[ CCCC Conference Home Page ]

Restructuring university distance education centres: The transition from conventional to online delivery

Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University

Clare McBeath
Faculty of Education, Curtin University


Are we ready for the transition to new forms of distance education delivery in which the Internet is an essential component, and conventional postal communications are reduced to a subsidiary role? What would happen if our university decreed that print based materials and postal dispatches are unnecessary expenses and that we have to put as much of our materials online as we possibly can? What would be the effects on academic and support staff and on students?

This session explores this scenario, with reference to universities which have an existing distance education centre or flexible learning centre. In particular, we are interested in the potential for a re-orientation of the delivery support and student support roles usually associated with a centre, into a help desk service for off campus students. We propose that a service of this type will be an effective contribution towards dealing with an accelerated or "forced" migration of external courses from conventional to online delivery.

The pressures

There is an inevitability about the move in universities towards online delivery of student materials for both on and off campus teaching. However, is it realistic or alarmist to anticipate a scenario of accelerated or "forced" migration to online accompanied by withdrawal of conventional postal delivery of printed materials? We do view this as a possible or even likely scenario at Curtin and Murdoch Universities. There are some illustrative indicators of the potential trend in our contexts. For example the "Review of Distance, Open and Flexible Learning at Curtin University of Technology" (Bottomley, 1998) noted that "Funds allocated for the printing of course materials are inadequate to cover present demand." Among many other recommendations on a wide range of issues, the Report included this paragraph in its Recommendation Sixteen:
Consideration should be given to progressively reduce the funds allocated for printing and assign the balance to development. This will encourage Schools and Faculties to make increased use of commercially available print resources and of forms of teaching involving online and other non-print based delivery.
The phrase "commercially available print resources" refers to text books published elsewhere (which students have to purchase at their own expense) in contrast to University printed materials (which external students receive by post without being charged). In another suggestion concerned with reduction of University expenditure on printing, the Report's Recommendation Nineteen proposed that "The Distance Education Unit should investigate the cost effectiveness of the adoption of online digital just in time printing of data-based distance education materials."

When establishing an inquiry into External Studies in 1999, Murdoch University's Academic Council considered a submission (Murdoch University, 1999) which included expressions of concern about costs of delivery: "The withdrawal rate from external units is typically 30% or higher by Week 10 of semester, again underlining the effort and resources the University commits to external studies that effectively has no pay-off for the institution", and "Currently we allow students to elect the external mode as a right. It costs the university significantly more to service such students." Although comparisons of costs of conventional and online delivery are subject to many uncertainties (Inglis, 1999; Webb, 2000), in Murdoch's context "going online" is in general viewed as "cost favourable", particularly in the context of small sized external classes.

In our universities, the in-house printing services charge their expenditures upon distance education materials to the Schools or cost centres involved, rather than being provided directly through any central avenue for funds. Postage also is expensive and is rebilled to Schools. One important factor is that "going online" is likely to change the distribution of University printed materials, if any are used for the particular unit, into an optional extra which a student may elect to purchase, paying full cost recovery, as an alternative to screen reading or doing one's own printer dump.

At present external students are not charged for university printed materials. Therefore, "going online" offers relief in the politically sensitive areas of printing and postage costs. For some or even many units at our universities, the prospect may be cancellation of external offering if cost reductions are not achieved in a "visible" way. Printing and postage costs are easier prospects for immediate savings compared with other kinds of costs.

However, units under threat of cancellation due to low enrolments cannot afford further losses, should that occur upon "going online only". Loss of external enrolments, if not compensated for by increases in on campus enrolments, may lead ultimately to the termination of the department or program or group offering the units. Therefore many academics are concerned, or will be concerned, with the risk of decreased enrolments if being required to "go online only" and withdraw from conventional print based delivery. There are related issues, including equity concerns on behalf of external students who may be excluded by lack of access to the technologies or lack of technological skills, concerns about extra workloads being required for course preparation and interactions with students, and other issues and pressures (Fox, 1999; Fox, Herrmann and Boyd, 1999)

What is the extent to which improved and restructured student support services can counter the risk of increased withdrawals due to changing to "online only"? Can we minimise the traumas which may be incurred by students if they are "thrown into" some kind of technological "deep end" without reasonable supports? We believe that the best approach to these questions is via a student oriented perspective.

Student perspective

The number of our students with access to the Internet is growing at a rapid rate (ABS, 2000). Access will not be a problem for the great majority of students, although many may encounter difficulties in sustaining the reliable functionality of their Internet connection, owing to problems with computer hardware, software, modems and telephone lines.

However, there will always be a small number who cannot or will not be able to access their study materials online. These may include older distance education students who do not have a computer at home, who do not come on campus and who would not know how to use the computer laboratory even if they did. Some students will require assistance to cover a short term loss of their Internet connection due to failure of a home computer.

For this group of non-users there will always have to be an alternative to online delivery of essential reading. This could be done by "just in time" postal dispatch of printer dumps from a unit's online materials, undertaken by a help desk service. We are confident that the university would subsidise the printing and postage costs for such a service, provided that the cost per unit for such assistance is relatively small.

The proposition here is that students would be expected to access their study materials from the Internet, unless they specifically ask to have printed copies, and provide some justification for their requests. Print copies in such cases could be individually photocopied or laser printed as required, instead of the usual offset printing conducted in bulk prior to the unit's semester of study. However, depending upon demand, it may be worthwhile to also have available the traditional printed materials, for selected units, on the basis of distribution being only by sales at full cost recovery rates, to give both internal and external students an optional alternative to screen reading, or to doing one's own printer dump if desiring hard copy [1]. The problem of having to print hard copy to overcome a limitation in the Copyright Act's statutory licences for educational institutions (Atkinson and Dowling, 2000) has been addressed by the recent finalisation of Digital Agenda Bill 2000 [2].

The second issue from the point of view of the student, is what do they do with the materials when they have accessed them? How much 'information technology literacy' do they have to be taught to ensure that they have full and fair access? Will students be happy to exercise their own judgement as to whether they print out the materials and make their own 'books' or whether they read on screen? Should they write their notes in pen on the printed page, or are they required to use MyNotes or some such device within an online environment.

How much choice do they actually have in choosing how to use their materials, when, for example, much of their reading may be dynamically linked to sites on the Internet? How much choice do they have when their assessment includes online assignments, participation in discussion groups or the submission of online notes?

The authors of online materials have to think carefully about what the objectives of the learning are when they move to online environments. In the same way as we used to be warned against assessing grammar and or writing skills instead of the essential knowledge and skills required, so must we now take care that we are not assessing students on their IT literacy skills - unless these are defined as an objective or outcome for the module, unit or course. Curtin's Report (Bottomley, 1998) recognised this issue explicitly and called for more attention, not less, to:

...the ways in which the University intends to translate into action its commitment to computer and information literacy for those students studying off-campus through distance education. Existing off-campus programs do not systematically develop these skills in students. They need to do so if the University is to achieve its strategic objectives for teaching and learning and to avoid graduating students deficient in core skills of Curtin graduates.
There are a number of essential components in any well developed plan to address the core issue raised in this quotation, including the help desk services we outline below.

The opportunities

Is the amount of use of the external mode sufficient, from a university wide perspective, to make it worthwhile continuing to develop, evolve and support this mode, as is implied by proposing that we make a special effort to "go online"? Whilst a full discussion is far beyond the scope of this article, the data in Tables 1-3 indicate a modest growth scenario for Curtin University, although average class sizes are small, and a downsizing trend at Murdoch University, although average class sizes are larger than Curtin's.

Table 1: Curtin University external classes data

Year 19921994199619971998
Student unit enrolments 47074979686292279357
Number of distance education units 349439613606651
Mean student unit enrolment per DE unit 13.511.311.215.214.4
  Source: Bottomley (1998)

Table 2: Murdoch University external classes data
Year 199219941996199719981999
Student unit enrolments 666069766381746973946959
Number of distance education units 277306322325364353
Mean student unit enrolment per DE unit 24.022.819.823.020.319.7
   Source: Murdoch University External Studies Office unpublished data.
  Some units are offered twice each year. These are counted twice, to enable the data in "Mean student
  unit enrolment per DE unit" to relate consistently to average class size for each offering of a unit.

Table 3: Murdoch University - No. of students ("head count") in
category "External" compared with Total
Year 1991 199219931994199519961997199819992000
External 1834 171517631865180816591710165914991482
Total 8,114 8,2818,3798,8309,0259,26210,54610,96711,60411,743
   Source: Murdoch University Office of Policy and Planning.
  A student is "External" if more than half of his or her enrolment is external. Students with one half
  or less of their enrolment in the external mode are classified elsewhere (under "Full time" or "Part time").

The trend at Murdoch University is less certain. The number of external students and their proportion in the Murdoch University total has fallen substantially in recent years (Table 3). However, decreased numbers of fully external students have been offset partially by increased use of "dual mode" enrolment, in which a student enrols in some units internally (attending classes on campus), and some units externally (not required to attend, although a few external units have on campus sessions). The main reason for decline of fully external is the absence, to date, of strong growth areas such as Business and Law from Murdoch's external course profile, whilst a high proportion of external courses are in areas of slow or negative growth.

Nevertheless, in both cases the class data may be perceived as the basis for an opportunity. In the case of Curtin there is an opportunity to use "online only" to improve in a growth area, as Bottomley (1998) has indicated. In Murdoch's case, there is an opportunity to use "online only" to restore viability, though it may not increase enrolments. The particular improvement we discuss below, help desk services to facilitate "going online only", is equally applicable to growth areas and to areas which if not rejuvenated will have to be phased out.

From Distance Education Centre to help desk facility

In practice, "online only" in the Curtin and Murdoch context would curtail or even eliminate the involvement of the distance education centre in production and dispatch tasks based upon conventional materials, and class administration tasks such as assignment submission. Both universities are using WebCT extensively for both on campus and off campus students [3].

What would be the best way to redeploy staff from "old" areas, if a university chose to move its existing distance education to online only? To address this question, we need to consider the typical kinds of problems which may be encountered by off campus students enrolled in online courses. These problems may range widely over technical (Atkinson, 1997; 1998), administrative, library (Atkinson and Dowling, 2000) and study related matters. If we can find a way to group or coordinate these services together into a help desk facility for off campus students, we have a potentially effective way to restructure the delivery support roles of a university distance education centre. If perceived as a redeployment and improved coordination of existing positions, the service may require relatively modest funding or it may even result in savings compared with current activities, owing to savings on print and postage.

Whilst this service may adopt any one of a number of possible names, its principal features could include:

  1. Being constituted primarily as a help service, not an administrative service. It shall concentrate upon special assistance to students who encounter technical, organisational or personal difficulties with their studies, in contrast to an administrative service which would interact with all students.

  2. Although primarily a help service reacting to requests from clients, the service would have also a proactive role in initiating communications with non-commencing students and students at risk. It would be required to collect and present formative feedback for the purposes of improving courses and units, to help develop special services in computer user education and in teaching and learning skills for online courses, and to contribute to documentation and to online peer group social communications.

  3. Acting as a facilitative assistant in enabling the transition of students from conventional to online delivery of their distance education courses. This role would include special services for students having no Internet access, or encountering difficulties with their access. For example, some students may require "just in time" postal dispatch of printer dumps from a unit's online materials.

  4. Taking special care to maintain a judicious balance between "fixing the problem" and "enabling students to fix their own problems", and a judicious coordination between the administrative, computer-technical, library-technical, library-information literacy, learning skills and personal management skills areas of a holistic approach to client needs.
There are a wide range of perspectives on student support. In this scenario we are concerned mainly with needs for personalised services, helping and sharing rather than simply telling students what to do. For example, we appreciate the personalised orientation of the examples of support cited by Kazmer (2000), although we also recognise the contribution of systems oriented views, for example George, Hicks and Reid (1999). Some critics may feel that the university is not being supportive by "going online" to save upon print and postage, whilst students are disadvantaged by having to spend more of their own funds upon increased use of Internet connections and dumping study materials to their own printers. However, there is the prospect of improved support, especially in the technologies, and in some cases the alternative to "going online" could be a more severe disadvantage due to cancellation of courses.

The terms of reference for Murdoch University's Academic Council Working Party on External Studies did not include organisation of services. However, it recommended (Murdoch University, 2000: Recommendation 5.4) that a further Working Party be appointed to investigate organisational aspects, including:

Determine the models for external studies administration and delivery used at the other 20 external studies providers within Australia, with special consideration of the size of the external student body, the number of units and programs on offer and the ability of the system to offer flexible study support for metropolitan students who cannot access conventional delivery. In the light of this information, to recommend a model for the structure of external studies administration and delivery at Murdoch.

That recommendation, together with other expressions of policy concerning flexible delivery and use of information technology for teaching learning, may be the opportunity to create an integrated help service for off campus study. However, an emphasis upon "administration and delivery" may limit the attention given to the more critical issue of "support".

Curtin University's Report was more explicit. After noting that "Staff in both LIS [Library and Information Services] and the CEA [Centre for Educational Advancement] act as troubleshooters for complaints received from distance education and open learning students" and other observations, it recommended to OTL [Office of Teaching and Learning] (Bottomley, 1999: Recommendation Ten) that:

The OTL consider the operation of an off-campus help desk to act as a single point of contact for off campus students faced with real or perceived problems regarding their programs of study.


We adopt an optimistic perspective towards the scenario of accelerated or "forced" migration to online accompanied by withdrawal of conventional postal delivery of printed materials. It's feasible, though subject to the underlying premise that a help desk service be constituted as a prime element for supporting change. Help desk services and other facilitations to support accelerated change for external courses will be more effective, more productive, and more equitable than other approaches which lead to cancellation of existing courses without offering any opportunities for transition.


  1. The basis for a change from "no charge" to "charged for" in the case of external course materials in hardcopy is that if online delivery becomes the standard format, then the University printed hardcopy version becomes an optional extra. As such it would not be subject to DETYA's guidelines on charging HECS funded students. See Academic Council Working Party on Teaching and Learning, Discussion Paper July 1997: Flexible Teaching and Learning: Appendix H. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/tlc/pubs/flex/appen-h.html

  2. A annotated list of references concerning the forthcoming statutory licence to "reprint on the web" is given at http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/online/deliv-pol/copyright.html or refer to the Australian Copyright Council at http://www.copyright.org.au/

  3. Curtin University's WebCT site: http://webct.curtin.edu.au/
    Murdoch University's WebCT site: http://online.murdoch.edu.au/


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2000). Continued growth in Australian Internet access. Media release 22/2000, 1 March 2000. http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/ABS%40.nsf/dddcf05472f88677

Atkinson, R. and Dowling, S. (2000). Information literacy and library reference reading for online courses. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/atkinson.html

Atkinson, R. (1997). Murdoch Online: Preparing an infrastructure for virtual campus operations. In What works and why. Proceedings ASCILITE'97, Curtin University, Perth, 7-10 December, pp42-47. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth97/papers/Atkinson/Atkinson.html

Atkinson, R. (1998). Internet access, help desks and online study. OLA Virtual Conference, 16-27 March. http://www.ola.edu.au/virtcon/atkinson/paper.htm
[ also at http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/ola-virtcon98.html ]

Bottomley, J. (1998). Review of Distance, Open and Flexible Learning at Curtin University of Technology. Centre for Educational Advancement, Curtin University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/publications/bottomley.html

Fox, R. (1999). Online technologies changing teaching and learning cultural practices at universities. In Open, Flexible and Distance Learning: Challenges of the New Millenium, 14th Biennial Forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Deakin University and Gordon Institute of TAFE, Geelong, 27-30 September, pp147-152.

Fox, R., Herrmann, A. and Boyd, A. (1999). Breaking the grip of print in distance education. In Open, Flexible and Distance Learning: Challenges of the New Millenium, 14th Biennial Forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Deakin University and Gordon Institute of TAFE, Geelong, 27-30 September, pp153-157.

George, R., Hicks, M. and Reid, I. (1999). Designing student support for flexible learning environments using online technology. In Open, Flexible and Distance Learning: Challenges of the New Millenium, 14th Biennial Forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Deakin University and Gordon Institute of TAFE, Geelong, 27-30 September, pp163-170.

Inglis, A. (1999). Is online delivery less costly than print and is it meaningful to ask? Distance Education, 20(2), 220-239.

Kazmer, M. M. (2000). Coping in a distance environment: Sitcoms, chocolate cake, and dinner with a friend. First Monday, 5(9, Sep). http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/791/700

Murdoch University (1999). External Studies/Online Teaching. Academic Council Agenda, 15 Sept 1999. http://wwwadmin.murdoch.edu.au/admin/cttees/ac/1999/september/attach/exstud.html

Murdoch University (2000). Report of the Academic Council Working Party on External Studies. http://wwwadmin.murdoch.edu.au/admin/cttees/ac/2000/may/attach/exstudrep.html

Webb, G. (2000). The economics of online delivery. ODLAA Papers July 2000, 27-35.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. and McBeath, C. (2000). Restructuring university distance education centres: The transition from conventional to online delivery. Conference paper, Competition, Collaboration, Continuity and Change, Adelaide, 11-13 Sep 2000. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/cccc2000/atkinson-mcbeath.html [ also at http://www.unisanet.unisa.edu.au/cccc/papers/non_refereed/Atkinson-1.htm ]

[ CCCC Conference Home Page ]
This URL (last corrected 5 June 2009): http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/cccc2000/atkinson-mcbeath.html
Previous URL 24 June 2003 to 5 June 2009: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/atkinson-mcbeath/pubs/cccc2000/atkinson-mcbeath.html
Previous URL 3 Sep 2002 to 24 June 2003: http://www.users.bigpond.com/rjatkinson/pubs/cccc2000/atkinson-mcbeath.html
Previous URL 10 Sep 2000 to 3 Sep 2002: http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/tlc/atkinson/cccc2000/atkinson-mcbeath.html
© 2000 The Authors. Created 10 Sep 2000. Last revision: 5 June 2009.
Authors: Roger Atkinson [rjatkinson@bigpond.com] and Clare McBeath [c.mcbeath@curtin.edu.au]