Online education: A support for distributed learning

Online education: A support for distributed learning

The literature on online delivery in the field of education has flourished since the early 1990s with the rise of the Internet. There has been a concomitant interest in a variety of issues linked to online delivery and numerous terms have emerged in the literature such as distance learning, computer-based learning, distributed learning, and lifelong learning. It is therefore important to clarify the concept of online delivery and to see how it relates to these other terms.

Distance learning is not a new concept. It was originally intended to cater particularly for students disadvantaged by their geographical remoteness from university campuses. With the development of the postal service in the nineteenth century, commercial correspondence colleges provided distance education to students across the United States. Britain’s Open University and imitators in countries as different as India, Israel, and Australia have demonstrated, even without the benefit of the Internet, that technology makes it possible to deliver a good (and relatively cheap) higher education beyond a physical campus [9]. Course materials and contact with instructors may rely on traditional (such as print, radio, or telephone) or newer technologies (such as electronic communication). Hence, distance learning can be defined as any approach to education delivery that replaces the same-time, same-place, face-to-face environment of a traditional classroom [10].

Computer-based learning was initially limited mainly to technological fields such as mathematics, engineering, and design. Now, However, computer laboratories are likely to be frequented by students in linguistics, geography, history, or business. Computers provide an unparalleled capacity to manage and access large amounts of information and present it in a novel and interesting way. Similarly, computer-based education allows students to become active learners rather than mere passive recipients of teaching [11]. Computers are not necessarily linked to a network: computer learning can be achieved by stand-alone computers using a particular software stored in the hard disk, a floppy disk, or CD.

Lifelong learning refers primarily to those forms of learning throughout life that are called for by social and cultural change. The rate of social, technical, economic, and other change is so great, at least in industrialized countries, that few people will hold the same job throughout their lifetime. Similarly, recent research on learning across the lifespan has shown that people are not only capable of, but actually engage in, continuing learning over their active life and beyond [12]. Although lifelong learning can be self-directed, a variety of agencies (corporations, professional associations, unions, community groups) also represent an extraordinarily rich and diverse repository of learning opportunities.

Distributed learning refers broadly to features of a learner-centered environment, which “integrates a number of technologies to enable opportunities for activities and interaction in both asynchronous and real-time modes. The model is based on blending a choice of technologies with aspects of campus-based delivery and distance education” [13, p. 4]. Two essential aspects therefore underpin the concept of distributed learning: first, a heavy reliance on technology, and second, self-learning. The latter implies that the learner (or student) assumes responsibility for specifying individual learning needs, goals and outcomes, planning and organizing the learning task, evaluating its worth and constructing meaning from it [11, p. 128].

Drawing on the concepts previously defined, online delivery is a type of distributed learning enabled by the Internet. It is a particular form of computer-based learning that uses the World Wide Web as a repository for instructional information and the Internet as the distribution channel for that content. As such, online delivery has also been referred to as Web-based instruction [3]. Uses may include the provision of student access to learning resources, the facilitation of communication and collaborative working among and between students and academic staff, the assessment of individual students or group of students, and the provision of administrative and student support. Online delivery goes beyond traditional computer learning as it makes full use of the Internet and other digital technologies.

Online delivery can facilitate distance education by making course material accessible anytime anywhere. It provides substantial advantages over traditional technologies, such as:

  • Collaborative tools which offer a rich, shared, virtual workspace in which interactions occur not between an individual and technology, but as many to many, interpersonal communication, among students. The interaction can be synchronous (i.e., in real-time) with for example a chat forum or video conferencing, or asynchronous.
  • Interactive tools such as simulations or self-administered quizzes which allow the student to progress at his or her own pace through required exercises and self-assessments. These collaborative tools are limited in that they do not provide for interaction with other students or an instructor; the student interacts only with the technology.

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