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Distance connections

Ingenious homegrown technology introduced 30 years ago gave birth to what has now become a thriving distance learning programme at Otago, linking students, teachers and professional organisations.

There is a distinct sense of irony, sitting in the office of Dr Sarah Stein, Director of Distance Learning, with the busy sound of students drifting up from the floor of the Commerce Building atrium below.

It is a reminder of Otago's commitment to being a campus-based university, but one which recognises the need to provide the opportunity, through distance learning, for people who want to tap into the University's areas of specialisation.

2016 marks 30 years since the beginning of distance learning at Otago – a few students, hooked up by University of Otago-developed telephone-conferencing technology to a sophisticated programme which has now provided teaching to 17,000 students.

Heading into the second semester this year Otago had close to 1,900 individual distance learning students, which equates to about 350 equivalent full-time students or EFTS. Of the University's 4,000 postgraduate students about 25 per cent are enrolled in distance programmes, offering around 120 undergraduate and postgraduate papers.

"Most of them are part time, and most of the programmes are postgraduate and closely connected to professional work," Stein explains.

"The majority of the programmes are at the postgraduate diploma and postgraduate certificate level. There is a range of masters' – both course-work masters' and masters' by thesis," she says.

"The University is very clear that it's an on-campus, face-to-face University. Having said that, under the Teaching Excellence imperative [of the Strategic Direction to 2020] there is a bold statement that the University has a commitment to distance learning – particularly in the postgraduate area and areas of particular Otago expertise. Many of these things can't be studied anywhere else."

Stein says postgraduate study is a better fit with distance learning because of the focus on particular professions and workplaces.

"These are people who are interested in upskilling and learning more about their job, and some of the distance programmes have become an essential qualification to be registered with particular professional organisations."

This has created close connections with both workplaces and professional organisations, which sits well with the strategic aims of the University, says Stein.

Many of the programmes reflect Otago's strengths in Health Sciences, providing ongoing education and professional development for doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. Subject areas such as Aviation Medicine, Emergency Medicine and Travel Medicine are all seeing growth.

Meanwhile, postgraduate study in Clothing and Textile Sciences has been around for some time now, resulting in a close relationship with industry.

There is limited undergraduate distance teaching – for example, the Bachelor of Theology, which runs alongside postgraduate programmes in areas such as ministry, chaplaincy and theology. Undergraduate distance learning is also offered in years three and four of the Bachelor of Social Work.

Looking ahead, Stein says Commerce looks set to be a key area of growth with a range of masters' programmes, while the Division of Sciences is also moving more strongly into the distance learning space - for example the Science Communication programme.

Stein believes one of Otago's ongoing strengths is the way the distance staff look after students.

"Our attrition rate is really low. I'm sure it's the quality of the support they get from the people involved in teaching and administering the programmes."

The College of Education also offers a busy distance learning programme.
Professor Kwok-Wing Lai, Director of the Centre for Distance Education and Learning Technologies and who is chairing the working party organising the 30th anniversary celebrations, introduced distance learning at the college in 1997.

He had become increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of using ICT in education to support teaching and learning.

"In 1996 we didn't have a lot of postgraduate students in Education. The main reason was that they couldn't come here to study, so I started looking at technologies to support them," he says.

"There was little available so I actually had to design the whole course. I had to write my HTML page – I had to do everything. The server was in my office. It was fun, it was new."

Lai says some of the most advanced pedagogy comes from people working in distance education because they have to be so learner centred. He also talks about distance teaching as a way of providing equity for students who can't be on the campus.

"It is not necessarily that on-campus learning is better than online learning. Distance learning is not for everyone, but some people learn better online, because you learn at your own pace and you personalise your learning," he says.

Distance history

Former distance services librarian Judy Fisher is tackling the task of bringing together information, pictures and anecdotes for a display on the history of distance learning.

As she has discovered, there is not a lot of archived material and, while she has been able to get information through the Hocken, when it comes to individual departments, some are more able to help than others.

The story of the sort of modern distance learning practised by Otago goes back to the 1970s and '80s when Peter McMechan was the director of the Otago University Extension which used to take public lectures and seminars around the southern South Island.

In a previous position, McMechan had already recognised the possibilities of using NASA PEACESAT satellite telecommunications technology for distance learning. Otago staff member Jack Salmon developed what was known as the Unitel teleconferencing system – a simple box with an in-built speaker and plug-in microphones that could be plugged into a phone line at a remote location and then connected back to a network base at the University.

Those first distance-taught University Extension courses offered non-credit programmes, ranging from a discussion of Benjamin Britten's music to a symposium on paediatrics.

A Certificate in Humanities became the first University credit distance course in 1986, offering a range of topics such as Studies on the Renaissance, Concepts of Tragedy, and Harmony and History. Fisher says 45 students graduated from this course in 1988.

"By 1991 there were established programmes in Dentistry, Theology, Pharmacy, Social Work and Sport Studies to name a few, and new programmes being set up in General Practice, and Dietetics. International offerings had been approved, including an Australasian Aviation Medicine programme and a master's degree in Pharmacy in conjunction with Hong Kong University."

Fisher says distance teaching using the homegrown Unitel technology was ground-breaking in its day.

Celebration events

Those organising the programme to mark the 30th anniversary of Distance Learning at Otago are keen to make it an academic event as well as a celebration.

Working party chair Professor Kwok-Wing Lai says this will not be just a party.

"I want to make this an academic activity with an academic programme with a public component. We will have presentations, we will have workshops, we will have posters and it will be open to the public."

There will be four key components – a symposium, an exhibition, a publication and a dinner.

Although it will be based out of the Hutton Theatre from 3-4 November in the Otago Museum, it will also be made available online – in good distance learning fashion. Many of the presentations will be given at Otago's other campuses in Christchurch (7 November), Wellington (9 November) and Auckland (11 November).

An exhibition on the evolution and development of distance programmes and technologies at Otago will be held concurrently with each symposium, and there will also be an extended period of exhibition in Dunedin from mid November to early December. A parallel web exhibition will also be held.
Electronic and print versions of a commemorative book will be published to mark the occasion. It will contain papers presented from the symposium along with commissioned chapters from key people involved in distance teaching over the years.

The celebrations will also include a dinner in Dunedin on 4 November to honour academic and general staff who have contributed to the success of distance learning at Otago.

BANNER CAPTION: Director of the Centre for Distance Education and Learning Technologies Professor Kwok-Wing Lai and Director of Distance Learning Dr Sarah Stein.
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