Online Learning and Higher Education

One way that the use of networks in online learning could be approached is to take a conventional campus-based model of higher education, with lectures and tutorials, and overlay these with telecommunications to make them "distant". Let us look at the ingredients in turn.

Lectures can be televised, with a lecturer at one location being displayed on large screens at some remote lecture theater, or even in industrial concerns or homes. The EuroPACE enterprise of the late 1980s was supported by a number of commercial organizations. International authorities were filmed, in studios, lecturing on their subjects. These lectures were submitted by satellite to the subscribers, who typically recorded the programs at their site and viewed the material at their leisure. Those studying the material could contact the lecturer over the following months, if they so chose. The enterprise was discontinued after a number of years, though there have been attempts to resurrect this. It seems to have failed because of the extreme remoteness of the student, with no real ability to ask questions or other devices to engage the student in the process of learning.

One can introduce some level of live and intermediate interaction by enabling questions after lectures, for example, by introducing an audio link from remote sites back to the lecturer, rather like a television phone-m program. Some universities that work between multiple sites, like De Montfort and London University in the UK, can even do two way video links, building on the video conferencing model. Some success is reported anecdotally, although many lecturers are related to use the facilities, and need training in their use.

Contact between lecturers and students can shift from face to face encounters in tutorials, to email exchanges. Individuals in technical departments of universities, like computer science, have done this for some reasonable time, but for non-technical departments using email has been `unnatural 'and not favored.

Email has also been used to collect formal assignments set for assessment purposes. The UK Ceilidh project attempted to formalize this, providing services for collecting student assignments, recording their submission, arranging for lecturer comment and marking, collecting and recording these marks, and then returning the material to the student -all done electronically. A similar system is being piloted in the Open University, based around several commercial products, with the additional concern of authenticating the submissions to avoid possible fraud – always a concern in mass education.

Students need access to reading material to supplement the knowledge given to them in lectures. In some disciplines the consideration of alternative points of view manifest in different works may be an essential part of the study. Students have either bought or borrow books, and libraries have been an integral part of any campus. With the rising price of books, and the need for a library to hold set texts in multiple copies, they have turned to digital libraries – see, for example, the special issue of the Communications of the ACM on this. Some universities are already using digital libraries.

Out of this use of communications to augment traditional campus university education comes one style of distance education, where lectures delivered centrally are viewed remotely through television. Students can ask questions remotely using telephones. Students can interact with their lecturers and tutors using email, even submitting assignments in this way. They can access libraries electronically.

But is this really the way to do it? Is it the right way for developing countries?

The key thing that distinguishes online learning from conventional education is the situation that the learner, the student, finds himself or herself in. The student will be learning in isolation, without access to libraries, or local experts, or other students, to help with learning problems. To understand the full potential of networks in distance education, it is firstly important to understand online learning without networks. There are a great many institutions round the world that offer open and distance learning courses – the ICDL database of the Commonwealth of Learning lists 836 of these from around the world. All of these have much in common, and to illustrate what they offer, we will next look at our own institution, the Open University in the United Kingdom.

The key thing that identifies developing countries from developed countries is the level of infrastructure available, and the funds available to invest in capital intensive approaches to education.