Innovation and challenge – 20 years of online education in Norway

During the spring of 2013 the Norwegian Association for Distance Education (NADE) conducted the project “Innovation and challenge”, exploring the contribution of the Norwegian online schools to pedagogical development from 1995 to 2015. Despite Norway’s long history in the international field of distance education, the position of the online schools often remains little known. Hopefully, the report on this project, which NADE released in June, will help broaden the perspective.

Torunn Gjelsvik Torunn Gjelsvik

Background: Initiated by NADE and the online schools as membership institutions, the project has been sponsored by VOX (Norwegian Agency for Lifelong Learning). An important reason for the initiative was to bring to light the distance education institutions’ considerable role as providers of flexible and online learning for adult students in Norway. The history goes way back, far beyond 1995 for several of the online schools, and the oldest school, NKS Nettstudier, is celebrating its 100 year anniversary in 2014. We have chosen the time period from 1995 to cover the entrance of the Internet, involving as it did the major technological shift from correspondence to net based teaching.
16 online schools were interviewed about their development work for the last 20 years, their priorities, challenges and successes. Together these schools offer a large variety of subjects and learning programs on all levels – from high school courses and hobby courses to full master programs.

Development in different fields

The pedagogical development covers several fields, such as technology and learning platforms, learning methodology and study concepts, the development of the teacher role and student administrative support systems and services. Some of the online schools play an important role as partners for higher education institutions in distributing flexible study programs on ESTC-accredited levels. Other schools cooperate closely with a particular industry, such as the banking industry, the lumber industry and the real estate industry.

Successes and dilemmas

What seem to have been the most important successes? A part from the obvious opportunity to study without restrictions of time, pace and place, we need to mention the specific infrastructure and services provided to support flexible learning. Especially the two largest online schools, NKI and NKS, have invented specific features and services within their learning platforms to follow up and support the individual student’s needs. At the same time, they have strived to foster a collaborative learning environment and to encourage student cooperation. The online teacher’s role in motivating the students, challenging them and giving individual feedback on their assignments is also a very significant success factor.
The biggest pedagogical dilemma has been the need for individual freedom and flexibility on one hand and the aim for cooperative learning on the other. Individual pace is flexible, but it makes cooperation between students more difficult. However, synchronous pace provides flexibility but reduces individual freedom. The different online schools have landed on different solutions to this dilemma, and the project tries to explore both the advantages and challenges of the various learning approaches.


The project also touches on some of the challenges faced during these two decades. One challenge is the financial situation of the online schools, which has gradually deteriorated ever since the 1980s, especially in the period 2002 to 2006. Another challenge is the general lack of recognition for distance learning as a learning method. Met both inside and outside educational institutions, this scepticism is also present among public educational authorities. At the same time we see a tendency towards more blended concepts within higher education. Moreover, the entry of more providers into the field of distance and online education has made the competition tougher.

Trends and ambitions for the future

In spite of these challenges, the online schools themselves are full of ambitions for the future. During the interviews we have discussed international trends in learning and education and all the new opportunities offered by an accelerating technological development. Gaming, social learning design and mobile learning are trends that are very well absorbed by the online schools, which can clearly be seen in their respective strategies and development plans for the next couple of years.
The online schools have made a considerable contribution to pedagogical development both in Norway and within the international field of distance education. Hopefully, this project will give the distance education schools the credit they deserve and inspire other learning institutions to enter into partnerships with them. Society’s need for lifelong education and the need of new competencies and skills will continue to require flexible learning opportunities for adult people.

The annual EDEN conference took place in Oslo 12-15 June this year
EDEN = European Distance and E-learning Network
400 participants from 45 countries
94 paper presentations, 24 workshops, 25 poster presentations and 10 demonstrations
Main conference theme: THE JOY OF LEARNING - Enhancing Learning Experience, Improving Learning Quality
Matter of discussion: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Read article...
One of the key notes: Online education in Norway 1995-2015 (This article)