The Heads of eLearning Forum (HeLF) is a network of senior staff engaged in promoting, supporting and developing technology enhanced learning (TEL). We have 140 nominated Heads from UK higher education institutions and a regular programme of well attended events.

3 Jan 2019

45th HeLF meeting: "Distance Learning: Development & Practice"

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The 45thth meeting of the Heads of eLearning Forum was hosted at University of South Wales in Cardiff on 7th November 2018.


"Map of the Internet" by Barrett Lyon, 2003 | CC BY-SA 4.0

T his was the first ever HeLF meeting to take place in Wales attracting 38 delegates to the Cardiff campus of the University of South Wales (USW). Catherine Naamani kindly hosted the event and welcomed members in both Welsh and English. Catherine was joined by Dr Clare Kell to present the host slot which started with a cultural and political history of Wales, and the impact of the 1998 devolution of Wales and a long-standing Labour coalition government on post-16 education. They went on to discuss the Welsh Language Act and its requirements for dual language provision, providing a fascinating insight into Welsh Higher Education (HE), which is not overseen by the Office for Students (OfS) unlike the HE sector in England. Catherine then went on to present the USW CELT student experience plan which describes their expected graduate attributes, learning analytics and digital literacy initiatives.

Then followed a presentation of ‘lessons learned from distance learning’ by Mike Richards of the Open University who argued that face-to-face teaching results in higher grade point average and suggested this was due to greater support through stronger community and tutor presence. Mike discussed MOOCs at MIT which see completion rate of 4.6% which can be considered a great model for the highly engaged and highly independent ‘top 5%’ of learners but not for the other 95% of learners who need more support. This was compared to Open University courses where there is a high level of interaction with students and a 70% completion rate. The development of the Open University courses can be quite expensive, labour and resource intensive. They involve ruthless iterative editing, robust pre-release testing with mock learners and employing professional facilitators in discussions forums to provide high-quality interaction and support to distance students. Mike rounded up by identifying the key challenges declaring that distance is different: uploading class materials doesn’t work; study patterns are different; cohorts are different and their support requirements are different. Table discussions followed considering four areas: Supporting staff with distance learning; Instructional design and pedagogy; Supporting students; Platforms and partners. Participants moved around to join two of the four tables with a summary then provided by the table leads to the wholw room. Notes from the table discussions can be found here.

The lunchbreak was an opportunity to take a tour of the campus facilities. This was followed by HeLF business where Brian commented about the high amount of churn in the sector and the put out a request for new HeLF steering group members. The afternoon started with a presentation from Cambridge Education Group (CEG) lead by Dr Maria Toro-Trononcis who demonstrated their learning activities cards and instructional design 70/20/10 model. Maria ended by opening a call for participants in the sponsored Learning Design Bootcamp to re-design a 15 or 30 credit module. Details can be found here

Five lightning strike presentations followed from Bath, Coventry, Kent, OU and UCEM sharing their differencing experiences of developing and delivering distance learning courses. Presentations slides and a lecture capture of CEG item and the Lightning Strikes can be found here

The day ended with a plenary discussion to summarise the key take away points of the day. Comments included:
  • Observation that a similarity in approaches to design framework and project team membership was seen in all the presentations
  • Learning Design suitable for the subject is required from the outset
  • Concerns that the student numbers don’t exist to support every university entering the distance learning marketplace.
  • Discussion about the role and skillset of an ‘online tutor’ and different support requirements compared to a face to face courses. Also issues raised around accessibility.
  • Need for a strategic approach – the huge resources required for success and the lack of understanding in SMT. Working to 1:25 ratio does not make it ‘cheaper’
  • Impact on university brand and quality when using partners to deliver courses