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'Dearth of expertise' in open learning

TESNEC survey reveals small-scale uptake. By Ian Nash and Anne Nicholls.

Britain's colleges lack the cash, courses and trained staff to buy into Government plans for an open learning revolution, a national survey has revealed.

A two-tier system of haves and have-nots is emerging as a handful of colleges stand to exploit new deals such as the University for Industry, which was given Pounds 5 million to pilot initiatives in last week's Budget.

Two out of three further education, sixth-form and adult education colleges offer some sort of open and distance learning. Such courses made higher education at home and work possible through the Open University. But almost a third are doing nothing.

The survey was carried out by the National Extension College, one of the biggest providers of distance learning, and The TES, to see how colleges were using new learning schemes and how well-prepared they were for the Kennedy committee's recommendations on widening participation in FE.

But the survey reveals that most open and distance-learning schemes are small-scale. Of the 143 colleges which replied to the survey, 91 were doing open and distance learning in 44 subjects.

But levels of involvement were extremely low. Only six had more than 1, 000 students, 69 had fewer than 500 and 19 had fewer than 50 students.

Cost was a barrier. Colleges said open-learning schemes were expensive to set up. They said they did not have the time, resources or the motivation to try new ideas. Many colleges were not convinced that there was a demand for it.

Staff, who had seen computer-based learning pushed through as a cost-cutting measure, were suspicious of management motives. A number of colleges spoke of the lack of management support.

Few colleges are making substantial investment, although some are investing large sums. Croydon College has invested Pounds 90,000 and may plough Pounds 120,000 into open- learning systems. It has seen a five-fold increase in demand in five years and expects similar growth by 2002.

Lack of cash was seen as the key barrier, closely followed by difficulties getting the systems in place in college which would allow distance working in the home and workplace.

But the repeated claim that there is no demand is belied by the response of students. The assumptions that huge capital investment was needed was challenged by the fact that many schemes cater for only a handful of students.

On the positive side, 13 colleges were thinking seriously about open and distance-learning schemes. However, four said there was a decline in this work.

The survey report concludes: "There are clear messages that there is a dearth of expertise in how to set up and deliver open and distance learning. Those few colleges who are running it successfully with large numbers stand out as being atypical.

"With the likely establishment of the University for Industry and a national framework for open and distance learning, colleges will need to be able to deliver flexible learning. In some cases, survival may depend on it."

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