Supporting Students in Online, Open and Distance Learning (Second Edition)

Author(s) Simpson, Ormond
Publisher Kogan Page, London
Pages 226
ISBN 0749437405
Reviewed by Alan Tait
Faculty of Education and Language Studies, Open University
Review published 1 December 2004

This is the second edition of a book that was well reviewed on its first appearance in 1999, as offering for tutors 'a treasury of techniques to try out'. The second edition has been revised and expanded to include online learning with two additional chapters on 'Delivering student support by computer' and 'Computer conferencing in student support'. The book is one of the very considerable series in open and distance learning edited by the indefatigable Fred Lockwood of Manchester Metropolitan University for Kogan Page: in fact there are 31 volumes in the series by my count.

The book is essentially a collection of very practical resources to what is widely defined as 'complete a spectrum of activities as possible, from the organising and management of student support including staff development through to direct interaction with students as advisors, mentor and other roles'. The audience is intended as all those who are involved in or who are planning to be involved in supporting students in this field, although the author himself adds very sensibly that much of what is here would interest anyone working with students in higher education, whether in a so-called conventional context or using the range of media and systems that come under the broad title of 'online, open and distance'. The book would be particularly useful to those starting out in teaching or otherwise working with students, and those planning new systems or activities. The new chapters on student support delivered by computer and conferencing offer a basic introduction to these areas for novice practitioners, while those more experienced will want to follow up the issues in work by Gilly Salmon or Martin Weller.

The overall approach is one deriving from a humanistic conception of learning that would call itself 'student-centred'. This is not laboured theoretically - indeed the chapter on theory is restricted to 3 pages - but is clearly informed by a lifetime of experience of working with and listening to students. The author's working context has been the Open University (as is the reviewer's!), but while a number of examples are drawn from OU practice the range of activities and cases are not overall restricted or blinkered in any institutional sense.

The chapters cover functions such as tutoring and advising, media such as print and online media, learning skills, the range of special needs that students can bring such as sensory impairment, student support and retention, and staff development. All of these include practical activities and approaches that can and are intended to be adapted, photocopied and used with your own learners.

The chapter on learning skills can be taken in more detail as one example that demonstrates the wisdom of the book's overall approach. The author starts by asserting that in his view there are almost as many ways for students to learn effectively as there are students. He thus avoids the snake oil salesman approach - the dogmatic insistence that one particular magic in learning skill development will act as the magic bullet, and prefers to provide a range of activities on time management, the clarification of motives, stress management, tackling course materials, writing skills and exam revision and writing techniques. These all draw most substantially on approaches to group work that Simpson terms 'snowballing' viz. working in pairs, fours and then in plenary group, and on student experience rather than a particular approach to best practice in any of these. Thus the approaches in this chapter as well as elsewhere access the affective dimensions of student experience, putting what learners want to tell about these issues at the core of development, rather than viewing them as poor practitioners who have to be instructed in best practice or technique. This approach accords with recent thinking about 'academic literacies', although here developed independently.

With the expansion of the range of activities in further and higher education in such varied ways that in any one institution you are likely to find the whole spectrum of learning and teaching methods, including classroom based, conventional distance education and on-line learning, as well as student support services delivered through advisors, tutors, lecturers and departments of Student Services or Learning Support, this volume will be of very wide interest. It represents a resource that every college and university could valuably make use of.