Posted by: scottishboomerang | January 24, 2010

Distance Learning or a Distance Con?

With Baby Boomerang on the way, the Scottish Boomerang was desperately trying to finish her legal Continuing Professional Development before going off on Maternity Leave. CPD is mandatory for all kinds of lawyers, the idea being that one keeps one’s legal knowledge current enough to advise clients. In my line of work – refugee, human rights and immigration law – our companies will sponsor away days for us to make up our 15 hours of core learning a year, or we can do the free online “distance” learning set by our regulator, the Office of the Immigration Service Commissioner, the body whose job it is to oversee quality in immigration advice and representation. They are the people who will take away my licience to practice if I don’t log my CPD hours.

A little short of my CPD hours, and owing to my advanced state of pregnancy which precluded trips to London for courses, I decided to do the online course. Selecting “Gender and Immigration Law” (there was nothing useful on the website, such as an update on the New 2009 Borders Act) I duly watched the presentation slides and then did the test at the end.

Only four of the questions in a 20 question test related to the subject matter studied. The rest were a mismatch of entry level questions with no relation to the learning objectives of the course. This online module had been billed as “advanced” level study, yet here was an example of one of the questions (anyone working in Human Rights law in Britain is familiar with the case of Shah and Islam, whereby the court held that women without the support of male family members could continute a particular social group in need of Refugee Protection:

Q What was the name of the major case regarding woman as a particular social group in English law? Was it:

A. Shah and Islam

B. Islam and Islam

C: Islam and Shah

D: Islam and Islam

The worry is of course that time pressed independent immigration representatives are using the OISC’s site to make up their CPD hours, especially when face to face away days with experts can cost over £400 per day, and are nearly aways held in London, trebling the cost for a legal rep based at the other end of the country. There is simply no real teaching, learning, or assessment going on, so its hardly surprising that quality in the immigration sector remains low. A second worry is that the OISC had actually commissioned the modules from the Open University, which normally has a good reputation for distance courses.

When we contacted the OISC regarding this we were informed that the questions and testing methods were being reviewed.

The problem with distance based legal education is not, however, confined to the OISC. Last year I started a distance Graduate Diploma in Law with Holborn College (and, yes, you will see I am naming and shaming here). What was billed as “distance learning” – perfect for working professionals, overseas students, or parents who could not make the long trip to London for classes, it was clearly marketed as the distance solution for working professionals.

We did have the option of treking to Greenwich every weekend to attend the lectures face to face. And the lectures, poached from other reputable GDL providers such as the College of Law, were very good when you actually got some teaching from them. As ever, the problem was the course delivery, for if you could not actually physically attend the course – the reason why most of us were on the distance GDL in the first place – the “teaching” consisted of:

  1. Do the reading.
  2. Download the homework worksheet.
  3. Do the worksheet based on what you have read
  4. The lecture marks the worksheet and emails it back to you.
  5. Submit course assignments in the same way.

Unsurprisingly, the pass mark for the GDL for that particular institution is very low, and the drop out rate high, especially for people like me, who in addition to having to earn my fee targets had to also wrestle with a useless course, for which they charged me £5000 for the privilege of being on. I cut my losses, but they will never give me my money back. Fortunately, I had paid them only half the money.

But is the con – for want of a better word, confined to the teaching of law? Sadly no. Several relatives and friends on distance courses from the UK and the USA begging for help, extra tutoring, advice on how to negotiate with their “providers” (Since the concept of university or further education has actually died a death).

These people have paid good money expecting a decent standard of teaching, or in the case of Mr Boomerang, his company has. Mr Boomerang’s engineering diploma – run by Manchester College – is done in the usual inefficient, teacher-deficient worksheet way, with no actual teaching going on apart from a very occasional away day.  Un surprisingly, he isn’t learning anything and is constantly worried abouthe course, and will have to spend additional money for a private tutor t provide the teaching that should be a contractual requirement for the provider.

Another friend, a teacher in Korea who is doing a distance BA in Education complains frequently of a lack of academic support, clear instructions or guidance from his tutors. Again, death by downloadable worksheet is the norm.

So what should we have the right to expect from a distance or online provider?

Here are some tips for the wayward institutions, which they should know, but to be honest haven’t got through their heads yet.

  1. Distance Learning CANNOT take place without Distance Teaching. Your students MUST be able to attend lectures, either virtually or in person. This means you must use the ample technology available – even if this is just Flash Presentation, Youtube, and Facebook, Podbean for downloadable podcasts – to deliver your course material. The technology is there, free and easy to use with the minimum of effort, though you may wish to actually spend some money for a proper distance learning management tool such as Flextraining.
  2. Distance Learning can reach more students at the same time, but the number of students per tutor is exactly the same as a face to face course. You cannot get around this.
  3. A worksheet and a textbook is not a substitute for a teacher.
  4. Your learning programme should contain scenarios based in the real world and worked examples in the form of videos. Employ some struggling actors. Make it fun, engaging, and your pass rate will go up. But at the very least, video stream your lectures.
  5. Clearly relate ANY worksheet or assessment you DO set to the learning objectives and the course content.

Done well, the distance model can be as good, and even better, than face to face because it allows for student flexibility and the complex needs of learners who have to combine learning with a job and a family. It also can allow, if planned well, for the demonstration of practical examples which may not be possible in a traditional classroom or lecture theater. However, though it may be cheaper to run in the long term, a distance course requires the same budget to set up and develop as a traditional face to face course, and requires IT literacy on the part of the provider and the lecturer. Not much, but some.

If the course does not contain the following as a BARE minimum

– streamed lectures or at least downloadable lectures.

– video or animated casestudies and worked examples showing the principle in action.

– lecture notes and revision notes in downloadabke podcast form

– real time, online tutorial groups with your tutor, or a face to face equivlant.

– clear self study material, either downloadable or published,-

– an online discussion forum which is tutor lead

– clear deadlines for submission of coursework, proper exam timetables.

Then it is most probably not worth it. It IS possible to achieve a high pass rate no matter how busy your students are, so the following are not excuses

– Our students are bad at disciplining their time due to work and family committments. Our high fail rate is due to this.

– We dont have the money or technical know-how to stream lectures. (If a 15 year old can stream from his bedroom, YOU can stream from a lecture hall!).

– etc etc

Sheer laziness and desire to collect as much money with the bare minimum of impute – down with learning plc!

Good examples of an online distance model are few and far between, but are found in some unlikely places. In the legal field I was impressed by the flexibility and level of interaction between distance students and the teaching staff at Abraham Lincoln School of Law in California ( THAT’S what I expected from Holborn, geddit!) where students can attend streamed lectures online, real time, in person if they live in California, or if the cannot make the lecture, download it at a later date.

Another would be Oxford University Press Korea’s online ESL teacher training for ESL teachers working on the peninsula. This involved viewing a lecture based on theory, then a classroom based example to see the teaching methods in action., and then completing a question. I did this alongside my LLM I was studying because I had to teach to support myself and, having originally trained to teach adults, was finding myself in front of young children. Applied immediately in the classroom, my teaching practice noticably improved, and was well worth the $50 USA I spent for it. I would recommend study of this – for anyone teaching languages to children or teenagers, and anyone wanting to set up an online course of any description.

For languages, Rosetta Stone’s online method works very well, especially as a compliment to a formal class.

Until then, if you need to do a distance course, make sure you check out EXACTLY how much structured teaching time there is on it, and whether the provider has invested anything in the course development beyond drawing up worksheets. Delivery is as important as content!

And if they are not doing their job, demand your money back. Otherwise even government accredited courses are little more than a distance con.


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