Adaptation in distance education -

new experiences from networking universities in Germany


by Ulrich Bernath and Wolfgang Fichten


1. Introduction

A closer look at a university networked nurses-training programme in Germany leads to consideration of critical issues in higher distance education. The nursing programme is based on regularly revised printed course material for independent study as well as on compulsory weekend seminars which apply the course content to nursing practice. The course material has been adapted by networking universities. The adaptation of self-instructional learning material has already been identified as a key factor in co-operative arrangements in distance education. (DHANARAJAN and TIMMERS 1992) We can now report on the creation and management of a successful process of adaptation which facilitates access to educational programmes and also ensures high quality learning processes.

2. Development and networking of the distance education programme

In 1985 recommendations from professional associations nationally as well as internationally like that of the World Health Organization (WHO 1991), moved the University of Oldenburg towards the development of a nursing curriculum from scratch. The Department of Psychology and the Centre for Distance Education wanted to create a modular curriculum for an undergraduate nursing programme, and started with the development of course units on psycho-social aspects in nursing, as this is one of the crucial areas for reforming and redesigning the traditional nursing curricula. A course unit or module was defined quantatively as 60 - 80 pages for 20 hours of self-instructional learning. The authors of the modules were university faculty and outside experts. They were supported by experts in instructional and text design.

As soon as the first six units were drafted a decision was made to test them with nurse practitioners in a non-degree programm for professional development, which together formed a 220-hour training programme undertaken over 6 months with six integrated weekend seminars. During the first stage of designing, testing, and revising of the units, authors and seminar leaders were identical. The subsequent evaluation and revision of the modules over a period of almost five years have led to learner-proven and well-received modules for learning in a mixed mode programme for professional development of nurse practitioners. (BERNATH/FICHTEN/LAUTH/ROHLFING 1989)

At the final stage of this first phase the modules were also tested in one distance teaching course without face-to-face meetings. Focusing on the instructional quality of the modules to serve individualised, autonomous learning, evaluation was based on learning notebooks and a final questionnaire with feedback criteria such as ‚substance‘, ‚clarity‘, ‚motivation potential‘ and ‚applicability‘ of the printed units. The evaluation showed that this experiment had also proven successful. (FICHTEN 1994)

A much larger number of people wished to participate, but access to the programme was limited by the maximum number of seminar places at the University of Oldenburg. To meet the educational needs of learners across Germany new strategies needed to be developed. The training programme for nurses was regarded as being of sufficient quality to be offered to other universities for networked delivery across Germany. The printed study material, of course, could have been made available to them. In 1990, the concept of networking with other universities was promoted, and put into operation in 1992.

A group of eight universities (seven in Germany, with the eighth in Bern, Switzerland) established a decentralized organisation for networking and to manage in parallel the local courses for nurse practitioners. Their responsibilities include the recruitment of local teams of seminar leaders. All agreed to adapt the modules in order to run the nursing programmes collaboratively. Meetings of networking partners have now added teacher-proven quality criteria to the modules, which are still under revision. (BERNATH and FICHTEN 1993)

The main features of the networked nursing programme are

After five years of networking more than 1,000 certificates were awarded to nurse practitioners in 1997. All students completed their distance studies by means of the printed course material from the University of Oldenburg and all took part in a series of weekend seminars under the auspices of a networked university. Meanwhile, the total of week-end seminar events exceeds 400.

With course delivery becoming the responsibility of the university network, the programme has improved its distance teaching format, along the main dimensions of distance education elaborated by KEEGAN (1990) and HOLMBERG (1995 a):

The university networked nursing programme features these criteria for distance education and thus has become distinct from surrounding conventional university teaching and learning methods. In the face of nurse practicioners’ individual educational requests our attention was drawn towards new targets and new forms of adult education.

The initiative for the transformation of the nursing programme into a distance teaching format was taken by the Centre for Distance Education of the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany. This central university unit for distance education is also responsible within the region for counselling and tutoring students enrolled at the specialied distance teaching university in Germany, the FernUniversität in Hagen. (BERNATH 1994 and 1996).


3. From industrialised to post-industrial forms of distance teaching

‚Mediated‘ forms of teaching relate instructor and learner over distances. Mediated teaching programmes, in printed or any other form, require special attention to be paid to the learner and the interaction between the learner or a group of learners and the teacher. These two, the kind of subject-matter presentation as well as the interaction between learner and her/his tutor are the basic constituents of distance education. (HOLMBERG 1995b)

PETERS (1967) characterised advanced models of distance education as ‚industrialised‘ forms of teaching, developed by specialised distance teaching universities familiar with large scale study programme operations. Their ‚mediated‘ form of teaching is designed, developed, produced and delivered for dispersed students irrespective of their numbers. Interaction is then provided by tutors, who are supportive partners of the instructor or the course team in charge of the course or programme.

Viewing these general aspects of distance teaching in the particular case of the nursing programme, some elements have been modified. Very much in line with the usual pattern, our programme is based on printed modules for distance study. But our methods of designing and producing the modules for delivery go beyond conventional attempts and constitute the new form of distance teaching - distinct from the ‚industrialized‘ model.

For continuing education and professional development key objectives must include an emphasis on the applicabilty of the delivered content. Face-to-face interaction in seminars rather than a ‚one-to-one‘ relationship between tutor and learner (HOLMBERG 1995b) has also been identified as important. Our programme aims at integrating individual learning processes into group communication during compulsary weekend seminars explicitly for professional training.

With such a course design, seminar places are the limiting factor to the scale of operation. The key questions governing the learning and training interests of participating nurse practitioners, with their financial commitment in our programme, were:

The answer proposed by ‚industrialized‘ models with centrally employed tutors for decentralized teacher-student interaction have not been regarded as an appropriate design and have not proven applicable to our conventional university environment. Instead, we have created a model of inter-institutional university cooperation.

Each participating university forms teams of teaching and training experts to support the networked nursing programme. In this partnership the respective university teams are autonomous in designing and organising their seminars. But their interconnections to the networking programme partners can and do result in improvements to the programme.

Because such partially autonomous groups of teachers from co-operating universities are responsible for the learning process within the seminars, the ‚industrialized‘ model of distance teaching has meanwhile advanced to a ‚post-industrial‘ format. (PETERS 1993) Subordinate tutoring support staff have been replaced by independent teachers from co-operating universities. This strategy has shown how the delivery of a distance teaching programme can be decentralised and at the same time increase the provision of seminars to dispersed learners.


4. Adaptation - A key term in distance education

The printed material is one of the two basic constituents of our nursing programme.The question remains: how to ensure comparable outcomes if the responsibility for the designing of and instructing in the seminar is devolved to the participating universities. At this point the adaptation of the ‚mediated‘ instruction undertaken by the responsible members of the participating universities needs to be examined.

Adaptation implies that both seminar designers and tutors accept, internalise and transform ‚mediated‘ instruction for a successful interaction with the learner. Independent learning processes based on ‚media‘ in distance teaching necessarily imply the quest of the learner for understanding, analysis and application and calls for communication with the instructor. In a distance teaching model involving separation between the instructor and the learner a third participant needs to accept and internalise the given content and adjust it to the communicative situation. In so far as ‚independence‘ on the learner’s side is respected, and a higher level of learning skills is aimed for, adaptation as a concept is of growing importance.

In this context, the following analysis of the tutor role can be made:

The more interaction and communication there is in distance teaching, the more important and desired adaptation will be. If learning with ‚media‘ were solely aimed at developing the ability to recall facts, adaptation would probably not be of high relevance. But ‚mediated‘ instruction will always go beyond this stage and require unpredictable reflection by independent and autonomous adult learners. Hence, ‚mediated‘ instruction to the individual learner or a group of learners, will indispensably seek interaction and communication with teachers/tutors. Their responsibilities on the way from "mediated" instruction to the individual learner or a group of learners require processes of adaptation. Staff tutors as well as independent teachers from other universities are partners in the instructional process and all have to adapt to ‚mediated‘ instruction to enable their integration into the teaching programme at a distance.


5. Empirical evidence for the process of adaptation

In over five years of networking, almost 40 participating teachers from eight universities have become involved in our non-degree distance teaching nursing programme. Over 1.000 participants have taken part in the evaluation, and the overall results are highly positive. (FICHTEN 1997) One of our hypotheses explaining the success of the networked programme organisation focuses on the adaptation process as such.

On the basis of structured interviews we came to the conclusion that all the teachers involved in the nursing programme clearly identify with the content delivered by the instructional media, although they express their relation to it differently:

"... If I had been the author of the module I would have composed 80% identically."

"... I have no idea of how the modules could have been designed differently."

"... I am satisfied with the input."

"... The modules are an interesting base."

"... I identify with the general lines of the module."

"... If I couldn’t follow the author, I couldn’t do my job. But I can."

"... The modules are my base, but I am free to create something new."

"... I can work self-sufficiently and can relate well to the participants."

These statements made by faculty, adjunct faculty and outside experts hired by the participating universities, reveal the first steps in a successful process of adaptation. The teacher’s identification with the knowledge base needs to be integrated into her/his direct interaction with the individual learner or the group of learners. The steps which need to be taken towards this integration can be made out in the following statements:

".. At the beginning of the seminar I call for questions and comments on the module."

"...what the participants have learned from the modules, must be reinforced in the seminar."

"...the seminar initially bases on the module but is adjusted to the participants later on."

"...the participants need to notice when you refer to the module. - You ask for questions and comments on the module at the beginning of the seminar and you come back to them in the further course of the seminar; participants must realise what the module teaches them."

"... To adapt the content of the modules to the seminar situations one has to weigh parts differently and present models in different words. My own materials needs to be added to clarify contexts to the participants."

"... From the participants’ points of view the seminar is successful if they are able to identify 50% familiar and 50% new aspects."

Final statements made by networking teachers may help to reflect on the widespread personal identification with successfully achieved processes of adaptation:

"... I learned to love the conceptions of the authors. - I feel I am in harmony with the given texts.""

"... Independencey and autonomy inspire creativity"

"... The modules deliver welcome structures and contents and mean a lot less boring preparation - you don’t have to re-invent the wheel; it is inspiring from the intellectual point of view."

"... The key to success is when teacher and learner both relate well to the module"


6. Adaptation - The key to success in networked distance education

In our particular case of the nursing programme, a novelty at German universities with its newly designed and applicable content for nurse practicioners, we were challenged by complex processes of planning, teaching, learning and evaluation. They took us beyond the traditional curriculum. (MILLER 1990) Useful learning experience on psycho-social aspects in nursing asked for sound basic knowledge and sufficient training in problem solving. The nation-wide accessability of the programme demanded quality course material to enhance individual study ‚any where at any time‘ and deepen partnerships with other universities in networked seminar events. Our collaborative approach took the process of adaptation into account in order to make our distance education programme a success.

Adaptation, a key factor in co-operative arrangements in distance education, is a process of high complexity. We need to take into account that learning in higher education aims at developing the student’s personal abilities in critical thinking and his or her problem-solving capacities in individual and social dimensions. If such learning is ‚mediated‘ in a distance teaching format with tutors or teachers becoming involved in interaction, these instructors must adapt the given learning material to be able adequatedly to interact with the student and contribute to her/his individual learning process in the distance teaching programme. The process of adaptation turns out to be successful, if the delivered modules for instruction are learning-tested, and a process allowing teachers to check and revise modules is built into the network.

It is of strategic importance for the management of such a creative and productive network to support processes of adaptation. This may also include the development of specific teaching guides. (DOUBRAWA et al. 1995) Managing a successful process of adaptation relates the ‚mediated‘ instruction to the learner at its best - like adaptors do by connecting electrical power to the user’s device.


7. References

Peters, O. (1967), Distance Education and Industrial Production: A comparative interpretation in outline, in: Keegan, D. (Ed.): Otto Peters on Distance Education. The Industrialization of Teaching and Learning. Routledge Studies in Distance Education, pp. 107 - 127

Bernath/Fichten/Lauth/Rohlfing (1989), Psychologische Gesundheitsförderung als Weiterbildungsmodell für das Krankenhauspflegepersonal, Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 111 pp.

Keegan, D. (1990), Foundations of Distance Education. London and New York: Routledge

Miller, G. E. (1990), Distance Education and the Curriculum: Dredging a New Mainstream. In: Moore, M. (ed.) Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education. Oxford, New York: Pergamon, pp. 211 - 220

World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe (1991), The Nursing in Action Project. Health for All Series, No. 3. Reviewing and Reorienting the Basic Nursing Curriculum, No. 4. Copenhagen 1991

Dhanarajan, G. and Timmers, S. (1992), Transfer and adaptation of self-instructional materials, in: Open Learning, Volume 7, Number 1, February 1992, pp. 3 - 11

Peters, O. (1993), Distance education in a postindustrial society, in: Keegan, D. (Ed.): Otto Peters on Distance Education. The Industrialization of Teaching and Learning. Routledge Studies in Distance Education, pp. 220 - 240

Bernath, U. and Fichten, W. (1993), Towards Modules in Open Distance Learning for Nurses, in: EADTU-News, Newsletter of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, Issue 14, August 1993, pp. 38 - 39

Bernath, U. (1994), The Centre for Distance Education at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, in: Open Learning, Volume 9 , No 3, November 1994, pp. 52 - 55

Fichten, W. (1994), Psychologische Gesundheitsförderung, Eine berufsbegleitende Weiterbildung, in: PflegePädagogik 3/94, S. 32 - 34

Holmberg, B. (1995,a), Theory and Practice of Distance Education. London and New York: Routledge

Holmberg, B. (1995,b), The Evolution of the Character and Practice of Distance Education, in: Open Learning, Volume 10, June 1995, pp. 47 - 53

Doubrawa et al. (1995) , Dozentenmanual der Oldenburger Projektarbeitsgruppe "Psychologische Gesundheitsföderung" Anke Doubrawa, Dr. Wolfgang Fichten, Ilka Gloystein, Bernd Kuhlmann, Prof. Dr. Gerhard W. Lauth, Dr. Joseph Rieforth in Zusammenarbeit mit Ulrich Bernath, Oldenburg 1995

Bernath, U. (1996), Distance Education in Mainstream Higher Education: A Strategic Issue at Conventional Universities, in: Internationalism In Distance Education: A Vision for Higher Education. Selected papers from the first International Distance Education Conference, The Pennsylvania State University, June 1994. Edited by Melody M. Thompson. Research Monographs, No. 10, The American Centre for the Study of Distance Education, The Pennsylvania State University, pp. 45 - 51

Fichten, W. (1997), Psychologische Gesundheitsförderung für Pflegekräfte in der Dialyse. Projektbericht. Oldenburg 1997.


The authors:

Ulrich Bernath, Director of the Centre for Distance Education at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg and Co-ordinator of the networked nursing programme, E-mail:

Dr. Wolfgang Fichten, Member of the directorial team, author, consultant for instructional design and Head of Evaluation of the Oldenburg University Nursing Programme.

Further information about the Oldenburg university nursing project and its actual programmes can be found (in German language) under:

Karin Kunkel

February 1999