Digital Teaching In Higher Education

Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment

A book by Tom Worthington MEd, FACS CP

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International Issues in Distance Education

  1. Benefits and Costs of E-learning: Summary and Critique of Rumble's Approach
  2. Distance Education in China's Radio and TV Universities

Benefits and Costs of E-learning: Summary and Critique of Rumble's Approach

Rumble (2001) was originally delivered as a lecture at the UK Open University UK (UKOU), when the author took up a chair in Distance Education Management. It has been subsequently published in several places, including Rumble (pp. 119 - 138, 2004) and extensively cited. This was thirty years after UKOU started delivering courses and a year after the dot-com collapse. It was also a year after the launch of the UK eUniversity (UKeU), which closed four years later (Bacsich, p. 1, 2005). This lecture is at a point in history when Distance Education (DE) using paper, post and broadcast TV had reached maturity and the first experiments with e-learning were over. However, in many ways the period of experiment with e-leaning seems to have continued to the present.


Defining e-education

Rumble (p.1, 2001) begins by stating that the Internet was still to change education and asks: "... who will benefit from the changes, and who will bear the costs?". The author defines an e-education system as one which will:

Rumble (p.1, 2001) comments that academics tend to forget the third point: administrative aspects of the system and that "large-scale distance education, is based on a division of labour between those academics and support staff who design and develop learning materials" and those who "focus on student support".

Reasons for using e-education

Rumble (p. 3, 2001) see pressure for e-education coming first from within distance education institutions, to allow dialogue between teacher and learner, overcoming the perceived deficiency when compared with campus-based universities. A second pressure is from conventional campus based institutions, "wanting to break out of the limitations of face-to-face classes" (Rumble, p. 3, 2001). This is characterized as coming from educators responding to larger classes and students wanting on-demand education.

Reducing the unit cost of education

Rumble (p. 4, 2001) frames the role of DE in the context of a world with millions of children not attending school, plus adolescents and adults needing illiteracy and training, with traditional education a "labour intensive business". The author cites the success of 1960s educational television and open university as cost efficient, but points out this requires a restricted range of courses, using low cost media and run over a long time frame with "large numbers of students". Rumble (p. 4, 2001) also points to the different work practices required, with staff employed specifically to develop or deliver courses (not research), making use of existing textbooks, and the use of lower skill and casual staff for teaching.

Costs of e-education

Rumble (p. 6, 2001) divides the cost of e-education into: developing materials, teaching, administration, infrastructure and management. The author points to studies showing a wide variation in the cost of developing materials (UKOU was at the upper end), with most of the cost being for labour. While delivery costs are lower for DE using electronic means than paper (Rumble, p. 8, 2001), the author suggests that on-line courses double tutor's time and ways of lowering student expectations were needed. Rumble (p. 10, 2001) suggests that administration costs can be lowered with Web-based, self-service.

Structural changes

Rumble (p, 14, 2001) points out that specialist organizations can provide parts of the educational process, such as tutoring and library services, on-line to lower costs. The author also points to "partnership models" where several universities develop an educational program and in some cases jointly deliver this to students. Rumble (p, 15. 2001) notes that "Partnerships are fragile entities ..." and says "My money is on big universities created by growth and mergers.".

Who benefits?

Rumble (p, 16, 2001) concludes with the question of who benefits from e-education. The conclusion is that teaching on-line adds to the academic workload, "accelerating a division between course developers and casual teachers".


Much of Rumble's analysis is still relevant fifteen years later. The debate over the cost and value of e-learning continues, as does concern over the effect on traditional academic values. However, Rumble (p, 2. 2001), characterizes students wanting "round the clock" education, as if this a whim, rather than being a result of very real financial and family pressures.

Electronic Delivery On-Campus

Rumble (p. 8, 2001) assumes that campus based education can't use the same processes as DE. However, electronic delivery of learning materials is now routine for on-campus students (at least in Australia), using the same systems as DE. Similarly, support and administrative services are provided on-line. Institutions now make use of casual and part time staff to design and deliver courses on campus as well as on-line. Classes are "flipped", with on-line materials, plus classroom exercises.

An un-glamorous but important area Rumble (p. 10, 2001) addresses is the way administration costs can be lowered with Web-based, self-service. However, one area not addressed is the cost of acquiring students. As well as conventional marketing, universities are using agents who take a large upfront fee to recruit international students.

Structural Change

Rumble's (p, 14. 2001) analysis of structural change did not foresee the outsourcing of IT itself. Package software running in "the cloud" and managed by a specialist companies, in turn allows more of the university functions to be contracted out.

Rumble (p, 15. 2001) suggested that "big universities" would win out over partnerships. It is interesting to consider how MOOC consortia, such as Coursera, edX and "FutureLearn, fit with this analysis. These might be considered partnerships, or a takeover of smaller institutions by the larger consortium members.

Rumble (p, 16, 2001) concludes that teaching on-line adds academic workload, reduces security of employment and accelerates the division between course developers, teachers and researchers. One effect Bryant and Richardson (2015) recently reported was university lecturers with formal teaching qualifications (presumably those specializing in teaching) have fewer failing students, whereas those with just a PHD (presumably researchers) have more high performing students. This suggests not only the division in university staffing Rumble foresaw but a division of students, between coursework and research.


Rumble (p, 17, 2001) was addressing staff and students of the UKOU and returns to this in the conclusion. The author points out that UKOU was formed to address equity of access to higher education and "... exported its system in the belief that this would help developing countries expand their education systems". The author concludes "... choices it is being forced to make are at the expense of the ideals that led to its birth ...". Unfortunately they do not elaborate as to what these choices are or how these conflict with UKOU's aims.

Perhaps most useful is Rumble's challenging assumptions about the costs of e-learning. The cost of delivery of materials on-line is largely irrelevant for the developed world with broadband infrastructure prevalent, but remains an issue in developing nations. A question about developing nations Rumble hinted at, but did not answer, is if e-education can help with basic education and literacy, as a prerequisite to higher education.


Bacsich, P. (2005, November). Lessons to be learned from the failure of the UK e-University. In Breaking down boundaries: 17th Biennial Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia. Retrieved from

Bryant, D., & Richardson, A. (2015). To be, or not to be, trained. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37 (6), 682-688. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2015.1102818

Rumble, G. (2001). E-education: Whose benefits? Whose costs? Paper presented to Open University 28th February 2001. Retrieved from

Rumble, G. (2004). Papers and Debates on the Economics and Costs of Distance and Online Learning. Retrieved from

Distance Education in China's Radio and TV Universities


This is a critical review of one journal article on the topic of distance education. The paper I have selected is Wei (2010) on the topic of China's Radio and TV Universities. The definition, nature and forms of distance education are examined, to see how they may be applied to understanding the applicability of distance education for Chinese university students and its future use by Chinese universities and Western universities teaching Chinese students remotely.

Article selection

Many of the graduate computer science students I teach on-line in Australia undertook their undergraduate degrees in China. My Chinese students appear to have no experience with on-line courses, during their undergraduate studies in China. For the last two years, I have attended an annual conference with academics from China, to discuss teaching techniques for computer science and engineering students. However, I appear to be one of the few using on-line techniques (Worthington, 2012 and 2013). Therefore, I would like to investigate the history of distance education in China and why and how it may be used more.

The paper I have selected is Wei (2010) on the topic of China's Radio and TV Universities, to begin an exploration of distance education and on-line courses in China. An alternative publication examined was Håklev (2010), a thesis on theChinese National Top Level Courses Project. However as Håklev points out, the project was intended to provide curriculum materials on-line to staff for classroom courses, not distance education direct to students.

Is there a Chinese view of "distance education"? Would it be feasible to adapt Australian material course material for China? Athabasca University was able to adapt Australian course material for Canadian students ("Green ICT Strategies", 2010). Would it be feasible to adapt courses for China?

Critical Review


Wei (2010) provides an overview of distance education and pen learning in China from the perspective of the country's radio and TV universities (RTVUs). These universities were established in the early 1980 and by 2008 produced just under 20% of China's graduates. Wei points out that RTVUs shorter vocational programmes, as well as degree programs for adults (who had limited access to traditional university programs).

Wei emphasizes western distance education and open learning being adapted for the Chinese context. In an overview of distance education theories, Wei begins in 1960s education practitioners and researchers, with Wedemeyer's non-traditional "Independent Study" (2009) and Peters (1994) "Industrialization of Teaching". Wei traces the related concept of "Open learning" back to Lengrand's (1975) lifelong learning. However, Lengrand does not appear to have used the terms "Open Learning" or "open university".

Using Moore's theory of "Transactional Distance" (1993) Wei asked if synchronous information and communications technology (ICT), removed the "distance" from distance education. The suggestion is that as better communications become possible in the 1990s, many of the organization issues with distance education were solved, and the focus shifted to pedagogical issues.

China's radio and TV universities

Wei (2010) traces China's RTVUs to 1979 for training personnel in the agricultural sector, industry and technology. A central unit developed programmes and content, with 28 provincial campuses undertook the teaching. Wei describes this as a "network of single-mode distance teaching universities", with in this case "network" referring to the organizational structure, not the use of telecommunications. Program and course development was carried out centrally, with regional campuses (initially 28) delivering courses to groups of about 40 students.

Wei (2010) describes group tuition being used by the RTVUs, not just to save on equipment and telecommunications capacity, but to fit with Chinese traditional teaching methods. Group tuition aided by employers' willingness to release workers for study.

Wei (2010) describes a later phase in the 1980s with the RTVUs developing their own campuses under local government sponsorship and issuing certificates under the provincial governments. At the same time, employers were less willing to release workers for study. Wei comments this was the "RTVUs first tasted the 'distance' in distance education", that is the students were part-time and more autonomous.

Wei (2010) describes the RTVUs developing self-learning packages, with audio-cassettes and video-cassettes to be used at study centres, much like the early UK OU (Perry, 1977). As with the UK OU, group tuition evening classes initially developed organically and were later officially supported (as has happed with MOOCs). Also anticipating MOOCs, Wei (2010) describes a 1995 'Registered Free Viewers and Listeners' project in RTVUs made it simple for students to sign up for a course, but resulted in a completion rate of only about 5%.

Wei (2010) describes how in 2001, the satellite broadcast system used for education, was combined with the national university computer network (China Education and Research Network, or CERNET) for delivery of distance education courses to the RTVUs. Interactive facilities using email, teleconferencing, Bulletin Board systems, chatrooms and instant messaging were later added. However, Wei (2010) emphasizes that group classes, not home access, remained the primary teaching method.

Wei (2010) describes a structural change with RTVUs becoming dual-track institutions, supporting part-time adult learners through distance education and full-time post-secondary students. Wei describes how smaller RTVUs merged into local higher learning institutions "totally losing their identity as an independent distance higher education institution".


Wei (2010) begins by asserting that "... distance education and open learning are western innovations ..." and then discusses how these were adapted for China. This may be overstating the case, given that printing on paper originated in China. It seems likely that some scholars will have thought of providing a correspondence course. Also, as Håklev (2010) notes, after World War II, the new Chinese state derived its higher education approach from the USSR. The USSR's approach to use of broadcast media for distance education is likely to have influenced China, at least as much as the West.

Chinese Approach to Higher Education

One difficulty with Wei's description of the radio and TV Universities is what is a "university" in the Chinese context. The description of a central unit preparing course content and programs to be delivered in regional centres would describe a multi-campus higher education institution in Australia. The campuses characterized by Wei as having "dozens of administrative staff and teachers" would not be considered universities in their own right, as they would not be preparing their own programs or materials. UK's Open University (UKOU) started with a single campus and acquired regional facilities later (Perry, 1977). In contrast, UKOU's regional facilities are clearly not separate universities.

Wei (2010) describes how smaller RTVUs merged into local higher learning institutions "totally losing their identity as an independent distance higher education institution". It appears the author considers that benefits from a separate institution has been lost.

Theories of Distance Education

Widely divergent views of distance education have been devised over the last thirty years. Wei (2010) begins with Wedemeyer's non-traditional "Independent Study" (2009) and Peters (1994) "Industrialization of Teaching". These would appear two extremes: emphasizing either the individual customization, or industrial standardization. However, while Peters (1994) dismisses the popularity of the term "Independent Study" as being due to "ideological bias", in the Chinese context it could be seen the students could have more independence from the higher education system through distance education, even where the syllabus and assessment are centrally controlled. The student may be told what to learn and when they have to had learned it by, but not the details of how to get there.

Wei uses Moore's theory of "Transactional Distance" (1993) to extend the definition of distance education beyond physical separation of the student from teacher. Moore looks at the effect of the communications media on the dialogue between student and teacher. Paper correspondence slows down communication, providing time for a more thoughtful response from the student than a face-to-face or real-time (synchronous) on-line class.

Wei (2010) describes the RTVUs having groups of about 40 students, so as to maximize the use of the to the equipment and broadcast capacity. However, Wei also comments that this also reduced the isolation, which a distance education student studying alone at home, can experience.

While Wei gives an overview of Western distance educational theory, there appears nothing specific to the development of the UK Open University (UKOU), nor Chinese theory influencing, or resulting from the RTVUs.

Ideas of Distance Education

In the conclusion, Wei (2010) describes open, and distance learning in China's RTVUs "developing, taking into consideration the Chinese characteristics", embracing "open learning to promote a learning society". However, these ideas were not discussed in the body of the paper. The assertion that distance education is underpinned by "educational democracy, equity and egalitarianism" appears to be at odds with the description of a system with central development of courses and programs to be delivered locally. The impetus for distance education in China, as in the UK OU, appears to have been the delivery of standardized mass produced education for vocational purposes, at low cost.

Need for Self-Directed Learning

Simonson (2009) briefly mentions China's radio and TV universities in worldwide examples of distance education. They refer to the centralized nature of the early TV broadcast system and a later move to e-learning. Anderson and Terry (2008) do not mention China's radio and TV universities, but do refer to Wang's (2005) description of moves to a more self-directed, learning in China. Wang suggests "improving learner's time management skills, self-regulation, and self-directed learning strategies", whereas Wei (2010) suggests that the course materials need to be redesigned for self study.

Cultural Issues with Distance Education

Wei (2010) describes RTVUs increasingly under the responsibility of regional governments. However, there is no discussion of changes to curriculum or instruction to suit the local population, ethnic groups or languages. The central Open University of China website ( is provided in only two languages: Chinese and English. While it is common for advanced university studies to be carried out in English, it should be noted that RTVUs also serve vocational needs with short courses for students where the local language is more appropriate. The issue of the language of instruction for remote indigenous communities, has recently been discussed, in a report on education, in the Australian Northern Territory. Wilson (2014) has proposed that education in the local indigenous languages be discontinued. While the use of distance education is suggested, it is assumed that this will be in the national language (although on-line tools facilities the use of multiple languages).

Centralist Model of Education

The approach to DE Wei (2010) describes is one with centrally set standards and materials. Howard and Rennie (2013) discuss the alternative adopter-diffusion (bottom-up) model, where teachers are supported in using computers for education.


China's Radio and TV Universities have more similarities than differences to western distance education university, such as the UK Open University. The "Chinese characteristics" Wei (2010) describes do not significantly change the model of centrally prepared broadcast TV and paper course-ware supplemented with regional campuses. This has evolved to on-line delivery and also seen merging of regional campuses into conventional universities. What differences there were with western universities may be disappearing with Chinese economic reforms and introduction of a market economy. Will this market economy will see non-state sponsored low cost on-line universities competing with the state sponsored ones? The role of on-line and distance education within the conventional universities is an area for research. Also, can western universities offer distance education in China?


Anderson, Terry, 1950- (2008). The theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed). (p. 428) AU Press, Edmonton Retrieved from

Green ICT Strategies COMP 635. (2010) Retrieved from

Håklev, S. (2010). The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: using open educational resources to promote quality in undergraduate teaching. Retrieved from

Howard, S., & Rennie, E. (2013). Free for All: A Case Study Examining Implementation Factors of One-to-One Device Programs. Computers In The Schools, 30(4), 359-377. doi:10.1080/07380569.2013.847316

Lengrand, P. (1975). An Introduction to Lifelong Education. Retrieved from

Moore, M. G. (1993). 2 Theory of transactional distance. Theoretical principles of distance education, 22. Retrieved from

Perry, Walter Sir (1977). The Open University (1st ed). Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco

Peters, O. (1994). Otto Peters on distance education: The industrialization of teaching and learning. D. Keegan (Ed.). Psychology Press.

Simonson, Michael R (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance : foundations of distance education (4th ed). (p. 14) Allyn & Bacon/Pearson, Boston Retrieved from

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Wei, R.F. (2010). China's radio and TV universities: reflections on theory and practice of open and distance learning. Open Learning, 25(1), 45-56. doi:10.1080/02680510903482199

Wedemeyer, C. A. (2009). Learning at the back door: Reflections on non-traditional learning in the lifespan. IAP.

Wilson, B. (2014). Overview. Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory (Draft ed., pp. 7-18). Retrieved from

Worthington, T. (2012). A Green computing professional education course online: Designing and delivering a course in ICT sustainability using Internet and eBooks. 2012 7Th International Conference On Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), (Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Computer Science and Education, ICCSE 2012) 263. doi:10.1109/ICCSE.2012.6295070

Worthington, T. (2013). Synchronizing asynchronous learning-Combining synchronous and asynchronous techniques. Proceedings Of The 8Th International Conference On Computer Science And Education, ICCSE 2013, (Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Computer Science and Education, ICCSE 2013), 618-621. doi:10.1109/ICCSE.2013.6553983

Next: Use of Open Education Resources.

About the book: Digital Teaching In Higher Education

Higher Education is a global industry, driving a new technological, industrial revolution. However, it is important to remember education is about teachers helping students learn. This work is a collection of short essays exploring how to use digital technology to provide a form of teaching which will meet social and economic goals, and make use of technology, while still having a place for the academic as a teacher. Drawing on work undertaken for a Masters of Education in Distance Education, this book charts one future for Higher Education, including instructional design, planning and management, catering for international students, using Open Education Resources and Mobile Learning. E-learning designer and computer professional, Tom Worthington MEd FACS CP, uses as a case study his award-winning course in ICT Sustainability and the design of a new innovation and entrepreneurship course.

Edition Notice

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2017

Cover pictographs ebook, talk, issues and approved, by Carlos Sarmento from the Noun Project (CC BY 3.0 US).

First Printing: 2017

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National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Worthington, Tom, 1957- author.
Digital teaching in higher education : designing e-learning for
international students of technology, innovation
and the environment / Tom Worthington.

ISBN: 9781326947859 (Hardback)
ISBN: 9781326939922 (Paperback)
ISBN: 9781326938826 (ePub eBook)
ISBN: 9781326967963 (PDF eBook)
Amazon Kindle eBook (No ISBN).

Education, Higher--Effect of technological innovations on.
Education, Higher--Computer-assisted instruction.
Educational technology--Social aspects.
Education, Higher--Electronic information resources.
Instructional systems--Design.

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