In the second of my third post trilogy on higher education strategy, I explore distance learning.

I have heard this past term many colleagues and ex-colleagues mention distance learning. Questions arise such as ‘are you doing distance learning at your institution?’. I believe institutions need to look at their core values, mission statement etc before answering this question. However, if you did decide as an institution that you were going to look at distance learning, then how would you go about persuading your staff it was a good idea and what other factors would you consider. This article is a very long answer to that question from colleagues and ex-colleagues who ask about distance learning.

I’d like to describe the external factors that create a backdrop to the views staff may be influenced by across any university.

Like most Higher Education Institutions, the decision on 23rd June to leave the EU (Brexit) has prompted them to reassure their staff and students. This will have an impact on the views staff hold about online material development and delivery.

You’d start with your institutional strategy. Does it allow for distance learning? Is any distance learning happening already? Some universities already have distance learning provision but often are not aware of it or forget to include it as a starting point. Do you even want to do it and what would be the cost to the institution and the brand of the institution? Get these questions answered before moving forward.

Furthermore, does your Education Strategy have any mention of it? It could be an explicit or implicit reference to it. This will also impact the views of staff at the institution.

I would like to define what online materials mean. They are self-directed packages or supplementary to face to face or online instruction by the tutor. There will usually be content with formative assessment after each topic and a summative scenario test at the end of the unit of study. The packages might have interactive elements of drag and drop, small calculation or other exercises. They may also have short audio or video within a unit of study. They show learners what they are to learn, ask them to apply this to situations and ask them to solve real world problems with the knowledge they have acquired.

Of course, all staff will have different views regardless of internal or external factors. The following are some possible broad views –

  • Staff may think they need a team of content developers as they don’t have the time to create the quality of resource needed. They do this so infrequently. It would be more efficient use of everyone’s time this way. This is a common view in the sector.
  • Staff may think they are not the Open University, we are a face to face provider of higher education, why are we thinking of online at all?
  • The staff may not have the digital skills or time to develop or deliver more programmes online (listed frequently in national surveys 2014 and 2016)
  • Staff may want just one platform to work with instead of the VLE, FutureLearn etc.
  • Staff may want to use FutureLearn more for online delivery, I have a course on it already. They may think it is much better than the VLE in terms of usability.
  • Some staff may think that using the University of London’s International distance learning programme would be better, after all, we are a college in the federation. We might attract more students post-Brexit

Staff’s views may also be dependent on Teaching Excellence Framework (UK Government, 2016) key metrics of Employability, Retention and the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey.

Many academics have had either exposure to at least one of the following, your institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), FutureLearn (the Open University free Massive Open Online Course platform), another MOOC provider such as Coursera or similar. They may have had little or no exposure to online material development or deliver on these platforms.

If you want to implement a distance learning provision you have to actively reach out to all academic and professional staff at your institution for their views, no matter their position within the organisation.

“More than 70% of all major transformation efforts fail. Why? Because organisations do not take a consistent, holistic approach to changing themselves, nor do they engage their workforces effectively. “ Professor John Kotter, Professor of Change Management at Harvard (n.d)

Harvard Business Professor John Kotter’s Change Model (Kotter, 1996) would be a theoretical framework to follow for a common vision/strategy creation (bullet points 2 to 5 below is what I will focus on in the rest of this post).

Kotter’s defines his 8 step process as follows:

  • Establish a sense of urgency. …
  • Form a powerful coalition. …
  • Create a Vision. …
  • Communicating the Vision. …
  • Empowering others to act on the vision. …
  • Planning for and creating short-term wins. …
  • Consolidating improvements and producing still more change. …
  • Institutionalising new approaches.

In addition to Kotter’s points above, I would also focus on the following when creating a common vision/strategy:

  1. Pro-active communication
  2. Building Trust
  3. Frequent Engagement
  4. Costs of Development and Delivery of materials

Pro-active communication

Early and frequent communication with all stakeholders is key here. It avoids the two main complaints from academics “No one ever asked me” and “No one ever told me.”

Map your modes of delivery and your programmes to see the percentage change in your delivery as an institution.

The staff should be mapped using a system of 0 for non-engagement with online material development to 1 for some engagement and 2 for a lot of engagement against these modes of delivery.

You can then target communication, training and development to your staff based this mapping.

Building Trust

Using a series of short facilitated workshops that would be open to all academics you would find out from them what their views on developing and delivering online materials would be using examples of what’s possible as triggers to their views. We don’t often make use of our ‘innovators’ or ‘champions’ half as much as we should and this would be one way to do this.

The workshop should have a  SWOT Analysis theme and would examine the current realities in relation to the vision –

  • Strengths (what are we doing well at institution x)
  • Weaknesses (can we learn anything from similar nearby institutions or departments)
  • Opportunities (can we make better use of one platform or technology to achieve a quick win and achieve momentum, can we integrate systems better and free up time to focus on online course development and training of staff)
  • Threats (what are our threats – internally in terms of finance and resources, but also externally i.e. Brexit (EU/ International Student numbers)

An ‘appreciative enquiry’ (half glass full) approach would be a way of surfacing good practice in the online material development and bringing these views to the surface too.

The aim ultimately here is to create the ‘path of least resistance’ (Robert Fritz, 1989) by implementing a set of minimum standards in the development of online material development and delivery, as an initial deliverable to the initial aim of the institution.

You would also provide examples of good practice in the online material development and delivery from within the organisation (of which you might have many) and bring staff into institution staff at the same level as those I’m trying to persuade of the merits of the initiative from competitive institutions. This would allow them to see what other universities are doing (social proof).

Questions asking why they hold those views would be important, as I would try to address their concerns during and after the engagement activity with a summary of what they have said, so I have an accurate understanding in writing of their viewpoints.  This iterative process of refining the viewpoints would need to be done on a regular basis through the project to make sure the team had not missed anything.

At this point, you would actively reach out to resisters of online material development, to understand their concerns and build into your common strategy their viewpoints, thanking and acknowledging their contribution to the final strategy.

The current realities from the facilitated sessions would be analysed and a common document of views would be circulated back to the stakeholders for agreement / final amendment before ratification. This would give all stakeholders the chance to see their input into a final document and hopefully they would feel they have been part of the solution and therefore feel like they all own it and more likely to implement it.

The common strategy would look for the greatest opportunities to close the gap between the current reality (with all the views) by using high leverage strategic goals such developing online material for one programme completely, with one of the innovators. This would also deliver a quick win to enable the organisation to see progress and for all stakeholders to stay motivated. The FutureLearn courses are good examples of using in any initial discussion. This would be communicated via various channels, as I shall explain in the next step.

At the same time as closing the gap between reality and vision, you would need to make sure that the vision/strategy could be implemented on either existing or future ‘technology tracks’. This structural integrity would ensure the vision doesn’t derail before it moves forward.

You would plan to monitor those stakeholders who resisted the most to see their position during this phase.

At this time you would also write into a strategy the recognition and reward those stakeholders who are following the common strategy would get, therefore reinforcing the behaviour I would like to see from the whole organisation.

These rewards could be monetary or they could be positions within the school that promote online material development, maybe as a Lead for Teaching Excellence.

Frequent Engagement

There would be an open survey (both paper-based and electronic available in the organisation) to collect additional information and views outside of these fixed workshops. At no stage in the process must any staff feel like “No one ever asked me” and “No one ever told me.”

All views and developments of creating the common vision/strategy would be communicated to the whole institution via email, face to face meetings (department, senior management team etc) and online and in any printed newsletters etc.

Costs of Development and Delivery of materials

The development and delivery of online materials cost money and the views of staff should be set into the realities of this cost and the delivery time frame.

It should be noted that in a recent Times Higher Education Supplement Article (April, 2015), it’s quoted that Costs of Development and Delivery of materials, a London University estimated that it’s free MOOC (online course) had cost “£20,000 to £30,000”. When asking for views of all staff, all stakeholders must be made aware of the cost of online development and delivery and we should have a measure of the return on investment to this expenditure e.g. Number of sign up and completions of the courses for which online materials are developed and delivered,  so that a figure of cost of course per student can be estimated. The development of online materials is a cost but so is the delivery of online materials to students in training staff facilitators to use the materials and interaction tools. This training can either be done in-house by a team or externally. It is not good enough to have PowerPoints with audio in a custom VLE nor is it good enough to have 2 hour long webinars replicating face to face lectures. To do this is to not make use of the affordances of new technologies or understand digital pedagogy.

The training of academics to deliver online would be a cost too, as would be the maintenance of the resources depending on the content development tools used for development – Adobe Captivate (£142), Articulate Storyline (£700) or H5P (£0) and who would maintain this after content has been developed, if this was a Learning Technology Team, this would need to be costed against other activities they already undertake. Their views on online material development and delivery would be an important face in gathering views of online material development delivery at the institution.

My views of how online material should be developed and delivered

Before I think of the development and delivery of online materials, you would need to look at the skills of the team and conduct a very short skills review, not only to make sure the needs of the institution are being met, but also in the team but also as mentioned earlier, having the team on board is a key factor to the success of delivering online materials and delivery at an insitution.

A Learning Technologist ranges from the purely technical officer (sitting in the IT department, only running a VLE in terms of the server etc), to the other end of the spectrum where they are content developers who only deal with the development and delivery of online materials. The majority have a wide range of skills and therefore are expected to go between the Learning Technologist and Instructional Design role. Part of the common vision/strategy development, I would learn if staff would develop some materials themselves using a rapid authoring software package costing between £0-£700 per licence or whether one of the team would need to do so. In developing this view, I would look at whether the culture was one of top-down or bottom up, as this would impact on how staff felt their views would be implemented into the final solution. Frequent communication with the school’s staff at the conception, Moocsformulation and execution of the online material development and delivery of the project is crucial to the quality and ultimate delivery of the project.

Some London universities are opting to hire staff to content develop online materials only. This comes at a cost of x number of content developers (also referred to as Instructional Designers). The cost of these developers varies greatly between £32,000 and £43,000, depending on skills and experience. What is the return on investment here? A key question for anyone considering distance learning. If you need content, interaction and community to make successful distance learning, then putting effort into content and interaction and not addressing the community aspect of learning needs to be considered.

The management of a distance learning team with good initial planning, wireframes and prototypes regular meetings to review progress, performance and projects and to set milestones and deadlines are crucial to the success of online material development and delivery. As the saying goes “Well planned is half done”.

Sustainability of the resources after development and the ability of staff or someone else to make changes is a factor in the choice of tool and fidelity of development you undertake. How many learning packages have you seen that are developed with a lot of excitement, only to end up not edited for years because of lack of editability and skill to do so in the packages produced.

So next time you think of distance learning, you might want to consider some of these issues?


Fritz, R. (1989).The path of least resistance. New York: Ballantine Books.

Kotter (n.d) 8 steps for leading change Available online: Accessed 21st February 2017

Times Higher Education Supplement (2015) MOOCs: fluctuating rates in online investment Available Online: Accessed 21st February 2017