Educom Review table of contents
November/December 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 6 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE. See for additional copyright information.
An EDUCAUSE publication


Toward a Model of Distributed Learning:
An Interview with Mike Fitzgerald

Mike Fitzgerald is recognized as one of the United Kingdom's leading strategic thinkers on the emerging knowledge society. He spent twelve years at the Open University in the United Kingdom, where he was Dean and Director of Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences. He was Deputy Director for Academic Development at Coventry Polytechnic before serving as Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive for Thames Valley University (TVU) for seven years. He resigned from TVU in 1998 in a bitter dispute over the level of academic standards at TVU, which the UK's Quality Assurance Agency argued had been compromised by widening participation. It is a dispute that raises fundamental questions for UK higher education.

Currently, Fitzgerald provides strategic support and policy advice on learning and development to a range of organizations in the public and private sectors. Fitzgerald is a leading presenter on the future of higher education in general, and on issues concerning new technologies and media in particular, for numerous television and radio programs in the United Kingdom. He is a regular speaker at educational, professional, and industrial conferences in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States.

Fitzgerald's experiences at the Open University and TVU reflect a career-long commitment to providing broad access to higher education for all segments of society and to promoting the thoughtful application of information technology to teaching and learning.

Educom Review: You have said that assessment should be part of the teaching process, not a post-course evaluation activity. Can you elaborate on that idea?

Mike Fitzgerald: Historically, in the UK and elsewhere, there have been three main models of higher education. I think we're moving into a fourth, which doesn't really have a title yet, but distributed learning seems to be emerging as the organizing concept of it.

Very broadly, first you had the original Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) model, a craft model of education, based on a one-to-one relationship with a tutor. You had the relationship with the tutor; you went to see the tutor, and you agreed to a particular essay or a particular topic. The tutor would then advise you on resources that were available to you to help you answer the question -- whether the resources were lectures, whether they were seminars, whether they were workshops, library facilities, books and journals, and so forth. You went away, you worked on that topic, you came back with your essay, and you talked that through with your tutor. That was basically how the model worked. What that did was it made you an active learner because if you showed up in two weeks' time and you had nothing, there was no point in your being there. So it wasn't a question of, "Well, I've been to the lectures, I've done my work." If you didn't actually show up with anything, there was nothing to talk about. You weren't really progressing, regardless of how many lectures you were showing up for.

What then happened was that as higher education grew, it developed into a kind of industrial model, which became very much a group of staff deciding, either as a group or individually, what course they were going to offer, what lectures they were going to give, and therefore what tutorials they would have and what special facilities they would need, and then after that, they finally got round to how they were going to assess it. They completely reversed the process.

What the Open University did in the UK was an interesting recovery of the original craft model. It produced a whole wealth of resources, mainly print but also television and radio and later videotapes and CD-ROMs, but the primary vehicle for students studying in that program is actually the assessment package. Students have a tutor, they write essays or produce synopses, which they give to the tutor and which the tutor then comments on, not just in the sense of assessing the work and giving it a mark, grading it in some way, but actually in the sense of working with the students on how they could have improved it. This enables students who perhaps are new, particularly adult students, to be able to look back over the year and reread their first essays and see the progress that they had made themselves, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of the way in which they had made the argument and the way in which they had begun to talk the language of a particular discipline they were studying and use the methodologies of that discipline. Assessment thus becomes a major vehicle for teaching and learning.

You had the craft model and the industrial model, and the OU was the post-industrial model. What we're now moving toward is a fourth model, where you're getting the integration of different modes of teaching and learning, rather than saying, on the one hand we have distance, and on the other we have face-to-face. What we're actually seeing is the convergence of those two. There are very, very few students who will do a course wholly in distance, wholly as an isolated, individuated learner.

I think that's a very different model of higher education, which is interesting because what it is doing, in a sense, is it is seeing the main, original thrust of higher education, which in the UK was the Oxbridge model, as a tradition being recovered as a way of individuating mass higher education -- so that mass higher education is not something where everybody does the same thing. The question is, how can we actually individuate it? I think that's what is really exciting about new technologies, communications, and the network. I'm much more interested in the communications and the network than I am interested in the technology. It's the network that is probably the metaphor for the university of the twenty-first century.

ER: How are we going to get from here to there?

Fitzgerald: With an awful lot of struggle. One of the great strengths of the book Dancing with the Devil is that it recognizes the huge diversity within as well as between institutions, within and between different groups of students. What we're seeing is the potential to recover the individual tradition, which then gives you the opportunity to have people learning individually within a collective environment. I think learning is a profound human experience, primarily a social experience. Although students need to learn on their own at times, maybe sit quietly and read somewhere or do some kind of experiment on their own, we need to recognize that students also learn with and from each other. They learn as much from each other as they do from staff. What we need to do is use assessment as a way of harnessing all of that learning, to recognize that that is what the course is about. It's not simply a list of aims and objectives and learning outcomes, which we tend to get trapped into. Just as you need students to be active learners, so you need teachers to be active tutors. A lecture-driven model renders both teachers and learners passive.

ER: We talk about learning outcomes, but that's not what you're talking about, is it?

Fitzgerald: No. You can tell me what the learning outcomes are going to be. Fine. But how are you going to know whether or not I've learned those things? That's the question I'm trying to ask. We're really talking about effort. What is the quality of the effort that students have made in taking this program? What is the quality of the effort that the staff have made? What is the quality of the effort that the institution has made in putting on this program? That is a much more interesting way of talking about quality, of talking about higher education. Because it recognizes that education is something you do; it's not something that happens to you. It is an active process. The great thing about the network, the communications, and the technology is that it makes you act. If you sit in front of the television screen, you don't actually have to do anything. You can be quite passive, and the program will play. If you sit in front of the computer screen and you log on, and then you do nothing, you will simply get logged off. Nothing happens. That's what's great about the opportunity for harnessing the technology, the communications, and the network: it puts back at the heart of the teaching/learning process the notion of active students and active faculty.

ER: Do you see this kind of change happening in large research universities?

Fitzgerald: I think that's actually how many first-class researchers organize their work. That's how they do research. Apart from at the big labs, where they have very big facilities and large numbers of people present on-site, most people who are active in research are already engaging in a networked community. I know people, for example, who are all in the same university in the UK -- and they're in very, very well regarded research centers -- where the chances that any two of them are working on the same set of issues are actually quite small. Individuals are working with a globally dispersed people, and they've already harnessed the network. They've already harnessed the technology to make that work for them. Yes, they still go to their conferences, and yes, they still present papers, but they are just as likely to communicate with each other and share ideas using the network. Ironically, for those people who are active researchers, they're probably already better placed to transfer that notion of active research and the organization of active research and the methodology of active research into active teaching and learning. It's the people who are not active researchers who may be having the most problems with this. The problem for a lot of people who do research in the UK is that when we start talking about teaching, we get into the teaching versus research. What's much more interesting is to look at the organizational methodologies by which people are doing that research and see how they can be applied to teaching.

ER: In U.S. institutions, there haven't been motivators to focus on undergraduate teaching in research universities. What might have to happen at the university level to motivate faculty to be as creative as they can be in terms of undergraduate teaching?

Fitzgerald: The question is whether you can harness the same energy in the things faculty have been doing in research to actually help with their undergraduate work. I think you can. The problem is that a lot of the people in teaching and learning see many of the opportunities that we now have, the forces that are operating within higher education and outside higher education, as challenging to traditional teaching and to the traditional notion of what it is to be a student. They're the people who have the real problems. They're the people who need the most help. The research community is already engaged in the world in which we're traveling to. I don't think the teaching-versus-research debate is actually a debate about teaching methods. I think it's a different debate -- about time, about reward. The really interesting thing in the UK, in my experience, is that a lot of the people who are very, very committed to teaching and learning are the ones who are having the most trouble making this move and feel the most threatened by it.

ER: Let's shift to some of the issues surrounding the costs of education. Sir John Daniel pointed out dramatic differences between the costs of delivering courses through Great Britain's Open University and the costs of higher education in the United States. What is it that makes the economy in an open university model?

Fitzgerald: It's very difficult to make comparisons between costs to the student in British higher education and costs to the student in America because the situations are very different. It was only last year that full-time undergraduate students in the UK started making any contributions toward their tuition fees. It's always been a very different model. But it's a model that's changing now in the UK. Universities are not allowed, for example, to differentiate between each other as institutions, nor are they allowed to differentiate between core programs. The Open University is interesting because students have always paid. Part-time students, who are increasingly the majority in British higher education, have always made a contribution toward their fees, but even then they're not always paying the full costs.

The more fundamental issue that affects the emerging higher education industry is that the cost basis is going to shift much more toward a distributed learning model. In the traditional university, very small amounts of your costs are associated with planning a course. Most of your costs start when you actually have students, when you need staff to teach them and you need facilities to teach them in, and you need libraries and librarians and computers. It's only when you have the students that you have the costs. In the open university model, about 85-90 percent of your program costs are in producing one copy of the material, whatever media that material is. The open university is not a multimedia organization -- it's a multiple-media organization. A very significant part of your costs are actually associated with producing one copy. It's a volume-related business. The more students you have in a set program, the more economical it is to put a course on. If you put in a million dollars to produce material and you have one student, you're in trouble. If you put in a million dollars and you have eight hundred or eight thousand students a year for four years, you have a very different economic resource model. The problem for universities is that IT is seen as a one-off cost, which you capitalize. You've really got to see it as a much more strategic, continuing infrastructure cost. It is now a utility cost, like electricity and water. You have to decide how much you're going to invest each year and continue to make that investment. It raises all the additionality and substitution questions that Bob Zemsky has raised so powerfully. You're seeing the emerging of higher education into a model that has more to do with my distributed learning model than it has to do with the traditional higher education model. That is very challenging at a time when resources are so strapped. However hard you try, however adept the president and the senior staff are, at the end of the day, you've got to face those questions. The argument is about substitution and additionality. That's the real bullet we've got to bite.

ER: How does a university that has an established physical plant and that has functioned in this very traditional way for a century now move toward embracing distance learning? Does such a program need to be developed as a separate program?

Fitzgerald: No. I think that what you'll see is the new model of higher education. Even on a traditional, wholly residential campus, where students will go study for three or four years full-time, the fact is that students spend most of their time working outside of any existing faculty. The amount of time that they use the facilities will vary both from student to student, course to course, and for the same student within the same course. What's beginning to emerge is a recognition that it's not helpful to differentiate students by mode of attendance. A student is a student, learning and earning at the same time. In a distributed learning, multiple-media environment, a student is a student. That's what we need to recognize. The same student will have different needs at different times depending on the situation. Students will differ in how much face-to-face access they have to staff, how much personal access they have to libraries.

Of course, one of the advantages of moving to a network model is that you can now provide, through the Web, resources that were previously available only to a privileged few on-site. The poorest college, the poorest university, can now offer the most extraordinary wealth of information to its students through the Net. That is an enormous boon to students. But we also need to be aware that information is not the same as knowledge. We have loads and loads of information. We get drowned in the stuff, but a lot of it is not knowledge. The interesting thing, of course, is how we translate information into knowledge and how we then translate knowledge into learning. It's the knowledge/learning access that universities and colleges bring to the table. It's not our job simply to provide access to information. There are many people now who can do that arguably far better than we can. We need to take that information and turn it into knowledge and turn it into learning, and what we're talking about then are Web-enabled communications.

ER: For distributed learning to be truly effective, our institutions will need to make library resources available over the network. What are the challenges there, particularly with respect to copyright and intellectual property?

Fitzgerald: Copyright is a huge challenge on the Net in the UK. That's why people like me are about multiple media, not multimedia. This rush to put all the course readings on the Web and let people download them is actually unhealthy. It's not a particularly effective or efficient way to organize the student's access. First, you have to see that the student has access to a printer, so chances are you may have to take books out of your library to make room for printers, then employ people to make sure the printers are working! Second, this is part of the issue of the quality of effort. An institution can make an effort to ensure the students have access by giving them copies of materials. We did that at Thames Valley University. We paid the copyright fees. We were just careful about how we gave the students access to material. The copyright charge, which we then paid, was significant. But we paid it. What I found was that this was an extremely efficient and effective educational method for giving students access to the material and for not transferring to them those costs historically borne by the institution. Putting it on the Web and expecting them to download it or, alternatively, putting a master copy in the library and telling them to go photocopy it seems to me not very sensible. I do think sometimes the economies of scale and questions about the appropriate use of new media have gotten lost.

ER: You have used the phrase "democratize higher education." What do you mean by that?

Fitzgerald: Although we talk about having a mass system of higher education in the UK, we don't. Something like 26-27 percent of eighteen-year-olds go into higher education. In Scotland, it's over 50 percent; in Northern Ireland, it's over 45 percent. The reality is that the UK doesn't have a mass system at all. We're a long way off. In the UK, we still have a system that's based on being exclusive. We still do not recognize that higher education is about being inclusive. The differences between someone from social class 1 and social class 5 participating in UK higher education are arguably greater than they were thirty years ago. The latest studies show that even armed with the same entry qualifications, applicants from poorer backgrounds are significantly less likely to secure a place at university and, even if they do, are more likely to drop out.

Second, in our typically English way, we have a wonderful way of confusing standards with standing. Because we're a class society, if you give us anything, we will find a way of putting it into class terms. We constantly confuse standing and standards. The standing of an organization is not the same as its standard. You can actually have organizations that have very high standing and whose standards may be quite suspect. You can have an organization with a very low standing but whose standards are very high. When I was originally at Open University, that was always one of the arguments: how to develop standards, maintain standards, and at the same time, separately, develop the standing of the Open University. That was a big challenge.

ER: What is the standing of the Open University today?

Fitzgerald: Externally, it's extremely well regarded, both nationally and internationally. It's recognized as such by employers. The more employers see the need for lifelong learning, the more the Open University becomes more valid and more valuable. It's a long way from the days when I was there. I remember people wanting to throw a party because the Post Office, which was a nationalized industry, had recognized an Open University degree as equal to any other degree. It was the first nationalized industry to do so.

People have forgotten it was a long struggle. The Open University, certainly in the UK and you could argue internationally, is the most extraordinary achievement of the last forty years in higher education. It shows that you can introduce and develop a different model and a new approach to higher education and be enormously successful not only nationally but internationally. What it also shows is that you have to have the right sort of funding. But more important, you have to have people -- students and staff of all types -- who are absolutely committed to the idea. The great thing about the Open University and the staff we worked with, whether they were full-time or part-time, the great thing about the students in the Open University, is that they're all totally committed to the idea of the university. There were all kinds of problems about the organization of the institution, but everyone remained committed. We used to have terrible internal arguments at times, but if anybody from outside the OU attacked us, we would all stick together. That's what's different about other parts of higher education. Certainly, in my experience at Thames Valley University, there was no recognition of the idea of the university as being more important than the institution, and some people had no loyalty either to the idea or to the institution. The greatest challenge for higher education now is for people to be able to develop that loyalty to the idea of higher education as being inclusive rather than exclusive.

ER: What do you think about the globalization aspects of the Open University, especially regarding the alliances with some American universities?

Fitzgerald: The establishment of the USA-OU is a fantastic opportunity to develop a model of distributed learning. As I understand the arrangements, the new USA-OU will be able to franchise courses from the UK-OU but will be set up and run as an autonomous institution. Richard Jarvis, newly appointed as the chancellor of the USA-OU, has a wonderful opportunity to harness the best of the U.S., UK, and other experiences to create something new and exciting. The USA-OU has the potential to put in place a new model of higher education for a new economy, and a new millennium, and on a fundamentally different cost base. What needs to be remembered is that distributed learning is not only about high tech; it is also about high touch and about support for students both individually and as a community of learners.

ER: Another phrase you have used is intriguing: "the student as producer"as well as consumer."

Fitzgerald: That goes back to assessment and teaching. In the UK there's been this whole thing about students as consumers. What I'm saying is: no, they're not just customers, they're also producers. Education isn't something that happens to you; it's something you do. The quality of the effort you make is important to what you get out of your education. What you get out is what you put in. I really worry about the consumer concept being imported lock, stock, and barrel into an environment where people need to take responsibility for their own learning. I come back to my original three models. The fourth model, the distributed learning model, which doesn't differentiate student by mode of attendance, is based on the very powerful notion of active learning.

ER: What is your vision of the future of education?

Fitzgerald: I think we're moving toward the network-based, not campus-based, university. That doesn't mean that campuses aren't important. It means that their role and people's relationship with them may change. We have the opportunity to createa new kind of learning network that involves the university, that involves home, that involves employment and community. In the past, people who learned at universities were regarded as full-time students. People who learned from home or elsewhere were regarded as part-time or distance students. My point is that students studying the same program will access that program from the home, from the university, from a place of employment, or from a community resource.

Demand for higher education will increase. But the demand will be for education that is more informal, more accessible, more learner-driven, and offered on a continuous basis. We have the opportunity to provide education freed from the constraints of time and space. In particular we have the opportunity to recover the tradition of active learning.

Most important, this isn't a vision for the future. It's a necessity for today. Education is the key, the economic and social driver of our countries. The reason education matters is not that education is primarily about knowledge or about skills or about competence. Education is primarily about confidence -- the confidence to learn, the confidence to grow, the confidence to ask questions and not always have the answers, the confidence to dream your dreams and realize your aspirations not only for your own sake but for the sake and the benefit of our society as a whole.

Note: Many of the ideas in this interview were also expressed in a speech delivered on July 19, 1999, at the NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers) annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. The author (e-mail: [email protected]) welcomes any questions or comments on the interview.

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