Managing Distance Learning in a Face-to-Face Culture



Distance learning (DL) is now an established mode of delivery within higher education. Nonetheless, given the significantly different use of time and space required for a satisfactory programme infrastructure as compared to its full-time, face-to-face counterpart, institutions have tended to specialise either in one mode or the other. This paper explores some of the organisational challenges presented when a large university such as Oxford Brookes, primarily concerned with face-to-face delivery, also has within it much smaller programmes offered by DL. Using the BA in Theology and Religion by DL offered through the Wesley Centre Oxford (WCO) within Westminster Institute of Education (WIE) as a case study, a range of issues was identified that initially appeared to threaten fundamental dimensions of the programme (such as recruitment and retention) when Brookes’s established systems were applied. These focused on admissions and enrolments, aspects of student-centred learning, student support, finance and fees, and interface with academic staff. Creative thinking, and a willingness to be flexible on both sides, have resulted in the emergence of a variety of procedures offered in the paper as principles of good practice.

Alison Le Cornu, Helen Cameron, Emma Catling, Tom Cosgrove, Elaine Langford



Many assumptions of university life centre around a group of scholars and learners assembling in the same place at the same time for the purposes of teaching, learning and research. Indeed, we work in a city where the word ‘university’ immediately conjures up the image of buildings in which teachers and learners meet. The move to semesterisation recently implemented at Brookes has similarly revealed how many of our working practices are linked to traditional rhythms of day and year.

Distance learning (DL) as a mode of delivery, however, undermines many assumptions of place and time by allowing the learner to study in a place and at a time of their choosing. This releases the academic from the need to tie particular blocks of time to a specific classroom. Nonetheless, it generates additional obligations on the part of the academic to develop curriculum materials that fully reflect the learning objectives of the course and assessment strategies that can be implemented without face-to-face feedback.

The Wesley Centre Oxford (WCO), housed at Westminster Institute of Education (WIE) at Brookes, is the inheritor and sustainer of more than 15 years of successful distance learning provision in theology. In this paper, members of the Centre seek to draw out principles of successful practice for offering distance learning as a minority mode of delivery alongside campus-based face-to-face classes, and to offer these principles to other colleagues considering distance learning.

It is a feature of large human service organisations, such as universities, that they have clear rules and roles in order to deal equitably and efficiently with those they serve. Many of these rules and roles contain implicit assumptions about time and place. For example, inviting students to visit academics in ‘office hours’. In a DL context, however, having freed students from the constraints of place and time, their attitudes to the university change and they want to deal with us in a way that is most effective for them as they weave their learning into their work/life balance (Stevenson, Sander et al., 1996). Since they have little or no face-to-face contact with other students, they seem less interested in equitable treatment and often give a higher priority to speed and flexibility of response. This means that the WCO has, to some extent, suspended the normal ‘clear rules and roles’ approach of the wider institution (Billis and Glennerster, 1998). This can create tension with the wider institution or at least require it to act as an advocate on behalf of its students.

It would not be possible to deliver the Centre’s learning programmes without the involvement of academic colleagues from the Philosophy, Theology and Religion Academic Group at WIE. The Centre thereby asks these staff to exist in two parallel worlds, one face to face, the other DL. To make this level of flexibility manageable, important compromises have been negotiated particularly around the assessment process.

It might be argued that the absence of the normal conventions of time and space required by distance learning make it best suited to specialist institutions such as the Open University. However, we would argue that this is a limited view. DL enlarges the range of students taught by academic staff and we particularly benefit from those students with rich and varied life experiences. It also enables us to reach niche audiences with our specialist interests where there may be an insufficient volume of students able to attend residentially. Operating in two pedagogical modes can enhance personal development in teaching. It also expands numbers without using any more space on an already crowded campus. DL students are, additionally, classed as ‘adult learners’ and as such contribute significantly to the University’s profile as a provider for lifelong learning, although, somewhat paradoxically, they are omitted from HEFCE’s Widening Participation statistics.

A key role for the WCO in organisational terms, therefore, is to act as a buffer between the different modes of learning, thus acting as an advocate for academic staff as they work in two modes, and for students as they negotiate the systems of the university (Aldrich and Herker, 1977). This requires both differentiation – that is, a specialist understanding of distance learning – and integration, a good understanding of the institution and networks with key people who make systems work (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967). All staff in the Centre need a firm understanding of the purpose of their work and the purposes of the university systems with which they interact, so that where necessary they can blur the ‘clear rules and roles’ approach without derailing their own work or that of others. A strongly reflective and evaluative approach to work is crucial to generate sufficient feedback to fine-tune the ‘buffer’ arrangements whilst ensuring that our students have the same quality of education as those present on the campus. It is hugely to the Centre’s advantage that two of its administrative staff have theology degrees and that the centre is led by someone who is also theologically qualified. This offers a shared language from which other acts of translation can take place.

Acting as a buffer between different modes of learning but with particular responsibility for ensuring the quality of content and support for distance learners, especially when these are very much a numerical minority, has resulted in the development of an alternative infrastructure which lies alongside that of Brookes’s main campus-focused systems, yet integrates successfully with them. The WCO was commended for these innovatory practices at its most recent programme audits, and although the purpose of the paper is not specifically to blow the Centre’s trumpet, an examination of the essential dimensions functions as a useful case study for others in a similar position. In educational terms, the focus is on the development and implementation of principles of good student-centred practice in an institutional-centred context, and the sections which follow consider Admissions and enrolments, Student-centred learning, Student support, Finance and fees, and Interface with academic staff. Each highlights ways in which the infrastructure designed for a campus-based culture is challenged by the needs of comparatively small-scale DL programmes and demonstrates how both, together, have risen to meet that challenge. The major focus is on a BA in Theology and Religion by DL, which was successfully validated in April 2004, replacing a BA in Theology. The paper concludes with a brief look to the future, drawing together the various threads in a concluding summary.

Admissions and enrolments

The challenges to central University campus-based systems are apparent at the beginning of a student’s journey to enrolment. Rather than operate with the traditional single entry point each September, students are invited to enrol at any time during the year. This has clearly proved its worth as each month generally sees approximately five new students enrolling (representing a conversion rate approaching 50%). While there are peak months that often coincide with the traditional academic calendar, we are also aware that adult learners are often clear about what they are looking for and why (Knowles, 1998) and evaluate their capacity to achieve this. Many might be nervous about DL and take a period of months between initial enquiry and actual application, but having decided to try it out they want to get on with it immediately. The continuous enrolment system allows for this, although it was one of a number of challenging dimensions, requiring the WCO team to work closely with Brookes’ admissions systems (see later).

As a part-time programme, application to the programmes is made directly to the WCO, rather than through UCAS, or to the University centrally. This has the advantage that each applicant can be considered individually and quickly at the time of application. The subjects of Theology and Religion attract a wide and varied constituency; however, the mode in which this programme is delivered and its flexibility of structure specifically attracts the ‘non-traditional’ student. Many of these, as Cantwell et al., (2001:221) observe, ‘are those who, for reasons such as poverty, gender discrimination, or early school leaving, did not have the opportunity to enter university directly after high school. Non-traditional modes of entry give them a second chance’. It is therefore important that application and enrolment systems should be as straightforward and ‘individualised’ as possible.

This is not to say that all non-traditional students originate from disadvantaged backgrounds, socially or academically. In the case of the WCO, applicants frequently have first degrees and often, given the broad nature of Theology and Religion, in a generally cognate discipline. A significant number also have postgraduate qualifications, or lengthy professional careers behind them. This clearly raises questions of equity between applicants and the relevance of ‘benchmark’ entry criteria to non-traditional entrants. For example, is the benchmark of three Cs at A-level, the conventional Brookes admission requirement, relevant when considering an applicant who possesses a Masters or even PhD degree, or when considering an applicant whose schooling predates General Certificates?

In considering these factors various strategies for recruitment and selection have been employed:

  • Proactive recruitment
  • Minimal application procedure
  • The submission of a 500-word response

Rather than central admissions offices dealing with enquiries and awaiting batches of application forms, the WCO identifies and advertises proactively to markets, receives enquiries and responds directly and appropriately to interest in order to ‘convert’ most effectively an enquiry into an application. Initial contact is made by the enquirer usually via e-mail or telephone, and while this is often a simple request for further information, it is not unusual for specific and detailed questions to be asked. To handle this effectively a speedy response is vital but of equal importance is detailed programme knowledge: explaining module options and content and informing enquirers about individual credit transfers/exemptions, workloads and varying types of assessment. As is the case for personal tutoring (see Student support), the role of admissions tutor is housed within the administrative team to maximise rapidity and quality of response. Furthermore, the admissions tutor must be sensitive to the potential students’ conceptions of academic culture and the university student ‘constrained by socially prevalent and culturally distinct discourses about academia. . .’ (Read et al., 2003, p. 262)

The process described above represents a significant divergence from the norm for admissions procedures in the wider university in that

  • The application form is custom designed
  • Enquiries are handled locally and
  • Admissions and enrolments occur monthly.

The achievement of these three aspects has taken considerable negotiation with central services.

The design of the application form addressed the question ‘What do we really need to know about the student?’ (This consciously bore in mind the 1998 Data Protection Act’s principle of keeping gathered information to a minimum.) The result was a two-page application form asking an user-friendly set of straightforward questions. An important addition, when revising the form, was the inclusion of questions asking permission for the WCO to pass details to (potentially external) academic tutors, and also to peers and fellow students. This latter, while surprisingly rarely used, can nonetheless be helpful in a DL context when isolated students look for different types of support and encouragement.

An important factor in the consideration of applicants (especially given the absence of a face-to-face interview) is a 500-word response to one of three prompts submitted with the application. One prompt makes a statement about the relation (if any) between Buddhism and theology, another on the relation (again, if any) between philosophy and religion. The third question requires the applicant to compare and comment on three biblical passages. Before tackling one of these the applicant is instructed, ‘. . .you may find it useful to consult a few books or other resources, (but) in depth knowledge of the subject is not necessary. What is more important is how you react to the passage or statement, what you think.’ (BA (Hons) Theology and Religion application form, 2005). It is also made clear that if the applicant feels uncomfortable doing this, for whatever reason, he or she should speak to a member of the WCO team. The two key elements the WCO looks for in an applicant’s response are (i) a good standard of written English and (ii) evidence of reasoning and direct tackling of the question. Regardless of whether the applicant has researched the subject (or already has subject knowledge), or has simply given an immediate answer, it is often quickly evident if he/she will make a successful BA student. Since no students are called for interview – an impracticality in a global DL context – this written response provides the Programme Leader with important information that enables him or her to operate a robust admissions procedure.

Student-centred learning

A significant rise in recruitment has been achieved since the adoption of the admissions procedures described in the previous section. Another crucial factor in raising recruitment is offering sufficient flexibility within a programme that adult learners can manage within the time constraints of busy professional and family lives. This flexibility is also necessary to retain those students once recruited, as they become established as learners.

Programme design

Increased flexibility for students has been achieved through the innovative assessment weeks system, through the range of modules on offer, and through the payment system. Students now take responsibility for their own deadlines in terms of submitting work and for the responsibility of paying for their studies. Working within overall award deadlines of three to eight years, students can choose how long to spend on an individual module. Their fee covers them for six months, and extension fees can be paid for a further two periods of six months.

Although stranding restricts choice in Stage One, students in Stage Two have only 2 compulsory modules, and 4 honours modules, including the double dissertation module, out of a possible 16 required for a full BA Honours. This allows free choice from a further 21 modules covering such aspects as Gender, Interfaith Studies, Biblical Studies and Philosophy and Ethics.


A key feature of student-centred design in the DL offering is the operation of a system of assessment weeks for submission of assessed work. Nine weeks spread throughout the year are designated as ‘assessment weeks’, and students are at liberty to select the weeks in which they wish to submit work and how much they submit at each point. This achieves the balance between the necessity for academic staff to plan workloads and the need of students for choice and control, given the range of unexpected as well as anticipated but time-consuming life events characteristic of adult learners. Assessment type is varied, from traditional essays to poster presentations and portfolios, allowing for a similar range of skills to be practised and assessed as would be found in a face-to-face environment.

Time frames

Whilst a module is designed to run for either 10 or 20 weeks, the module fee pays for 6 months. Students cannot take a full six months for every module as the awards on the BA Honours programme (Cert HE, Dip HE, BA, BA Honours) have their own time frames set externally by the University. The overall time frame for an award ranges from three to eight years, including periods of temporary withdrawal of up to a year in each Stage. Managing this level of flexibility for students, offering advice and keeping track, requires a good understanding on the part of the WCO admin team, which is the front line in terms of student support (see Student support).

Challenging traditional notions of module deadlines and fee structures to provide such a level of flexibility has inevitably required much negotiation with central functions such as Student Finance and Systems offices. The student fees team is not able simply to collect an annual fee, as is the case with most students. A sustained collaboration between these teams and the WCO is necessary to manage fee collection, monitor payments and charge extension fees. The central student database, which records all aspects of student information including modules taken and results achieved, does not operate easily with the DL model. However, consultation with the Systems team has succeeded in providing a solution to problems of wide choice and non-fixed deadlines. While the WCO needs to maintain its own sophisticated, tailor-made database for recording, monitoring and tracking students, DL student profiles in 2005’2006 will be uploaded centrally, offering them the same instant access to information as their face-to-face counterparts.

Student support

Boundary blurring

Increased flexibility of programme structure requires a greater monitoring role on the part of the programme team for student retention to be maximised. The absence of fixed deadlines and a reduced sense of cohort due to both rolling enrolment and increased module choice inevitably increase the risk of drift and drop-out. In designing the programme, the Wesley Centre team recognised that providing students with strong, efficient and reliable support mechanisms would be crucial. These support mechanisms would need to be both programme and student focused. On the one hand, secure programme administration needs to track students’ progress and highlight potential problems early, and on the other a readily accessible source of help and advice needs to be available to tackle practical, pastoral, educational and motivational issues.

Traditionally, a personal tutor system using academic staff has been used in the university to give students a point of contact other than their academic tutors. This was found to be problematic in a distance learning context, as contact by e-mail or telephone was difficult if the tutor was not regularly in the office. It was also duplicating effort, as for most queries the personal tutor had to contact the admin team for advice and then relay the response back to the student.

What began to evolve was a shift of focus from personal tutor to the Wesley Centre administrative team. It became clear that student support should be positioned formally with the team, as there lay the knowledge, the programme experience and the expertise to deal with all aspects of personal tutorship. This was only possible because of the nature of this particular team: not only are members competent administrators with sound programme and systems knowledge, but they are also specialists in their own right. All are graduates: two have theology degrees, and one has trained as a careers guidance counsellor and mentor. Their relationship to the programme throughout has never been purely administrative, as they have been heavily involved in programme design, materials development and revision, planning and execution of residential schools, programme management issues and some teaching support. This blurring of the academic/administrative boundary has had many benefits, not only to the staff members themselves but also to the programme team as a whole and most importantly to the students. A response to queries within 48 hours is the rule of thumb, and students are able to go to any team member at any time, overcoming issues of availability and staff overload.

The Brookes Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

A further development since the launch of the BA Theology and Religion has been the introduction of the Brookes VLE as a complementary means of student support. This was developed primarily by a member of the administrative team, in liaison with the WIE Learning Technologist. Its purpose is to

  • address the issue of lack of cohort identity. Students are advised of others on their modules and are encouraged to communicate via the Brookes VLE.
  • provide access to electronic resources via web links, specifically designed study skills materials, e-journals, handouts from residential schools, etc.
  • promote discussion on topical theological issues

The administrator has taken responsibility for initiating and ‘stoking’ discussions, for designing and uploading relevant materials, for advising on relevant books and articles to support reading lists and for answering specific queries.

Residential schools

Residential schools are offered twice per year, one for a weekend and one for four weekdays. Although optional and therefore not attended by everyone, schools are a means by which students can meet tutors and each other, gaining a sense of where they are studying, the physical environment and organisational culture, and who they are studying with. The taught content of schools relates to modules on the programme, but they are organised on a thematic basis rather than the content purely being a supplement to particular modules. Study skills sessions form an important part of this content, with areas such as essay writing, portfolio construction, book reviews, dissertation skills, introduction to the library and Brookes VLE included at most schools.

These schools are planned and staffed by the whole course team, including the administrators, and are seen as a further means of supporting and encouraging students in their studies. Recent schools have included a cultural visit on the last day, followed by a lunch, which has proved to be an extremely popular and useful way of providing a social context for students and programme staff to network. The theme of the April ’05 school was ‘Virtually a Community?’ and specifically addressed issues raised by students via course committees regarding the loss of sense of cohort, both in theological discussion and in group activities using Brookes VLE.

The strong cohesion of the core Wesley Centre team offers students a sense of identity with a unit, rather than with individual tutors who may or may not remain constant throughout a student’s career. The blending of status and complementary expertise of team members facilitates the provision of efficient and effective responses to requests for help and advice, integrated with close tracking of progression and monitoring of performance. At a recent course committee, a Stage One student representative commented

The WCO should promote their excellent and unique support systems more widely as an innovative approach to distance learning. This facilitates student retention, and should help solve some of the problems of isolation felt by students as reported in the feedback. It would be useful to include something on this in the post-school mailing, as the loss of cohorts is more than compensated for by the excellence of support provided.

Finance and fees

The approach to redesigning the financial underpinning of the DL programmes was twofold. Firstly, WCO had to persuade the University Management Accountant that DL should be costed on a different basis than face-to-face learning. The template traditionally used to cost new programmes was redesigned such that counting was done in modules, not in students. This allowed for the flexibility of the programme’s structure, which gives students the choice to study just for single modules or to enrol for an award, to be appropriately modelled financially. Thus, targets were set on the basis of modules sold per annum, rather than on full-time equivalency.

Secondly, it was negotiated with the Income Manager that students would not be charged an annual fee, but would be allowed to pay per module as they progressed through the programme. The module fee covered students for a period of six months for single modules, after which time an extension of a further two periods of six months could be bought at a rate of one-third of the module fee per extension period. This represented a wholly different way of collecting fees, with responsibility for initiating payments at appropriate times being the responsibility of the student (see Time frames).

Interface with academic staff

One of the distinctive features of the distance learning BA is the large number of modules offered. These have been developed over a long period of time, and student feedback indicates that the wide range of modules to choose from was a significant factor in their opting for this degree over those offered by competitors. It is a scenario only economically viable in a DL context where the economies of scale are very different. DL modules, once written, have a shelf life of five to seven years and more when regularly revised. Financially and pragmatically it makes little difference if one student or many enrol for an individual module. Maintaining a large number of modules presents its own challenges, however, in a context where the academic staff linked to the programme are numerically few (in our case a group of nine are regularly, albeit sometimes marginally, involved) and whose responsibilities involve looking after modules written by previous staff now long gone and whose specialisms and interests they do not necessarily share. The challenges are heightened when most staff have a greater time allocation in their workloads to delivering face-to-face classes. The immediate demands coupled with the enjoyment of ‘real’ human interaction inevitably push DL responsibilities lower on the list of priorities. At the same time, it is acknowledged that given a steadily increasing DL recruitment profile, internal staff will be able to cover only a limited amount of the tutorial requirements and therefore we are able to turn to external hourly paid lecturers (HPLs). Operating with a rolling enrolment system also means we are unable to control student numbers. Typically, academic staff have felt very vulnerable to a relentless, and apparently limitless, amount of marking; something heightened with the university’s move to semesterisation motivated in part by the desire to give academics more research time. A continuing stream of DL tutoring and marking throughout the summer months is generally unwelcome!

Various measures were put into place to address these issues. The nine assessment weeks mentioned previously (see Assessment) overcame the feeling of relentlessness, especially as it was possible to organise these to take the long summer break into consideration. It also meant staff, both internal academics and HPLs, knew when marking would arrive and could build this into their workload planning.

Reflection on the general academic requirements in a DL context suggested that these broke down into identifiable activities, as follows:

Module writing, revision, maintenance

  • DL module tutorial: responding to students’ academic queries, marking essays
  • DL dissertation supervision and marking
  • Teaching at twice-yearly residential schools

These activities were then prioritised according to the expertise available and internal staff workloads, always keeping an eye also on QAA interests. Module writing, revision and maintenance, despite sometimes asking staff to operate beyond their academic ‘comfort zone’, was deemed to be more appropriately internal. A stipulated number of ‘real’ hours (rather than workload planning units) was allocated for writing (105 hours), revision (35 hours) and maintenance (5 hours). Tutoring for the MA programme and dissertation supervision at both MA and BA level were also considered tasks for internal academics. Real hours were allocated on a student-per-module basis. A system of annual ‘Module Health Checks’ was introduced in which the whole bank of modules for the two programmes was distributed amongst internal academics who then took ownership of those modules. The completed Module Health Checks indicated what condition each module was in, whether a rewrite/withdrawal was needed, or if a medium or light-touch revision was required. This addressed not only time demands on academics but also issues relating to quality assurance. A subsequent analysis of all the Health Checks, together with an estimation of student numbers and enrolment profiles for each academic year, enabled a reasonable allocation of responsibilities to internal staff using this system of prioritisation. Thereafter we turned to HPLs to pick up the remaining duties, which were primarily tutoring on BA modules.

The system is not perfect. It continues to pose challenges to internal academics for whom it remains an additional extra when operating alongside face-to-face demands, despite being specifically included in staff workload planning hours. As such, paradoxically, it remains vulnerable internally to the same flexibilities of time that have proved so attractive externally to students. Nonetheless, in a context where the two modi operandi function simultaneously, the introduction of measures of control of workload, both in quantity and frequency, has proved effective in enabling the team to manage distance learning in a face-to-face culture.

Conclusion and summary

In this paper, we have sought to demonstrate not only some of the issues involved in managing distance learning in a face-to-face culture, but also ways in which a balance between the two modes can be achieved successfully. The challenges arise specifically on account of the need to operate both systems together in a culture where one mode of delivery Â-Â-‘ face to face – numerically and financially far outweighs the other. In other contexts, other cultures, in which, for example, distance learning was the sole or majority mode of delivery, the issues would be very different. However, with the governmental and higher education thrusts toward lifelong learning becoming increasingly prominent (note, for example, Westminster Institute of Education’s recent creation of a Directorate of Lifelong Learning within which the Wesley Centre operates), universities must take the needs and circumstances of adult learners into consideration. Distance learning has often been viewed as more specifically student centred in its structural approach than its institutionally centred face-to-face counterpart (Jarvis, 1998), and hence often suits adult learners not simply because it doesn’t require a lengthy period of residential study but also because it more readily incorporates many of the features identified by Knowles (1998) as characteristic of adults as learners: independence, autonomy and people motivated by a need to know specific information on account of their personal experience and circumstances.

If universities are going to take the challenge seriously, significant effort will be needed to find ways of bringing together the disjuncture of time and space between these two quite different approaches to learning. Our experience, explored throughout this paper, suggests this can happen relatively successfully if certain features are in place. Organisations which tend toward favouring the centralised, the homogenous and the uniform must be creative in finding ways in which these can be adapted to suit the needs of an alternative infrastructure. A virtual breakdown of the traditional HE divide between academic and administrative staff is also beneficial, possibly even necessary. The reality of such a breakdown in our own context is evidenced by the fact that the five contributors to this paper are drawn from both sides of the academic/administrative divide.

While a number of principles of good practice of distance learning provision within a face-to-face culture have been identified, we are aware that there is further to go, especially as we move increasingly to incorporate electronic delivery. Here the challenges at first sight appear to be more to our own established DL practices, raising questions about how to manage peer group interaction within a rolling enrolment system, for example. Paradoxically, electronic delivery appears to lend itself more to the structures of a face-to-face culture than to those of a flexible paper-based course. As we move to develop an MA with a significant electronic component, the questions therefore turn back on themselves and we grapple with how to manage an online culture within a paper-based distance learning context. At some point, this will involve further negotiations with the university’s central systems, and new principles of good practice will emerge.

Biography of authors

All five contributors to this paper are members of the Wesley Centre Oxford (WCO), at Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University. The WCO embodies the Institute’s continuing links with the Methodist Church and specialises in offering theology distance learning programmes. Alison Le Cornu is Head of the Centre; Helen Cameron is a Visiting Research Fellow; Emma Catling is the Distance Learning Coordinator; Tom Cosgrove is the Business Development and Alumni Officer; and Elaine Langford is the Office Manager.

Contact details


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