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Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education: Change and Continuity in an International Context.

reviewed by Jennifer McLean - 2004

coverTitle: Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education: Change and Continuity in an International Context.
Author(s): Alan Tait & Roger Mills (Editors)
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415301440 , Pages: 224, Year: 2003
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Alan Tait has written extensively on the role of learner support in scaffolding student success in open and distance learning.  As a senior lecturer and Sub Dean in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at the Open University, Tait has a range of experience as both a member faculty and an administrator and knows well that the challenge of implementing true learner support is a far greater challenge than pontificating about it.  Similarly, Roger Mills has been a long time champion of learner support in open and distance education environments.   


Following Tait and Mill’s 1999 book, The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of Flexibility for the Individual Learner, this new text in the Routledge/Falmer Studies in Distance Education Series examines those elements that contribute to student success both in and outside the classroom.  Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education is a compilation of 16 essays, position papers, and case studies collected from practitioners and scholars from around the world including the UK, USA, Japan, South Africa, Australia, and Hong Kong.  With an emphasis on the demands placed on higher education by nontraditional and distance education students, the book seeks to compile key issues and best practices from a variety of educational and cultural settings. 


Tait and Mills are relatively unobtrusive as editors, offering an introduction to each chapter that provides a brief rationale for each contribution to the book.  Tait and Mills also offer their own expertise to the volume, each offering a chapter case study of their own based in their experiences at the Open University.  Each chapter stands well on its own, though there is some redundancy of content and theme in some contributions.  The book is logically formatted and makes for relatively easy reading.  While it is likely that some of the essays have been translated, there is a generally conversational tone throughout the book that creates a well-paced read both within and between the chapters.  Headings and subheadings are also used judiciously within each chapter for easy reference back to key points.   


The strength of this book is its international focus.  There are lessons to be learned not just with regard to learner support in distance education, but also lessons about the cultural differences within various educational settings around the world.  While not all of these scenarios are applicable to every reader, they do highlight the necessity of acknowledging the increasing international flavor of all distance learning endeavors.  Cultural competence and consideration is increasingly necessary in any distance education setting, and although the book does not make explicit this message, it is impossible for the reader to complete this book without a more expansive awareness of the growing global reality of distance education.  While there are many differences from one cultural setting to another, there are also many examples that illustrate the fact that learner support needs are, to some degree, universal—as are the challenges institutions face in attempting to meet them. 


It had been my hope that learner support might take on a more holistic meaning in the book than it eventually did.  Most essays relate to learner support within the instructional environment with little emphasis on meeting the needs of learners beyond the classroom for such matters as career guidance, emotional support, remedial assistance, and academic advising.  Since the majority of the essays were derived from the proceedings of the 2001 Cambridge International Conference on Open and Distance Learning, some case studies are presented in very general terms and some chapters do show a lack of in-depth discussion and reflection.  This is a trade-off, however, as the brevity of the contributions provide neat, morsel-sized case studies that can pave the way toward greater investigation if the reader wishes. 


In all, Rethinking Learner Support in Distance Education is a highly readable book that conveys a variety of replicable case studies and examples for improving instructional support.  The international focus of the book is its primary strength and the feature that distinguishes it from similar books that take a more Western-centric view of learner support.  For those seeking new approaches to learner support, particularly with regard to support within the instructional context, this is a valuable reference.


Tait, A. & Mills, R. (eds.). (1999).  The convergence of distance and conventional education:  Patterns of flexibility for the individual learner.  New York:  Routledge.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 411-413
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11198, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:51:21 AM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer McLean
    Pennsylvania College of Technology
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER McLEAN is the Director of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
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