Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Distance Education and Technology

Technology, what's available, that is, affects distance education and its development in the following ways:

COST – at a time when distance education was only limited to correspondence, where coursework has to be printed and sent via courier, cost was an issue. Plus, you use and end up wasting more paper. Preparing the course kits may require more manpower too, depending on the number of students. The number of students also affected whether a lecture video will be provided or not, since it might not be worth the cost of making one if there are only a few who will benefit from it.

And when certain information have become obsolete in view of more recent findings and breakthroughs, especially in the medical field, buying new books result in more expense.

With the advent of computers and the Internet, however, what is spent on changed. Initial investment went to infrastructure , equipment and gadgets. The delivery of instruction itself almost became cost-less, however, once everything is in place (the computers, the internet service provider, the servers, the programs, the virtual school). Students also get to use a wider array of resources since they are not limited to their assigned reading materials anymore but have a world of information at their fingertips.

TIME – Snail mails were called that for a reason. It usually takes several days before it arrives (and that's now, so one can only imagine how much worse the waiting was when transportation meant horses). Although the wait could have allowed the learner precious time to really study and nitpick his answers to his assignments, it still deprived him of precious immediate feedback regarding his progress.

Now, not only can there be more topics covered/more supervised activities done within a grading period, feedback and evaluation can happen in real time too. A learner no longer has long to wait before getting a reaction to what he submitted and the mentor can also more readily check whether the module needs some fine-tuning or not, based on the learners' comments.

CURRICULUM – faster interaction between mentor and learner, and among learners, meant that the curriculum had to adapt. It had to re-evaluate the learning models it uses as well as the learning activities. Distance Education used to only offer vocational courses and special skills instruction, now it literally allows for almost every certificate, diploma, undergrad, and specialization course there is. High school graduates can now work full-time while getting their degrees.

It doesn’t mean that curriculum quality has necessarily improved nor has it worsened, but its thrusts and goals and strategies certainly changed and adapted to the more demanding learning culture of today.

QUALITY OF LEARNING – compare learning about the Renaissance Period from texts and learning about it through texts, pictures, music files, video documentaries and even fashion designers. Because of technology, learning has become a richer experience even for someone who is doing it mostly on his own from home. And because of the real-time interaction that is now possible with technology, you can literally share Eureka moments with classmates who are nowhere near you.

Of course, the downside could be too much information so readily available and obtainable that cheating and plagiarizing has reached new heights as well.

INSTRUCTIONAL MEDIA, TOOLS AND THEIR QUALITY – I would imagine that people then took more care in their printed course works because any mistakes would result in additional cost and time wasted. Now, everything is just so easy to edit. The upside, however, is that we are no longer limited to just using our eyes in order to learn. Technology is allowing us more and more to really experience what we study aside from allowing us different ways to study it, at a time and place most convenient for us. Enter E-learning and M-learning, and instructional materials in varying forms reach us in no time.

RELATIONSHIP OF TEACHER AND LEARNER - I believe that before, the relationship between DE mentors and learners isn't as open and two-way as it is now. Before, teachers/tutors are the only mentors. Now, even learners can be mentors by bringing with them, not just their potential and finished case study, but other valuable resources they found on their own which they can now easily share with their teacher and peers. Technology is also facilitating the exchange of ideas between 'classmates' (something not as feasible before) as an integral part of DE, making it no longer unique to classroom-based instruction.

LITERATURE FOR FUTURE LEARNERS – Before, when interaction was limited, usually between mentor and learner, great exchanges between them do not often get to enjoy other audiences. Technology today, however, allows for these discussions to serve as literature for future learners. Whether they come in the form of archived pages in a portal/message board, or blog posts, these past dialogues and suppositions are a mine of information for other learners. Documenting one’s progress is more easily done today, thanks to technology.

Countries, or institutions, that are not too keen or without the resources to invest in, operate and compete electronically will be left behind in this Information Age. And if we measure our country’s progress by the number of those being properly educated, it will be really critical for DE to be offered not just as an opportunity for everyone, but as an alternative to what is more commonly being offered. However, jumping on the techie bandwagon just for the sake of being updated also won’t do because the Information Age requires capital expenditures and re-training for those who want to enjoy it. If all critical conditions are not met, learning will be affected. DE institutions with slow servers will turn off their own enrollees from studying. Mentors that cannot keep up with their more internet-savvy (by virtue of being younger and growing up owning gadgets) students might make these learners feel like they’re being held back, instead of being challenged.

I have used the word again and again... I am actually tired of it. But innovations in technology really determine how accessible education can be, and how beneficial and relevant distance education can be.

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