The Centre for Distance Education at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg

by Ulrich Bernath


in: Open Learning, The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, Volume 9, Number 3, November 1994, Longman on behalf of the Open University, UK: 52-55

Distance education in Germany has a varied history. It has included state-controlled and centrally-planned undergraduate distance teaching offerings within the system of higher education of the former GDR. It has also included the costly multi-media approach to distance teaching at universities in the 70's, under the direction of state authorities of the former West German Federal Republic.

The institutions which at present represent distance education include the North Rhine- Westphalian FernUniversität in Hagen, which is a university for undergraduate, graduate and non-credit students designed to deliver courses for German speaking countries and regions; the German Institute for Distance Education Research at the University of Tübingen (DIFF), a Federally and State financed institute for development and research in continuing distance education; and several smaller units at German universities, which collaborate with the FernUniversität and/or develop and deliver distance teaching in continuing education. Last but not least, there exists a small private distance teaching college offering undergraduate courses in business administration at the Akademikergesellschaft für Erwachsenenbildung mbH. (AKAD).

Distance teaching for degree seeking students as well as for those in continuing education is only available on a larger scale through the FernUniversität, which has achieved 50,000 registrations in the academic year 1992/93. The FernUniversitätät is today a well-established distance teaching university in membership of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU).

The Lower Saxony model

Lower Saxony, one of the states in the Federal Republic of Germany which are autonomously responsible for their educational policies, has made concrete its own concept of higher distance education. The so-called 'Lower Saxony Model for Distance Education at Universities' in the late 70's was a forward-looking and influential step for distance teaching within the system of higher education.

At the same time as the establishment of the FernUniversität in 1975 the issue was raised in Lower Saxony as to whether regional advice and support for degree seeking distance students at the central FernUniversität should be developed. As a result of a State funded experimental project, by 1978 Lower Saxony provided three centres for distance education at the universities of Hildesheim, Lüneburg, and Oldenburg. In addition a central secretariat for distance education in Lower Saxony ('Zentrale Arbeitsstelle für Fernstudium') was established in Hildesheim to support the collaboration of the three university centres for distance education, and to serve all other state universities. This infrastructure was designed to ensure acivice to and support for Lower Saxony students of the FernUniversität, as well as to enable participation in the development and adaptation of distance teaching offerings including those of the home universities.

The Lower Saxony concept was unusual even by international comparison. It represented a new challenge for conventional universities and their centres for distance education, to serve not only their own faculty and students but also - and this was the major task from the very beginning - students of other universities such as the FernUniversität, which offered distance courses to students outside their own state boundaries.

Advising und supporting the students of the FernUniversität became the first and major responsibility of the Centre for Distance Education at the University of Oldenburg during the academic year 1978/79. As had been anticipated, these tasks were carried out both co-operatively as well as independently by the three Lower Saxony centres. Comparable centres for distance education emerged in that time at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University at Frankfurt and at the University of Bremen.

In its most recent recommendations the Federal Acadernic Advisory Board (Wissenschaftsrat) of Germany emphasised the establishment of centres for distance education at universities as a necessary consequence of distance education with an emphasis on stronger regional delivery structures. In addition the Board recommended co-operative models between central distance teaching institutions and local/regional universities, and once again underlined the role of centres for distance education at conventional universities in order to give the necessary organisational and administrative support to the colleges, departments, and faculty willing to engage in distance education. The same Board endorsed in 1993 the visionary 70's policies of the German states of lower Saxony, Bremen and Hesse, and has promoted a national network of centres for distance education both at university sites and elsewhere. In the meantime, most States in the German Federal Republic have joined in this development. The number of centres for distance education at conventional universities has already reached 18. The Academic Advisory Board has consistently recommended that the FernUniversität should reconsider its decision to establish study centres in 28 locations in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, mostly in remote areas centrally administered, and favours instead study centres at adjacent state uiuversities.

lf one now takes the multifunctional orientation declared 15 years ago to be the mission of the three Lower Saxony centres for distance education, and in particular the Centre at the University of Oldenburg, their performance appears to answer satisfactorily any questions as to the adequacy of the structures of central units for distance education at conventional universities, as evidenced by projects, experiments, and evaluations.

Two major areas of responsibility have emerged during the past 15 years for the Oldenburg Centre. Firstly, advice and student support, which is likely to be the task of any study centre of the FernUniversität, and secondly, participation in distance education developments by faculty and regional institutions of higher education. The State is legally obliged to fund the first responsibility. The second area, the development of programmes by the home university, however, is self-financed.

Advice and student support

The first students of the FernUniversität living in Lower Saxony worked without any regional advice and student support, because the FernUniversität could only establish study centres within their state in North Rhine-Westphalia. The question as to whether student support through tutoring and counselling should make up integrated elements of distance teaching also remained undecided after the FernUniversität had been founded, and initially no consensus emerged within the institution. Advising and supporting students of the FernUniversität in Lower Saxony, however, became the central tasks of the centres in Lower Saxony in the early years. lt was a matter of importance to develop, test and establish a suitable concept for advising and preparing interested applicants as well as to support degree seeking students while they are studying at a distance.

The Centre for Distance Education at the University of Oldenburg, along with the other units at universities outside North Rhine-Westphalia, was responsible for its own practice with respect to the agreements on co-operation with the FernUuniversität. It happened that the Centre in Oldenburg was much more oriented towards the British Open University with its highly developed regional and local system of counselling and tutoring, and thus differed significantly from the practice at the FernUniversität.

The advice and support for Lower Saxony students of the FernUniversität made possible by the Lower Saxony Government funding of the three central university units since 1978 has enabled the establishment of two important developments. Firstly, there is no longer any serious argument about regional advice and student support for distance higher education. Secondly, the development of competence in the fieds of advice and student support for degree seeking distance students at the Centre for Distance Education and its university environment in Oldenburg has led to remarkable developments and spin-offs since the early 80's. These include the application of experience to local distance teaching projects. The Centre's own evaluation studies have included surveys on the impact of the distance between the students and their study centre. on non-credit students and on students who leave the distance study system and are referred to as 'drop outs'.

The study on the impact of geography confirmed, for instance, the importance of tutorials on Saturdays and at weekends, as well as educational sessions lasting an entire week. It led to steps to regional decentralisation of advice and student support. The sub-centre at the technical college in the remote north-western area of the Lower Saxony region of Ostfriesland (in the city of Emden) has been in existence since 1983. On this basis the Centre for Distance Education of the University of Oldenburg represents a tested and differentiated concept of interrelated measures to prepare applicants and support degree-seeking students with demand-oriented tutorials in small classes, taking into account regional realities in a large and rural area.

Such support for degree seeking students of the FernUniversität, developed at a conventional unuversity, raised the interesting question as to what really happens when such different systems and cultures of higher education meet in a university like that of Oldenburg. The aim is to achieve day-to-day integration of distance teaching and conventional teachmg in their varied forms. In some cases Faculty are also mentors (a part-time role such as a tutor) who are engaged in supporting distance students in their subject areas. Faculty thus rethink their teaching methods and concepts about higher education.

Distance students take additional advantage of various kinds of services at the University of Oldenburg such as the computer lab and the library. They integrate themselves into the courses of the University of Oldenburg. Some also apply as associate students. At an even more advanced level of integration, as degree-seeking students of both universities they may combine the two modes in succession according to preference. They may first study at a distance and then apply at the conventional university or vice versa. There is no legal or administrative impediment to their combining conventional university study with distance studies at the FernUniversität. This 'combi' mode applies to part-time as well as to full-time degree students.

The integration of both modes is seen as one of the challenges for the Centre of Distance Education at the University of Oldenburg. However, such a dual-mode strategy in practice affects the interests of faculty at their own university. It then becomes part of the second area of experience of the Centre as discussed below.

The development of programmes of higher distance education and training

The participation of the Centre for Distance Education in distance teaching programme developments initially began with the distance teaching courses from the FernUniversität and other external distance teaching institutions. There are five further fields of practice which deserve to be mentioned:

The Centre also managed three further projects:

In all three examples developmental efforts were made in conjunction with local, regional, national and international partners of various institutions of higher education and funded by different sources.

Organisational structure

The Centre has estabhshed about 40 posts in four areas of responsibility and on three levels: Director; Academic Co-ordinators; part-time Mentors; temporary project employees and administrative staff. The responsibilities of Academic Co-ordinators are in the fields of mentoring/tutoring and counselling. They recruit and direct the part-time mentors in their subject areas. They advise and mentor distance students and finally they participate in the development of programmes and projects.

In a recent project the Centre for Distance Education has tested (in association with centres at other northern German universities of Bremen. Hamburg, Hildesheim and Lüneburg) the organisation of a Euro Study Centre as part of the European Open University Network of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU). The challenge is to participate in European distance teaching offerings and in joint international programmes.

The Centre for Distance Education found itself in a favourable starting position in 1978; in the meantime it has kept pace through its new self-financing projects, in some respect also designed to compensate for its deficits in infrastructure. This latter development may represent the necessary strength for the future.

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