The current situation for online adult learning in higher education

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It is estimated that at least 2 million students are enrolled in distance teaching universities in Europe. A recent study surveys 167 institutions offering distance education in European higher education and examines what is available, in particular for adult learners.

The report contains analysis of some of the issues institutions are grappling with:

  • recognition of prior learning

  • credit transfer

  • regulations on flexible learning provision

  • conflicting goals between national and institutional strategies

  • resistance to change from the traditional concentration on young full-time students

  • the additional effort required to open up programmes and courses to more diverse student groups

The research comes from a project led by ICDE which  seeks to gain a better understanding of the distance education offered by higher education institutions, and to examine how higher education institutions can contribute to adult learning through distance education.

In the report data set, 80 percent of the responding higher education institutions offer at least some distance or blended education (where 30-79% of the content is delivered online). By comparison, the EUA Trends VI study of 2010 indicated that slightly more than half (53%) of European HEIs provide some distance education.The availability of distance education – from 53% to 80% in 4 years?

The figure shows that about one third of the respondents have a specific distance or online education department. In the majority of cases (58%), however, distance education is distributed among multiple departments.Where is distance education located in higher education institutions?

Online programmes are the predominant form of distance education programmes for 58 percent of the respondents. Only 3% of HEIs offer more than 40 programmes, the majority offering between 1 and 9 online degree programmes (39%).Number and types of programmes offered in higher education institutions

62% of respondents report that they offer blended education programmes. The majority of HEIs offer between 1 and 9 blended degree programmes (40%). For HEIs that mainly deliver on-campus education, the ratio of distance (and blended) education programmes to face-to-face programmes in this data set is approximately 1:10.

Download the report (97 pages)

A further report (57 pages) surveyed over 1,700 students to find out who they are and what is important to them.

A forthcoming report will investigate the potential of these new forms of learning.

About the IDEAL project

IDEAL stands for “Impact of Distance Education on Adult Learning“ and is a joint initiative of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) and StudyPortals, with financial support from the European Commission. You can find more information on the ‘Impact of Distance Education on Adult Learning’ at