Toward a Model
of Distributed Learning:
An Interview with Mike Fitzgerald
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.
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.
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
You have said that assessment should be part of the teaching process,
not a post-course evaluation activity. Can you elaborate on that idea?
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
ER: How are
we going to get from here to there?
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
ER: We talk
about learning outcomes, but that's not what you're talking about, is
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?
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
is the standing of the Open University today?
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
do you think about the globalization aspects of the Open University,
especially regarding the alliances with some American universities?
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.
phrase you have used is intriguing: "the student as producer"as well
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.
is your vision of the future of education?
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.
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.
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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