Distant Learning: A study tour in New South Wales

Author/Producer Keith Webb / ESCalate
Published in ESCalate news (Autumn 2007)
Date Published 23 October 2007
Pages 2


Earlier this year Keith Webb a Development Grant holder undertook a study tour of new south Wales, this is his report.


Keith Webb is Director of the FDTL 5[1] Project, “Associate Online”, and is based in the School of Education and Professional Development at the University of Huddersfield.Earlier this year Keith was funded by an Escalate Development Grant to undertake a study tour of New South Wales, Australia, designed to inform further development of the project.

Some relevant web sites can be found at www.escalate.ac.uk/publications

Being a relatively compact and densely populated country, our experience of distance learning in England is limited. Even so, students can feel isolated for reasons besides geography and this applies to part-time, in-service trainee teachers in the post-16 sector. When compared to the national curriculum in schools, the range of specialisms that are taught in the Learning and Skills Sector is great, and this means that there are few chances for these trainee teachers to engage with others who share their specialism.

Often, such trainees are the only teacher of their specialism on their PGCE/Cert Ed course and/or in the place where they work – whether that specialism is plumbing, philosophy, photography, pottery, politics, or whatever. They are geographically dispersed and professionally isolated – although new technologies now hold out the prospect for them to join communities of practice that will effectively support their professional development.

As Director of a project concerned with making such communities available, I have been keen to learn of related developments in comparable contexts. “Associate Online” is a collaborative initiative involving four English HEIs with 6,000 trainees between them. Funding from FDTL 5 has allowed the development of 48 specialism-based online communities that will be operational from September 2007.

These will support trainees through

· facilities that range from “Ask-an-expert” and “FAQs on Pedagogy” to “Virtual Moderation” and a “Collaborative Resources Generator”;

· links to specialism-specific resource-banks, practitioner networks, “video master-classes” and the like.

As this initial phase draws to a close, further development of these communities is in prospect. However, we have found no equivalent initiatives in UK to learn from, and we have therefore looked further afield for practice that could serve as a model for the next phase of development. On four grounds, it appeared that we could learn a lot from New South Wales, Australia. Although the furthest away in distance, it appeared to be the closest to our needs in terms of relevant experience and expertise.

· Charles Sturt University equates with the University of Huddersfield in UK in terms of its scale, its nature and its focus on training teachers for “TAFE” (Technical and Further Education);

· there is much experience of working with dispersed and isolated students. Some students I met have to drive for five hours to get to their nearest town. Further, the process of supporting them through new technologies has been quite extensively researched (e.g. via the TAFE Stage 2 online initiative);

· the University of Wollongong (UoW) has a pioneering development unit (CEDIR) that explores and exploits new technologies for supporting teaching and learning in HE.

· UoW was the host of the sixth (2007) International Educational Leadership Conference on “Leading Learning Communities: Strategies, Action and Reflection”.

Such factors combined to make a unique opportunity to inform the strategic development plan for Associate Online, and to prepare for the post-FDTL phase that is to start in January 2008. Fortunately, making such preparations also appeared to fall within the purposes of Escalate Development Grants and an application for sponsorship of a study tour was approved. As a result, I was able to spend a hectic, but most valuable, week in NSW in mid-February, 2007.

Among the principal outcomes of the tour were:

· Formulation of research-based means of promoting effective pedagogic practice through online delivery. That process is now very much reflected in Associate Online developments such as incorporation of a cross-institutional and collaborative assessment task that all partners will implement in 2007/8.

· Encouragement for an approach that goes beyond limited conceptions of online learning and professional development communities. In UK, these notions seem too often to be restricted to processes of co-operating (e.g. via a discussion board), rather than collaborating (e.g. via wikis). By contrast, in NSW, “learning communities” in general, and professional learning communities in particular, occupy a more central place in practice. Engagement with such communities is deep, collaborative, active and ongoing and, among other things, success is characterised by shared professional identity, by interactive peer-to-peer support and by creative and innovative team working.

Most important, though, was the insight that the study tour provided into processes that will have to underlie the “Phase 2” Strategic Development Plan for Associate Online. My expectations had been that NSW practitioners would assign a more significant role than was evident to technology in the shaping of developments. Instead, the evidence-led approaches to cultivating successful online communities of professional practice in NSW primarily address pedagogical and organisational concerns.

It was a long way to go to learn such a lesson, but it was well worth it in terms of ensuring a productive direction for future developments. And after all, that is the purpose of a study tour. If you knew what you would learn before you set out on it, what would be the point of going?

Useful Web Resources




[1] The Fund for Development of Teaching and Learning is a HEFCE initiative funded through the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund set up following the Dearing Report into HE