Session 6C | Paper 1 Critical success factors for postgraduate distance education courses in the UK: a systematic review of the literature

Dr Rebecca Wells


This paper critically and systematically reviews literature on postgraduate distance learning programmes. The paper identifies learning and teaching approaches as well as activities and strategies to support student progression. The results are intended to help practitioners designing distance learning programmes for postgraduate taught students.

From the earliest days of correspondence courses in the 19th century, distance education or distance learning courses have grown from inhabiting an important niche in the UK Higher Education landscape to becoming a significant offering for some of the highest ranking UK universities.  Recent surveys of the sector (Gaskell, 2018; Tait, 2018; Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter, 2019) report that distance education courses in the UK have gained increasing respect and acceptance, with an overall growth in distance and online courses, finding over 2600 tertiary level online and distance learning courses offered by UK HE and FE institutions in 2010 (White et al., 2010).  The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a new spotlight on Distance Learning courses as HEIs in the UK have moved to remote learning while travel and movement restrictions are in place. UK HEIs, government and the HE press are discussing the extent to which online education is the future for HEIs in the UK (Inanc and Wright 2020; Salmon, 2020), making this topic extremely significant and relevant to the current debates within City, University of London and in the UK and international HE sector as a whole. This paper reports the results of a study undertaken as part of the MA in Academic Practice at City, University of London. The objectives of the study were to: i) undertake a critical review of relevant literature using the PRISMA framework (Moher et al, 2009) ii) identify critical factors in successful distance learning programmes iii) create a taxonomy of critical success factors derived from this evidence and iv) identify implications for practice. The results will help inform practitioners currently running distance learning programmes and those developing such programmes for the post-pandemic period.

Slides from the session

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Recording of the session:


Gaskell, A. (2018) United Kingdom, in Qayyum, A. & Zawacki-Richter, O., Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age, Springer, New York.

Inanc, G. and Wright, C. (2020) ‘The online transition means high quality HE for all is within our grasp’. Times Higher Education 31 May Available at: [accessed: 17/03/21]

Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG, The PRISMA Group (2009) ‘Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses: The PRISMA Statement’. PLoS Med 6(7): e1000097. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000097

Qayyum, A. and Zawacki-Richter, O., (2019). The state of open and distance education. In Open and Distance Education in Asia, Africa and the Middle East (pp. 125-140). Springer, Singapore.

Salmon, G. (2020) ‘Covid-19 is the pivot point for online learning’ Wonkhe Blogs 28 April Available at: [accessed: 17/02/21]

Tait, A. (2018) United Kingdom – Commentary in Qayyum, A. & Zawacki-Richter, O. eds, Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age, Springer, New York.

White, D., Warren.N, Faughnan, S., & Manton, M. (2010). Study of UK online learning. Report to HEFCE. Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford. Available at: [accessed: 17/03/21]


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