Strong Distance Learning Systems and Their Elements

Education is the basic need for the young ones to learn about society and civilization. It is considered a fundamental human right, as has been set forth as an important element in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Covenants, which have the force of international laws. Therefore, it is quite obvious that respective governments around the world will try to make as much contribution towards the education sector as possible to make well-qualified citizens for a better tomorrow.

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Technology has made its mark in almost all walks of life. Therefore, its impact on the education sector is also quite apparent if we take a look at the developments in this sector for the last 40 to 50 years. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in the US lays an added emphasis1 on the use of technology for the betterment of the sector. Information Technology is the all-important offspring of technology, having its footprints on the way education is imparted, or educational material is prepared, or education is accepted by the intended audience.

Distance education, as the name itself, suggests is the mode of providing and accepting education without the formal arrangement of a four-walled classroom comprising the tutor and a couple of students. Distance education has been in existence for quite a while now, and this process has undergone many evolutionary changes over the years. The distance learning educational institutes providing correspondence courses have now graduated in the form of online universities providing real-time interactions amongst the students and the education providing professionals in the virtual classrooms.

In fact, the amalgamation of technologies guided by the progress made by Information technology has been a driving force behind the paradigm shift in the mode of delivery of education. Globalization has brought about a regime of competition and increasing emphasis on professionalism, which in turn calls for the learning of newer techniques even after formal schooling and institutional education.

Such requirements further fueled the need for distance education and invited the attention of big companies and industries towards tapping the market, even for commercial purposes, to some extent. Such commercial ventures helped in enriching the distance education sector with more ingredients like improvement in the process, technology, etc., while making it more cost-effective. The distance learning system is also termed a distributed learning system as it involves the decentralization of resources at a number of places. Broadly the distance learning can be categorized into;

  1. Learning through the Internet, without actual real-time interaction between the tutor and the student.
  2. Learning through live internet broadcasts, TV broadcasts, radio broadcasts, etc.
  3. Learning with the help of learning material like CD ROMs, books, etc.

Each of these categories has its own unique features, which help in imparting education to the intended user or learner. In the following discussion, we’ll talk about some of the key elements of these categories.

Online learning has become an important flag-bearer of off-campus learning. As the Internet is gradually maturing and presenting a paradigm shift in its very ideation, the infrastructure has acquired a business character, a transcontinental personality, and a vending framework of wide-ranging, business, educational, scientific, and personal data. Now the use of the Internet covers real-time computer conferencing, audio broadcasting, video broadcasting, real-time telephony, and of course, real-time business.

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Distance learning is one such offshoot of these applications of the Internet. Some of the platforms like Moodle, Sakai, HotChalk, Tapped-In (TI), Knowledge Forum, and the branches of different universities provide good opportunities for online learning.

Let us compare the key elements of online learning with the help of Tapped-In (TI), the online workplace of an international community of education professionals and Moodle, from the University of North Texas. In his famous taxonomy, Bloom (1964) identified the domains within which learning takes place. He labeled them as cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. The online tools of education too depend upon such elements which affect the thinking process in the individual. Some of the key elements of online learning are;

Learning Goals

We are living in an era of globalization today, which is characterized by competition, quality consciousness, and an increased emphasis on seeking fullest cooperation from the workforce. Therefore, the goals for distance learning vary from organization to organization and from individual to individual, depending upon the challenges and requirements of the task. The students of online learning will therefore strive to have information about the latest technology, trends in quality aspects, and acceptance levels in the industry in the shortest possible time with interactive feedback from the tutors. Specific goals could vary from securing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the chosen subjects to widening the scope of their knowledge horizon.

The content of online learning

The content of online learning generally keeps evolving in the collaborative environment. Tapped-In, for example, starts off with a simple message welcoming the learner and informing him about the new features on the portal, read the messages and interact with fellow learners online. The welcome page also provides useful links to Notes, Whiteboard, etc. Just in case the learner feels the need to interact with the online educators, the portal calls upon the learner to go ahead to Tapped-In reception, which helps the learner in guiding about anything related to the learning process.

Tapped-In has arranged the learning process on the patterns of a physical university by dividing the portal into different sets of rooms and routes the entry of the learner through the reception of these rooms. The portal also displays its campus with links to different floors and departments, and the click of a mouse allows us an entry into the desired building, where we can find links to the related facilities.

Similarly, [email protected] Technologies provides the instructions and guidelines for students as well as for instructors on the welcome page, with links to the list of courses of the individual. It is worthwhile here to mention that Moodle is a course management system (CMS), an ‘Open Source software package’ for effective learning. By clicking on different courses, the individual can go to detailed messages, notes, assignments, and other related material in that particular link.

Assignment

Assignments form the key component of evaluating the performance of the learners and the effectiveness of the distance learning process. Such assignments help in making the offline learning experience also into an online experience because the learner is left with a couple of assignments to do once having gone through the course material and the important guidance provided by the tutor. Moodle has well-specified links for ‘assignments’ for each course, where the student is provided info about the submission dates and other details about the assignments, but Tapped-In on the does not have such specific links for assignments. Instead, the learner is encouraged to make the fullest use of the subject-specific chat rooms.

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Assessment and Evaluation Process

This process involves quite a few steps actually. Assessment can be done either by providing assignments to be done at home or by taking class tests. These assignments or class tests are then evaluated to assess the performance of the learner. Tapped-In guides the learner to different links, including ‘classroom assessments,’ which were taken on designated dates and times, announced well before the due date. This provides ample time for the learner to prepare for the test and go for it. Moodle, on the other hand, provides links to assignments on the opening page of each course.

Reflections

In order to prove himself a true learner, the student is supposed to make a truthful assessment about him once he receives the feedback from the university. This truthful reflection on one’s capability will help him make a better learner because, in that case, he can very well solicit the requisite assistance from the university, capitalize on his strengths, become a learned professional and succeed in life. Moodle, for example, emphasizes the need for reflection and calls upon the learners to contribute towards the weekly blogs, and there are 15% marks for such contributions for that particular course.

This obviously proves quite a handy tool for the learner to study the subject and analyze the topic. Tapped-In, on the other hand, has a whiteboard and ‘educational chat rooms’ where the learner is asked to contribute his thoughts. These chat rooms are monitored by the moderators and instructors.

Organization

Organizing the distance learning courses and modules in such a manner that neither the institute nor the learner feels the strain during the teaching-learning process helps in making the distance learning experience much more useful and learning-oriented. Comparing Moodle and Tapped-In, we find that Moodle seems to be far better organized for the learning process, as it has clear instructions about the learning process, the useful dates, and events, etc. Tapped-In also tries to give an ambiance of a brick and mortar university campus, but somehow the route appears to be a little hazy for a first-time user, and while going through the receptions of different offices, the learner has to negotiate a couple of steps. But Tapped-In has emphasized the need for interactive learning and made arrangements for interactions amongst the online community.

Equity/ Learning Styles

Distance learning institutes and organizations state their objective as delivering superior education to the students at affordable prices. The learning styles are then devised to put the learner at ease while pursuing another professional task as well. The learner, on the other hand, is not allowed to feel uncomfortable by linking his/ her caliber with the stated objectives or by comparing his/ her abilities with that of any other learner enrolled with the institute. Moodle seems to encourage the traditional method of studies where the student is provided the study material for a period of time, and then feedback is sought in the form of chat forums.

The learners are supposed to meet the deadlines and follow a strict schedule by studying the designated chapters followed by their contribution in the weekly forums. Tapped-In, on the other hand, tries to make the learning atmosphere more informal by suggesting the online community event to visit the café, where they can chat on a range of topics and the tables aka, the chat board will then be rubbed off by the bearers in the café. The university is organized on different floors, rooms, and departments where the online community can visit for respective needs.

Feedback

Providing truthful feedback to the learner is the key to this system of learning and imparting distance education. In fact, feedback is required even for the assessment purposes in the formal education process, but the feedback in the formal education systems happens to be available by observing the student behavior, by talking to the student, by the student’s involvement in educational or other activities, by the year-end or term-end examination or evaluation system, etc. But in the distance learning process, most of the feedback is generated through the term-end or year-end assignment, examination, or by way of discussions on the different chat rooms.

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Kirk and MacDonald (1989) also suggest that learning skills called psychomotor skills may be acquired with or without the support of a tutor. The tutor might be required to provide the feedback necessary to achieve enhanced awareness and performance. Tapped-in provides Whiteboard and Discussion Forums where the learners and educators can share their viewpoints and gather relevant feedback. Similarly, Moodle takes the feedback in the form of assignments and forum contributions, which are also monitored by the instructors.

Simulation or Models

Simulation and Models play an important role in making the learning process more interactive. For example, the Tapped-In website tries to provide the simulation of a university campus in physical form with rooms and departments separated for different tasks. Different rooms have interesting information about the topic concerned and ample scope for the learner’s contribution. Moodle, too tries to present the best of features on its own, but it does not use simulation. But Moodles provides an additional link to Tapped-In, where the online community can enjoy some of the features of Tapped-In.

Affordances

This term has been used in making the computer more intelligent and scripting artificial intelligence theories for the IT era. Affordance provides for the quality of the object and the learning environment, which allows for better coordination amongst the learners and the online tutors. This system actually works by way of gaining feedback from the learner, value addition by the distance learning organization, and then presenting it to the learner.

In fact, affordance calls for customizing the learning system and the modules depending upon the need of the learner, capability and grasping power of the learner, and the psychological information gained about the learner. All this obviously depends upon truthful feedback provided by the learner and then a sincere effort on the part of the online tutor. Tapped-In and Moodle have both tried to make the best use of their online presence by adding newer features to the websites with time.

References

  1. Bloom, B. S. et al. (1964), Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Vol. 2, David McKay, New York, NY.
  2. Kirk, P. and MacDonald, I. (1989), “The role of feedback in management learning”, Management Education and Development, Vol 20 Part 1, pp. 9-19.
  3. Moodle. Web.
  4. Tapped-In. Web.
  5. US Department of Education. Web.
  6. Wheeler, Keith A. (2007). ‘Learning for Deep Change’. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development. SAGE Publications, Los Angeles.
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