student support, a motivational el-
ement, provided in the form of the class group,
although the degree of motivation depends to
some extent on both the psychology of the indi-
vidual and the social dynamics of the class. The
importance of this third layer of support cannot
be underestimated. It lies behind the strong pref-
erence of most post-secondary students for on-
campus education, and even the stated prefer-
ence of many external students for class contact
(Scriven and Ryan, 1993). It lies at the base of
the standard distance learner’s plaint “the loneli-
ness of the long distance student” (Besser and
Donahue, 1996; Brown, 1996; Li et al., 2000). It
is also of course, the prime reason for gathering
students in classes at all — to provide a socialis-
ing, civilising experience where individuals learn
how to behave in groups and how to negotiate
“community.” Governments and society at large
are committed to this social and nation-building
aspect of the educational experience; hence their
consistent preference for investment in physical
educational infrastructure at primary and second-
ary school levels and for the traditional school-
leaver at undergraduate level, whose education is
as much personal as vocational.

A further significant factor is the growth of
learner support services. In developed economies
at least, the late 20th century saw a swing away

from the teacher-centred model which had char-
acterised education. Pedagogical and social theo-
ries favoured a new “learner-centredness.” In
Dewey’s (1929) conception, this involved atten-
tion to the development of the personal potential
of each student, according to his or her talents
and ambitions. However, learner-centredness has
since segued into learner responsibility. Whereas
Dewey conceived of the teacher manipulating the
learner’s environment and resources in order to
stimulate the individual, by the end of the century,
the learner was to be independent of the teacher,
who was no longer a directive expert or “sage on
the stage,” but a facilitator, or “guide on the side.”
The learner was presumed capable of and com-
mitted to the pursuit of knowledge. Further, the
explosion of knowledge in the late 20th century
meant a greater emphasis on the process of learn-
ing, rather than on the content, which is, it is widely
argued, rapidly superseded.

This pedagogical theory of learner-
centredness coincided with another trend: the
“commodification” of educational provision as
a service industry (Ritzer, 1998) and the emer-
gence of for-profit educational organisations,
with a consequent emphasis on students as cli-
ents and customers. For-profit providers stressed
not only the employability of their graduates, but
also their level of “service” through attention to
administrative ease, pre-enrolment advice, career
days with prospective employers, streamlined
enrolment and credit card payments. Traditional
providers in all sectors had rarely considered such
services important to their student base. Com-
petition among providers has changed that atti-
tude over the last 10 years, in North America
and Australia in particular, as on-campus and tra-
ditional providers discovered the niche market
of adult learners, who have little time or patience
for queues and delay.

The major technical change of the last 20 years
is, of course, the phenomenal increase in com-
puter power and the associated development of

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The Provision of Learner Support Services Online74

equally powerful software applications. These ap-
plications have made record-keeping and learning
management systems possible through relational
databases; encryption devices have enabled stu-
dents to directly access an institutional system with
relative security. The 1980s saw the emergence of
the Internet as a communication device with the
ability to manage both real time (synchronous) and
delayed time (asynchronous) interactions and one-
to-one and one-to-many communication, an ob-
vious boon to distance education.

Over the 150-year history of distance educa-
tion, practitioners and managers have made vari-
able progress in systematically addressing the is-
sues of supporting their learners through various
means: improving the quality of print materials in
terms of physical presentation; devising instruc-
tional design processes that involve both “content
experts” and “learning experts”; implementing
borrowing policies that maximise student access
to resources while minimising student mail costs;
establishing student support centres where local
tutors assist both face-to-face and by telephone.
Specialist distance education administration units
have been established to deal with the inevitable
problems facing the distance and adult student:
inability to meet assignment due dates, lost assign-
ments, enrolment and contact with the teacher.
Design teams develop learning materials that aim
to promote “active learning,” to replicate in some
sense the dialogue that Laurillard (1993) argues is
essential to the learning process.

In institutions with a distance education mis-
sion, learner support has involved systematic in-
vestigation and research into how students can learn
in a non-classroom environment, how best to sub-
stitute for the informal and incidental learning that
occurs on campus and the vast range of what
Rumble (2000) calls “consumptive service benefits.”
Guidelines have evolved. The Commonwealth of
Learning, for example, has published a toolkit,
“Learner Support in Open and Distance Learn-
ing” (see However,

our knowledge about what services may assist our
students is often outstripped by a system’s capacity
to provide these services, as Rumble (2000) quot-
ing Tait, observes.

To summarise, the last decade of the 20th
century has seen an extraordinary confluence of
forces — technical, pedagogical, ideological,
economic — which have stimulated the growth
of distance education, particularly in terms of
“supply,” and particularly in North America.
These forces have increased the potential of
distance education systems to overcome many
of the disincentives to off-campus study, espe-
cially through providing social learning oppor-
tunities and immediacy of access to resources,
both human and digital.

Off-campus study has never enjoyed wide popu-
larity as a mode of education. In the Australian
higher education sector, despite being long-estab-
lished as an alternative access mode for those dis-
advantaged by distance or circumstance, distance
enrolment remained relatively stable as a propor-
tion of the total enrolment in higher education, at
10% to 12% between 1989 and 1995 (Cunningham
et al.,1998). After fees increased in 1998, the number
of mature students and part-time enrolment in-
creased. This corresponded with a sharp upsurge
in distance enrolments to 14% in 2000, which was
affected by the Asian financial crisis (which discour-
aged many students from the more costly on-shore
education). Distance enrolments among Australia’s
Vocational Education and Training (community
college level) students remain at 10%. It was re-
ported that between 1989 and 1999, there was a
800% increase in Australia’s international distance
enrolments, with international students constitut-
ing nearly 10% of all external enrolments (Dobson
and Sharma, 2001). The same report observes that
failure rates among traditional school leavers are
twice those of mature students in distance mode.

Page 156

Issues and Choices 151

For example, many organisations have ef-
fected major cost reductions in the area of
staff training through the use of virtual edu-
cation because it has reduced the travel
budget. Without such a plan, it is likely that
cost will increase!

• There is no future for an institution that
chooses not to adopt virtual education.
Wrong! It is difficult to imagine an institu-
tion that will not be able to improve on one
or more of the goals of increasing access,
enhancing quality or improving efficiency
through ICT applications. However that
doesn’t necessitate abandoning serving stu-
dents in a traditional campus-based setting.

Just as there should be no assumptions that virtual
education is appropriate for all jurisdictions and
institutions, neither should there be an assumption
that this phenomenon can be ignored. The op-
portunity for “adding value” to one or more of
the goals of improving access, enhancing quality
or improving efficiencies through the use of some
aspect of virtual education is very real. These op-
portunities will only be enhanced by the macro
developments described in this report.

• A much more “learner-centred” model of
education will be possible than has ever been
the case in the past. At the elementary level,
teachers will be able to enrich curricula and
to be more creative in their pedagogy. As
learners move towards higher education,
choices and options concerning both con-
tent and learning mode become wider and,
more easily tailored to suit individual learn-
ing styles and circumstances.

• The potential to share costs, distribute risk,
derive revenue and re-focus institutional man-
dates is increased remarkably through the new
organisational models that are emerging.
Collaboration through partnerships, consortia

and joint venture arrangements offer solu-
tions to problems of financing the adoption
of virtual education, especially for many
smaller institutions and, perhaps, for institu-
tions in developing countries.

• The opportunities for collaboration on the
development and delivery of programmes,
particularly in developing countries, is likely
to be found most easily in content areas such
as professional upgrading, teacher training,
small business development and management,
science and technical programmes, elemen-
tary and secondary school curricula enhance-
ment and literacy and basic education.

From a global perspective, there are some
“macro risks” that the Study Team believes are
associated with the macro developments. For
example, there is the potential to create even more
educational disenfranchisement if the growth of
virtual education continues in such an uneven man-
ner between developed and developing countries.
This risk is also present within nations. The “digital
divide” has several faces that are present in all ju-
risdictions regardless of the stage of economic
development. This underlines the need for poli-
cies that address equalisation of access to ICT
appliances and connectivity, and that enable insti-
tutions to take advantage of such access.

Further, the differences between developed
and developing countries in their capacity to de-
velop content in the new forms that are emerg-
ing, create the potential for a form of “content
imperialism” in which the developing world be-
comes the consumer of learning resources de-
veloped elsewhere. Some measures to avoid this
could include:

• Arrangements in developing countries that
ensure common standards for interoperability
among institutions to enable them to share
content databases and administrative systems.

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Issues and Choices152

• Allow institutions in developing countries to
“cherry pick” learning objects from content
databases and modify them with metadata,
such as learning resources, that are appro-
priate in the local cultural context.

• Encourage the creation of regional partner-
ships among institutions in developing coun-
tries to undertake joint development of learn-
ing objects databases and to share the neces-
sary technical infrastructure required to do that.

The experience to date with the development
of distance education suggests there are several
pitfalls that should be avoided. For example:

• Allowing decisions to be driven by the tech-

• Jumping on the “everybody is doing it”

• Overlooking existing educational and ICT

• Underestimating the front-end and ongoing
funding requirements.

• Unclear statements of objectives to be

• Raising unrealistic expectations.

• Failing to keep stakeholders briefed and in-
volved in the decision process.

In spite of the tremendous increase in the use
of ICT in education over the last few years,
there are still very few examples, globally, of
what one might call “pure” virtual learning. In
other words, there are few examples in which

all facets of the teaching/learning process are
carried out through some type of ICT inter-
face. Furthermore, most of the activity is still
occurring around the edges of institutions, par-
ticularly the public sector institutions. As these
situations continue to evolve and change, the
Study Team believes they will be profoundly
influenced by the macro developments that have
been the focus of this report.

However, we disagree with the collective wis-
dom that is often associated with virtual educa-
tion. This would have one believe that contact
teaching, face-to-face interactions among learn-
ers, and the physical structures within which they
occur, will become obsolete. On the contrary,
our conclusion is that these macro developments
are leading to greater diversity of educational
models that will be more attentive to the needs
of individual learners. In the process, they will
help to address the needs of the many millions
of people who currently have no access to any
kind of educational opportunity.

Bosak, Jon and Tim Bray. “XML and the Second-Genera-

tion Web.” Scientific American May, 1999. Avail-
able at

Butcher, Neil. Distance Education in Developing Countries. U.K.:
Imfundo Knowledge Bank, 2000.

Oram, Andrew et al. Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of
Disruptive Technologies. O’Reilly and Associates,

Pinaroc, Joel D. “P2P in Online Education.”
2001. <
inf_3-1.htm> (13 June 2001).

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