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«Abstract The goal of this essay is to give an overview of distance learning. This is a very broad and interesting field, and it could be studied from ...»

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DIF8914 Distributed Information Systems

Distance learning: overview and design issues

Ekaterina Prasolova-Førland

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology


The goal of this essay is to give an overview of distance learning. This is a very broad and interesting field, and it

could be studied from many different perspectives. Here we focus on the history, different types of distance

education, corresponding design challenges and technological solutions and present some examples of commercially available software systems. We devote less attention to the pedagogical and sociological aspects. Finally, some future trends and possibilities are mentioned.

1 Introduction E-learning or distance learning is education where the instructor and students are (at least partially) geographically dispersed and technology is used to facilitate education (Neal, 2000).

Distance learning can supplement or complement traditional classroom education. Research shows that 1/3 of postsecondary education institutions in USA offered distance education courses in 1997-98, and more institutions plan to start such courses in the nearest future. (Lewis et al, 1999).

The main advantages of distance education are availability, reduced cost, flexibility and integration (Beller et al, 1998), (Neal, 2000). Students are capable of taking their courses from their homes, often at their own pace and when they have time, without disruptions to their family life (Neal, 1997). Travel costs and lost workdays are saved if employees have the opportunity to follow necessary education from their workplaces. For example, IBM saved more than $ 157 million in 1999.

These features are especially important in the modern, highly competitive world characterized by international corporations and distributed workplaces. Technological progress, especially in the field of communication, has provided the necessary “push”, while users’ needs act as a “pull”.

Distance learning is now used in many important arrears:

• University;

• Business (employees and customers);

• Government and military;

• Continuing professional education (Neal, 2000).

In all these cases there are both economical and pedagogical concerns. The powerful multimedia technology used in many distance courses allows real world simulations, instant feedback and active learning, just to mention some advantages (LaRose et al, 1998). Research shows that distance education is just as effective as traditional education in regards of learner outcomes (Lewis et al, 1999). These advantages, together with the cost reductions mentioned earlier, led to a growing demand for distance education systems, so the market, offering technology, content, portals and add-on services, is growing rapidly. It is estimated that companies spend about $ 2.2 billion a year on distance learning. Around 84-85 % of all education in US colleges in 2002, will be online, compared to 58-62 % in 1998 (Neal, 2000). The next stage will probably be “formation of coalitions and alliances among universities and other teaching bodies”(Beller et al, 1998).

The technologies used in distance education are often standard groupware technologies like videoconferencing, shared whiteboards and workspaces, chat and so on. Therefore it is impossible to write about the former without giving an overview over the latter. The most popular technologies in postsecondary education institutions according to (Lewis et al, 1999) are asynchronous Internet instruction (58%), two-way interactive video (54%) and one-way prerecorded video (47%). Therefore we will take a closer look at the technologies behind the World Wide Web and distributed multimedia applications.

2 History of distance education The development of distance education has resulted from so-called push and pull factors: the technological advances created user demand, while extensive usage of technologies led to further development in technology. (Lewis et al, 1999). One can distinguish between four generations of distance education technologies. The timeframe of the first generation is from 1850s to1960 and the technologies employed are print (correspondence classes), radio and instructional television.

The second generation (1960-1985) is characterised by use of multiple technologies, but not yet computers (print, fax, television, video and audio cassettes). Further advances in computer technology in the 1980s and in telecommunication technology in the 1990s (Beller et al, 1998) have introduced new forms for distance learning, like computer-based training on CD-ROM,

Internet and Web-based classes in the 1990's. We can divide this period into two generations:

1985-1995 and 1995-2005. Both generations are characterised by extensive use of computer technology together with more traditional tools like fax and print. Electronic mail, chat, bulletin boards, computer resources on disks and CD, audio conferencing, asynchronous and synchronous communication between class participants, Internet are the common features for these two periods. The difference is the emergence of high-bandwidth computer technologies in the late 90s. The 4th generation is characterised by two-way interactive real-time capabilities of audio and video, desktop conferencing and video available on demand (Sherron et al, 1997).

More and more universities are now re-evaluating their traditional educational methods. Over 2500 college courses from about 100 universities were available online in 1998 (LaRose et al, 1998). According to other sources (Lewis et al, 1999), 54,470 different distance education sources were offered in 1997-1998 academic year in USA by postsecondary education institutions. We have good reasons to believe that this trend will continue.

At the same time the new technologies provide foundation for creation of new organizational forms. We can mention following organisational arrangements in connection with distance

education (Phipps et al, 1998):

• Enhancements to traditional campus-based instruction: an addition to ordinary education;

• Consortia or collaborative: multiple institutions join together to provide distance education;

• Virtual universities: “institutions that offer most or all of their instruction via technological means and are distinguished by their nearly exclusive use of technology as the educational delivery device”.

3 Types and modes of distant education

Distance education can be classified by the following table by (IDE, 1998):

–  –  –

Table 1. Classification of distance education Independent learning: student does not rely upon other students.

Cohort learning: groups of individuals who move through a program of study.

Collaborative learning: individuals within a cohort depend upon one another during a part of the learning activity.

3.1 Asynchronous education (with or without instructor) Asynchronous education means that communication and collaboration between teachers and students takes place across time and space. This kind of instruction is usually provided via Internet, Web-based classes, computer-based training or videotape (Neal, 1997). The instructor, if present, could be on video or online, human or software agent. Interaction with peer students is supported in many distance courses through for example mail, mail groups, bulletin boards, BSCW et cetera (Neal, 2000).

3.2 Synchronous education (instructor-led)

Synchronous education tools support communication and collaboration at the same time. This type of instruction often involves use of videoconferencing or interactive distance learning network (IDLN) (Neal, 1997). IDLN is a tool that allows the instructor to be seen and heard by the audience but the feedback is limited since the students can only communicate with him/her via typed messages. Other important tools for teacher-student and student-student communication include application/screen sharing, whiteboard and collective web-browsing.

In many cases both synchronous and asynchronous teaching modes are used during the different phases of a course. Students could schedule meeting face-to-face or online with the teacher or peers when needed and study the course material individually and asynchronously otherwise.

This approach is adopted by for example Electronic Data Systems (Neal, 1997).

4 Technologies for delivering distance learning classes

4.1 Asynchronous distance courses A central concept in this field is computer-based training (CBT). This is a self-paced training including text, multimedia, audio, video, animation and graphics. Computer-based courses often include practice sessions, book marking and possibilities for progress tracking. The structure of such courses could be linear, dependent on student scores or simply navigation based on student’s interests. There can be different degrees of interaction with the learner. CBT courses are often distributed on CD-ROM (Neal, 2000).

Another important concept is Web-based training. It is a very broad concept with no standard model. It could be CBT-course distributed over Web. It has certain advantages over traditional CBT, for example better updating of the online materials, greater accessibility and more advanced mechanisms for teacher-student interaction. For example, CBT courses developed in ToolBook II Instructor can be distributed via LAN or Internet and be viewed through ordinary browsers.

Distance education is closely related to knowledge management and corporative learning in organisations. Intranet is considered to be a standard infrastructure for organisational learning support (Harvey et al, 1997). Companies like Sun Microsystems and Visa International use this technology for publication and reports, collaboration and communication, online reference and training. The advantages of Intranet compared to other IT infrastructures include functionality

over different platforms and standards to ensure open communication:

• TCP/IP as network protocol;

• HTTP as a communication protocol;

• HTML as a document format;

• A Web browser as document viewers (Harvey et al, 1997).

The same standards are used by Internet. The World Wide Web is considered to provide a framework and “enabling technology” for CSCW applications in general and distance education in particular. (Bentley et al, 1997). WWW provides a significant degree of integration and information sharing and is “most suited for asynchronous, centralised CSCW applications with no strong requirements for notification, disconnected working and rich user interfaces”. The functionality of WWW can be relatively easy extended with the Common Gateway Interface.

One of the basic web-based collaboration tools, also used in education, is BSCW. This system allows document sharing, event notification, e-mail and so on. Many commercially available authoring tools, for instance ToolBook II Instructor, provide mechanisms for distribution of the designed courses over the Internet by using plug-ins and code conversion. There are several asynchronous Web-based conferencing tools, for example TeamRooms (Roseman et al, 1996).

There are a number of supporting tools that are used complementary to the “main” technology.

Examples are discussion groups, mailing lists and forum and discussion tools (WebBoard).

E-mail and messaging can be used as a form of a correspondence class, but it is more appropriate as a supplement to class communication. An example is Instinctive Technology eRoom.

4.2 Synchronous distance courses

One of the simplest technological solutions is audio conferencing by phone. It is easy to use and inexpensive, but the available phone lines do not always satisfy quality demands for conferences with multiple participants. Another possibility is audio conferencing by Internet, if bandwidth is good enough. To achieve sufficient quality it is necessary to use two telephone lines for bidirectional transmission, noise suppression and echo-cancellation mechanisms (Neal, 2000). As with others transmission technologies, it is necessary to establish communication protocols.

Audio conferencing has a limited effectiveness and should be supported with visual material when used for a long period of time.

A well-known groupware technology, also used in distance learning, is electronic whiteboards/screen sharing. Examples are Microsoft NetMeeting, DataBoard and SMART 2000 Conferencing Software System.

A special group of distance learning applications is so-called virtual worlds. Examples are MUDs (multi-user dimension), MOOs (multi-user object-oriented environment) and MUVE (multi-user virtual environment). These are virtual places with objects, rooms, identities, roles and chat.

Students and teachers are often represented as “avatars”, animated figures that can “speak”, make gestures, show emotions and communicate in more traditional ways via text messages. Some systems like MOOSE Crossing, offers constructionist-learning environment, where students can learn through designing their own objects (Neal, 2000). Since learning is a social activity, it is important to provide effective and convenient technology to support social conversation. One of the most popular applications is chat. It exists in endless variations (for example Internet Relay Chat (IRC)) and is used both for business and pleasure, instead of phone. The Palace is an example of a system that incorporates a virtual world, a slide show and chat possibilities.

"The Palace Internet software allows students to listen to a lecture, see a slide show and chat with teachers and other students, all in real time." Another example is WorldsAway (Neal, 2000).

Video communication has an important place among distance learning technologies. It is for instance used in casual and business communication, telemedicine and education. The advantages of video communication are the richness of visual cues and social contact that are missing in chat and whiteboard.

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