(This is the first of the series of posts that I am devoting towards creating awareness about the distance learning programmes which,if implemented effectively,could play a crucial role in democratizing education. The Second Post will be on the importance of ICT in distance education and the Third will be on the findings of breakthrough researches in this field. In the fourth and the last one, we'll develop a framework for a Distance learning programme. Looking forward to your comments.)
Distance education, or distance learning, is a field of education that focuses on the pedagogy, technology, and instructional system designs that aim to deliver education to students who are not physically "on site" in a traditional classroom or campus. It has been described as "a process to create and provide access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both." The University of London was the first university to offer distance-learning degree in 1858. Almost all the countries have at least a distance teaching university and many countries such as UK, Australia, Canada,USA and India even offer DE programmes within on-campus universities.
These distance education (DE) institutions at the higher education (HE) level can help in meeting the educational needs of a variety of groups of people such as working adults, high school graduates, teachers, school dropouts and housewives. The Asian region, especially, has the largest number of adult learners attending distance teaching universities compared with other parts of the world with the notable ones being Indira Gandhi National Open University (India), Allama Iqbal Open University (Pakistan), Bangladesh Open University (Bangladesh), Universitas Terbuka (Indonesia) and Islamic Azad University (Iran).
Since the mid-1990s, many conventional distance education institutions have begun to introduce information and communication technology (ICT) mainly as supplementary modes of instruction.
What is ICT?
ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology and it is defined as a “diverse set of technological tools and resources used to communicate, and to create, disseminate, store, and manage information.” These technologies include computers, the Internet, broad-casting technologies (radio and television), video conferencing and telephony. It allows users to participate in a rapidly changing world in which work and other activities are increasingly transformed by access to varied and developing technologies.ICT tools can be used to find, explore, analyze, exchange and present information responsibly and without discrimination. ICT can be employed to give users quick access to ideas and experiences from a wide range of people, communities and cultures.
Before we move ahead with the increasing impact of ICTs in education, let us try to understand some common terms associated with ICT enabled education
Although most commonly associated with higher education and corporate training, e-learning encompasses learning at all levels, both formal and non-formal, that uses an information network—the Internet, an intranet (LAN) or extranet (WAN)—whether wholly or in part, for course delivery, interaction and/or facilitation. Others prefer the term online learning. Web-based learning is a subset of e-learning and refers to learning using an Internet browser (such as Netscape or Internet Explorer).
It refers to learning models that combine traditional classroom practice with e-learning solutions. For example, students in a traditional class can be assigned both print-based and online materials, have online mentoring sessions with their teacher through chat, and are subscribed to a class email list. Or a Web-based training course can be enhanced by periodic face-to-face instruction. “Blending” was prompted by the recognition that not all learning is best achieved in an electronically-mediated environment, particularly one that dispenses with a live instructor altogether. Instead, consideration must be given to the subject matter, the learning objectives and outcomes, the characteristics of the learners, and the learning context in order to arrive at the optimum mix of instructional and delivery methods.
Open and distance learning
Open and distance learning is defined by the Commonwealth of Learning as “a way of providing learning opportunities that is characterized by the separation of teacher and learner in time or place, or both time and place; learning that is certified in some way by an institution or agency; the use of a variety of media, including print and electronic; two-way communications that allow learners and tutors to interact; the possibility of occasional face-to-face meetings; and a specialized division of labour in the production and delivery of courses.
The National Research Council of the U.S. defines learner-centered environments as those that “pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring with them to the classroom.”The impetus for learner-centeredness derives from a theory of learning called constructivism, which views learning as a process in which individuals “construct” meaning based on prior knowledge and experience. Experience enables individuals to build mental models or schemas, which in turn provide meaning and organization to subsequent experience. Thus knowledge is not “out there”, independent of the learner and which the learner passively receives; rather, knowledge is created through an active process in which the learner transforms information, constructs hypothesis, and makes decisions using his/her mental models. A form of constructivism called social constructivism also emphasizes the role of the teacher, parents, peers and other community members in helping learners to master concepts that they would not be able to understand on their own. For social constructivists, earning must be active, contextual and social. It is best done in a group setting with the teacher as facilitator or guide.
The organized use of Web resources and collaboration tools for curriculum appropriate purposes is called telecollaboration. Web-based collaboration tools, such as email, message boards, real-time chat, and Web-based conferencing, connect learners to other learners, teachers, educators, scholars—in short, to any individual with access to the Internet who can enrich the learning process.. Much educational telecollaboration is curriculum-based, teacher-designed, and teacher-coordinated. Most use e-mail to help participants communicate with each other. Many telecollaborative activities and projects have Web sites to support them.” The best telecollaborative projects are those that are fully integrated into the curriculum and not just extra-curricular activities, those in which technology use enables activities that would not have been possible without it, and those that empower students to become active, collaborative, creative, integrative, and evaluative learners