The promise of e-learning and the enabling technologies is to make learning experiences in all types of setting more effective, efficient, attractive and accessible to the learners. (Koper, 2001, p3)
Since the beginning of the personal computer in 1981, the possibilities for learning online have grown fast. Though some online learning did take place before that time, it was mostly the province of large software company training programs or military programs where men and women were set out at great distances and needed tutorials to learn a specific skill. These efforts were restricted to computer-mediated instruction (CMI) or computer-assisted instruction (CAI), where courses were planned as self-study tutorials in a particular subject or topic. They characteristically included some questions which requisite a response and then the computer generated instant feedback. Though signed as excellent at the time, they did not give the student an opportunity to interrelate with other students or with an online instructor. Additionally, the tutorials were very restricted in scope and the amount or type of interaction through the computer that could occur.
Large-scale interest in computer education waned rapidly. The time and effort requisite to develop the curriculum, as well as the needed technical sophistication, was out of reach for most businesses as well as educational institutions. Estimates of course formation timelines averaged between 150 and 300 hours of development time for each hour of delivery time. As a result, the price to purchase courses commercially was also pricey. A typical 10 -or 12-hour course would cost $5,000 or more.
The use of computers for online learning didn’t actually begin on any large scale until 1996, four years after the overture of the World Wide Web. In 2000, reflecting the increase in computer users both at home and at work, several government census bureaus began reporting statistics regarding the number of computers accessible to a population, their location, individual and business access to the Internet, and if the computer was used for academic purposes.
Companies around the world are now employing online education options to give immediate training for a large diversity of positions, varying from the new receptionist to technicians and managers. Topics can be very specific (how to use a word processor) or more widespread (how to give good customer service). In the past, online learning was seen mainly as a venue for training computer workers; but now it is being used efficiently for all types of training. The use of the Internet to bring in-company courses is now well established. Flexibility and economies of scale are influential factors for the educational concerns and commercial providers who are major players in the growing business education market.
The most distinguished impact of online learning has been in the acceptance of this technology at colleges, universities, and industry training centers around the world. Projections for 2025 propose that 160 million people will be seeking education. Compare that to the current 45 million students registered in higher education today. Online delivery of education has been seen as a significant way to meet this rising need for higher education (Nunes and McPherson, 2003a). Furthermore, lots of countries with large rural populations, or large uneducated and poorly-educated populations, coupled with a massive shortage of trained teachers, see online education delivery as a significant means to providing constant educational opportunities to large numbers of people.
In addition to customary colleges entering the online market, we are now considering entire “virtual” universities – institutions that do not have a physical campus. These schools proffer all their courses totally online, with instructors, and administrative staff working from their homes or small business offices. It is still indistinct how these entirely virtual universities will be established. It is significant to check carefully the authorization of these programs and their offerings before spending your money to get a degree.
In order to make the promise of ‘effective, efficient, attractive and accessible’ e-learning a reality, it is necessary for educational practitioners to have access to a wide range of durable high-quality electronic teaching and learning resources. (Campbell, 2003)
Global cultural changes have destined educational establishments have usually become more responsible and more business like in the way they operate. The ‘customer centered’ approach has been accepted by many universities in response to a broader customer culture. Several vice-chancellors would argue that they have to work as a business now, but do so in an atypical market which is much at the quirk of governments and politicians. One could view numerous of the established educational practices as developing not from educational or student support considerations, but rather as sound economical models.
Ellington, Percival and Race (1993:64) for example say of the traditional lecture, ‘one of the reasons why the lecture has retained its dominant place in the educational and training scene is that the method appears to be highly cost-effective, since it enables high student/staff ratios to be achieved’.
Online education, as it requires changes to recognized models of teaching, support, assessment and use of technology, of course forces universities to observe the financial feasibility of such a model. This does not mean that it is any more or less concerned with profit than customary forms of education, but rather that we have become so familiarized to these assumptions in the recognized processes that often we do not notice them.
Gaining access to the education market was at all times hard for commercial organizations. The procedure of becoming a credited university that can award degrees varies between countries, but is almost always difficult and protracted. This gives private universities a problem: they require a successfully working educational concern in order to gain accreditation powers, and yet few students will desire to study at a place that is not credited. The private university needs to use academic staff and have a campus in operation all the time that it is available through this process. Unlike for other businesses there seem to be modest chance of starting small and building up steadily, using the previous year’s profits to sustain growth. With a private university the organization has to go openly to the completely established model. This requires some brave and substantial financial backing. Hence the number of private universities has stayed relatively small.
The Net changes several of these dynamics. First, as the students and the academics are not situated physically on campus, an online university does not require investing vast sums of money in putting up a campus with specialized rooms for lecturing, laboratory space, social areas, and so on. It will require a headquarters, but any standard office space will be adequate for this. Second, again as a consequence of the academics being located anywhere, there is no require employing them full-time. A wide range of courses can be obtainable by employing academics on a part- time base to deliver the courses online. This is exactly what the University of Phoenix has done in the United States. Last, as the costs are lowered by these factors, the online university can plea to students as an economical means of study, mainly if they wish to study part-time while working and cannot focus a campus based university. So the online university can plead to a different group of students on diverse grounds, whereas the private campus-based university was contending directly with the traditional universities. The online university still has to discuss successfully the rigorous endorsement process, and it will have to invest a lot of money in its technological infrastructure and in marketing, but it begins to appear as a more striking and feasible business model for investors. The Net therefore can lower the cost of entry to the market.
However, it can not be the private, online universities that offer the main threat to traditional ones. It can be the provision of courses offered by companies that do not assert to be universities, but instead offer courses they believe are of interest. Publishers are a good instance of an industry that has formerly been complementary to the education sector, which now might become a competitor. They have large measures of educational content, considerable financial backing and an admiration of the market. The Net blurs the boundaries between industries, which formerly had clearly defined roles; hence the mergers or associations between companies in diverse sectors such as entertainment, publishing, software and finance in Web based ventures. A book used to stand alone, and though autodidacts could educate themselves from these resources alone, the majority people required some help in considerate the issues and guidance in selecting the pertinent texts. What education provides is a cognitive framework within which academic content makes sense.
However, if publishers start placing the contents of numerous books online they can decide they need to add value over the printed text. They might also add some multi-media, and critically, some form of support which weaves together two or more books into a rational framework. So when does this become a course?
The sorts of courses such companies might proffer could be standard training ones (e.g. ‘Basic Web page design’) or staff development courses (e.g. ‘French for business’), but they might as well be more general interest courses (e.g. ‘Understanding Hamlet’). While these might not participate directly for students wanting to put on a first degree, they will contend for those wanting to study for career development or for self-improvement. This is the ‘lifelong learning’ market that has been much talked concerning. People who want to study for such reasons can well not want to attend a campus, and may not be interested in gaining an academic requirement (they may well have one of these already). They will prefer their course based on the appeal of its content. And if they can select from a hundred different courses offered universal which congregate their needs, then the kudos attached to a university offering can not be a sufficient draw.
Naturally, numerous academics will argue that universities must not be entering the training market, and there is some truth in this. There is typically a mismatch in prospects on both sides when universities offer students training courses. Though, the difference between training and academic-level courses becomes less precise with some areas. In addition, it is yielding a large part of the function of universities to divulge there is an educational require for adults in society, but it is not their abate to meet it. There are numerous universities and colleges that would see this as part of their role.
Online providers of such courses thus symbolize a real threat, not simply in terms of taking away some of the ‘market’ from universities and colleges, but also to the awareness that the traditional universities and colleges are the only providers of higher education. If students take courses from private online organizations and find they congregate their needs, then it begins to intimidate the monopoly of higher education which state universities have enjoyed. This might be what is behind much of the angst aimed at at the Net from some educators. But is it essentially a detrimental development?
With their experience and expertise, universities must be able to offer an educational experience which will rival anything the private organizations can give. If state universities find they are losing students to the offerings of commercial organizations, then that certainly should indicate that they require changing their own offerings.
Using constructivism in online learning is not instinctive to either learners or tutors. Current learners and tutors were almost certainly educated in highly objectivist educational systems, and are thus frequently ill-prepared for the independence, action and interaction requisite by this epistemology. Thriving online learning courses require, even more than ingenious environments, motivated tutors and interested learners, challenging a set of information, communication and social skills that require to be acquired prior to the online learning activities. Possession of these skills will eventually determine strategies and styles accepted by both tutors and learners. For a successful online learning experience, it is required for these strategies to be in line with the educational thinking behind the design of the learning environments. If tutors and learners are not sufficiently prepared, they will lean to use inappropriate approaches, which will conflict with the design of the learning environment and often lead to failure of the learning activities and processes – thus making the attainment of the intended learning outcomes very hard and resulting in recoil against both this learning approach and the technology that supports it. Additionally, throughout the delivery process, both tutors and learners require the support of adequate learning resources, designed clearly according to a constructivist approach.
According to Riding et al. (1995), action research has been used in numerous areas where an understanding of multifarious social situations is required. Therefore, this type of research is mainly appropriate for investigating learning situations since they comprise very complex social settings. In truth, since online learning is a rather new phenomenon in education and is often new to both tutors and learners, action research is an ideal approach to facilitate reflective practice and the exploration of tutoring strategies and styles.
Tutors as ‘reflective practitioners’ (Schön, 1983) can develop their practice and become better tutors through appealing in methodical evaluation and by becoming thoroughly self-assessing. This must occur alongside, and feed into, external assessment processes (Riding et al., 1995). Thereby, tutors can attain greater ownership of the learning process and dynamically engage in design of the learning environment itself:
Through systematic, controlled action research, higher education teachers can become more professional, more interested in pedagogical aspects of higher education and more motivated to integrate their research and teaching interests in a holistic way. This, in turn, can lead to greater job satisfaction, better academic programmes, improvement of student learning and practitioner’s insights and contributions to the advancement of knowledge in higher education.
Online learning entails much more than a simple technical exercise in which some materials or processes are just transferred from the offline world to several ready-made online realms (Cornford and Pollock, 2003). To compound this circumstances most online learning initiatives start as small-scale departmental projects (Robinson, 2001) and therefore, the completion of this type of learning approach faces a high level of risk due to its vague status and unfamiliarity.
The consequence of this is that such initiatives usually focus on the design and progress of the online learning environments, and accordingly insufficient attention is given to the delivery process. These efforts have little chance of subsequent without a tutoring team that has the proper online tutoring skills necessary to investigate and maximize the intended environments (McPherson and Nunes, 2003b). For that reason, the tutoring team is at least as significant as the design team and needs careful consideration.
This means that the tutoring team must possess not simply subject matter expertise and/or technical skills, but besides the information and communication literacy skills to control and facilitate online learning. Thus, the choice of a proper tutor team with suitable skills, or at least the enthusiasm to acquire these, is decisive to the success of online learning. Furthermore, tutor teams should adopt appropriate delivery methodologies that set up learners for the difficult task of learning and interacting online. Online tutoring and leadership have been extensively considered as a decisive factor in the achievement of computer-mediated collaborative learning activities.
Thus, the online learning raises numerous new issues, and the complexity is often deciding to what degree these require an entirely new way of operating, or whether existing procedures can be modified. The universal success of e-commerce, broadband uptake and educational projects such as learning object standards will go a long way to shape online education over the next few years. The extent to which commercial organizations and regulators of the Net come to direct what it is used for and who uses it may also agree on the nature of e-learning. Ultimately I hope that it will be inclined by two interested parties: the students, mainly those of the next generation who have grown up online as it were, and the educators who instigate to fashion something new, proper and most of all exciting in this medium.
Moreover, I personally believe, e-learning involves the attainment of high-level skills of critical thinking and problem solving, in addition to the congregation of facts and concepts.
“Academic learning is thus defined here as the process of constructing knowledge and the development of reflexive awareness, where the individual is an active processor of information. Learning occurs through interaction with rich learning environments, and results from engaging in authentic activities, and social interaction and negotiation”. (José Miguel Baptista Nunes and Susan P. Fowell, 1996).
Accordingly, this view of learning reveals the constructivist learning theory. For that reason, this kind of learning process requires the development and corroboration of both internal and external cognitive links throughout learning activities (Nunes and McPherson, 2003b). Internal associations imitate the learner’s understanding of a particular concept, whilst external relations refer to connections between the idea and context (Grabinger and Dunlap, 1995). Learners will make use of both these cognitive links while using a constructed notion in their future activities.
Online environments should therefore provide support for placed and multi-perspective learning as well as facilitating social construction of meanings through negotiation with peers and tutors. Thus, for learning to be effective, it needs interaction with rich learning environments and commitment in authentic activities.
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