altTang Yong, Associate Researcher, Scientific Research Department, Sichuan Open University
Overseas Based University: the University of Nottingham
Advisor: Prof. John Morgan
Study Area: the Teaching and Learning Theory of Distance Education; Comparative Research on Open and Distance Education between China and the UK

 

A Brief Report about My Stay in the UK


Acknowledgements

I would like to express my heartfelt respects and gratitude to Prof. Naylor and Mrs. Ely. Without their generous support and help, it would have been impossible for me to get a special fund from the Sino-British Fellowship Trust (SBFT) which sponsored this four months programme to UK. Also, I am very grateful to Mr. Li Wangrong and other officials in the China Scholarship Council and my colleagues in the Open University of China (OUC) and Sichuan Open University (OU Sichuan).
Professor W. J. Morgan – the Director of the Centre for Comparative Education Research, who is also my mentor - deserves my very special thanks. Through out my programme in the University of Nottingham, he gave me many useful and valuable instructions on my research work and arranged considerable academic and social activities for me which I will never forget. I would also like to use this opportunity to specially thank Ms. Gill Morgan – Secretary to John Morgan (no relation) - for providing the necessary information needed to help me settle down on time.
My special thanks also go to the following people at the School of Education for their kindness, patience, guidance, assistance and friendship. To mention a few, they are: Emeritus Prof. J.E.Thomas, Special Prof. Bernadette Robinson, Dr. Mark Dale, Dr. John Wallice, Dr. Chris Atkin and Ms. Frederique Poujades. .

My Activities in the University of Nottingham

As an academic visitor, I studied in the School of Education from 1st April to 30th July 2004. During this period, the focus of my study and research is based on the following activities:

1. Making some research on blended learning in distance education

Blended learning is a very popular term in e-learning circles at the moment, although there are still controversial arguments about the use of the term. In China, blended learning has also been a very hot topic in distance education circles around 2003, and my home university is now exploring and striving to introduce blended learning to the construction of new mode of teaching and learning. Normally, blended learning means learning involving an integrated combination of media, including online media, together with a defined role for a tutor or facilitator of some kind. The major advantage of blended learning lies in the integrated combination of online learning with face to face tutorials. This will allow a great deal of flexibility to accommodate the varied demands of particular pedagogues, disciplines and levels of course, and also the needs of a diversity of learners. The Open University of the UK (OUUK) has always made use of a blend of media in its teaching and learning, and describes ‘blended learning in a multi-model system' as one of the characteristics of its teaching and learning mode. Thomas et al. offer an excellent description of the Open University and the rich blend of support mechanisms involved. They describe the traditional system of student-tutor interaction: one-to-one queries, and face to face tutorials (1998:158), underlining the fact that the University has always made use of a blend of media. In particular, face to face tutorials have been a central pillar of learner support at the OU. The experience of OU implementation of blended learning deserves our considerations and reflections in the process of carrying out open and distance learning (ODL) programs in China. Sichuan is a remote, mountainous and multinational province located in western China and when compared with provinces in the east, its economy, infrastructure, and transportation are still underdeveloped. In some remote areas, traditional, first and second-generation media will long continue to be the main carriers of education. As a result, we cannot ignore the importance of traditional media such as radio, TV and textbooks, even as we seek to integrate them with online media and an internet-based teaching mode. So the blend of media is the more applicable way to carry out ODL programs in Western China.
Based on the above research, I hope to investigate further into the effectiveness of blended learning in distance Education in Western China. This will make a significant contribution by providing relevant information about blended learning in distance education in China at a time when this approach to learning is becoming increasingly important. Also, I will look into how to construct the most effective blended learning programs for teachers and students in the networked environment, including its learning process, support system, organising form, teacher/student relationship, learning evaluation and implementing principles, etc.

2. Studying the history of international research in distance education and its developmental characteristics and trends.

Being a research fellow in distance education, it is of particular importance to study and gain advanced experience from abroad distance education research, so as to develop thoughts for the development of distance education in Western China. During my study here, I searched the internet and collected a large amount of information about research in distance education, and I have read them carefully with an aim to examine the history, development, characteristics and trends of abroad distance education research in comparison with that in China. I, especially, pay more attention on the comparative study of the different research methodologies between the West and China. Research in distance education has a relatively short history in China, most of the research works used descriptive approach and can not be generalised. Researchers seem not to take time to consult and refer to previous research works. Especially, experimental research under controlled conditions is practically non-existent. Whereas at the same time, the field of western distance education research has seen a shift from research mainly based on quantitative methods in the 60's to qualitative research influenced in the 70's and 80's, and qualitative methodologies such as ethnography, case study and grounded theory has been applied to expand the research base in the field of distance education. According to Keegan (1991), the study of western distance education has developed in four stages: Stage 1, the study of terminology; Stage 2, the study of definition.; Stage 3, nature of the field of study.; Stage 4, focus of the field of study. In these four stages of development, the focus and content of research in distance education mainly involved in the following areas: defining distance education as a field of study; teaching philosophy and the development of theories of distance education; surveys and description of student bodies, recruitment, drop out and completion; media and technology; student support and counselling; teaching in distance education and the development of teaching/learning material, evaluation and quality development. At present, the research in distance education has entered into a new period, which is called post-modernisation phase and it will attach great importance to research on the learning objectives of learners and their individual differences. Consequently, it will require the adoption of some new methodologies such as systematic methodology to carry out distance education research. I think it will be of great use and conducive to the promotion of distance education research in China if we can understand and grasp the UK pattern, characteristics and trends of distance education research and apply them in our own practical research work.

3. Getting the general overview of adult education and special education in the UK

The UK has a long history of developing adult education and special education,and it has good reputation for its high quality adult education and special education in the world. Especially in recent years, the British government has taken many measures to attach great importance to lifelong learning, thus greatly promoting the further development of adult education and special education. During my study in the School of Education, I attended three PGCCE modules about adult education. They are: The Teacher in Professional Context, Managing Teaching and Learning and Curriculum Design and Development. I also visited the Adult Education Centre of School of Education, which is located in Shakespeare Street at the city centre of Nottingham. The Centre offers a large programme of weekly meeting courses, daytime and evening, as well as schools and social events. Other course providers using the Centre are The Open University and The University of the Third Age. What struck me most was that the average year of the students here is over 50 years, with 102 years as the oldest student.

In addition, I met with two experts in special education. One is Prof. J. E. Thomas, who has high reputation in education for prison inmates; and the other is Dr. Mark Dale, who specialise in disabled student's education. Both of them have provided me a lot of valuable information and guidance on special education, especially for those with disabilities, prison inmates, etc. I also attended a seminar on disabled student's education (Disability Awareness and Equality Training) which was held in Jubilee Campus on 21st June. Besides, I visited Portland College for the disabled,which impressed me most for its first-class facilities, high quality education and training to people with disabilities.

Through these visits, talks and attendance at sessions and modules, I have got a general impression of the adult education system in the UK, and I have found many useful experiences we can learn from to enhance the quality of adult education in China.

4. Other academic and visiting activities

The Centre for Comparative Education Research is so thoughtful that they have arranged for us many meetings and visits, and I have learnt quite a lot of useful information and knowledge from these activities. Some of these are mentioned bellow:

On 28th April, my colleagues and I met with Prof. Bernadette Robinson, a renowned expert in distance education research. We discussed issues relating to the learner support and quality assurance in distance learning, and she gave us many instructive advice and guidance, which will be very helpful to our future study and research in China.
From 3rd to 4th June, my colleagues and I attended a research colloquium (Education and Development in the Commonwealth: Comparative Perspectives), which was sponsored by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK and the Centre Comparative Education Research (CCER). On the colloquium, we have interviewed some of delegates from the Commonwealth Learning and many issues about adult education and distance education were discussed.
On 1st June and 15th June, we respectively visited the headquarters of Open University in Milton Keynes and its regional centre in Nottingham. We interviewed some administrators, tutors and research fellows and discussed important issues on distance learning with them, such as management and administration, teaching and learning, online learning, learning support services, multimedia teaching resources and quality assurance systems. We received some OU course materials, toolkits and brochures. These materials are very useful which I hope to share with colleagues in my home university so as to help us to plan and implement an effective distance learning program in Western China.
Moreover, as I am very interested in British history and culture, I have visited by myself many historical and scenic spots through which I have got a bird's eye view of British history, culture and society. These spots include: British Museum, Science Museum, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, Tower of London, London Big Ben, Hyde park, St. James park, the Nottingham Castle, Newark Castle, Lincoln Cathedral, York Minster, St. Mary's Church, Walton Park, Walton Hall, Chatsworth House, Stratford-upon –Avon, Newstead Abbey, and the most important tour to Scotland.

Conclusion

The short four-month study has slipped away very quickly. However, the visit had been highly profitable and most memorable. I enjoy my stay and study here very much and I have learnt much more than what I expected before leaving China. During this period, I have broadened my view of academic research, enriched my research experience and enhance my ability of research in distance education. I also have collected many useful materials related to distance learning, which will contribute greatly to my future research work in China. In conclusion, my study in the UK is not only fruitful and valuable but also enjoyable and unforgettable. The experience I received in UK will be shared with my colleagues in my home university in China. This will no doubt, contribute immensely to shape our understanding and knowledge in the development and implementation of distance education programs in Western China.

References

Keegan, D. (1986): Foundations of distance education. London: CroomHelm.

Keegan, D. (1996), Foundations of distance education, 3rd. ed, London: Routeledge.

Cameron S.& Macdonald J.(2003), "The good practice backlash. A review of the literature on blended learning", at: http://kn.open.au.uk/sitewide/getfile.cfm?documentfileid=4097 ( accessed02/06/2004)

Macdonald J & Mcateer E.(2003), "New approaches to supporting students: strategies for blended learning in distance and campus based environment", Journal of Education Media, 28 (2-3). 99-100

Macdonald J.(2004), "Exploring quality in blended learning: implications for a blended approach", at: http://kn.open.ac.uk/public/getfile.cfm?documentfileid=4892
( accessed02/06/2004)

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Rennie F. (2004), "The importance of the online component in the blended learning experience for distributed rural students", at: http://kn.open.ac.uk/public/getfile.cfm?documentfileid=4875 (accessed02/06/2004)

London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education (2004), "Against the term 'blended learning'", at:http://kn.open.ac.uk/public/getfile.cfm?documentfileid=4876 (accessed02/06/2004)

Rekkdal T.(2004), "Research in distance education-past, present and future", at: http://www.nettskolen.com/pub/artikkel.xsql?artid=139 (accessed02/06/2004)

Saba F.(2004), "Evolution of research in distance education: an American perspective", Distance Education in China, No.11 June 2003( serial No. 202)

Holmberg B.(1986), "A discipline of distance education", Journal of Distance Education, 1,1,24-40