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The Future of Distance Education

22 April 2016 Posted in: Articles By: Alysa Bramble

RIDE2016Each year the University of London’s Centre for Distance Education hosts the RIDE Conference (Research and Innovation in Distance Education). Last month saw the 10th anniversary of the event, providing an opportunity for reflection on the state of distance and fully online education, and the evolving role of Higher Education Institutions. Keynote talks and workshop sessions focused on open learning resources, enhancing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), designing and assessing online learning, and the future of distance education. The event was particularly useful for learning more about how other institutions approach distance education, and what innovative approaches are being used to enhance online teaching and learning.

Is it the End of Distance Education?

Some of the most interesting discussion was generated in the ‘End of Distance Education?’ workshop, in which a panel of representatives from UK universities and the private sector discussed the state of online education. As opening statements were made, it became clear that distance/online education is more relevant than ever. Discussions quickly shifted away from the ‘end of distance education’ and became more about the term ‘distance education’ itself, and what the term means to different organizations. For many, viewing distance education as a distinct or separate entity is fading. This is partly due to increasing adoption of online and blended programmes across academic departments, and the growing expectation that all instructors will become involved with online teaching in the some capacity. Once online teaching becomes the norm, it is less useful to view distance education as a distinct or isolated area of a university.

On Campus or Online?

Regardless of individual attitudes towards distance education, the benefits for students (flexibility, cost, and accessibility) and institutions (wider audience, international partnerships, enrolment growth, and new streams of revenue) are leading to ever increasing demand for online programmes from both distance and local students. Pressure to better utilize campus space and provide more flexibility for students with rigid schedules is contributing to growing online offerings. One concern raised by the panel was the role of physical estates, and how campus-based resources are utilized as programmes move online. Does the construction of theatre-style classrooms restrict teaching methods, and would larger classes be more effectively delivered online?

To end the day, Jeff Haywood, Vice-Principal of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, gave a talk on the changing market for online courses and the impact on higher education. With an increasing number of commercial providers offering online courses and professional certifications, universities need to reflect on their role in this changing environment. For undergraduate programmes, there is still a strong demand for scheduled classes and face-to-face instruction. There are also reasons for undergrads to choose a particular institution, such as proximity to family or financial assistance from government. These factors become less relevant with self-funded post-graduate and professional programmes, leading to an increasingly competitive and global marketplace for education. In this context, universities should be looking at how they might serve an increasingly diverse, international, and discerning audience. As the number of fully online modules and programmes at Queen Mary continues to grow, we should give thought to the global context of online education, and identify the unique learning opportunities we can provide to students in London and around the world.

Support from the E-Learning Unit

The future of ‘distance education’ will continue to be debated, but online learning is alive and well, and increasingly important for institutions that want to remain relevant and competitive. If you are interested in developing an online module or programme at QMUL, contact the E-Learning Unit at You can book a learning technologist for a one-to-one conversation, or register your interest in our workshops for online teaching and module development.

More information about this event and the Centre for Distance Education can be found here:

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