Distance learning provides a wide opportunity for learners to access postgraduate qualifications. With the establishment of such open and distance learning (ODL) institutions like open universities and e-learning programs by higher learning institutions around the world, more learners are getting into postgraduate degree programs. In the United Kingdom, for example, a group of reputable institutions have established the UKeU (UK e-Universities). This article looks at the types of programs offered (master’s and doctorate) and their characteristics in contrast to traditional on-campus study. We will look into the challenges and issues faced by distance learning postgraduate-degree providers, as well as those faced by the learners. Among the issues are accreditation and recognition, curriculum and assessment, instructional methods, factors influencing learners’ choice of postgraduate programs, and institutional support for learners. Finally, we discuss the effects of postgraduate distance learning programs in the education landscape as a whole.
Scott (1998) gave a lengthy discussion on the internationalization and massification of education, and some of the dimensions examined were the market-driven nature of student flows, international flows of academic staff, interuniversity collaboration, and the flow of ideas around the world. A crucial part of this internationalization and massification is definitely attributed to distance learning as a gateway to all the four dimensions above. Distance learning fulfills the demand of students for access to higher education (nonphysical flow), the intrinsic role and goal of academics as global players (being at one place, yet functioning in different regions around the world), the active collaboration of universities (as in distance learning consortia), and the communication and interaction needs through computer and media technologies.
Certainly, opportunities for distance learning are proliferating with the increasing development of computer and communications technology with improved connectivity, accessibility, viability, reliability, and usability. More and more people are getting acquainted with distance learning, and learners are starting to choose this form of learning for various reasons. McCann, Christmass, Nicholson, and Stuparich (1998), for example, have identified several reasons for the increasing demand in e-learning, which include (a) the growth of online economy and the move from old to new economy, (b) the growing demand for skills and ongoing education, (c) the developing global market in education, and (d) the developing acceptance by teachers of the value of e-learning as a teaching method. This scenario is helped by the hyped popularity of online learning as the current trend in higher education.
As distance education expands, Sherry (1996) argues that issues pertaining to learner characteristics and needs, the influence of media on the instructional process, equity of access to interactive delivery systems, and the new roles of the instructor and students in distance learning must be dealt with. Perraton (1988) rightly argues that theories of distance education must be based on existing philosophies of education as the foundational framework. There are differences with traditional educational theories, of course, but the foundation serves as a useful guide in examining and scrutinizing distance education.
Oravec (2003) noted that the diversity and range of new educational pathways in distance learning could be confusing to prospective students. There are just too many postgraduate distance learning programs available, so many different types of institutions in so many different regions around the world, so many different program structures and services, and so many promises and doubts that come together with distance learning.
However, as the demand of the workforce and employers on upgrading qualifications increases, postgraduate degrees by distance learning are gaining increasing prominence. Institutions offering distance learning have progressively mushroomed in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Curriculum: The content, structure, and format of an educational course or program.
Postgraduate: An advanced degree above the level of bachelor’s, that is, master’s (MSc, MS, MBA, MA) and doctorates (PhD, EdD, DSc).
Consortia: An organization formed from several businesses or enterprises joining together as a group for a shared purpose.
Assessment: The evaluation of the amount, value, quality, or importance of something.
Accreditation: An external quality-review process used by higher education to evaluate colleges, universities, and educational programs or courses to ensure and improve quality.
Residency Requirements: Requirement to be on campus for a certain amount of time, continuously or accumulated, during the undertaking of a course or program at a particular institution of learning.
Open and Distance Learning: Learning where learners have some flexibility and control as to when, where, and how they learn, balanced by structure and support from the educational provider.