Higher Education through Open and Distance Learning

By Keith Harry | Go to book overview
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Chapter 11-1

Distance education in Australia

Bruce King

The development of open and distance learning in Australian higher education over the last decade is inextricably bound to the changes which have shaped the university sector in general. This results from the particular model of distance and open provision which has characterised the Australian higher education scene since the establishment of the University of New England in the 1950s. 1 Those courses offered off-campus are simultaneously run on-campus, by the same academic staff, and with identical curricula and expectations of students wherever they study. Only the delivery mode is different. This means that for the large part of its short history in this country, open and distance provision at university level has had characteristics which distinguish it from experience elsewhere. Two examples will suffice to make the point.

First, off-campus provision has been for one of two reasons: institutional viability or considerations of access and equity. The connection between these is sometimes blurred. This needs some explanation. Australian universities, many of which were established initially as colleges of advanced education, have typically been commuter institutions. There has not been a significant pattern of students relocating between towns and cities to pursue study programmes. Further, a number of institutions were established in regional communities by way of government support for politically sensitive electorates. Unless those institutions were highly specialised (e.g. in agricultural studies) it was extremely difficult for them to establish a viable teaching programme in even a minimal range of discipline areas without recruiting beyond their local communities. Not surprisingly, nearly all became significant distance education providers. Metropolitan-based institutions that moved to off-campus delivery of some courses had more mixed motivations. Course viability sometimes played a part, but a larger consideration was government and social concern about overcoming barriers to access in higher education. Of course, one person’s institutional viability can be another’s social justice. The latter has tended to dominate the consciousness of educators.

Second, the Australian higher education scene is very much that of

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