Wednesday, June 9, 2010

ICT based distance learning programme - IV

In this fourth and last blog of this series, I will share the framework that I have developed for a model distance learning institute. 
The learner centric model for a Distance Learning institute
Note: C&A:Curriculum & Assessment, LR:Learning Resources, Infra:Infrastructure (Technical and Physical)
The above figure represents a learner centric model for a distance learning (DL) institute. What we suggest is a think outward approach i.e. identify the learner first and then accordingly design the support system. 

The five circles represent the different layers or steps for designing a DL institute. They are:
  • Step 1: Identify your targeted learner
  • Step 2: Plan for the four major aspects of education (represented by the four section of the second circle)
  • Step 3: Design appropriate strategy 
  • Step 4: Estimate the Cost
  • Step 5: Promote it 
Now I will come up a set of recommendations for say, a DL B-School i.e. management institute. This will help in conceptualizing the framework.

Step 1: Identify your Learner
  • What's his background e.g. qualification, type and years of work experience 
  • What's his Computer proficiency? 
  • What's his Preferred pace (duration of course) i.e. self (the candidate decides or flexible) paced or programme (fixed) paced 
  • What's his Purchasing capacity? 
  • Where is he located? 

Step 2: The four major aspects of education 

Curriculum & Assessment 
  • Curriculum should address the prevailing needs: flexible and up-to-date with current business practices
  • Inputs from corporate world e.g. visiting faculty etc: cutting edge syllabus e.g. spreadsheets can be used for subjects like statistics and business modeling
  • Curriculum should be time bound: break the course into smaller modules e.g. having specific power point based presentation for specific modules can be helpful
  • Preferably asynchronous mode for regular classes: in this mode the learner can take lessons when relaxed and it's even helpful for students of different time zones.
  • Synchronous mode could be used for introductory classes or mid- course review
  • Using case based pedagogy can be helpful as working professionals can relate as well as use the concepts at their workplace
  • Various assessment modes viz. take home quizzes, pre-scheduled examinations at designated centres, assignments to be submitted through posts, one-to-one sessions etc can be used
  • Dedicated chat rooms for each subject where posts can be graded will encourage as well as enhance the quality of participation. 
  • Curriculum includes students’ visits to different firms to give a flavour of how other institutions work which could help broaden the perspective.
  • Rubrics that clearly define the required deliverables will help enhance the clarity of the assessment process as well as increase its authenticity
Learning Resources:
  • Generating learning objects (LO) can be quite expensive and time taking, so a new institute should preferably rely on buying material rather than developing its own.
  • As the familiarity with such resources increases, in future development of LO can also be undertaken. 
  • Different institution can collaborate to develop LO which can bring down the cost and enhance quality if comparative advantages are leveraged effectively
  • Advisable to provide hard copies of copyrighted material say cases, articles etc. wherever possible to avoid easy copying and distribution of electronic materials 
  • A body of academicians as well as people from business world should preferably certify LO or assesses bodies that are involved in creation of such resources
Teacher Development:
  • Role of a teacher changes from “sage on the stage” to “guide by the side” 
  • Preferably basic computer proficiency and business exposure also as eligibility criteria for the new recruits as “subject expert is now replaced by course manager”
  • Even for a dual mode institute with a developed pool of faculty, it is still advisable that a dedicated pool be developed for the DL mode as well to avoid faculty over burdening issues as well as to provide specialized as well as round the clock support. 
  • Institute could release some of its professors periodically to work on different projects in the industry to give them firsthand experience of the challenges faced in real world and help make their teaching more industry relevant. 
  • Buddy system amongst teachers should be encouraged to provide guidance to new recruits as well as facilitate exchange of ideas

Physical and technical infrastructure:
  • Infrastructure could vary as per our targeted intake: say Video Conferencing (VC) can facilitate synchronous mode for learning for small batch but reliance on web based mode like web casting will find relevance as intake increases
  • Internet can lower the cost as it won’t require installation of costly equipment at the candidates’ end as is the case with VC. 
  • Student management system (SMS) should have the highest level of interactivity. 
  • The SMS should be customized as per the needs of the college and should have local support available as and when required.
  • Software should be simple but close to the subject requirements
  • Standardize set of software for each subject depending upon the course objective.
  • To develop an educational portal where teachers, students and researchers can gain access to lesson plans, content, teaching and learning aids

Step 3: Strategy

Strategy will decide the type of our distance learning (DL) programme. It can include one or more of the following modes of reaching out to its students.
  • Self-study learning materials such as workbooks, audio cassettes, video cassettes
  • Tuition and support at a distance, usually by a part-time tutor, who may also have a separate full-time job as a teacher.
  • Tutorials, seminars and workshops
  • Synchronous communication
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Counseling and advice services e.g. telephonic or video based
  • Assessment and accreditation
  • Choosing between self-paced and program-paced systems
  • Open access or not i.e. whether there are any competency tests and additional eligibility criteria.
  • Single or dual-mode institution i.e. it is solely a DL institute or it also caters to conventional mode.
  • Certification and accreditation i.e. issues related to degrees to be awarded to the students

Step 4: Costing

The budgeting of a DL programme will require us to decide upon:
  • What we want to teach (what activities are involved)
  • Identify what resources are needed for that in terms of 
  • Specify the quantities needed of each item 
  • Find out their respective costs 
Fixed costs: market research, marketing, materials development, management and administrative staff, accommodation

Variable costs: fees paid to tutors, materials stock, recruitment of tutors, tuition costs

Maintenance costs: writing new assignments, correcting errors found, updating small parts, writing supplementary materials, writing new exams each year 

Avg. cost/ student Vs No. of students 
Note: V- variable, AC- Average Cost, CE- Conventional Education, DE- Distance Education 

Step 5: Promotion
  • A dual mode institute can use the success of its conventional mode programme to promote the DL programme 
  • A single mode institute can use the accreditation of a certified body say AICTE to promote itself 
  • A very high dropout rate can have negative impact on the popularity of the course so better to go for restrictive access. 
  • Pricing needs to be done carefully as too high fees can be deterrent and low fees can affect our profitability. 
  • Smart pricing say differential pricing i.e. different prices for different courses, scholarships etc. can be used as a marketing tool. 
  • Tie-up with internationally renowned institutes, influential industrial bodies and seminars with well-known personalities can be helpful. 
  • Customized courses say company specific courses, on demand courses based on existing economic scenario is also an option 
So, if our steps have the required synergy we can come up with DL institutes that add value to its stakeholders. Hopefully the series of blogs would have helped demystify DL programmes. Looking forward to your comments.

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