LA/7134 January 2002


Egmont House, 25-31 Tavistock Place, London, WC1H 9UT % 020-7670 9700

fax: 020-7670 9799 email: www: /


TO: LA secretaries and specialist group committees

TOPIC: Statement on online distance education

ACTION: For distribution to members, discussion and comment

SUMMARY: Statement on online distance education

HQ CONTACT: Rob Copeland, research officer (education policy)



Dear Colleague


Over the last few years, the association's education and development committee has become increasingly concerned about the 'quality' implications of online distance education. As a result, we have developed a draft statement on "e-universities" covering issues such as academic freedom, quality assurance, governance, intellectual property, training and workload. We would welcome comments on these principles and to what extent they might be of use to local associations in assessing the acceptability of online teaching and learning proposals.


I hope that you will be able to distribute the paper as widely as possible among your members (it is also available on our website) and encourage them to comment on the important issues that it raises. We are particularly keen to elicit the views of members who have specialist knowledge of online and distance education.


All comments on the paper will be welcome and should be sent to Rob Copeland by Thursday 28 March 2002.


Yours sincerely



Paul Cottrell,

Acting General Secretary




Why is a statement necessary?


Whilst the Association of University Teachers believes that new information communication technologies (ICT) and online distance education can enhance effective teaching, learning and research and should be positively welcomed, we are greatly concerned about the growing number of 'virtual' schemes which deviate from best practice in higher education. For example, the proposed arrangement between Universitas 21 and Thomson Learning to deliver online postgraduate courses has been strongly criticised by a range of international higher education unions.[i] In this proposal, Thomson - a for-profit education company - are to be given responsibility for course design, content, development, and student assessment. The 15 higher education institutions participating in the U21 network, including Glasgow, Birmingham and Nottingham from the UK, are merely contributing name recognition and quality assurance. As a trade union and a professional association we believe that core academic tasks, such as course design and assessment, should remain in the hands of the academic profession.


We also believe that there are major pedagogical issues at stake. One of the most disappointing aspects of HEFCE's initial model for a UK 'e-University' is the claim that distance education can now be provided purely by electronic means. In the business model produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers, face-to-face tutorial support is dismissed as "expensive and difficult to provide" and direct peer group interaction seen as unnecessary with the advent of "chat rooms & bulletin boards".[ii] This technophilia is highly inappropriate for three main reasons. First, quality educational provision depends upon the student having access to dynamic, real-time discussions facilitated by a member of academic staff. UK universities are currently unable to simulate this type of HE experience via digital channels. Second, the students themselves are a long way off acquiring the ICT equipment necessary to participate in an effective learning environment. Third, students continue to want the social interactions that are associated with face-to-face education (let alone opportunities to acquire skills such as oral communication and teamwork).


Virtual or 'e-universities' throw up two major issues for the association and our sister organisations: "the fact that the courses are delivered through ICT mechanisms, and the role that corporate interests play in the new consortia."[iii] Concerns about pedagogy and commercialisation overlap in the areas of academic freedom, quality assurance, governance, intellectual property, training and workload. It is these issues we would like to address in the following statement on online distance education.[iv] We hope that our principles for good practice will be useful to local associations and members in assessing the 'quality' of e-university programmes and courses. In this sense, they are designed to complement the specific and detailed guidelines on the quality assurance of distance learning produced by the Quality Assurance Agency.[v] At the same time, we acknowledge the need for international action in the area of "borderless education". We, therefore, support moves by Education International to develop guidelines for best practice in relation to transnational HE and to actively pursue their ratification and implementation by UNESCO, the ILO, the WTO and international accreditation bodies.[vi]







The association believes that academic freedom applies to online distance education as well as traditional face-to-face teaching. We believe that:



      Staff engaged in online distance education should have the same degree of academic freedom as other HE teachers and researchers. This should be in full accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO statement on the rights and freedoms of higher education teaching personnel.[vii] For example, staff members should have the same degree of freedom to select and present materials in online courses as they have in classroom situations.


      Pedagogical decisions, such as methods of presentation and course materials, should be under the direction of the staff member(s) assigned to develop and/or teach the online distance education course.




As much as possible, online courses should seek to comply with the established practices, procedures and criteria which have been developed for classroom-based courses. For example, we believe that teaching and research staff, not just "curriculum designers", need to be involved in developing the course and its materials. Regardless of the medium, student learning is enhanced by being taught by staff members who are actively engaged in curriculum development, scholarship and research.


For the association the basic elements of quality distance education include:


      teaching and research staff involvement in course development and approval;

      courses being taught by qualified staff appointed and evaluated through established institutional, faculty and departmental processes;

      oversight of the course by relevant academic committees to ensure conformity with existing traditions of course quality and programmatic coherence.


Interaction and communication


We also believe that best practice using new technologies should be supported by a high level of interaction and communication between academic staff and the student. For example, principal communication skills can only be developed in face-to-face situations.


Distance learning courses should, to the greatest extent possible, incorporate both electronic and face to face interactions.


      Electronically, this should include both real-time exchanges, such as chat rooms and discussion groups, and asynchronous forms of communication, such as email.


      Contrary to HEFCE's business model for the 'e-U', there should be meaningful opportunities for face-to-face interaction between teacher and students, or among students. Pastoral care systems - a key element in QAA inspections - should be available for distance education students.


      Adequate access to libraries, laboratories and other high quality learning materials should be available for students participating in online learning courses.


Free course materials


The association strongly welcomes the decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to make almost all of its course materials available for free on the World Wide Web.[viii] MIT's OpenCourseWare project represents a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age. We hope other institutions will follow the non-profit route.




Quality assurance mechanisms


The association insists on high quality and standards. We believe:


      the level of achievement expected of distance education students should be as challenging as that in a classroom-based course;

      effective methods are needed to overcome possible problems with plagiarism and fraud.


When the required level cannot be achieved, programmes and courses should be rejected by the appropriate quality or accrediting bodies. In the proposal for a UK "e-University", responsibility will rest with a Committee for Academic Quality. The committee's role will be to carry out functions which are comparable to a senate or academic board within a traditional university. The committee, and similar bodies such as U21's quality assurance arm (pedagogica) will be crucial in guaranteeing the credibility of e-university schemes.


As a result of the growing involvement of universities in global internet alliances, we support calls for an intergovernmental or international non-government agency to develop quality assurance processes.




The issue of quality control and assurance is bound up with that of university governance. Decisions about online education - and whether or not to enter into partnership with commercial organisations - should be properly discussed by university governing bodies. Councils, senates and academic boards are charged with the 'good governance' of the institution and must be involved at all stages of the process. Although commercial agreements do require a degree of confidentiality, when public institutions are underwriting such ventures, there must be effective participation by staff and students. However, in the case of U21 Global there appears to be no mechanism available for taking on board the views of these groups.




Generally speaking, universities assign the copyright attached to course materials to the author. However, in a more commercial online environment, universities are moving away from existing conventions on ownership and use of intellectual property. A good example is the partnership with five leading universities (LSE, Columbia, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Chicago) to sell online business courses. This project has resulted in the establishment of an e-university - 'Cardean University'.[ix] In this model, the universities assert their ownership rights as employers of academics to any intellectual property that is developed. For example, Cardean pays the universities in return for receiving assistance from their staff to produce courses or short classes. The money goes to the universities, which will then reward the participating staff under terms devised by each institution.[x] Under traditional arrangements, provisions exist whereby authors of copyright material receive a direct benefit from its commercial exploitation.


The association believes that:

      The materials created by staff members for distance education courses should be treated in exactly the same fashion as materials created for traditional courses. Authors should seek to retain copyright of this material, whether it is in print or electronic form, while allowing for its free use by the institution for legitimate teaching purposes. Where the institution chooses to exploit such material commercially, the revenues should be distributed in line with negotiated arrangements.







Workload issues also need to be considered by higher education institutions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that staff preparation time for distance education courses is greater than classroom based ones. Communicating with students electronically is also a time-consuming activity, and there is added issue of 'out-of hours' contact with distance students. The association believes that if online courses and programmes are to become an effective part of the university curriculum:


      Staff must be provided with adequate training and technical support.

      Extra compensation should be given to staff to meet the major time commitments of online education. For example, this could take the form of additional credit towards a staff member's teaching and/or administrative load.

      Institutional staff reward systems, such as promotion, need to positively recognise the work involved in designing online courses.






[i]For details of this opposition, see the National Tertiary Education Union (Australia)

[ii]HEFCE, Business model for the e-university, Bristol: HEFCE, October 2000, pp. 20-1.

[iii]Dr Carolyn Allport, Educating and organising across a global world: a perspective on the Internet and higher education, Prepared for Education International conference, Paris: December 2000.

[iv]The following document draws upon similar guidelines produced by the American Federation of Teachers, Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice, Washington DC: AFT, May 2000; American Association of University Professors, Statement on Distance Learning, Washington DC: AAUP; American Association of University Professors, Sample Language for Institutional Policies and Contract Language, Washington DC: AAUP.

[v]Quality Assurance Agency, Guidelines on the Quality Assurance of Distance Learning, Gloucester: QAA, 1999.

[vi]Education International's policy can be found at

[vii]United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Recommendation concerning the status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, (see

[viii]Carey Goldberg, 'Auditing Classes at M.I.T., on the Web and Free', New York Times, April 4, 2001.

[ix]The consortium of five universities all have minority stakes in the venture and will share in any profits. For details of Cardean University (see

[x]Goldie Blumenstyk, 'A Company Pays Top Universities to Use Their Names and Their Professors,' Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 1999.