Is the future of higher and distance education asynchronous, open and just-in-time (#oped12)?

Just in case, just in time, just enough, just for me… What do these say about our degree structures, the time (and resources) our students need to complete full qualifications designed in a bygone era and where the reality of obsolescence demand different responses? This week’s blog originates from three seemingly unrelated experiences last week which, on closer reflection, present an interesting lens through which to look at recent developments in higher and distance education. These three experiences also provide some sense of a possible future gestalt of higher and distance education.

In a course (OMDE603) I am doing through the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), I had to reflect on the different possibilities for and challenges in using asynchronous and synchronous technologies in distance education contexts. I also registered for the Open MOOC offered by George Siemens and Rory McGreal exploring the history of open education. The third experience comprised an engagement with a school in my home institution reflecting on concerns about the number of our students who don’t complete a three-year bachelor degree in eight years’ time.

Let us take student success at an imaginary higher distance education institution as an example[1]. It will not be out of the ordinary for over 20% of students registering for a general bachelor degree to not register for a second consecutive year. After eight years, over 40% of the initial cohort is no longer in the system and have dropped out, just over 20% have graduated and another 30% of the initial cohort is still in the system.  From my understanding of student success in distance education, high dropout rates seem to be endemic in all higher distance education institutions (e.g. Woodley 2004). While comparative statistics between distance education institutions are hard (if not impossible) to obtain, one is anyway never certain whether you compare apples with apples as contexts, programme qualification mixes (PQM) and curricula differ, and cohorts are defined and measured differently. Woodley (2004) also warns that we should furthermore not pathologize student dropout in distance education programmes – student dropout is part of the DNA of higher distance education as students register and de-register for a variety of reasons.  Reasons mentioned by Woodley (2004) why students dropout from distance education programmes are, inter alia:

  • Students no longer register for a particular qualification or programme, so anything like a graduation rate is almost impossible to calculate
  • Dropout has to be extended to consider those students who finish one course or module but who do not continue to study immediately
  • Students can leave with interim qualifications such as certificates, diplomas or just course credits and be “successful” in their own terms
  • Students can transfer to other institutions to complete their learning
  • Students can take as many years off as they like before returning (p.55)

There is furthermore evidence (see e.g. Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011) that non-academic factors such as changes in students’ life-worlds, institutional inefficiencies and macro-societal factors, etc., impact more on students’ decisions to dropout or stop-out than academic factors. The high dropout rate in higher distance education should therefore not be used as evidence that students studying through distance and open learning are of lesser quality or have less potential than students in residential universities. Distance education also attracts different types of students making any comparison between pass rates in residential and distance education institutions superficial.

Despite the above reasons prompting us not to jump to conclusions about cohort success (or lack of success) in higher distance education; we have nagging a concern that there must be some things we can do to improve cohort success in higher distance education. If we consider student retention and success as originating from mostly non-linear, multidimensional, interdependent interactions at different phases in the nexus between student, institution and broader societal factors, it is clear that we should not claim, too easily, that our interventions cause less dropouts. Let me explain…

While cohort retention and success rates in the above imaginary higher distance education institution are worrying, a seemingly contradictory element is the fact that the pass rate for students in individual courses is above 60%. Students therefore pass individual courses, but don’t complete their qualifications or take an extraordinary long time to graduate. While most of our institutional and faculty efforts are aimed on course level (e.g. offering extra tuition opportunities, extra materials and using a range of technologies, etc.), the problem does not, necessarily, lie on individual course level but in the links between courses, specific modules which are barriers to graduation and possibly, the total configuration of courses constituting a diploma or degree. Considering that most undergraduate degree programmes at this imaginary higher distance education institution comprise of 30-plus courses, it would therefore seem as if we need to think differently about the total student journey.

If we accept that most distance education students take about half of the course load per year than residential students, it seems reasonable that distance education students complete a three-year bachelor degree programme in six years. If we consider that students don’t pass all of their courses all the time and may repeat courses, then eight years for a thee-year undergraduate qualification does not seem to be unreasonable. How does this explain the 40% dropout and 30% that take longer to complete (if they do)? It doesn’t…

If this line of reasoning holds potential for further reflection, let us then consider the following questions:

  • Considering how much our lives change over a period of 8 years, how many of our distance education students know that they are in for a very long journey? How does anyone plan for the next 8 years?
  • By the time students reach their eighth year ‘in the system’ – how much of their course content and skills have become obsolete?
  • What happens to curriculum coherence over a period of eight years?
  • With obsolescence of skills and knowledge becoming an increasing reality, what are the implications for the way we construct curricula if students don’t complete the full intended journeys and either leave earlier and never complete, or take longer to complete?
  • Can students (and higher education institutions) still afford to think in terms of full degree programmes consisting of 30-plus modules or courses? For many years ‘bildung’ was seen as the outcome for an entire undergraduate qualification. What does ‘bildung’ look like in a digital super-complex age? Is it still realistic (if it ever was…) to think of ‘bildung’ as the outcome of a 30-course learning journey ?

Up to now the undergraduate degree as a composite 30-something qualification stands unchallenged as the basis for higher education. I therefore want to propose that we need to seriously reconsider the nature and scope of our qualification structures and learning journeys. Not only does our cohort analyses tell us that we need to think differently about the structure of our offerings; the demand for shorter, asynchronous and just-in-time learning is increasing by the day. While these types of courses and qualifications have always been part of the bigger higher education landscape, these courses have recently become en vogue with offerings by EdX, Udacity, Coursera, OER Africa, and the Khan Academy (to mention but a few). Though the structure of these offerings questions some of our basic assumptions regarding qualification structure, assessment and accreditation, there is another trend that necessitates an urgent rethink.

Private, for-profit higher education is growing at an unprecedented rate claiming an ever-increasing elitist space for those who can afford synchronous education with a huge price tag. Pearsons and other publishing houses are increasingly offering curricula, and assessment and accreditation may not be very far off. This is in stark contrast to the huge need for more access and more affordable education for thousands of learners who will never have the resources or the time to afford and attend private higher education.This has an eerie resemblance to the work of Naomi Klein on “the shock doctrine” – where neoliberal disaster capitalism offers salvation to disaster stricken areas and populations.

While more and more higher and distance education institutions buckle under the strains of changing funding regimes, under-prepared students and faculty,  we will have to rethink some of our basic assumptions about teaching and learning, our qualification structures, organisational ecologies and business modules. My gut feeling is that we can no longer afford 30-plus module/course undergraduate degrees. We need shorter learning trajectories allowing learners to plan for and complete before adding another just-in-time learning experiences based on real-time needs.

In conclusion:  The illustration at the beginning of the blog has four elements namely just in case, just in time, just enough and just for me. I suspect it is no longer true. For years we promoted and afforded the undergraduate synchronous bachelor degrees as a “just in case” scenario where students can find themselves before moving on to more specialized fields. Somehow we believed that a compilation and completion of 30-odd courses will result in a particular understanding of ‘bildung’, provide a passport to the ‘good life’ and employment. None of these three envisaged outcomes are necessarily true anymore…  I would propose the following:

This may furthermore collapse the dichotomy between formal and informal learning – which is most probably a leftover from a pre-digital age…


Subotzky, G., & Prinsloo, P. (2011). Turning the tide: a socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa, Distance Education, 32(2), 177-193.

Woodley, A. (2004). Conceptualizing student dropout in part-time distance education: pathologizing the normal? Open Learning 19(1),  48-63.

[1] All anonymous institutions in this blog, other than those clearly mentioned, are fictitious and any resemblance to real higher and distance education institutions, past, present and future, are purely coincidental.

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 Is the future of higher and distance education asynchronous, open and just-in-time (#oped12)?

  1. Pingback: Is the future of higher and distance education asynchronous, open … | Distance Education

  2. Annemarie Bates says:

    Dear Paul

    You refer to a “possible future gestalt of higher and distance education” and after reading through your thoughtful contemplations, it reminded me of Terry Anderson & Jon Dron’s observation:

    “Distance education, like all other technical-social developments, is historically constituted in the thinking and behavioral patterns of those who developed, tested, and implemented what were once novel systems. The designs thus encapsulate a worldview … that defines its epistemological roots, development models, and technologies utilized, even as the application of this worldview evolves in new eras” (2011, para. 2).

    Although the authors’ observation is related to distance education pedagogy, I think it is possible to transfer the idea of an evolving worldview to the nature, scope, structure and duration (length) of higher education qualifications.

    You make a plea for “just-in-time learning experiences” rooted in authentic “real-time needs”. The fact that private institutions ‘cash in’ on this gap in the market should serve as an indication that higher education institutions should indeed rethink the way in which they ‘package’ education.


    Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. International Review of Research in Online and Distance Learning (IRRODL), 12(3), 80-97. Retrieved from


    • Annemarie – excellent thoughts, thank you!

      The quotation from Anderson and Dron (2011) is wonderful. Thanks for sharing. It made me think that if higher education institutions are context-bound, and evolving from the epistemologies and forces inherent in their respective contexts, (and I agree), how does one explain an institution breaking from the mould and really disrupting the norms and accepted practices inherent in their context – whether geopolitical or in the higher education sector?

      Mmm, makes me wonder.

  3. sauroa2012 says:

    Reblogged this on amosonde603 and commented:
    Dear Paul,
    Thank you for a wonderful blog, you are an inspiration. I agree witrh you about the metaphors on the current scenario(train left the station) I would like to add another dimension to this. Where were our students during the 1st IODL conference at Unisa. I have been priviledged to attend the ACDE (African Conference) and ICDE (World Conference). I realised that more than a 3rd of the papers presented were by students talking about their experiences in DE. We miss that at Unisa. You can imagine how the students feel about us going online from 2013. For me to a greater extent we need to start asking ourselves the question: ‘do we even have the passengers coming to the station’ Are we using student feedback to shape our delivery at Unisa.
    Neumann, R.J. (1989) A Preliminary Inquiry into the Art of Critique, 40 HASTINGS L.J.

    • Dear Amos – thanks for the response. JUst two things:
      * Anyone could present at the recent First Unisa International Conference – the invitation was sent to all stakeholders. So students could have presented. Most probably the fact that there were no students presenting, could be based on at least three reasons, e.g. the conference fees, the fact that papers were required to be evidence-based (whether as full research papers or as research-in-progress), and thirdly, that very few of our students on postgraduate level currently do research into ODL.
      * The second point, referring to your metaphor that as Unisa moves into a digital age, our “train” may not have any passengers; I am more convinced than every before that if we do not get them on this moving train, they will not find employment, and be permanently excluded from participating in the discourses shaping the 21st century. We have a moral responsibility to ensure that they get on this moving train. We cannot afford more permanently disenfranchised students.

  4. amarocksgroup says:

    Nice illustration and concept for the optimized process for distance learning and better education model. Although these are effective, it will take time to overtook the cons of present systems.

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