Ruchi Kaushik in conversation with Prof. Richard Allen

An Interview with
Richard Allen
Emeritus Professor of Literature at UK Open University


Richard Allen is Emeritus Professor of Literature at the UK Open University, and was for eight years Dean of the Arts Faculty. His publications include Literature and Nation: Britain and India 1800-1990 (with Harish Trivedi), and ‘Heritage and Nationalism’ [in India] in Rodney Harrison (Ed.), Understanding the Politics of Heritage. He was joint leader of a UK government funded collaboration between Delhi University and the Open University designed to introduce modern computer based pedagogy to Delhi University, and is joint leader of a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded network investigating ‘Prospects for English Studies’ in Delhi and the UK.

In an online interview with Ruchi Kaushik, he discusses various facets of distance education, its evolution and development and highlights the need for quality assurance and teacher training to make this rapidly evolving area of education more meaningful.

Ruchi Kaushik: Distance learning in Higher Education (HE) has been garnering a lot of interest in the last few years be it in Government or University policies or general learner attitude. What, according to you, are the main reasons for this shift?

Richard Allen: It’s tempting to be a little cynical here and say that distance education is interesting to those in Government or in University management because it offers ways of expanding HE provision without a proportionate increase in fixed costs involved in buildings etc. But I think the majority of distance education initiatives have had a strong moral purpose, the desire particularly to reach students in social, economic and geographic groups who are under-represented in HE. I think it’s also possible that the methods of teaching associated with distance education are now perceived to be better, so are more interesting to those interested in teaching and learning. This is particularly the case where it is possible to build systems on the basis of new technology. In a number of countries in the past distance education was identified with poor quality (in all senses of the phrase) photocopied materials sent out by post. Students were expected passively to absorb these materials and there was little interactivity and little support. Learning based on computing and communication technology regularly supersedes that approach, enabling students studying at home to actually feel closer to their teachers than a student studying ostensibly ‘face to face’ (but actually usually only ‘glimpsed at a distance’) on a large campus. New technology also provides far more effective and far more secure possibilities for assessment. The important thing here is that teachers need to be trained and resourced to use distance learning, primarily to benefit students but also to overcome the prejudice against distance learning which is entwined with the lack of interest you mention.

RK: Off-campus learning is often perceived to be similar to other modes of education such as online learning, e-learning, blended learning, open-learning, life-long learning etc. All of these apparently have a lot in common and yet are dissimilar in many ways. Could you briefly explain the main features of off-campus learning?

RA: You’re right that there are a number of terms which are used in ways that suggest each is separate but in practice that’s not the case. I could begin by saying that I can’t now imagine blended learning that didn’t involve e-learning.E-learning is most often imagined as online learning but might also be on-campus computer-room learning. When blended learning features online e-learning it is often because it is open-learning or life-long learning. It should be obvious from this that the issue at hand is education. The main features of good off-campus learning are then the same as the main features of good on-campus learning.Off campus learning can be done badly, just as on campus learning can be done badly, but the faults are more damaging for students because they tend to be studying on their own and can easily become disheartened. 

So the main systemic features of off-campus learning have to be quality and integrity. Particularly given the prejudice against distance education, off-campus education has to aim to be the best, to the point that on-campus teachers want to borrow from off-campus. Beyond that you need a system which has been thought through. Whether you are dealing with off-campus learning that leads to a whole degree or smaller units of learning to provide updating professional or technical skills you need an effective registration system with secure assessment. Quality teaching is a must, but that needs to be articulated with good resources for learning. At the Open University (OU), for example, we’ve created virtual field trips for environmental studies, and virtual libraries for the Humanities. Good management of the processes for course design are important, and since the use of technology seems almost inevitable you also need specialist support there – for students, teachers and course development.

RK: Well, talking of Open University (OU), UK, it is one of the pioneer institutions in distance learning, established in 1969 and your association with it dates back to several decades. Can you please tell us about the objectives behind establishment of OU and whether it has succeeded in fulfilling them?

RA: The original (and I think continuing) objectives of the OU are embodied in the two words of its title; we seek to be open in a whole range of ways, and to be a university in the fullest possible sense. We often link the idea of ‘open-ness’ to opportunities; we make opportunities for HE study available to people who are housebound or serving in a submarine, or who just want to study with us to improve their skills and qualifications. We aim to make the opportunities for study that we provide challenging and engaging to encourage students to keep studying. We also ensure that our standards of assessment are unchallenged through systems which use external examiners beyond the norm in UK education.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of our open-ness is that at undergraduate level we set no entry requirements. We have comprehensive advice systems so that students aren’t recruited who will immediately fail and drop out, but beyond that students make their own decisions about entry and we do everything we can to support their aspirations. Of course the situation has changed drastically since 1971 when we registered our first students. The OU has also increased its ambitions especially in terms of geographical reach and the use of technology. Most recently it has established Future Learn in which a wide range of other universities join with the OU to provide MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).So students began with books, television and radio, and moved onto video cassettes, DVDs and the Internet, things are changing all the time.

As for the objectives being achieved, they are dynamic and changing but more or less we have been successful. Overall we challenge ourselves as we encourage our students to challenge themselves; we have the same kind of intellectual and social aspirations now as we did in 1970 but adapted to fit the changing world order. The support we gave to IGNOU, the Singapore Institute of Management, and the Arab Open University signal the breadth of our aims. The English Department interestingly played a big part in these latter two schemes; students wanted to study English as well as management just as they do in India. We want to be the best; it is difficult to find another institution which combines the same range of excellences – in teaching, research and development of new educational technologies. 

RK: The support and collaboration among Open Universities across the world is certainly an important feature of this dynamic field. Distance learning is a rapidly evolving area of education. Can you please elaborate some prerequisites for ensuring quality distance education in the Indian context?

RA: I think three things are key to the development of distance learning. First, distance learning should be quality learning. Second, is the understanding that good learning here must involve student activity and interactivity just as much as in face to face on campus teaching. Third, the development of technology must enable real interactivity;for example Moodle has empowered teachers to create their own materials rather than having somehow to fit it into some complex prescribed programme that only the IT people understand.

If I think about these three things in relation to the evolution of distance learning in India I want to say first that the pursuit of quality and standards has to be absolute: that would involve securing accreditation and endorsement of quality to a degree. Equally distance learning has to be interactive to be effective, and that means a sea change inthe way teachers and students work, setting aside the old system of rote learning. One of the key inventions here at The Open University has been the role of the part-time tutor.This is someone who takes responsibility for a group of twenty or so students and for the facilitation of the learning devised by the central faculty. Students rely on contact parttime tutors to help them solve problems in their learning but also in their lives (meeting deadlines etc.) Where I pause is on the issue of technology; in the cities maybe technology will be important, but in the countryside where education is so much needed, it needs people to think things through differently. But maybe things aren’t so different from the way they were here in the UK in the earlier days where people depended on telephone contact with their tutor to keep going and achieve success.

RK: The common perception in India about distance education is that the course and the degree offered via the distance mode are inferior to the conventional course and degree both in terms of content and market value. What is your take on this?

RA: As I have mentioned earlier, it is essential to have strong, transparent and publicly recognised Quality Assurance(QA) processes to ensure proper standards. That might be easier in an organisation dedicated to distance learning like the OU or IGNOU. It’s perhaps harder to establish distinct QA processes for distance education where that is just an adjunct to a large face to face teaching system. Processes have also to be owned throughout the organisation, so that those teaching distance programmes are insistent on QA, that way, they get the respect of their students and employers. Distance teaching is often more publicly visible than face to face teaching; books are published and websites are open to scrutiny whereas what goes on in a lecture hall is often known only to the teacher and the students. That means again that those involved in distance teaching need to be ambitious and strive for the best.

RK: You are right; there can be no short cut to quality assurance to give distance education the desired respectability. But do you think that as an educational mode it functions better for some subjects, say social sciences and humanities than sciences?

RA: I think distance teaching is suited to all disciplines so long as those involved are prepared to put effort into working out how technology etc. can help. We’ve always taught science subjects at the OU. In the beginning we sent out kits of materials so that students could do experiments at home, guided by printed instructions and television programmes. Now we’ve moved on to using virtual reality and other high-tech systems to achieve the same ends. Archive resources can be made available in a closed ‘library’ structure for history students or project work can be set up using open web resources. And of course these techniques can be used by students working in a computer lab on a campus just as easily as they can be by those working at a distance.

RK: What do you have to say about its suitability for English Studies?

RA: The situation in English is similar. In English we began with specially produced books that were only available within the University but our skill in curriculum design and pedagogy led to our materials being taken up by publishers – I’m thinking here of the Approaching Literature and The Nineteenth Century Novel series both published by Routledge – and thus made more widely available. But now technology can be used in a whole range of ways to create hyperlinked editions of texts, computer based assistants for language learning, techniques for enabling students to understand metre in poetry or plot structure in a novel. At the OU we’ve also used conferencing techniques for Creative Writing Workshops, and in fact the communications aspect of ICT is perhaps as important as anything here. Students can get together in a conference or a forum to discuss a text, helping each other (or being helped by a facilitator) at basic levels to achieve understanding of difficult materials, but also going on to understand how different meanings can interact in often unstable texts. There are lessons to be learned even from the kind of hyperlinked annotation I’ve mentioned; does a reading of The Waste Land for example depend on following up every reference fully, or do you need some other more dynamic model? More broadly here you can see that in English and in other subjects students learn in ways that will much more replicate the way they will need to learn after graduation; learning in groups as well as on their own, and learning from on line resources rather than by rote.

RK: In learning through new models, technology is an important interface and that brings in its own set of problems that critics of distance education highlight. How do you think these challenges can be addressed?

RA: There is a risk of fault on both sides here. Those who criticise distance learning in the way you suggest have often  a hidden hostility to distance learning. But equally on the distance learning side there is a risk that the use of new technology and computer based open educational resources is fetished. Really it needs people to think the situation through from a pedagogic point of view; to work out the learning outcomes that they want students to achieve and how students will learn and be assessed.

RK: We are witnessing greater availability of online courses and the possibility of pursuing courses where geographical location of the learner is not a concern. Do you think in future fewer students will opt for traditional on-campus courses and a large part of their education will comprise online and off-campus courses?

RA: I rather suspect that won’t be the case, since notwithstanding the centrality of social media to younger people’s lives, the pull of the social life that is part of a campus system is strong. The idea of social media is perhaps helpful here. We’re not going to be talking about a teacherlearner relation but of learners within a network comprising other learners, a tutor, and the central faculty. A student who is stuck on the meaning of a particular speech in a Shakespeare play can ask the whole community for help with students learning from each other under the corrective eye of an expert. I do think that the techniques used in distance teaching will become more common on campuses, and oddly this might be an important factor in raising the reputation of distance teaching so that they do become truly complementary.

RK: Thank you Prof Allen for sharing your thoughts regarding the expanding and dynamic area of distance education and I am sure our readers will find your insights engaging and thought-provoking.

Ruchi Kaushik

Ruchi Kaushik is Associate Professor of English at Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D in Materials Development in ESP.