The Norwegian School of Correspondence was established in 1914 as a non-profit foundation to deliver distance learning around the country so Norwegians could have access to education despite financial, cultural, and geographic barriers. At one time, the institution had so many students it ran its own postal service, delivering course packages in rural areas. More than three million students have completed courses, especially in college, university and vocational education.
This virtual monopoly in distance learning no longer exists, and they currently have about 4,500 full-time and 3,500 online students. The name has also changed to Høyskolen Kristiania Nettstudier – Kristiania University College (KUC) – offering fully-accredited bachelor and master’s degrees in four professional categories: Management; Education and Society; Media and Communications; and Health.
However, the commitment to providing quality educational opportunities to as many people as possible means innovation and development are core components of the KUC mission.
The Department of Online Studies at KUC experimented with offering synchronous courses, but found this style of delivery does not match with their students’ needs for flexibility in timing, as most are working full-time and have other responsibilities.
Asynchronous courses seemed to offer the best approach to reaching their students, who have 18 months to complete a subject in which they can register at any time. KUC uses a learning platform, Luvit, co-designed with a Swedish company that emphasizes tools to support individuals working at their own pace.
KUC tested and implemented or discontinued a variety of strategies to address some of the challenges of asynchronous learning:
Student Collaboration: Using what Anders Nome, the Manager of the Learning Technology Centre, calls a ‘collaboration button’ on their course page, students have the option of joining a collaboration site. They can post information about themselves and agree to the posting of some information by the institution. Students can then review other students’ activity in this collaboration system, as well as their course history and send specific requests to students they select, asking them to collaborate. They may be working on the same assignment or looking for a supportive ‘study buddy’, and the collaboration may take place face-to-face or online. About 40% of student chose to collaborate.
What’s Happening Wall: Each student has an Overview page for each course, which features access to the course materials, the collaboration option described above, personal assignment dates, access to the tutor, and other information. There is also a ‘what’s happening” feature, which includes tweets on progress of other students in course, who have handed in and passed assignments and tests and other highlights.
As a key component of every course, the tutor provides an introductory video to her/himself. Students also post introductions to themselves, which they can update with test results, contributions to discussion forums and other course-related information that may be of interest to others. This information may be posted by students or the tutor, with the students’ permission.
Students appreciate this feature as a motivator in seeing how others are progressing, and a way of reducing the sense of isolation. There was a concern students would see the what’s happening feature as intrusive, and so they are offered the option to deactivate this portion of course site. However, only 6% of students report seeing it as annoying; while 62% see it as a useful and fun feature, even if not directly related to the course content. Over 30% hadn’t noticed the “wall” at all.
Discussion Groups: Attempts were made to set up discussion groups, but, even in synchronous classes with the relatively small groups of 20 to 100 students, it was difficult to achieve critical mass. Many students read the exchanges, but only 5-10% of students were active communicators. When participation in the discussion groups was mandatory, student evaluations of their usefulness were not positive. As Anders Nome explained it: “We saw discussion groups as an answer, but we hadn’t formulated the question yet. The thought was good, but the results were not.”
Testing and Assessment: Students are able to schedule their own assignment due dates and can get reminders from the tutor. Students also get online practice tests, in which they complete short answer questions and then get an example of a good answer. They can compare and change their responses. About 60% of students report enhanced learning through this kind of practice test, while 40% prefer multiple choice tests.
Multiple choice self-tests are offered in some courses; with a number of these gamified and researched to assess student reaction and learning gains.
Tutor Roles: Online courses have a standardized format. Students have access to all the course materials from their day of registration, as well as access to support materials, such as tutorials on being an online student. The tutor provides individualized support to students, with institutional guidelines on speed and quality of their responses. Students are promised feedback on assignments within four to five working days; this period of time is so the tutor can provide substantive comments and directions. Answers to shorter questions are sent within 24 hours.
Outcomes and Benefits
More than 80% of KUC students are women, with a fairly even distribution of students from 18 to 47 years of age. About 53% attended or graduated from college, while 41% have high school diplomas. The Management and Education courses are the most popular.
Students can have free access to any course for two days as a trial period. They could download all the content during this trial period if they chose to. This emphasizes what KUC provides as an essential service is tutoring. Individual connections between student and tutor are consistently highly rated on course evaluations.
The flexibility of self-paced learning with individual start dates is a deciding factor for most students in choosing to study at KUC. They could take courses for free at public institutions, but they would lose the control of their own timetables and study time.
Challenges and Enhancements
One of the challenges in determining effective practices for online learning is to measure the learning as the ultimate goal, rather than simply the rate of participation in the activity.
The current completion rate for post-secondary courses is 66% ,which Anders Nome thinks would be higher with more face-to-face meetings. But the students who choose Kristiania University College want the flexibility of choosing their own study time.
Using blended learning or other strategies with more fixed schedules could also increase numbers, but also be more expensive to develop and offer and less likely to reach their core registration group.
In addition to their successful innovations to date, KUC would like to develop better tools for student interaction, including ones that facilitate active collaborative, perhaps on a synchronous basis.
Voice and camera options are being investigated for their applicability for submitting assignment and for tutor comments.
Kristiania University College was concerned about the impact of MOOCs, but they have seen MOOCs progress from their beginnings as open, wide-reaching courses to smaller, more private offerings, with credits – coming closer to the existing educational model.
For Further Information
Learning Technology Centre
Kristiania University College