Will online distance learning mean the end of campus-based programmes?

Written by Helen Durham

DIGITAL AND distance–learning courses are on the rise in higher education but are our students ready for the challenges that lie ahead? LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Leader, Helen Durham, explores here the changing landscape and some of the future issues and opportunities.

What was once viewed as an unconventional route to study in higher education is fast moving towards the conventional. Whether we like it, or not, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), accredited MOOCS, and Online Distance Learning (ODL) are all methods of student education that are shifting the traditional parameters of university study.

Not that long ago the main option for someone wishing to broaden their knowledge and acquire qualifications would be to enroll as a campus-based student at a university on a full or part-time basis.

Correspondence courses have existed for many years but with limited interactivity they were aimed at a more niche market. They provided opportunities for those who had slipped through the rungs of conventional education systems but were not necessarily providing an equivalent experience that campus-based students might expect.

Early shift

In 1964, the Open University improved the student experience for distance learners by delivering television and radio tuition combined with correspondence courses and residential courses.

But in the early days the broadcasts were often at very unsociable hours and this was in the days before technology supported recording and playback.

How times have changed in a relatively short period of time. Approximately half of the world’s population now have ready access to computers and the internet.

And with technological and software advances giving us virtual learning environments, video streaming and interactive study experiences, such as discussion boards and web conferencing, the world of online distance learning is opening up.

Changing world

There is much conjecture about whether this changing landscape will take us to a point where students no longer ‘go to University’.

In years to come will we still have excited Freshers crossing this hallowed portal, with their new duvet and pots and pans in tow, ready for their first step into an independent world?

Or international students leaving behind jobs and families but with high aspirations to obtain a postgraduate qualification at an internationally respected institution of learning?

More and more universities are seeing the potential of ODL as a means to broaden their teaching portfolio and expand student numbers, even when the infrastructure that makes up the physical university is full to capacity.


The University of Leeds is one such institution that has an ongoing commitment to ODL.

The University’s School of Geography is certainly no stranger to distance learning having delivered an MSc in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), in collaboration with the University of Southampton, for just short of 15 years.

The first University of Leeds MOOC on the UK-based FutureLearn platform (When Worlds Collide) was delivered by the School of Geography.

The School of Geography also offers one of the first MOOCs that comes with accreditation that could be traded in as prior learning for those wishing to pursue a degree in Geography further down the line.


The ODL community brings with it new challenges. An ODL programme provides the flexibility for a student to keep many aspects of their life at a status quo whilst gaining a qualification.

This will be considered a ‘win-win’ situation for many. But some students may yearn for the social and interactive aspects of studying on campus, finding studying in isolation and maintaining motivation difficult.

There are challenges for the educators too. Guiding the student through their learning experience whilst getting to know a student, their capacities, their enthusiasms and their weaknesses is tricky when a student potentially never steps foot in the UK, Leeds or the University.

The question is can the ‘cradle to grave’ experience all be done online?

The MSc GIS ODL programme certainly tries to achieve this by delivering quality education in a more personalised setting and nurturing the student from the moment they commence their studies.

Too early?

But should our nurturing start even earlier? Perhaps we should be addressing the needs of the students before they even register on the programme, when they are in the metaphorical ‘womb’?

Admission to the MSc in GIS ODL is not assessed on academic qualifications alone. Prior work experience can tip the balance in favour of a student who is not considered a ‘standard entry’.

The diverse academic, cultural and experiential backgrounds of our students means that the transition to Master’s level study can be a gentle incline or a more uneven step.

Studying online and at a distance is still a new concept to most students and sometimes more early nurturing is required.

Providing pre-sessional resources may be a way to help these students on their first step towards a postgraduate degree.

Institute research

This LITE project aims to research the gaps that exist between the actual and desired digital literacy skills and basic data and information systems handling capabilities of students starting on a Master’s programme with large science and technical elements.

LITE HQ: The home of the Leeds institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) at the University of Leeds.

LITE HQ: The home of the Leeds institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) at the University of Leeds.

It seeks to develop a series of discrete online resources that can be made available to the students before they step onto the standard induction and orientation activities of the programme.

ODL is a developing feature on the higher education landscape and may well start to dominate. But whether campus-based programmes will be a diminishing feature is still unknown.

Without a crystal ball we cannot know for certain. But, for now, we need to continue to provide all of our students, whether campus-based or part of this growing online community, a rich, interactive, stimulating and rewarding student experience and education with the recognition that this may need to start in that metaphorical ‘womb’.


For more reading on this subject:

Durham, H. and See, L. (2015). Lessons learned from distance learning. In P. Kneale (Ed) Masters Level Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Issues in Design and Delivery. Palgrave, London, pp209-217