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«Learners and learner services: the key to the future in distance education. In J.M. Roberts, and E.M. Keough (Eds.), Why the information highway: ...»

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Brindley, J.E. (1995). Learners and learner services: the key to the future in distance education.

In J.M. Roberts, and E.M. Keough (Eds.), Why the information highway: Lessons from open and

distance learning (pp. 102-125). Toronto: Trifolium Books Inc.

Learners and Learner Services:

The Key to the Future in Open Distance Learning1


This chapter considers the place of learner services in the rapidly changing field of open distance learning, with a focus on the goals of institutional responsiveness and facilitating student success.

It takes the position that provision of learner services is one of the key ways in which those engaged in distance teaching can demonstrate a commitment to learner-centredness in order to become more competitive and better positioned strategically to serve the pressing demand for high-quality, accessible education and training.

This chapter does not advocate a particular set of services as being most effective for all distance learners and institutions. Rather, recognizing the importance of contextual considerations, it begins with a discussion of core issues in the development and delivery of learner services.

These include defining the role of learner services within the context of an institution's culture and value system, the linking of practice to research findings in developing strategies to facilitate student success, and the emerging trends that will influence future developments in learner services. Although the author draws on experience gained mainly in large single- and dual-mode post-secondary distance teaching institutions, the issues identified are generic and will likely be of equal concern to distance education practitioners in a variety of settings.

The presentation of issues is followed by a discussion of some specific practices in linking learner services to learner needs. In this section of the chapter, some basic research findings about student behaviour in distance learning are used to illustrate how research can be applied in the context of an explicit value system regarding student learning to develop a set of strategies to facilitate learner persistence and success.

The Analysis section elaborates on the implications of the changing context within which distance education practices are evolving, and discusses some of the forces that work toward and against development of more responsive systems.

Finally, the last section of this chapter underlines how learner services can play a key role in the strategic positioning of an institution or distance education service. Some specific examples of how learner services can respond to emerging trends in education are identified.

Issues Integration of Learner Services into the Institutional Culture The development of comprehensive learner services in distance education is a fairly recent endeavour. Most early distance education schemes were concerned more with access and availability of learning opportunities than with the individual experience of the learner.

Consequently, distance education has been typified by high enrolments and high rates of attrition (Keegan, 1983). Student support services for distance learners were first developed as a defensive response to the high percentage of "casualties' produced by the mass education model that once characterized distance education.

Early forms of student support were usually course-content based. The tutor became the human interface between the learner and the course package. Instructional support helped to personalize and humanize an essentially industrial model of education, the main feature of which was the mass production of instructional materials that could be efficiently disseminated to large numbers of students. As open and distance learning systems became a more common way for people to gain access to formal education, concern about learner success grew, along with interest in how it might be promoted.

In Canada, the concern about lack of student persistence was manifested in the development of a wide variety of student support services in distance teaching institutions. These services, described by McInnis-Rankin and Brindley (1986), include orientation and information, admissions and other registry services, advising and counselling, instructional support (tutoring/teaching), and student advocacy. McInnis-Rankin and Brindley discussed the rationale for student support as largely being a method for helping students to cope with the special demands of distance education, and in particular, to help those students who enter distance education with less than adequate skills or preparation.

While these goals for student services are legitimate and necessary, they do not speak to the core values and beliefs that might drive an institution to interact with learners in a particular way. The danger in this is that learner services are simply student retention strategies which have been tacked onto distance education programs in response to concern about high attrition rates, and as such, they can easily be removed in times of fiscal restraint or as priorities within an institution change. In Canada, and elsewhere, when institutions have looked for cost savings, the first and deepest cuts have often been made to learner services (Paul, 1988). All too often, it appears that services such as tutoring, advising, and counselling are not seen as an integral part of the core business in open distance institutions.

In the last 10 years, there has been growing concern with the inadequacy and inappropriateness of the industrial model of distance education (Evans and Nation, 1989; Sewart, 1993; Sweet, 1993;

Tait, 1988; Tait, in press). Sweet (1993), in a comprehensive synthesis of literature, discusses the centrality of student support services in making distance learning more responsive to changing environments, and the strong trend toward developmental and constructivist approaches in learning and teaching. Sweet's analysis thoughtfully considers the evidence for a changing view of the learner as more instrumental and active in the learning process, and makes a strong case for changes in the development and delivery of instruction and other learner services to accommodate a constructivist view of learning. However, in this assertion lies a great challenge to distance education institutions to reconsider how they do business.

In most single- and dual-mode distance learning institutions that I have visited or with which I have worked, development of course materials and technology often take precedence over learner support systems in resource allocation. Thompson (1990), in discussing the results of a study indicating that distance learners would like more interaction with instructional staff, notes that, "Many institutions which offer correspondence courses invest substantial resources in the development of the course materials" (p. 63). He cites Moore (1989) in noting that the United Kingdom Open University spends roughly the same amount "on preparation of course materials as on learner support." In fact, in many institutions, the balance is probably tipped more heavily toward course development, particularly where resources are scarce and there is outside pressure to open new programs or increase enrolments. However, within the industrial model of distance education, which tends to treat knowledge as a commodity to be disseminated and learner services as a supplement, this balance of resource allocation is not surprising.

The challenge for distance education services in becoming more responsive to their clientele is to assess priorities continually within the context of a set of principles that clearly articulate beliefs about learners and how the learning process can be facilitated. In the current context where continual change, high expectations, and constantly shifting demands are the norm in the educational system, such defined direction is essential.

Linking Practice to Research Whether stated or not, underlying every model of learner services is an implicit assumption about the goals of education (sometimes articulated in the mission of an institution or service but not necessarily applied consistently) and how the particular services offered "support" these goals.

However, practice is not often explicitly based on theory, and even when it is, systematic evaluation is not always carried out to test and continually refine the rationale for practice. For example, when effectiveness of the services is measured, how is "effectiveness" defined? Does it mean that enrolments have increased by 25 percent? Does it mean that more students can demonstrate mastery of course content? Does it mean that students require less interaction with the institution in their second and third courses because they know how to set up their own support system? Does it mean more graduates are successfully employed? Does it mean that more students are completing courses? The point here, if it is not already abundantly clear, is that the epistemology underlying learner services in distance education is not always well defined or systematically tested (Coldeway, 1986).

Ten years ago, one of the most discussed and researched questions in distance education was why so many students who choose to enrol in this mode of study also choose not to complete their course(s). Attrition research has been fruitful to the extent that it has provided a great deal of information about the complex interplay of factors that lead to student attrition, and certain predictable patterns of student behaviour in distance courses. However, until recently, there has been little discussion about how to use this knowledge the better to understand the learning process and to serve learners by improving the quality of their experience.

There are examples of some specific services that have been designed to respond to an identified learner need (Delehanty, 1986). However, compared with other fields in distance education-for example, instructional design-it does not appear that development of learner services has been approached in any systematic fashion, nor is there evidence of much longitudinal research to evaluate the effectiveness of services in meeting stated goals.

Presumably, learner services are designed and offered to encourage students to persist in their studies, but to what end? What kind of learners is open distance learning trying to produce, and what implications does this have for the types of learner services offered? While it is encouraging that there is now a growing literature base that recognizes the need to reflect more critically on the teaching and learning process in distance education (Evans & Nation, 1989;

1992), most of this writing focusses on the design of learning materials, the use of technologies, and the tutoring or instructional function. Not a great deal of research attention has been given to other types of interactions with learners, such as the provision of information, orientation, advising, counselling, provision of library and administrative services, and the role that these interactions might play in a developmental or constructive model of learning.

The Changing Environment

As has been stated, learner services in distance education were first developed in response to criticism about high attrition rates within an essentially industrial model of education. To a certain extent, the development of tutoring, counselling, library, and other support systems formed part of the defensive stance against accusations that distance open learning is a secondclass educational system.

However, the environment within which learner services were first developed has drastically changed, and forces outside distance education institutions are shifting the focus away fi7om learner success back to access and speed of production (King, 1993; Paul, 1993). Distance learning is no longer viewed as an aberration, or an educational method of last resort. In fact, the pendulum has probably now swung too far in the opposite direction. Open distance learning is increasingly seen as the answer to all that is wrong with the current educational system. While practitioners in distance education are moving away from the industrial model of mass education, which was first described by Peters (1971), to take a more learner-centred approach (Sweet, 1993), the government and the private sector often see open distance learning systems as "high tech," inexpensive, and quick methods to provide education and training. However, if there is any message that must continually be given to those who place demands on distance education institutions, it is the complexity of the work. Distance education practitioners face all the same challenges as their campus-based colleagues and more.

There is increasing pressure on those engaged in distance teaching to use new technologies to provide greater access and reduce costs of education, and yet the complexities of choosing and malting use of technologies in education are appreciated by few (see Paul, 1993).

Widespread economic changes have sent underemployed and newly unemployed adults looking for opportunities for further education and/or retraining. These learners are attracted to the flexibility that open distance learning offers, However, they present a new challenge. They come with an even wider variety of backgrounds than was the case for adult students a decade ago.

Many are educationally disadvantaged, and often, independent learning is entirely unfamiliar to them.

Economic changes have also resulted in reduced funding for education. Distance education institutions are usually chronically short of resources and often work with outmoded information systems, too few staff with too little training, inadequate infrastructure to support operations, and crowded buildings.

The environment is increasingly competitive. Even traditional institutions that once questioned the validity of distance education have recognized the demand for alternative modes of study and have begun to adopt distance delivery methods for some of their courses and programs. Many institutions that have specialized in distance teaching in a wide-open market suddenly find themselves in a position of scrambling to meet enrolment targets to ensure their funding base.

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