Wang Jingzheng, Associate Professor, Head of College English Teaching and Research Section, Yunnan Open University
Overseas Based University: the University of Nottingham
Advisor: Prof. John Morgan
Study Area: Comparative Study on Open and Distance Education and Learner Support Systems between China and the UK
Implications on Student Support of the UK Universities
---A Brief Report about My Stay in the UK
Without the sponsorship of the Sino-British Fellowship Trust, I would not have had such a wonderful opportunity to study in the UK for over four months. I would therefore, like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professor Naylor, Mrs. Ely, and the trustees of Sino-British Fellowship Trust, for their generous support to the training programme of distance education in 2004.
I would also like to give my deep thanks to the China Scholarship Council, Mr. Yang Zhongbo and other officials from the Education Section in the Embassy of P.R. China, Professor Liu Dailin and all the colleagues from China Open University (OUC) and Yunnan Open University (OU Yunnan) for their kind help, assistance and arrangement, which made my visit to United Kingdom a memorable one.
As a visiting scholar, I enjoyed my stay at the Centre for Comparative Education Research (CCER) in the Faculty of Education, University of Nottingham (UoN). I would like to extend my respect and grateful thanks to Professor W. John Morgan, Professor Bernadette Robinson, Dr. Chris Atkin, Miss. Gill Morgan, Ms. Frederique Poujades and other colleagues in the centre. They have provided good learning support, many valuable academic activities and considerable stress-free environment for my research and educational programmes in UK.
Last I would like to thank Dr John Wallis, Dr. Steve Deary and Ms Lynnette Matthews for their help, guidance, friendship and permission to sit in their classes.
As an academic visitor, I studied at the CCER of the Faculty of Education at UoN from 1st April to 30th July. During this period, I have completed the following:
1. Attending PGCCE courses
After arriving at the UoN, I proposed that I wanted to sit in a class to observe and learn together with the postgraduate students. With the permission of the school of education, I chose three modules prepared for the Postgraduate Certificate in Continuing Education (PGCCE) students. The first module I participated in is Managing the Teaching and Learning Process, which aims at enabling PGCCE participants to relate their own practice to theories, research and accounts of effective practices of managing the teaching and learning process in the post-compulsory sector. It is expected that the PGCCE participants would acquire skills related to study, analysis, research and writing at the completion of the module. Furthermore, they are expected to obtain the skills and ability to assess learner needs; planning skills; selection, application and management of the more important learning/teaching methods for use with adults; skills for the assessment of learning and for course evaluation.
The second module I attended is The Teacher in a Professional Context. It aims to deepen PGCCE participants' understanding of the concept of professionalism in relation to the role of the teacher in the post-compulsory sector. It also aims to enable PGCCE participants to locate their role and practice within a conceptual framework of professional responsibilities, values and standards. Furthermore, it aims at enabling PGCCE participants to develop practice, which will conform to accepted professional standards.
The third module is Curriculum Design and Development. It is designed to provide PGCCE participants with an opportunity to reflect on the idea of curriculum and to carry out an exercise in curriculum development. The aim of this module is to deepen PGCCE participants' understanding of the nature of curriculum, of those factors which influence the curriculum and enable them to carry out all the tasks necessary to design and evaluate a syllabus of work in their own subject area.
On completion of the above modules, students will learn how to reflect on their learning, practice and how to evaluate relative provisions apart from acquiring some general study skills. As a teacher from an Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institution, all these modules are crucial for my career development. I attended most of the teaching sessions and enjoyed discussing and exchanging ideas with English students in class and after class as well. Without any doubt, these programmes have immensely enriched my knowledge and will surely make a mark in my future career and activities when I get back to China.
2. Participating in various seminars, workshops and colloquium
During my stay in the UoN, I attended more than fifteen (15) seminars, two (2) workshops and one (1) international conference. Some of the seminars I attended are: The Oxford Experience: Findings of Students' Experience of Teaching and Learning, Improving Educational Research: Toward a More Useful, More Influential, and Better-Funded Enterprise Research Practice, Introduction to Qualitative Research, An Introduction to Strategic Management and Introduction to Disability and Equity Awareness, etc.
The National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) organized one of the workshops I attended in Leicester. It is titled E-learning and Languages Workshops for ACL, which aims to train language teachers on how to apply the ICT into teaching and how to find the appropriate materials for their own students on the web world. The other workshop I participated is titled The Skills of Spoken and Written Communication, which is delivered by the Graduate School of UoN to cater for their postgraduate research students' needs. It aims at bringing postgraduate research students together and encouraging them to consider, discuss and practise the skills of effective communication and presentation.
Furthermore, I participated in an international conference organized by the Centre for Comparative Education Research (CCER), which is titled A Research Colloquium - Education and Development in the Commonwealth: Comparative Perspectives between June 3 and 4. It covers a variety of sub-themes, including distance education in the Commonwealth, education and development in the Commonwealth: the view from UNESCO, collaborative research in the Commonwealth, international perspectives on lifelong learning and the education profession, as well some students' research presentations on post-school Education, science and technology education, formal and non-formal education, personal and social education, etc. The conference was so rich in content and full of enthusiasm and diversity in discussion that I was completely immersed in it. All these seminars, workshops and conference have made valuable contributions in the development of my teaching and research skills. Through training, discussing and participating in these activities, my skills are being promoted and I have absorbed a lot of information and knowledge from various angles as well.
3. Observing language classes
As a language teacher in my home university, I am interested in the teaching and learning model of the foreign languages. After contacting with the modern language specialist at the Centre for Continuing Education, I was allowed to observe two language classes: one is a French tutorial held on 26th April and the other is a Greek tutorial held on 4th May. The distinct characteristics I found are small-sized study group and student centredness. Normally the size of the language classes ranges from 6 to 10 students, at most 12 in exception. In class, students are highly motivated and willingly participate in various activities with high motivation. Teacher's role is to facilitate students' learning rather than teach grammar or vocabulary all the time. This is what we need in open and distance learning -- teachers should take the roles of a facilitator, class manager, and assessor, etc.
1. Visit to the Headquarters of UK Open University in Milton Keynes and its Regional Centres: The East Midlands Regional Centre in Nottingham & The East England Regional Centre in Cambridge
The Open University of the UK is a leading institution in Open and Distance Learning, a mysterious university to which I have been dreaming to pay a visit for many years. The following figures and facts tell us how it gains its high reputation and why there are so many people and institutions in the field of ODL are trying to learn from it.
The mission of OU is open to people, places, methods and ideas. It promotes educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential. Through academic research, pedagogic innovation and collaborative partnership, it seeks to be a world leader in the design, content and delivery of supported open and distance learning.
The Open University admitted its first students in 1971. It is the UK's largest university, with over 200,000 students and customers. The OU represents 22% of all part-time higher education students in the UK. The university is ranked amongst the top UK universities for the quality of its teaching. Of the 23 subjects assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency, 17 have been placed in the top 'Excellent' category.
OU courses are available throughout Europe and, usually by means of partnership agreements with other institutions, in many other parts of the world. About 26,000 learners are studying OU courses outside the UK. Two thirds of students are aged between 25 and 44. Nearly all OU students are part-time and about 70% of undergraduate students remain in full-time employment throughout their studies. More than 160,000 OU students are on-line.
OU courses are considered to be among the world's best distance education materials and are regularly awarded for their innovation. Nineteen subject areas within the OU have been recognised as producing research work with evidence of international quality and a further seven subjects show evidence of national excellence.
The OUUK has always maintained that it is a 'quality institution'. The distance learning materials produced by the OUUK have won a very high world-wide reputation for quality. The OUUK has its main headquarters at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes and has a network of thirteen Regional Centres covering the United Kingdom. (Two of these centres look after students in Continental Western Europe and the Republic of Ireland respectively.)
The Regional Centres vary considerably in size, from those looking after just under 4 percent of the student population to those looking after over 11 per cent of the student population. Staff at Walton Hall is responsible for those elements of learner support, which are common to all OUUK students wherever they are located: for example, the creation and production of course materials and the provision of the common administrative systems. In addition, specialist services such as credit transfer are located at Walton Hall.
Regional Centres are responsible for providing the services, which support the student as an individual. All students on the same course receive the same course materials; it is at the regional level that support is provided to tailor these materials to the needs of the individual learner. Hence, the Regional Centre provides a service of educational advice and guidance to students in the region and to those inquiring about study with the OUUK. Specialist services such as support for students with disabilities and vocational guidance are also provided. Staff in the Regional Centres is responsible for recruiting part-time tutors and counsellors and for the ongoing monitoring and support of these staff. It is also a responsibility of the Regional Centre to secure suitable accommodation for the network of study centres located throughout the region.
The Regional Centres employ a range of staff: secretarial/clerical, administrative and academic, giving a total of more than 80 people in the East Midlands and about 100 people in the East England respectively. Its administrative frame is normally structured like this:
2. Visit to Portland College for the Disabled People
The visit to this special college gives us a deep understanding how the UK government is carrying out its special education to those severely disabled people. We found that these colleges receive total funding from the government with priority and they are encouraging all the disabled people to be involved in various educational activities. They insist that a little further step among the disabled will bring about greater value to the whole society.
3. Visit to Further Education colleges (Derby Tertiary College & Loughborough College)
There are more than 400 Further Education Colleges in England and Wales, all monitored by the Skills Learning Council (SLC). These colleges usually provide three kinds of courses, namely GCE (A-Level) Courses, Vocational Courses and Foundation Degrees Courses. Besides they offer flexible language courses and basic ICT courses to the local community. One of the highlights in Derby College is that it provides the local residents flexible ICT modules, of which can be chosen at any level to start at any time in any one of its 7 study-centres scattered on Derby County. The courses can be tailored for every student. This shows us that lifelong education in Britain has been in practice rather than words in mouth.
At Loughborough College the most impressive is that their well-equipped facilities and full use of those facilities in teaching and supporting students. They are running an e-learning pilot experiment course in Tourism Management foundation degree by applying computer-conferencing, e-mail, mobile phone learning, etc, in tutorial and student support services.
4. Visit to Adult Education Centre of the University of Nottingham
University of Nottingham has a long history of adult and continuing education. The origins of the University itself can be traced back to 1798, with the establishment in the city of an adult school and the University Extension lectures, inaugurated by the University of Cambridge in 1873. Dating from 1920, the School of Continuing Education is the longest established academic department of its kind in the UK. Adult Education Centre, which locates in the Shakespeare Street in the city centre, is a main teaching and managing centre of the School of Continuing Education.
The School now provides open studies short courses for adults, part-time certificate and diploma courses leading to a BA (Hons) in Combined Studies, opportunities for research and a comprehensive programme of postgraduate taught courses in the broad field of post-compulsory education.
Its interesting and stimulating open studies courses are offered in a wide range of subjects in Nottingham and at other centres in Nottinghamshire. There are no special entry requirements and formal qualifications are not needed for these part-time programmes. They attract mature learners some of whom are studying for the sheer pleasure of learning while others see it as a chance to progress towards a Certificate/Diploma or the BA (Hons) Combined Studies. All the courses offer level 1 credits, equivalent to those obtained in first year undergraduate study. Subjects provided include Art & Architecture; Computing & IT; History & Archaeology; Modern Foreign Languages; Literature, Film & Theatre; Personal Development; Science, etc. Open Studies courses own such characteristics as: part-time, usually 10 or 15 weekly meetings, daytime, evenings and weekends, mature learners, small class sizes, friendly, supportive tutors.
5. Visit to BBC of Nottingham
Lastly we visited the BBC branch in Nottingham. It runs a radio channel --- BBC Radio of Nottingham, and produces the news programmes and weather forecast programmes for the East Midlands area.
1. Literature study on student/learner support
Learner support is a very important component of ODL. It is an integral part of open and distance learning systems. Keegan (1996) identifies two distinct sub-systems within distance education: course development and student/learner support services, which he characterises as 'the essential feedback mechanisms that are characteristic of education', distinguishing it from the publishing house or materials producer. Student support is a critical component to the success of ODL. We can view the importance from the following model discussed by Simpson (2002, p5):
Student + Teaching materials + Student support = Successful student
Experts agree that success and quality of a distance education programme heavily rely on establishment of an effectively working support system (e.g. Mills & Ross, 1993). Although student support has been considered as one of the crucial elements of any kind of successful distance education initiative, it has not received the attention it has deserved (e.g. Simpson, 2002, Tait, 2000).
Learner support has been defined in a variety of ways in the distance education literature. One way of understanding the term student support is the range of activities, which complement the mass-produced learning materials (Tait, 1995, p232). Thorpe (1994, 1999) focused on how to construct a definition, which will locate the functional essence of what distinguishes learner support from other elements in the ODL system. She defines student support as 'all these elements capable of responding to a known learner or group of learners, before, during and after the learning process'. `She insisted it refers to the meeting of needs that all learners have because they are central to high quality learning--- guidance about course choice, preparatory diagnosis, study skills, access to group learning in seminars and tutorials, and so on (Thorpe, 2003, p199).
A very broad definition is "the entire range of methods and strategies employed in the presentation and delivery of courses aimed at assisting and enabling learners to comprehend fully, assimilate and master the skills and knowledge needed to achieve success in their studies" (Mays, 2000, p12). Further, Simpson (2000, 2002, p7) suggests that student support fall into two broad areas: academic (or tutorial) support and non-academic (or counselling) supports. Academic support mainly deals with supporting students with the cognitive, intellectual and knowledge issues of specific courses or sets of courses. This will include, for example, developing general learning skills, numeracy and literacy. No-academic support deals with supporting students in the affective and organizational aspects of their studies, consisting of advising, assessing, advocating, agitating, acting, administrating, and so on. Whereas Carnwell & Harrington(2001) find Simpson's definition too general and failing to define support. They prefer to defining support with its components: (1) Activities that enable students to progress satisfactorily, (2) strategies such as cognitive, affective, metacognitive and motivational, and (3) skills such as informing, advising, counselling, assessing, enabling and feeding back.
Since the rise of world wide web (www), the nature of student support has been changing considerably with the increased application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in ODL. Programmes based on printed materials have traditionally relies on support in various ways, these include regular tutorial sessions, other regular face-to-face contact, telephone tutoring, detailed feedback on Tutor Marked Assignments (TMA), formal and informal study groups and support from partners, family, friends(Asbee and Simpson, 1998, Tait, 2000). In the developed countries, many open and distance learning courses have become available on-line over the past few years, and while some aspects of support may remain constant (such as support from family and friends), others have changed greatly. Evidence shows that the availability of on-line support such as provided by the OUUK has resulted in students making considerate use of it(Thorpe, 2001; Phillips et al., 2001). On-line support includes the use of software tools, automated (and tutor marked) feedback on performance, technical support, as well as more traditional supervision by tutors. However, tutors, instead of providing regular face-to-face sessions for their tutor group, are now challenged to provide 'instant' feedback to their tutees, resulting in excessive time demands and 'interaction fatigue' (Mason, 2001).
A number of issues or questions arise due to the increasing application of ICT in student support. This will enable many services to be delivered in different ways and in some cases services may be greatly enhanced and more accessible. Both Tait (2000) and Rumble(2000) have commented upon this situation. "ICTs are also enabling more established providers to rethink and re-engineer the nature of their student services".
While the recent literature on learner support emphasises the usefulness of technology-based systems, we must consider that for many learners, especially but not exclusively those in developing countries, such support practices are inappropriate, costly and unattainable. To a certain extent, the new technologies are likely 'to narrow rather than widen access' in a variety of ways: learners need to have access to expensive equipment, governments need to provide a power supply and telecommunication links, and there needs to be a service industry to maintain the system (Perraton, 2000). Clearly a mixed-mode flexible learning programme will suit both the urban learners those who are to benefit from the new technologies and rural learners those who are disabled to have access to ICTs. Thus, we must maintain that development of conventional learner support activities such as face-to-face tutorials, interactive printed course materials, support from family and so on are more important for the majority of students in the developing countries. When there is a constant change in the field of open and distance learning support, it is vital that not all programmes make a change to technology-driven support without considering all its implications.
Finally, some more issues need to be reviewed concerning student/learner support. The review would need to address how learner support would impact on the core issues of time; confidence; academic support; study/life conflict management; and lastly "bonding" or "stick", that is the acquaintance of a kind with the institution through human relationship that supports motivation and persistence. It would need to take into account the external influences on learners' lives as well as the internal levers available to the institutions.
In such a length paper, it is impossible to do a thorough review on learner/student support. Although it is not possible to transfer countries the elements of student support services as the elements which make up course production (see Sewart, 1993), it is still worth exploring. So we persuade that distance education providers bear in mind that while planning a support system, people's customs, values and traditions must not be violated. Further, with the guidance and research on western countries' student support systems, we can develop our own student support model based on the context of the infinite needs of our students or clients.
2. Study of the continuing education in the rural areas of the UK
Terms like continuing education or adult education is commonly perceived as a substitute for lifelong learning in the UK today. The British government places a strong emphasis on the development of lifelong learning. More or less, all the universities and colleges have been involved and have taken their commitments in the process of pursuing the days of learning society, a would-be phenomenon of lifelong learning.
However, lifelong learning in rural communities has been given little attention. As Gray (2002) states that "during recent decades, both government in its various guises and the educational research community have ignored rural lifelong learning. There is very little policy discussion in government or debate amongst education researchers about rural lifelong learning." He further argues that the subject on lifelong learning in rural communities remains important, because lifelong learning can not only make a critical contribution to the lives of individuals and social groups living and working in the countryside but also help to address significant social, economic and political issues in rural areas.
In the limited literature of rural lifelong learning, experts are likely to start by discussing some related issues such as rural cultural identity, rural habitus, rural geographies rather than giving a clear definition of rurality (e.g. Atkin, 2004). Atkin (2003) summarized that there are six general characteristics of rural life and social structure in the UK, namely small scale; isolated; a product of agriculture and its environmental activity; strong community feeling, friendlier than urban communities, tighter knit; conservative and traditional values; a slower, less pressurised way of life. As Gray (2003) discussed that "a significant issue in providing rural lifelong learning is the ability to specify accurately barriers to participation, which may be material, social or psychological. Caroline Tullet's project identified 15 perceived barriers to learning. The top five were Distance, Cost, Travel time, Times of classes and Caring for children or dependants." These research results may bring more evidence to rural lifelong learning policy makers so as to help policy making.
In the respect of open and distance learning in the rural or remote areas, more institutions are tending to benefit from the application of ICT to support their learners along with using some traditional media like correspondence, telephone tutorial, etc. Rural and remote learners are disadvantaged even with online provision due to poor connections. Mason and Rennie (2004) maintain that broadband offers a potential solution. In their research article on the rural e-learning in some remote areas of Scotland, Mason and Rennie (2004) state that broadband technologies offer the potential to overcome many unique challenges and traditional limitations that characterize the rural economy, particularly those associated with distance and access. Citizens of rural and remote areas have similar needs to those of urban areas, but are disadvantaged in a number of ways, i.e. lower taxation base to support essential services; transportation difficulties; a lack of access to education, training and professional updating and so on.
It is nevertheless interesting to consider how applicable broadband is for rural e-learning in developing countries, where the need for educational opportunities in rural areas is often even greater. There are two aspects that must be taken into consideration: technology infrastructure and pedagogical readiness when we tend to the issues of use, take-up and educational readiness.
In reality, the use of the technology infrastructure reflects existing disparities between different geographical regions and between social groups. Thus, much creative thought and effort is required to establish systems that begin to ameliorate existing inequalities. Without such conscious and deliberate actions, the 'default' almost always favours the advantaged, i.e. the "information rich" rather than the "information poor".
3. A comparative study on the learner support system of the OUUK and the Open Universities System (OUs)
It has been discussed above that the student support services in OUUK are mainly conducted through its 13 regional centres. OUUK is an open and distance learning organization with many characteristics of industrialization, in which it offers quality services to its students (cared as customers or clients) so as to ensure high quality outcomes.
The Radio and Television University System in China is a centralized national system for providing distance education programmes as widely and effectively as possible within the country. At present, there is one Open University of China (OUC), 44 provincial OUs, 752 branch schools at prefecture level and city level, and 2075 study centres at county level, among which 209 are attached to provincial OUs. About 1,206,500 ODL students are enrolled on RTVU courses and the compulsory courses of all the OUs share a core curriculum, and thus common course syllabi, materials, and evaluation schemes (OUs' Basic Information Communique, 2003).
In making a comparison of the two systems, there are some similarities and their own features between OUUK's and the OUs' student support services. It is not difficult to see that the OUs' administrative or student support structure are more or less modelled on the OUUK while it takes full advantages of both centralized and decentralized management systems. By standardizing the content and procedures of instruction and assessment, the national OUs is able to ensure a certain level of quality across the regional OUs, but at the same time, regional OUs may cater for local people's specific needs for distance education. They even offer some special courses to meet their students' needs in line with the local culture, economy and social values. Thus, OUs may be regarded as a single model distance education system by sharing resources among the individual OU institutions with its own characteristics.
Surely, a lengthy comparison between the OUs system and OUUK is not permitted and also unnecessary in a report such as this. Without any doubt, there is a need for more critical and in-depth analysis and comparison between them, particularly in the area of student support services and the quality assurance mechanism.
Four-month study in the UK has slipped away quickly; however, it is fruitful and valuable. Firstly, I have obtained valuable first-hand materials and information, which will be beneficial, both for my further study and teaching, and shared by my colleagues at my home university.
Secondly, my understanding of the British education system has been greatly improved, in particular its provisions on lifelong learning and ODL development. This may help me to have a robust comparative study on student support services system and its quality assurance system for ODL as well.
Thirdly, it has widened my horizons of academic research, my professional insights and enhanced my research capability, which will bring benefits to my career development, my students as well as my home university.
Fourthly, I have achieved a bird's eye view of the British social system, had a better understanding of the English society, culture and English people. As a result, my English language ability has been largely improved and my knowledge in the field of education, language and related professional areas have been advanced, which will trigger me to make more contribution to the distance education in China.
Fifthly, I have interviewed many experts who are involved in the distance education and lifelong education, have established some academic and personal contacts and developed friendships with them.
Last but not least, my study in the UK is enjoyable and memorable. It has been an opportunity for me to gain self-confidence, develop my research interests, and review my communicative ability in a international context. I am sure it will bring me lifelong benefits and be in my mind forever.
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2. Atkin, C. (2003). The Influence of Rural Culture on Post-sixteen Pathways from School. Journal for Continuing Liberal Adult Education, 24(July), pp7-11.
3. Carnwell, R. & Harrington, C. (2001). Diagnosing Student Support Needs for Distance Learning. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Institutional Research, June 3-6, 2001, Long Beach, CA.
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