The inclusion of online learning technologies into the higher education
(HE) curriculum is frequently associated with the design and development
of new models of learning. One could argue that e-learning even demands
a reconfiguration of traditional methods of learning and teaching. A recent
consultation consultative e-learning strategy developed by the Higher
Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) acknowledges this:
the internet and use of new technologies are changing the total
operation of HE. Learning and teaching are changing as we explore the
possibilities presented by new technologies (HEFCE, 2003, p.2).
However, this transformation in pedagogic methodology
does not just impact on lecturers and teachers alone, as the HEFCE e-learning
strategy continues ‘these technologies are also bringing about new
approaches in research, libraries and resources and administration’
(p.2). Online learning has ‘pervasive impacts and changes in other
HE functions’ (HEFCE, p.2). Thus, e-learning is a transformational
process that posits new challenges for staff and students, both in educational
methods and support.
One of the key elements of this transformational process is flexibility.
Online learning is often described as providing more responsive modes
of study for learners and theories of online course design frequently
refer to the ability of e-learning to accommodate diverse learning styles
and forms of delivery. For example, Palloff and Pratt (2001) state that
‘teaching online requires a new approach to pedagogy’ (p.12).
This is important, they continue, because ‘the online re-creation
of the face-to-face classroom can be a dismal failure’ (p.12).
Teaching in the cyberspace classroom requires that
we move beyond traditional models of pedagogy into new practices that
are more facilitative. Teaching in cyberspace involves much more than
simply taking old “tried and tested” models of pedagogy
and transferring them to a different medium (Palloff and Pratt, 2001,
Constructivist educational theory, in particular, is
often used as a key tenet for online course design as this form of learning
argues that ‘people construct their own knowledge, and are socially
influenced in all thinking and learning’ (LTSN, 2004).1
One source even goes so far as to argue that ‘essentially, elearning
is the realization of the theoretical/conceptual components of flexible
learning’ (elearnspace, 2004). Yet, while such flexibility is desirable
and beneficial in many ways, the challenges and changes to traditional
models of support for all users of such technology can cause problems.
This paper considers a number of aspects relating to
the flexibility inherent within models of online learning and the potential
impact of this on support structures. City University, London, is used
as a case study to provide examples of online practice which support strategies
outlined here (the conference presentation will give more specific examples
of models used at City). In 2003, City University introduced a campus-wide
managed learning environment and established an ELearning Unit (ELU) to
support the development and dissemination of online learning practice
across the University.
This initiative provides central support for staff and
students in the use of online learning, both from a pedagogic and technical
perspective. The rationale behind centralizing support for e-learning
was to ensure a consistent and co-ordinated approach to developing technological
learning solutions. However, introducing a campus wide online learning
environment has raised significant issues surrounding student support
and the ‘e-readiness’ of the organisation. A balance has had
to be reached between ensuring that generic quality standards are maintained
and a centrally-designed approach is applied across all online modules
to ensure consistency and the need to offer flexibility around the needs
of individual Departments and subject areas.
1-For an informative review of how
consideration of online course design is posited in transformational flexible
terms see the section on ‘Models of Learning’ in Sarah Cornelius
(2002), Learning Online; Models and Styles, http://otis.scotcit.ac.uk/onlinebook/otisT103.htm
A number of models of online learning, from wholly distance
to enhanced classroom delivery are in operation at City. These models
provide evidence of the variation in modes of support and illustrate the
different needs of both students and staff when using these forms of learning.
The philosophy of the ELU in supporting these models is outlined as a
methodology for providing strategic solutions to the challenges posed
by the flexibility of this mode of delivery. What is apparent through
this discussion is that to provide effective support for online learners,
whether students or staff, clear and solid structures need to be put in
place to assist with the creation of an online community. However, before
considering this in more detail, it is necessary to consider some of the
benefits and challenges of flexible learning in terms of online learning
practice. This discussion raises some of the potential issues in support
FLEXIBILITY AND E-LEARNING–BENEFITS
If e-learning is integrated into the curriculum in a
thoughtful and considered fashion, it can have many potential benefits.
As Palloff and Pratt (2001) caution, ‘administrators, along with
faculty and students, need to be educated about the realities of online
teaching and the impact that good courseware can have on this process’
(p.12). So what are the potential benefits and how do these impact on
Through using educational technologies students have more control over
the management of their learning. Meeting the diverse learning styles
of students is a key aspect inherent within flexible online learning:
Online courses have the potential to reach a large
number of learners. Each learner is an individual, with his or her own
motivation for studying, access to resources, and study habits and practices
(Cornelius, 2002, section 2: learning styles).
E-learning theoretically allows students to access materials
anywhere, anytime, thereby enabling them to pace their learning and structure
the course around other activities. As Littlejohn and Higgison (2003)
maintain ‘e-learning is seen as offering solutions to several challenges
currently facing HE [….] the move towards lifelong learning […]
and the drive to widen participation’ (p.8). However, students do
still require some structure in order to enable them to retain engagement
with the course. The Masters in Geographic Information (MGI) at City,
which is taught through wholly online delivery, provides this in the form
of clear coursework deadlines and other regular ‘check-in’
points so that learners do not feel isolated or disorientated. This has
resulted in high levels of retention. Tracking and monitoring distance
learning students in particular is valuable, but a concern for staff is
how to design relevant activities that students will engage with? How
should we support these new forms of engagement?
Simpson (2000) notes that ‘education […] is essentially a
process of dialogue’ (p. 9) and the communication tools inherent
within the online learning environment can assist with this by facilitating
peer support. For example, conferencing and discussion tools enable learners
to interact independently from tutors–often reassuring each other
and enabling students to share professional issues. The Centre for Professional
Development and Innovation (CPDI) at City uses discussion boards for vocationally
based courses and asks students to draw on work-related experiences to
complete assignments. This can be helpful in reducing the burden of academic
staff, but managing discussion boards can be time consuming and still
need monitoring. How can we prepare staff and students for the kind of
Responsive Learning and Teaching
E-learning can be more responsive to the needs of both tutors and students,
as outlined in Peters’ research on learners’ views of online
delivery (2001). As students are engaged in a number of different forms
of communication, new strategies to assist with the learning process can
be utilised quickly and easily. For example, the MGI course uses chat
sessions to clarify a certain topic. When e-learning is used to support
face-to-face teaching then lectures may become more like seminars, with
students accessing material prior to the lecture and then using the lecture
time to ask questions and discuss certain issues in more depth. This technique
is used in the Department of Information Science to facilitate greater
Each of these potential benefits has a negative corollary,
and much of this is dependent upon the design of the online programme
and the associated support provided. It is necessary to try to anticipate
some of these problems in order to direct and tailor support strategies
for online learners.
Isolation and Disengagement
This form of learning, particularly with distance students, can result
in a sense of isolation or disengagement for students. And there can be
no denying that distance students are working, in theory at least, in
isolation from other students. As Simpson (2000) maintains ‘such
isolation must inhibit if not prevent entirely any possibility of dialogue
in their studies’ (p.9). And as stated earlier, dialogue is at the
heart of education. This clearly poses a major contradiction for educators
working with online learners. Should we be trying to replicate face-to-face
interaction when this is often impossible or should we be exploring new
methods of generating dialogue with our learners that take account of
the new environment in which we are operating? In addition, the lack of
a formal structure or timetable which characterises face-to-face contact
can exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Students may feel that the online
course lacks structure, that there is no-one checking on their progress
and that the online setting is merely a faceless environment. To counter
isolation online communities have been developed for distance students
at City, these will be considered later.
Increased Staff Workload
There is the perception, sometimes among students and management, that
e-learning can take less time. However, as anyone involved with online
learning will testify production of materials and adequate support of
students using the online materials can take a phenomenal amount of time.
Littlejohn and Higgison (2003) acknowledge the dilemma for academic staff
as ‘e-learning requires investment of time and effort […]
perhaps time and effort that would otherwise be spent on research’
(p.6). Students may expect support through discussion boards, chat, email
and face-to-face. This can place a huge, and often unanticipated, burden
on academic staff. This workload is often seen as invisible, many lecturers
in the UK are contracted to teach dependent upon face-to-face contact,
not online teaching. The amount of discussion messages generated can cause
resentment and time pressures. Skills in information management and organisation
are necessary. How can staff, particularly librarians and information
specialists help users develop these?
Students often expect much more when materials are online unless clear
criteria are established to address this. This is particularly true in
relation to response times to messages or emails. McKenzie (2000) describes
how students can come to online learning with particular assumptions related
to email which can increase the workload for tutors (p.3). She advocates
learning contracts and organising ‘a road show to manage the expectations
of potential candidates prior to signing up for the course’ as ways
of reducing the online ‘‘culture shock’’ (p.5).
The MGI course provides pre-course orientation to the online learning
environment for prospective students so they can ascertain what it is
like to study online. The ELU at City uses service level agreements to
show staff what support and guidance they can expect from the ELU team.
This enables clear boundaries to be established in terms of responsibility
and ensures that the students know where to go for support and guidance
on using online resources.
In order to deal with these challenges of flexibility
within an online environment we need to develop new forms of support in
two key areas; the creation and formulation of staff roles and the very
structure of the online environment itself. These strategies depend upon
a more structured approached to provide students and staff with the confidence
to explore these new types of learning in a more familiar fashion.
STRATEGIES FOR SUPPORT”STAFF
WHO IS WORKING WITH ONLINE LEARNERS?
By re-evaluating staff roles the burden of support can
be shared across academic and administrative staff. The introduction and
spread of online learning has had a great impact on the roles of those
supporting students, from academics to administrative staff.
Figure 1 Who is working with online learners?
Figure one illustrates how traditional roles are being
redefined by the e-learning environment.
Gilly Salmon (2000) in her influential work, E-Moderating
, poses a number of different titles for online educators, from ‘e-moderator’
to ‘online manager’ or even ‘faceless facilitator’
(pp. 169-71). Her contention is that the use of new technologies for teaching
and learning demands a new set of roles, or at the very least, revised
terminology for those who are involved with the delivery and management
of these electronic environments. Indeed, as we have seen the very flexibility
offered by e-learning often results in a blurring of traditional boundaries
between tutors and students. However, this greater fluidity of the learning
experience may become a barrier to enhancing learning if students do not
feel properly supported. Are students embracing this freedom to independently
manage their own learning or can it lead to disorientation and isolation?
And as academic staff, are we able to adequately respond to the new demands
placed upon us by students? By looking at practical examples from City
University we can provide some answers to these questions.
Change in Administrative Roles
To support the MGI course a new staff role was created to embrace the
diverse elements of supporting online distance and face-to-face students.
This role encompasses elements of traditional academic duties, for example
personal tutoring and content editing. The Course Resources Manager (CRM)
has responsibility for maintaining and sourcing the content within the
virtual learning environment, acting as a conduit between students and
academic staff and denoting the first point of call for problems relating
to the course. This hybrid role reflects a new model of student support
and contact with academic staff. The title ‘Course Resource Manager’
was also a deliberate choice in that it avoided conflation of the role
with just online duties and illustrated the wider remit of the post. In
order to respond to the pressures that academic staff face in terms of
time management with creating new online resources for the MGI course,
the CRM works to share the burden by monitoring discussion boards, checking
and tracking student progress and assuming some of the pastoral care duties
traditionally assumed by lecturers. The CRM also represents students’
interests to other University services, such as the library and computer
services, in order to present a coherent and consistent approach and ease
access to diverse resources for distance students. Retention on the course
was above 85% for over three years, which compared very favourably with
other distance learning courses. 2
By creating this role, staff on the MGI course were able
to address some of the new challenges presented by the introduction of
online learning. The role blurred the traditional boundary between academic
and administrative staff and meant that a team-approach was taken to course
delivery and management. This enabled some of the potential problems with
the use of e-learning to be avoided.
2-Simpson (2000) cites that on some
distance learning courses dropout rates can be as high as 58% (p.80).
Lecturer Hold Back
As we have seen online learning environments can provide increasing flexibility
for lecturing staff who can respond to discussion postings anywhere and
anytime. This can assist with the dissemination of information too as
rather than answering questions on an individual face-to-face basis discussion
postings are available for all to see, hence helping prevent repetition
of information. However, if staff respond too rapidly to postings then
unrealistic student expectations may be created and this may cause less
In a module for online tutors run by the Centre for Continuing
Professional Development and Innovation (CPDI) at City, students’
postings to the discussion board are assessed. The lecturer sets out clearly
the requirements for the students and part of the assessment is how they
respond to each other on the discussion board. This exercise substantially
increased postings to the discussion (by over 50%) and encouraged peer
support as students engaged and supported each other online.
Learning to holdback from the discussion board is vital
for student, and lecturer, support. This is model is supported by Palloff
and Pratt’s advice to ensure that ‘balance is the key to successful
participation (2001, p. 36.)
Educational Development and Training
Staff and students need professional development, training and preparation
to cope with online learning (see also Palloff and Pratt (2001), p. 15).
Staff, in particular, need educational development in the following areas:
CMC (computer mediated conferencing) and online discussion tools; production
of materials; management of online information; tracking and assessment
The ELU at City ensures that no member of staff can use
the online learning environment unless they have undertaken a staff development
programme covering basic principles of online learning and course design.
ELU staff also provide all students with a generic induction on the use
of the managed learning environment; this is supported by academic staff
who illustrate to students how online learning will be used in their specific
programme of study and why. Students and staff can use the ELU helpdesk
for technologically related queries and staff can receive individual advice
and consultancies. ELU staff are enrolled as auditors on all online modules,
primarily to act as mentors to staff new to online learning and provide
ongoing support and guidance. This auditing role also fulfils quality
assurance requirements. New e-learning programmes or modules must be signed
off by the ELU as part of the validation process.
STRATEGIES FOR SUPPORT-STRUCTURING
THE ONLINE ENVIRONMENT
Learning Materials Structure
Using familiar terms, such as referring to course material as ‘lectures’
and asking students to engage in practical exercises, can assist students
orientate themselves to the online environment and understand what is
expected of them. Not all elements of the course should be re-branded
to illustrate the ‘e’ element as Gilly Salmon suggests with
her ideas for renaming ‘e-tutors’ (2000, pp. 169-171). The
MGI course is structured around weekly ‘sessions’ to provide
continuity and structure. Each module shares a similar navigational structure
and design. Online support for modules delivered in the Department of
Information Science is indicated by a grading system which denotes what
students can expect from that particular type of module. This system has
increased student satisfaction with the online environment and assisted
with managing expectations. The model is likely to be rolled out across
the University so that students understand what tools are available online.
The needs of the students combined with the requirements
of the course should be carefully balanced. Making the design of the environment
consistent and clearly structured can assist with student usage.
Creating Online Communities
The Department of Information Science uses the online learning environment
to generate a sense of community by creating open spaces that all students
have access to. A Resource Centre has been developed where students can
share general information on issues relating to their different programme
routes, engage in induction activities, discuss professional opportunities
and receive information on Departmental policies and practice. The Resource
Centre includes a social area where students can participate in more informal
interaction. This means that the discussion areas for the teaching modules
are retained solely for pedagogic discussion but still gives the students
the opportunity to develop an informal network elsewhere within the online
learning environment. In addition, each degree programme has an online
space where students can discuss issues specific to that programme or
engage in informal chat. Chat rooms are also either designated social
or learning related areas. These structures provide a good foundation
for the development of an online community, as well as assisting with
the management and flow of information.
In conclusion, then, in order to benefit from the flexibility
inherent within the use of online education technologies for both staff
and students, clear guidance and strategies are needed. Structuring the
online environment and course material clearly can assist with orientation
of users, ensure student engagement with the course and assist with the
management of information. Channelling and organising the increase in
communication and information which is generated through online learning
is facilitated by transparent structures and support mechanisms. By reconsidering
the roles of those working with online learners, new modes of support
can be developed which are responsive to changing needs of all participants
within the online environment. In order to benefit from and capitalise
on the flexibility for teaching and learning encapsulated within online
learning environments, attention needs to be made to creating comprehensive,
organisational support strategies.
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Industry and Education, London: Kogan Page.
Collis, B. and Moonen, J. (2001), Flexible Learning in a Digital World,
London: Kogan Page.
Cornelius, S (2002), Learning Online in Carol A. Higgison (ed.), Online
Tutoring E-Book, chapter 1, Online at: (Retrieved 10 December, 2004)
E-learnspace (2004), Flexible Learning, Online at: (Retrieved 6 January,
Higher Education Funding Council for England (2003), Consultation on HEFCE
E-Learning Strategy: Annex A, (Retrieved 6 January, 2004).
Littlejohn, Alison and Carol A. Higgison (2003), A Guide for Teachers,
LTSN e-learning series no.3, York: LTSN.
LTSN (2004), Constructivism, Glossary of Terms in Learning and Teaching
in Higher Education¸ Online at: Retrieved 6 January, 2004)
(McKenzie, Jane (2000), Enriching Content Teaching through Long Term Process
Based Relationships for Online Learning Support, Case Study from Online
Tutoring E-Book, Online at: (Retrieved 6 January, 2004)
Murphy, D, Walker, R. and Webb, G. (eds.) (2001), Online Learning and
Teaching with Technology: Case Studies, Experience and Practice, London:
Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2001), Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom:
The Realities of Online Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Peters, L. (2001), Through the Looking Glass: Student Perceptions of Online
Learning, Technology Source, September/October 2001, Online at: (Retrieved
6 January, 2004)
Salmon, G. (2000), E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online
(London: Kogan Page)
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Simpson, O. (2000), Supporting Students in Open and Distance Learning.
London: Kogan Page.
Dr Susannah Quinsee
Head of E Learning/Associate Director of Library Information Services
City University, Northampton Square, London, UK
Teaching fellow & Senior lecture in Renal care
City University School of Nursing and Midwifery
Philpot St, E1 2EA London, UK
The term 'free open source software' (FOSS) (free as in freedom, not beer)
introduced by Richard Stallman/FSF 1984 focuses on political, ethical
and philosophical freedom. The term 'open source' software (OSS) introduced
by OSI in 1997 focuses on technological advantage by means of accessing
the source code. Although most FOSS licenses match both definitions, OSS
is less restrictive than FOSS. For the sake of our argument, OSS is commonly
used for both terms.
See the website of the Free Software Foundation at http://www.fsf.org.
A comprehensive review of “The Free Software Definition” can
be found at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html
(Retrieved 12 December, 2004)
More information on the OSI can be found at
As illustration see ”Linux vs. Windows – Total Cost of Ownership”,
a comparison of total costs between systems based on Linux/Open source
and MS Windows, by Cybersource Pty. Ltd. 2002. From http://www.cyber.com.au/cyber/