altLi Yaping, Director of Faculty of Engineering, Gui Zhou Open University
Overseas Based University: the Open University
Advisor: Dr. Hossein Zand
Study Area: development of teaching & learning materials, evaluation of curriculum, learning support of e-learning



New Perception on British Open & Distance Education



I am glad that I was given the opportunity to visit the Open University (OU) as an academic visitor for over four months, and study the latest developments in open and distance learning (ODL). My visit was funded by Sino-British Fellowship Trust(SBFT) and China Scholarship Council and the Open University of China. Without the sponsorship of the SBFT, it would have been impossible for me to have a chance to study in the UK, therefore, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professor Naylor and Mrs. Ely, and other members of the SBFT for their generous support.

I would like to express my thanks to China Scholarship Council , the Open University of China and Guizhou Open University for their kind assistance in arranging this programme.
I am also grateful to Dr. Hossein Zand, my adviser, who gave me so much help and support for my study and academic visit. He kindly arranged everything for me and enabling me to meet many persons of high reputation in their own fields , and I benefited from my discussions with them.

1. An overview of my activities at the OU

Before coming to UK, I had selected "learner support for distance learning" as the focus of my study. When I arrived in the Institute of Educational Technology (IET) of the Open University, as result of my early discussions with the experts, I found that the development of distance learning and E-learning in the OU is expanding quickly and I can look into a wider area of current developments in ODL, areas which are directly applicable to my own work in China. So I adjusted my study plan as follows:

  • How to produce teaching materials?
  • How to assess courses?
  • Learner support for distance and e-learning
  • What is a possible e-learning platform?

To achieve these aims, I met a number of experts and Sub-Deans of the OU faculties, and made a number of visitations, including

  1. Dr. Jim Iley, Sub-Dean of Science Faculty, OU
  2. Dr Carol Morris, Sub-Dean of Technology Faculty, OU
  3. Dr. Anne Howell, Director of Learning and Teaching Solution (LTS),OU
  4. Dr. Philip Butcher, Director of Academic Software Development, OU
  5. Zhu Jian han and his colleagues at the Knowledge Media Institute, OU
  6. Visited Cambridge Regional Office of the OU, R06, where I observed first hand the operation of an important regional office and study center of the OU
  7. Visited the residential summer school of the science course SXR103, held on the Campus of the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. This was a very useful opportunity to observe the OU organizes its summer school, and I had very useful discussions with the Summer School Director Dr. Linda Fowler and some of the tutors. In addition, I visited some labs as students were working.

These discussions and visitations were very wide, covering teaching, learning and management issues, which enhanced my insight into the working of a well known institution. These discussions were very important to me because they can be applied to my work in China.
I wish to thank all those who discussed various academic issues with me.

2. Online Resource Design

I collected much information about online teaching and learning. I also read and studied some journals about generic requirements of online course design. As the interface of web site is a key element of usability, where usability means the ease or difficulty with which the user can complete the intended tasks, so I also studied the methods for evaluation interface design for online learning environment.
In the OU, web-based resources which offer educational guidance and learning support for OU students are produced by a team. This team consists of instructional designers and web builders with a unique mix of academic and technical experience. They have established guidelines for the design and build process.

Table 1 Guidelines for Online Resource Design and Build


Needs analysis and marking information, articulation of aims and objectives, assessment of the production requirements, leading to the final design proposal.


Deciding a blue print of the content,  design, design of multimedia and web-based materials, deciding assessment policy, support system,  including tutorials


Writing of the texts production of multimedia, online components, developmental testing, quality assurance process, critical reading, editing, evaluation and maintenance. user testing,  technical review for accessibility and usability, etc.


Forming of presentation team, production of TMAs and continuous assessment materials each year, course evaluation, correcting errors, communicating with students, organising tutorials, summer schools, examinations, etc.

Production is achieved by a team of specialists. They spend about 2 years, possibly more, to produce a course at the OU. This includes the production of printed texts, audio-visual materials, specialised computer software, assessment materials, etc. I think the management system for course planning, design, production and presentation, which is largely standardised offers a viable model for course design and production in my university.

3. Course Assessment

In the OU, courses have two assessment components: continuous assessment and an examination. Most courses have assessment throughout the course rather than just at the end.Continuous assessment includes tutor marked assignments (TMAs), computer marked assignments (CMAs) and essays. These assignments serve two main purposes. They help learner to learn and, secondly, they enable the University to judge learners' achievements, whether they meet the requires standards. The work of the learner on assignments and the process of writing it up, helps them to concentrate on important aspects of the course and to consolidate what they have learned.
To pass the course, or to achieve a particular grade of pass, it is necessary to attain a particular score on both the continuous assessment and the examinable component. Learner's result is not determined by an averaging of the two components. Their performance in all forms of assessment is recorded and reported back to them by means of the numerical University Scale in Table 2.

Table 2 The University Scale


University Scale score

Performance standard



Pass 1



Pass 2



Pass 3



Pass 4



Bare fail






Bad fail

Unless learners are told otherwise, they're expected to submit their assignments through the University's electronic TMA system, not to send them by post or by e-mail to their tutor. Learners will receive a guide to the eTMA system as part of their course materials, and they should follow the instructions in it. Submission by post is acceptable only as a last resort. Learner's tutor will make comments on their assignment and on an accompanying PT3 form (which their tutor will produce as part of the marking process), and send both electronically to Walton Hall (the OU headquarters). Their score is recorded and their assignment and the PT3 are returned to them electronically.

The examinable component for most Open University courses consists of a written examination. The question paper will almost always be an unseen one, but learners receive a specimen paper with their course materials so that learner can familiarize with the appearance of the question paper. The examinable component may be an examination, it may be a piece of work such as a dissertation or a project, or it may include both an examination and other work. It may be written or oral.
Learner's course result is determined from their performance in the two components. To guarantee a pass grade for the course learner must pass both of these. When all the calculations have been done, learner must end up with a score of about 40 for their overall continuous assessment and about 40 for their examinable component. Their result is not determined by an averaging of the two scores.

Figure 1 How learner's scores contribute to their result


If no substitution has taken place, the preliminary and final overall continuous assessment scores will be the same.
If learner mark where his overall continuous assessment score and his overall examination score cross on the following matrices, he should be able to see the result grade he will achieve.

Figure 2 Matrix of result grades for 60-point Certificate courses
Table 3 Certificate courses (60 point)


Overall score for examinable component


Final overall continuous assessment score













Fail, entitled to resit




If learner's score 40% or more in continuous assessment and complete the examination but fail it, they may be entitled to a resit.

4. ICT Application and Learner Support for Distance Learning

I read some materials about information and communication technologies (ICT) are applied in distance education. I also studied the methods of online testing and assessment. I am interested in IET put forward: four of the "hard" technologies and three of the "soft" technologies. Four of the "hard" technologies are broadland, mobile learning, digital video and on-line voice conferencing. Three of the "soft" technologies are learning objects, personalising electronic systems, assessment of student learning.

I studied some printed-books, viewed various CDs and DVDs, video tapes in mathematics and computing, information technology, and compared them with ourselves. Especially, the courseware and remote lab produced by OU impressed me deeply. In addition, the Mathcad, a mathematic multi-media software , has been used in learning mathematics. This is a computer algebra system (CAS) which can carry out mathematical computations, enables learners to visualise mathematical objects, and so on. The idea is that a CAS should help learners to concentrate on concepts rather that performing repetative calculations. However, as discussed several times by Dr Zand, well known international expert in this area, this is an area which needs much more study and research. In fact it is not always the case that a CAS helps students to undersratnt concepts, because pencil and paper remains a very important element in mathematics learning, whether face-to-face or at a distance. I think this system deserves our attention and we should consider it critically, to see how useful it can be for our students.

Under my adviser's help and arrangement, I interviewed some experts in the department of science and technology to discussed mutual issues about teaching plan, teaching program, examination system, recruiting system and using computer-based simulations for supporting science and technology student at a distance. All of us realize that the simulant lab is a powerful resouce for providing an interactive environment for students to explore real and complex systems. The simulant labs have great educational benefit to distance learners who do not have direct contact with their teachers. They can be used individually, or by pairs/groups of students working collaboratively. We also discussed how to support learner to prevent them from losing.

5. Tutor Training and Management

I also discussed some issues with the experts about the tutor's selection, training and management. As increasing use of the web in higher education and the proliferation of online distance education courses bring with it inevitable changes in the role of distance education tutors. Whereas once they supported their students primarily by telephone and correspondence or in face-to face tutorial sessions, new communication tools such as email, computer conferencing and chat, afford additional opportunities for effective tutoring, but also necessitate the acquisition of new skills, both technical and professional. Moreover, a tutor in an electronic teaching environment need to act as a councellor for learners, as course evaluations at the OU have shown. Course designers incorporating the new communication technologies into distance learning courses need to be able to make assumptions about the skills-set of the tutors who will be e-moderating in them. Upwards of 4000 tutors have be trained by electronic system in the OU.

6. Some Pioneer's Experience in the Distance Education

I also studied a number of articles about e-learning practice, such as "Critical Success Factores for On-line Course Resource", "Eliminaing Barriers for all E-learners", "Using a Virtual Learning Environment in Collaborative Learning:Criteria for Success". In these articles, the authors make useful suggestins based on their experience sand practices. For example:

  • Help learners overcome barriers to use ICT, especially at the beginning.
  • Not just "virtual", but also "live" contacts.
  • Help learner to use internet purposefully.
  • Make the website attractive, transparent, and easy to navigate.
  • The course design should encourage high levels of collaboration. Allocation of marks to on-line discussion will be helpful.
  • The advices will be very worthful for my future practices.

7. Structure of E-Learning Model

The term e-learning refers to a kind of distance learning where learning and teaching is carried out in a more and more technologised environment. I also analyzed some the structure of e-learning model. I think a possible e-learning model is as follow:


This model can be grouped into at least four different categories:

  • Individual learning
    Free use of the network to access repositories of unstructured learning material in order to look up material on a given topic).
    Use of structured learning material purposely designed for distance self-learning.
  • Assisted learning
    Use of material structured for distance education (primarily self-learning) but also including some support from the provider (counseling).
    Use of material which is not necessarily designed for self-learning, as part of a distance course that includes support from tutors and teachers (sometimes operating as organizers of events like short online workshops/seminars dealing with course topics).
  • Collaborative learning
    Use of mixed approaches that include complementary phases of face to face teaching and collaborative online learning activities.
  • Reciprocal learning
    Use of communities of practice approaches, leading to the formation of collaborative groups, everyone share experiences, knowledge, and best practices for the purposes of collective growth.


The short four months elapsed. My academic visit to the UK has been very beneficial for me. I obtained valuable first-hand materials and information, widened my academic outlook on latest devlopments in ODL and e-learning in the West, enhanced my professional insights and enriched my practical experience. Moreover, I have set up a network of friends and colleagues, all expersts in their own fields, in the UK. I hope to remain in contact with them so that we can use their knowledge and experience to our own benefit. Visiting the UK has also been a fruitful opportunity for me to improve my academic and conversational English.