E-LEARNING: DESIGNING TOMORROW'S EDUCATION

E-Learning is the use of new multimedia technologies and the Internet to improve the quality of learning

By KAUSAR QURESHI
Lecturer, Isra University Hyderabad

 
Aug 25 - 31, 2003 

In today's dynamic world things are changing rapidly. Novel learning tools are emerging. Therefore, there is a need to change our old concept about "EDUCATION". Most people think that once they graduate they don't need further studies. That is absolutely wrong. The new concept of education is "Life long learning". It is an expression used to indicate that acquiring knowledge is now considered a continuous process which does not end when one leaves school or university, but continues uninterrupted throughout one's professional life and even after retirement. Spreading learning to embrace all stages of life and all social groups' thanks, to a great extent, to the possibilities offered by E-learning.

Very rarely is the concept of lifelong learning discussed without the importance of Information and Communication Technologies being stressed. In fact, many characteristics of lifelong learning (independence of educational institutions, individualized learning, and fast access to relevant information) are only possible with the help of recent technical innovations. All the hopes that are placed in technology to promote learning are summarized by the term E-learning.

The learning process uses technology which enhances access to the knowledge by learning actors. These learning actors are learners, tutors, and teachers. It also involves interaction among learning actors. E-learning enables users to access information without consideration of time and limit factors. E-learning is entering ever more into the life of every one, both through studying at a distance via modern Information and Communication Technologies. E-learning is a fundamental resource to increase and confirm knowledge. E-learning is also called computer based or non-formal education.

E-Learning is the use of new multimedia technologies and the Internet to improve the quality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services as well as remote exchanges and collaboration. So, we can say that E-learning is the multimedia technologies that allow the use of audio, video and text resources to enrich the contents. Internet gives easy access to resources and services, stimulates remote exchanges and collaboration, and empowers the learners in every situation. Contents are available anytime round the clock. Learners access contents located anywhere in the world. Learner-centered environment is one that is personalized to the individual, involving some form of technology for delivery i.e. networks (Internet, LAN, or WAN). The whole learning experience, from assessment through testing and sometimes certification, including online administration is called a Learner Management System (LMS).

What makes E-learning so interesting? Early applications of E-learning do show some distinct advantages over conventional learning: With E-learning, education becomes independent of time and place. With the integration of different media content can be displayed in an unmatched vividness. E-learning promises to be much less expensive than conventional methods of education. While this remains debatable in the case of primary and secondary learning, there is already considerable proof that it is true for vocational training, which has traditionally been characterized by high travel costs and long times off the job. E-learning increases the learner's choice of educational offerings. The learner can choose any educator in the world, independent of his own location.

Current State of E-learning can be visualized by comparing its past and present status of E-learning. The history of E-learning dates back to 1971, when ARPANET's Ray Tomlinson sent the world's first network email. He sent it from one computer to another with the text "Testing 1-2-3." The second message was more important. He sent it off to all ARPANET users, explaining electronic mail and instructing them how to address it with the convention name @ host computer name, which we still use today.

International Data Corp estimates that by 2003, the number of Internet users world-wide will grow to about 508 million, up from 87 million in 1997. Emerging markets are rapidly investing in technology, which is also facilitating a global learning market. The E-learning industry is divided into asynchronous and synchronous learning for better understanding. Asynchronous learning is defined as training which takes place in different time frames and information can be accessed at the learner's convenience. Some examples are: self-paced computer based training (CBT), Internet training delivered via a browser; bulletin boards; or email. The advantages of asynchronous learning are convenience, accessibility, the option to re-use material, and the fact that it is self-paced and self-directed. Disadvantages include that there is no immediate feedback, learners must motivate themselves, and learners may feel isolated.

On the other hand, synchronous learning means that training takes place at the same time and information is accessed instantly. Examples include: audio or video conferencing, satellite broadcast, and Internet conferencing via a browser or chat rooms. The advantages of synchronous learning are instant feedback, real-time learning, and the possibility of adjusting learner materials based on feedback. Disadvantages include that it is not self-paced, there may be time zone problems, and may be inconvenient to attend.

E-learning is here to stay and will continue to grow at a phenomenal rate because it is cost-effective, saves time, enables training anytime/anywhere, provides efficiency to address employee skill sets, improves learning opportunities and facilitates a global learner-centric environment.

Let's take a look at the status of online education. The concept of traditional education system is changing. Those learners, who can't afford to spend a lot of time on attending regular classes in educational institutions, are figuring out that this online education interaction creates interesting possibilities. Students looking for degrees or continuing education classes now have more choices than ever, and should continue to investigate, evaluate, and select the best option for their specific needs whether online or on campus. Most Universities and Corporations follow one of three basic models:

1. CLASSIC APPROACH: The student, with some kind of support from an employer, takes courses from a college's standard curriculum, using the Internet for registration, and course work.

2. EDUCATION PORTAL: A company works with one or more institutions and commercial suppliers to put a multitude of courses online. A web site (the portal) gives learners access to everything in the courseware library.

3. TAILORED TRAINING: This model take a more course-focused approach in which universities and corporations work in tandem to develop distance learning courses designed to address specific company needs.

The increasingly market-driven environment of the education industry requires universities to think more entrepreneurially and enter into the competitive business marketplace.

An online course may be characterized by the following:

a) Administrative work (registration, grade reporting, etc.) is or can be done via the web and/or email
b) The majority of interaction among students and faculty is designed to be done via chat or bulletin boards
c) Access to course procedures (course outlines, exams, submission of projects, etc.) are located on the web or distributed via email.
d) Instructional materials may be located on the web or sent out by email
e) Help and support is handled online
f) Testing is handled online

There's a new buzzword in the E-learning training space: "M-learning." The "M" stands for "mobile" and we will be seeing some interesting uses of this technology for learning. There are two varieties of mobile technologies usable for training and education. The first I'll call on-the-go in which you interact with learning materials or classes via a detached device such as a laptop or palm top computer. You can then up-load and download data, records, and changes when back in the office. This is already used fairly extensively and solves a huge problem for people who travel or work for long periods of time without access to the company network. But, you do have to physically connect to the network in order to access learning materials.

The second kind of mobile technology is connected wireless where there are several processes already in use. One technology operates by having learners access a corporate or campus network LAN without having to physically plug into it. Then we have the wireless WAN which allows access to the entire wide area network of a cell phone. With this process, you can stay connected even if you leave the campus area. Another process is the wireless PAN or Personal Area Network. With this wireless technology, you can create instant, ad hoc networks with any device that happens to be close enough. Learners can use computers, wireless application protocol (WAP) phones, pocket PCs, palmtops, or whatever the device happens to be. It constantly seeks out other devices, makes contact, and shares. As people consider how best to use various technologies and platforms for training and education, trainers will want to carefully and thoughtfully blend content, the learner, and the platform to maximize a successful learning experience.

There is another interesting term "E-learning Malls" What exactly is a learning portal? Also known as online education centers, corporate universities, company intranets, or virtual universities, a learning portal is a virtual environment set up by an institution or organization to provide information to learners. These portals are called E-learning Malls Think of a portal as an "entrance" into a learning area. Portals generally provide access to learning from multiple sources by collecting, hosting, and distributing content, the most apparent benefits include accessibility, flexibility, and affordability. Overall, portals can help effectively deliver learning to a geographically dispersed workforce. They operate "like a mall," bringing together many different things that people need as part of their learning process in a company.

What kinds of portals are there?

1. The e-learning internal/external portal allows access to all the services of a company's training department.
2. The learning management systems portal tracks what courses students are taking and their progress.
3. The content aggregation portal provides access information on all kinds of topics from many different sources. Yahoo and Google are examples.
4. The content assessment learning portal courses are rated.
5. The content creation/authoring portal content can be created at the site.
6. The community collaboration learning portal allows interaction among colleagues.

What are the pros and cons of e-learning portals?

PROS CONS
Consolidated access to a large variety of collected content Course quality may vary substantially with the variety of vendors
Independence from one content vendor Non-strategic solution
Immediate access to learning Limited options for customization
No large initial costs Often lacks evaluation tools, management, or other value-added services
No cumbersome implementation behind firewalls Security issues of storing employee data outside the company
Flexible, convenient, and fast access from multiple locations High-speed internet access needed to support media-rich content
Low or no maintenance costs Little specialized content in vertical areas
Reduced internal IT demands Possible limited technical/instructor support
No overload of network infrastructure No direct control over hosted content and data
Overall lower cost than for customized solutions or merging of vendors Uncertain marketplace leads to disappearance

E-learning is only effective and Interactive when adults benefit from collaboration and interactivity in their learning experiences. In recent years, researchers have formed a strong consensus on the importance of engaged learning in schools and classrooms. With the expansion of online learning, the need for engagement is perhaps even stronger due to factors of time and distance. How can you judge if an E-learning program is engaging? Following are five qualities to look for:

AUDIENCE-FOCUSED CONTENT

Effective and engaging learning focuses on the participants, resulting in meaningful interaction between them. Content must be written with the audience in mind and at the appropriate level of understanding. A program for trainers would definitely lose impact when the text better suits fourth graders. Check to be sure the E-learning text, examples, and language addresses target participants' backgrounds and experiences.

RELEVANT QUESTIONS

Effective E-learning programs should contain questions that stimulate thought, bring theories to life, and connect concepts to learner's work lives. Who benefits from simple recall questions? That type of test question generally doesn't help people retain information or make changes in work habits. Appropriate questions prompt learners to recognize connections between learned information and its application to the real world.

INFORMATIVE MODELS

Models are those graphics that users roll their cursor over in order to view additional information. These graphics should have a purpose, not just look pretty. The models are another avenue to access information, potentially vital to people's different learning styles. Some participants need graphics and sound in addition to words on a screen because they retain more information when senses are stimulated and they are more actively involved. Being able to move a cursor over a model to access more content puts learners more in control of their own learning experience. However, that content needs to provide something new rather than just repetition. Good interactive models add value and meaning.

RETRIEVABLE INFORMATION

Being able to retrieve content from a secure database that is applicable to the text improves learning options. When a program asks focused questions that guide learners to input answers and then take action, the ability to later access that data for review becomes valuable. If users can view E-learning as a daily tool that can helps them do their job rather than as a one-time event, E-learning becomes much more effective for increasing performance and productivity. Programs could be accessed to help make decisions or review task steps, creating a dynamic and interactive method of learning.

COLLABORATION OPTIONS

Effective interaction is not limited to facilitating connection between a learner and the e-learning program. Interaction also encompasses connecting learners to each other. The days of one person sitting in isolated office learning on a computer are passing. Today multiple users anywhere in the world may participate in the same program, collaborating to share information and learn from one another. People can ask questions and offer answers and suggestions, quickly and easily. The opportunities for people to expand on their ideas and grow professionally are endless.

Culture of E-learning is different. Taking a class or attending a seminar online is not the same as being in a classroom. Motivational factors are different, concentration levels change, pacing is modified, integration of skills or learning into the workday varies, and even note-taking is altered. If we accept how new and different e-learning can be, we need to give learners information on how to cope with this new environment. Adults are accustomed to learning in the traditional classroom situation, complete with all its rituals and social reinforcement. E-learning is a different kind of experience, one with potential resistance. Perhaps classes would be better known as modules, tutorials, workshops, webinars, or collaborative conferencing. Implementing blended learning, a combination of the traditional face-to-face process with the new online process, can help to gradually introduce workers to the new web-based, self-directed environment or even leverage the power of the web for information transfer before workers attend a live segment for practice. Learners should be able to make decisions on what to learn, how to learn it, where to learn it, and have opt-out capability if the choice is not right. Why force someone to complete a module if content or interest is lacking? Ok, there may be times like for some required yearly safety trainings I know of but why can't we also expect that to be better designed or delivered than it has in the past?

Remember the first impression is critical. The first E-learning session will cause a lasting impression, and it can be either positive or negative! Offer a high-impact, high-performance, high-engagement option to generate interest. Make learning a priority, an on-going process, and expect results from the learner and management. As with all major change, E-learning will require champions, participants, and a whole new set of expectations. Developing successful learners as well as valuable content will create a culture of leaning that leverages E-learning as a vital component.