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E-Learning - Leveling the Academic Playing Field
 by: John Connor





RDI are the world’s largest private providers of UK University distance learning programmes. Working with a range of partner UK Universities they develop, promote and deliver various degree and non degree programmes, from entry level certificates, through to degrees and up to MBA and beyond, all of them using off-campus delivery models and all of them fully accredited.

RDI have been operating for over 18 years and during that time have seen their student base develop from a couple of hundred parochial students undertaking very traditional “correspondence courses” to today’s “worldwide classroom” of 6000 students studying in more than 70 countries. The 18 years have been a journey for RDI that tracks the development of distance learning from traditional text based programmes designed to mimic the classroom experience, to the new age delivery model we find ourselves with today, a model that outperforms classroom tuition at many levels.

So what are the key elements in the new age model? The primary focus is in the delivery of clearly defined learning outcomes: what we want the students to know, understand and be able to do by the end of the programme. This governs programme design and delivery. These outcomes are increasingly skill based and focused on work place and vocational requirements as the acquisition of skill is as important as the acquisition of knowledge. Also the learning process must excite the student and have the ability to engage them more effectively than a taught model. This is achieved by the interactivity and content delivered by the technology platform. This must challenge but not overwhelm the participants. The assessment process is similarly focussed on the engagement of the student. Fewer essays, more measurable tasks, more challenges to research and original thought. The necessary resources, information and infrastructure support is designed into the technology and the technology itself must be adaptable, compatible and accessible. We need students on all continents to be able to easily access information, talk to each other, talk to their programme leaders and undertake their own research, all electronically and all within striking distance of their homes. Above all we need them to feel confident that they can handle the processes and successfully complete the programme within the resources we have made available to them. We then need a model that is flexible enough to metamorphosise in different regions in different ways. For example in Hong Kong students can easily physically meet together. They can form themselves into user groups and revision groups and establish live group contact. In other regions this model is not practicable. In USA our students never meet together as a physical group but form extremely active on-line learning and social groups. Caribbean students love to spend some time at the University and welcome events such as Summer Schools. Ghanaian students meet at our Support Centre in Accra at the weekends discussing ideas with other students. Ugandan and Nigerian students can now receive information through their mobile phones, indeed by next year we will be able to deliver much of the programme content via telephony, which is a more accessible resource than broadband in some regions. And what has become of the lecturers? In this new model they don’t focus on teaching, they become team leaders and facilitators of information. They use their vast experiences and knowledge to assist students in plotting their way through the sea of information, identifying what is key, assisting the collation of core elements and mentoring the students through the learning process both through cluster groups and as individuals.

There are of course mainstays of the new model. The core texts are still there to be read and absorbed but it is on-line with interaction that enhances but doesn’t overwhelm the learning and fully engages the student. Students can also have their own CD version to print off if they want a text based safety net. The text is only the beginning of the learning. Students then do their own on-line trawling. Case studies, papers, news events, they all assist in getting to grips with the subject. Then you have your “classmates”, thousands of them around the world, all with knowledge, all willing to share, all wanting to express their views. The facilitator sits in the middle of all this, directing and controlling the discussions, orchestrating the whole of the interaction through the virtual campus and mentoring as and when required. There are no time limits; you can talk to each other 24/7. The farmer in Ghana can discuss with the Hong Kong banker. The housewife in London can share ideas with the care worker in Canada. How powerful this is! By default there is created a massive social networking site, but one with clear learning objectives. It doesn’t stop there of course; the assessments are based around working experiences. Compare and contrast, refer to case studies, recount your own experiences. This avoids risks of plagiarism, which is one of the great validity fears associated with distance learning, and it also forces the student to apply their knowledge.

Never before have international learners had such equality of opportunity, access to knowledge and information, freedom to interpret that information and a worldwide infrastructure to support their learning. In many ways it is the mythology of the Ivory Towers that is now being torn down and replaced with a pragmatic technical pedagogy. The whole new information age has liberated individuals and broken down barriers to learning and knowledge. The mystique and mythology of “Learned Institutions” is being quietly exposed as the uneducated educate themselves and discover that knowledge is fun and with knowledge comes achievement, self respect and confidence.

These are exciting times for distance learning. It is no more the poor relation of the “correspondence course”. We have sophisticated and highly developed systems and support infrastructures in place that are more than adequate replacements for conventional teaching and that can deliver high quality learning worldwide in a cost effective way. As barriers to cost are broken down and access both physically and technologically is opened up, our worldwide classrooms will expand at an exponential rate and education will be both liberated and democratised. Not being able to get to a college will no longer be a valid excuse by an individual for educational underperformance, and not being able to fully engage a student will no longer be an excuse for under delivery of academic excellence by institutions. A truly level playing field and a truly liberating experience.


About The Author

John Connor is an educationist and self published author. He believes that distance learning courses are no way different than traditional courses. For more information on distance learning and Online study, he recommends you to visit: http://RDI.co.uk

 


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