What is distance education ?

Distance education is quite a familiar term in use, but the real purpose of the matter should be understood with its defined meaning. Here, terms like virtual learning, flexible learning, open learning and the distance education serve one single meaning with some notable differences.

Open learning

Open learning can be understood as a learning strategy. The vital feature of this learning strategy is to eliminate barriers in a learning process. That is, open learning doesn’t demand any previous qualifications to study and promises a determined attempt to provide education for students with disabilities. This is a conscious effort to educate disabled ones with an appropriate method like audio tapes for visually impaired, digitized books for the deaf and dumb people etc. That is why this is pliable as well as scalable. Thus, an open learning program shouldn’t be denied or refused by anyone. Openness has certain implications for the use of technology. There are enough technologies to be made use of according to the user’s availability of the same and their need to access it.

The recent advancement in open content has widened the process and possibility of open learning. Cape Town Open Education declares the open content movement would like to see all-digital learning materials available free of charge to anyone with access to the internet.

Distance Education

Distance education is a method of education in its serious manner. Technology is a significant element to follow this method. Because distance education allows students to study at home or any other places as their choice like work center, tutorial etc. students can choose their own time of study and they are free of any face to face lecture classes.

However, this method of education may not be open. The University of British Columbia can take as an example to clarify the fact. Practically, students who live in foreign countries can’t get an undergraduate degree completely at distance from UBC. The admission requirements and necessary prerequisites of each course in UBC is designed so. For undergraduate education, the criteria include face to face classes on campus. Half of the program must be done so.

Distance education is more flexible with regard to the choice of technology. For instance, an institution is selecting students deliberately, they can limit the students get to take a course with only those who own a computer.

In most cases, distance is more likely to be psychological or social rather than geographical. For instance, the great majority of undergraduate distance education students are not actually distant. Around 83 per cent students live in the Greater Vancouver region and almost half within the city of Vancouver. Undergraduate enrollments in 1999/2000 had only six percent of students from outside the province because of the residential requirements. On the other hand, 67 percent of UBC’s distance students were working.one of the projected reasons for most UBC students taking distance courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes. Only 17 percent gave reasons to do with distance (UBC Distance Education and Technology, 2001).

Flexible learning

The term conveys it all. This is a flexible manner of learning which is built around individual learners’ geographical, social and time constraints. Thus the primary concern is the convenience of the learner rather than those of an educational institution. This type of learning may include distance education, but it also deals with conducting face-to-face teaching in the workplace or in the campus for hours or set up weekend classes or summer schools. Flexible learning is more like distance education, it is often associated with increased access thereby more openness.

Virtual learning

Virtual learning can also be termed as online learning. Virtual learning may be completely ‘at a distance’ or ‘blended’. That is, it can be a combination of distance learning and face-to- face learning or other technologies such as print. Check the description of e-learning.

Similarities and Dissimilarities

It’s hard to find all the above said learning in their purest forms. All teaching system demands a minimum level of literacy and so can’t assure a complete openness. Rarely students prefer to study in complete isolation and even fully online courses preferably set up short periods contact classes with or without a trainer. A vast majority of online courses supplement the online study with hard text readings like textbooks. Thus the point is openness,’ distance’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘virtuality’ are there in its degrees.

The common element in distance education, flexible learning, open and online learning are they exert an effort to provide a better quality of education to students who either cannot take a conventional college-going program or choose not to.

See Commonwealth of learning to get another definition of distance education and its development.

The influence of technology on the organization of distance education

See the different phases of development crossed by distance education so far to be in its present form. There are five generations of distance education (Taylor, 1999).

  • Correspondence education;
  • Use of multiple media like print which is a one-way media, broadcasting or recorded media, for example, video cassettes;
  • Two-way, synchronous telelearning method through audio or video conferencing;
  • Flexible learning depend on asynchronous online learning combined with online interactive multimedia;
  • Intelligent flexible learning dealt with adding a good degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online and interactive multimedia.

Changes in educational theory and the technology has driven the distance education through its stages of development.

First generation

Use of single technology marks the first generation and no chances of students meeting teachers who originate instructions. The first generation distance education is more close to Correspondence education, although educational broadcasting is another version. Standard usage of textbooks, use of contracted correspondence instructor, who is not the originator of study material and often works for a commercial company are certain characteristics of correspondence education. However, the students take exams from accredited institutions.

Second generation

Distance education is featured by a deliberately integrated multiple media approach, with study materials particularly designed for learning at a distance, but still with a third person(not the originator of the teaching material but a tutor) mediating the two-way communication. British Open University and such autonomous distance teaching universities are an example for second generation distance education. This generation distance education depends on notably structured correspondence texts, combined with standard textbooks and selected readings from academic journals, and with the support of television or radio or both. The dual-mode institutions (i.e. doing both campus based and distance learning programs) having open universities and distance education units have been largely associated with systems based and behaviorist or cognitive science approaches to learning. These are considered as more teacher-focused and ‘industrialized’, where all students get the same material, which in turn results in considerable economies of scale.

Third generation

By the use of synchronous interactive technologies, like video conferencing the third generation distance education replicated classroom model learning. The third generation relied largely on lecturing and questions. As this model of distance education saves travel time of instructors between campuses, multi-campus institutions often made use of this. Relatively it provides small economies of scale, the light flexibility of learners, because they still have to reach campus at a fixed time, and the average cost per students serves to be high. Anyway, synchronous teleconferencing is popular because instructors do not need to make any changes to classroom teaching methods to any extent.

Fourth generation

Here comes online learning. Offers a flexible learning based on asynchronous communication using the internet and World Wide Web. This model allows enhanced student-teacher and student-student interaction at a distance, collaborative teamwork, learners are flexible to learn anywhere at any time, the economies of scope, in that courses for relatively fewer numbers can be developed without large start-up costs. Anyway, to accomplish the educational advantages and to control costs, the design and expression of asynchronous teaching should be different from both conventional approaches to classroom teaching and the large-scale design of Open University programs. According to Kaufman (1989), this is not merely comprehension but a progressive increase in learner control, opportunities for dialogue, and emphasis on thinking skills.

Fifth generation

This stage is still experimental, based on a heavy automation of learning, and Taylor applies mainly to his own institution i.e., University of Southern Queensland. A more credible fifth generation is distance education based on using web 2.0 tools. The web 2.0 tools allow the users to control access to learning, through social software, virtual worlds and YouTube like multimedia tools.

However, considering technological and educational aspects, these are the useful classifications of development in distance education. The result of a comprehended analysis of the influence of technology on the distance education organizations is given below. This identified mainly six types of distance teaching organizations functioning in 2003:

  • Public autonomous distance education
  • Dual-mode institution
  • For-profit distance education institutions
  • Partnerships and consortia
  • Workplace training organizations
  • Virtual schools

As the distance teaching organizations make use of various technologies, the basic six models may have its different variants also. As per the analysis, the striking characteristics of distance education is ‘diversity and volatility’.

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