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Getting the best out of Distance Learning

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Research from the National Extension College and the Learning and Skills Development
Agency
claims to have identified the critical success factors involved in delivering top quality distance learning programmes.

A detailed questionnaire, based on process benchmarking principles, was sent to 10 colleges, including two pilot colleges, and two employers, and was used as the basis for fact-finding visits to each provider lasting one or two days. A separate questionnaire was sent to a random sample of 50 learners at each of five of the survey providers, yielding a 31% response rate.

The results show how well-run distance learning programmes produce excellent results for a range of learners. But the research shows that it must be of high quality to achieve this. The report contains clear recommendations for providers to help them deliver top-quality programmes, stressing the importance of good management and careful monitoring of learners. It also reveals how well-managed programmes can produce results as good as those for full and part-time courses and achieve high student retention and achievement rates.

The report also says that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) can do much to boost the development of distance learning. It calls on the LSC to
- produce tighter definitions of what counts as distance learning for the purposes of public funding
- develop benchmarks and performance
indicators for distance learning
- produce guidance on how to cost programmes
- collect data for distance learning separately from other programmes
- publish good practice guidelines
- and to set parameters for college charging policies.

The main success factors in running top quality programmes identified in the report are:
- planning, managing and monitoring distance learning programmes as part of mainstream work;
- quality and quantity of tutor contact – speed of initial contact, close monitoring of student progress, and swift follow-up action if the student is not doing well
- prompt and effective initial information and guidance
- setting a specified target for completing the course
- a clear focus on the skills needed by distance learning tutors and administrators and on the way these staff are recruited, managed and supported
- high-quality learning materials;
- using, rather than just gathering, feedback from learners;
- knowing what distance learning programmes cost to run and manage.

Commenting on the report, Dr Ros Morpeth, Executive Director of NEC said: "Distance learning has the potential to meet highly individual learning needs more readily and more cost effectively than any other kind of delivery. Doing it well is not rocket science. But it has to be
well managed. This research identifies what providers running distance programmes should be concentrating on in order to get it right."

Chris Hughes, Chief Executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, adds: "Being a distance learning student is tough. Without the social interaction with other students and face-to-face communication with tutors, many learners find it difficult to stay motivated. But when
managed properly distance learning is highly effective, providing access to learning for people who can’t attend college themselves and an essential component of the drive to widen participation in learning."

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