Bořivoj Brdička : The Role of Internet in Education xxC O N T E N T SxxxxxxI N D E X

5. THE WAYS OF APPLICATION OF THE INTERNET TO EDUCATION

5.6 Distance learning

There are many reasons that support the view that there must be some guidance in education. The more students are interested in learning certain skill and the more concrete the subjects of learning are, the easier it is to get to the goal. As there are many people willing to learn something (e.g. the re-qualification of the unemployed or teachers learning IT), certain more or less instructive methods may be used here. It also means that there is a demand for certain kind of education on the market.

We don't even call our teachers 'teachers'. We call them 'learning consultants'. And we don't like to be called a 'school'. We think that is a throwback to an archaic age of corralling young people and imposing a curriculum on them.

Michael Maser (co-founder of the Virtual High Learning Community, a nonprofit private school in Vancouver), 1996

Rapid development of the Internet enables to introduce learning in virtual distance forms. As it is everyone's responsibility for his/her education, we can expect that the one who wants to learn something will be able to find someone who would provide the best instruction on the Internet. If it really happened, it would probably influence the higher forms of education because the students of older age seem to understand the need for learning more and can work more independently than pupils of lower grades. Some people claim that it could be the end of classical "stone" universities. The representatives of universities seem to take this threat seriously. There are some schools (higher and secondary) that already offer the full distance programs on the Internet. But nearly all the universities and some secondary schools are introducing some complementary distance forms of education. The courses designed for adult learning seem to have the brightest future, e.g. the re-qualification courses mentioned above.

One of the most important features of distance learning is the possibility to study at any chosen time and wherever there is an access to the Internet. The learners can choose their own pace of progress. Even those students that would not be able to keep up at normal schools have a chance here. The best ones can spend only minimal time on the course and do something else.

According to Glenn Russel, there are two basic models for distance learning [57]:

Independent (asynchronous)Synchronous

Learning is unscheduled. Students can access and interact with materials whenever they wish. There are no chat or videoconferencing facilities, but email may be used. Students can access lectures or broadcasts, usually on the Web. This model can also be referred to as "asynchronous", because it does not rely on real-time, direct communication between students and teachers. The opportunity for interaction is often restricted.

There are scheduled online meetings with other students, teachers and tutors, which can include live chats and videoconferencing. This requires collaboration, and communication at agreed times. With this method, there are greater opportunities for socialization, but reduced flexibility because 24-hour access is rarely possible.

It turns out that the combined independent and synchronous forms of distance education may be the best solution.

Anyone can choose from the wide choice of distance learning programs the one that suits the best. In fact there is some global competition here that allows only the best ones to remain in the business. There is no doubt that all the institutions (not only universities) willing to remain on the market pay increased attention to the fast development in this field. Basically, it is determined by the technical level and commercial availability of systems of distance learning. The number of the truly successful ones is not high. Let us have a look at some of them in more detail.

The tools for designing distance courses originate from the systems of long-term guidance of the work of students, described in the chapter 5.1. Teaching Machine. Explanation of subject matter, often as WWW hypertext pages or documents offered to download is easy to be realized by those means. The tools for designing the tests are included. These tools seem to be significant for the quality of the whole system. These systems also include tools for management of individual students' rights of access to the courses. Another important feature introduced by the Internet is the possibility of asynchronous and synchronous communication among students and with the instructor. So they can consult each other, share information, ask questions, etc. Most often the work of the students is controlled by the work time plan that has to be fulfilled within given time range - e.g. learn certain subject matter, do exercises or tests, submit assignments, etc.

The following example shows the distance course created in the environment of Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com). This system is fully accessible by means of WWW browser and its great advantage is that it is free of charge for the trial non-commercial usage. The disadvantage is that the user is dependent on the far away server, where all the data are stored.

BlackBoard
The instructor's Control Panel on the BlackBoard

The Control Panel in the picture enables the instructor to design a course and to change its content. He/she can make pages with certain content (e.g. an explanation) by means of simple integrated page editor. The instructor can adjust the access rights for individual students or leave the course open. It is also possible to send various notices, mail and open discussions on different topics. He/she may also hand out assignments with predefined solving options (e.g. test). The tests may be composed from different types of questions (multiple-choice, text entry, etc.). When the test is done, it is automatically evaluated and the results are recorded in the database. So the students can see only their own results and the instructor can compare all of them. The author of the course can also adjust the environment, such as the appearance of icons, the students' tools, etc.

Another top-class professional systems of distance learning is Lotus Learning Space (http://www.lotus.com/home.nsf/tabs/learnspace/). The disadvantage of this system is that very expensive environment of Lotus Notes must be used as a base. TopClass (http://www.wbtsystems.com) has a long tradition, but it needs the not exactly cheap Oracle database. Another system is the Virtual-U (http://virtual-u.cs.sfu.ca), which has been developed within the framework of the research project of Canadian Simon Fraser University. The fully Web oriented system Fronter (http://fronter.info/) is used mostly in Scandinavian countries. The WebCT (http://www.webct.com) is probably the most popular among these systems for its price, availability, and applicability.

WebCT
The overview of results in WebCT

The picture above shows the WebCT output of test results of all the students that signed up for the course. As you can see, the instructor gets complete information. He/she knows who passed a certain test and, in case re-sit is allowed, the number of attempts and the total score gained. Also a complete individual solution with all the inserted answers may be seen any time. So the instructor has a complete control over what is going on in the course.

One function of the systems of distance learning is suitable for all kinds of schools. It is the processing of the results of tests and assignments. In future, these records could be kept solely on computers and not only for the purpose of distance courses. The advantage is that the outputs are safely stored and accessible to all competent persons (teachers, school management, students). Also the parents of students can follow the results of their children better and more accurately, if they wish so. This situation will become real only when there is a computer in every classroom. It is a task for the school information systems, with the universal normative enabling compatibility.

It seems clear that technology cannot replace the human factor in higher education.

Phipps, Ronald; Merisotis, Jamie (researchers): What's the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education. The Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1999

But we should not forget to mention the drawbacks of the distance form of learning. Electronic communication, no matter how advanced (e.g. video-conferences) can never replace the natural contact with schoolmates and a teacher. If the strictly controlled form of learning with set terms of assignments prevails, it may result in stress and, thus, loss of motivation. It is impossible to reflect current happenings, to establish real relationship among students. In general, this form does not have the means for upbringing of children in wider sense. For these reasons it will probably never be fully applied in the lower grades of basic schools. In the higher grades the application of distance forms may be considered. The use of only some distance features on complementary basis for common higher presence form of learning is recommended by several professional enquiries [51]. As there are no serious obstacles on the university level, the distance features are becoming almost compulsory here.

There are always some students that find the virtual school environment and distance communication more suitable and have better results than in ordinary classroom. So, besides the advantages described above (availability of materials and the control of the processes) there is one important reason for introducing some distance features to the teaching plans of higher education. It contributes to creating a  variable learning environment for students of different qualities and offers to choose the most suitable way of learning (see chapter 3.5).


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