The myth of the ‘average learner’ in distance education (#OMDE)

What does the ‘average learner’ look like in distance education? Considering that distance education has always been known for providing access to students who would have been excluded from higher education opportunities – the demographic profiles, competencies, educational and life-history backgrounds of distance education learners have always been and are becoming even more diverse. Looking at open distance learning (ODL) which celebrates that it is even ‘more’ open than some distance education institutions, the notion of an ‘average learner’ is even more untenable. While the notion of the ‘average learner’ may still be valid in residential and private higher education with stricter admission requirements, I suspect that the massification of public higher education results in the notion of the ‘average learner’ becoming more of a myth than ever before. Taking into account recent developments with regard to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which literally opens up education opportunities to anyone who has access to the Internet, the notion of the ‘average learner’ is losing its credibility all together.

Despite the above concerns about the lack of any evidence to support the notion of what an “average learner” in distance and open education looks like, we continue to use the concept of the ‘average learner’ in planning how long courses should take, the “mix” of pedagogy, technology and support, funding formulas (e.g. full-time equivalents…) and of course, cohort studies and funding formulas.  I propose it is time to dump the notion of the ‘average learner’ altogether…

Distance education has long been heralded as the “most industrialized form of education” (Peters, 2010) where courses are delivered to masses of students regardless of where they are and often even who they are. In the past, distance education was made possible by a division of labour where courses were designed by cross-functional teams, carefully designed to suit the ‘average learner’ who will be able to work through a defined scope of content in a certain number of hours or tuition period. After designing these courses, the content entered a production cycle and was delivered to students in neatly sealed packages. Without this division of labour and the standardisation of tuition cycles and examination dates, distance education would most probably not have been possible. Considering that the affordability of offering courses through distance education depended on issues of scalability and standardisation, the sustainability of distance education depended on carefully balancing “nice-to-haves” (whether extra readings, student and lecturer ratios as well as choosing technologies) with the absolute essentials the ‘average learner’ needed to achieve predetermined outcomes of a particular programme or course.

While the above description may have been universally true of distance education in the past, advances in technology and the affordances of a range of online learning opportunities question our most basic assumptions about the division of labour, tuition cycles, “materials production” and of course, the notion of the ‘average learner’… There is increasing convergence between traditional residential education and distance education with the old absolute boundaries and distinctions disappearing and blurring. And yet, despite these changes, the notion of the ‘average learner’ keeps us captive.

The notion of the ‘average learner’ runs through distance education provision like a golden thread. In South African higher education, the credits earned by passing a particular course depends on the number of hours the ‘average learner’ will need to achieve the envisaged outcomes.  For example, each credit is equivalent to 10  ‘notional hours’  referring to the time an ‘average  learner’ needs to work through  the materials,  complete all the formative assessment, as well as prepare for and complete the summative assessment. The total scope of a 12 credit module is therefore based on the notion of what an ‘average learner’ can achieve in 120 hours.

The notion of the ‘average learner’ may have been a valid construct in the past, where higher education was only for the elite and selected few (based on gender, race, language, location and/or religion), but as increasing numbers of learners from very diverse backgrounds have access to higher education, distance education and the various forms of open education, the notion of an ‘average learner’ is no longer be valid.  For example, in the South African context, who is this ‘average learner’ in a country still coming to terms with the legacy of apartheid and the vast disparities in educational backgrounds of learners? What is ‘average’ where most learners entering higher education study in a second or third language?  What are the alternatives to using the construct of the ‘average learner’ in designing courses that are comparable with the best international higher education has to offer?

If we let go of the notion of the ‘average learner’ and design courses  which allows for  multiple routes towards achieving  agreed-upon capabilities , then it follows that learners may take however long it takes them to achieve envisaged competencies.  Learners who need more assistance to achieve a certain level of competency will be able to take alternative and possibly longer routes, while learners who can prove their competencies in the stipulated outcomes can then move on to follow-up courses. Yes, this will result in some learners completing a so-called three-year qualification in a shorter period, but where did we get the idea of a “three-year qualification” anyway? These time-bound qualifications are most probably left-overs from historical residential higher education where learners could not proceed faster than the schedule of set lectures where a professor will enlighten and fill receptive students like empty vessels who depend totally on the wisdom of the one in front of the class. Distance education duplicated this belief into standardised and scalable courses designed on the premise of what an ‘average learner’ can achieve in a certain period of time.  What prevents distance education from offering well-designed courses allowing for different routes, different assessments and different schedules?   Or are we so obsessed with our little boxes and schemata that we cannot think out-of-the-box?

Yes, I know our funding frameworks and institutional operational cycles are based on completing “three-year” qualifications, but surely this notion goes against the grain of the belief that students are diverse, with diverse life-histories and aspirations, time and resources. Western Governors University in the United States of America is already offering competency-based qualifications allowing learners to proceed to follow-up courses as soon as they have proven their capability in preceding courses.

In conclusion: We are all worried (and very vocal) about the under-preparedness of students for higher education and distance education in particular. I have a suspicion they are only under-prepared when they are measured against the norm of an ‘average learner’ – a construct that has not only become dated but also increasingly constraining – for institutions and learners alike…

Is it not time we think differently?


Image retrieved from, 13 August 2012

Peters, O. (2010). The theory of the “most industrialized education”. In O. Peters, Distance education in transition: Developments and issues (5th edition) (pp. 11-32). Oldenburg, Germany: BIS-Verlag der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg.


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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6 Responses to The myth of the ‘average learner’ in distance education (#OMDE)

  1. Pingback: The myth of the 'average learner' in distance education (#OMDE … | Distance Education

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  3. When I was very new at Unisa there was a proposal to do away with the entire idea of tying the duration of a course to a year and/or semester. It went something like this:

    1. All exams are computerised (computerised multiple choice) and randomised. It was calculated that with 50 well-spaced exam centres we could cover 95% of the whole country.Foreign students write at SA consulates as before.
    2. Student registers for a course at any time.Literally at any time. Want to enroll at midnight on Christmas Eve? No problem.
    3. Whenever the student feels ready and has performed the formative assessment (ie assignments) s/he books a workstation and goes in to write the exam. If that is a month after registration, fine. If it is a year later, also fine. You got two chances to write, after that you re-register. IIRC a student could even elect to rewrite if they had passed, but wanted to try for a better mark.
    4 Some students (not many) might do a degree in a year. Others in ten years. All in all, it was expected to balance out around the four to five years that Unisa students take over their degrees in reality (as opposed to the idealised 3-year student). The students actually want to get their degree as quickly as possible, so preventing them from going in too soon would be a bigger problem than the 10-year straggler.

    This is all from memory. Yet here we are twenty years later and absolutely NOTHING has changed. Semesterisation amounts to a shuffling of deckchairs on the you-know-what. Piles of green exam books still come in and have to be marked by hand within two weeks.

    A lot more people have access to computers than twenty years ago, and with a decent secure connection it should be possible to cut down on the need for exam centres and have people do their exams at home. Sure, Uncle Billy might be sitting behind them advising, but that is just a matter of setting a proper set of exam questions and accepting the reality of open-book exams. In fact, the university as a whole is moving into portfolio-based assessment and nobody has really addressed the Uncle Billy problem there, either.

    I think you are quite correct, ODL institutions need to stop pretending that they are slightly odd regular universities and rethink the whole thing from scratch.

    • Hi Michel – thanks for the comments. It is scary to think that these proposals were already on the table 20 years ago. Although it is generally accepted that higher education institutions are the most unlikely of organisations to change; surely there must be some consensus that our current practices are
      * not necessarily good and effective pedagogy
      * not sustainable
      * frustrate both faculty and learners

      So what keeps us from changing?

  4. Mpine says:

    One of the major problems of distance education is that it compares itself with conventional universities where there a rule of average. Even in this era of technology those rules do apply anymore in conventional instititutions.
    Michel’s is quite interesting considering that these discussions have been going for over 20 years and it is still business as usual.
    What keeps us from changing is fear of venturing into unknown territories. Those territories will never be known if do not venture into them.

    • Thanks for the comment Mpine! Your point that the notion of the “average student” actually also no longer exist in conventional higher education institutions is interesting. I think there may be some institutions with very strict admission requirements that are still able to use the notion of the “average learner” – but the moment techology enters the fray, things change… It will be interesting to find out how EdX, MIT and the others determine their course structures and timelines.

      I love your last point that unknown territories will remain unknown if we do not venture into them. Thanks for the engagement! Paul

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