ELECTRONIC LEARNING IN THE DIGITAL AGE

ATIF HASSAN
May 11 - 17, 2009

Technological advances in computing and information processing are changing the way students learn and professors teach. Ten years ago students learned by reading their textbooks, listening to lectures, taking part in discussions, and writing papers. Professors still use these fundamental tools in classes today, but they have added computer-based technologies-email, web pages, on-line discussion forums, multimedia programs, and quiz-giving programs, etc.

Electronic learning (or e-Learning) is a type of technology supported education/learning, where the medium of instruction is through computer technology, particularly involving digital technologies. e-learning has been defined as pedagogy empowered by digital technology. In some cases, no face-to-face interaction takes place. e-learning is used interchangeably in a wide variety of contexts. In companies, it refers to the strategies that use the company network to deliver training courses to employees. In the United States, it is defined as a planned teaching/learning experience that uses a wide spectrum of technologies, mainly Internet or computer-based, to reach learners. Lately in most Universities, e-learning is used to define a specific mode to attend a course or programs of study where the students rarely, if ever, attend face-to-face for on-campus access to educational facilities, because they study online.

Communication technologies are generally categorized as asynchronous or synchronous. Asynchronous activities use technologies such as blogs, wikis, and discussion boards. The idea here is that participants may engage in the exchange of ideas or information without the dependency of other participant's involvement at the same time. Electronic mail (email) is also asynchronous in that mail can be sent or received without involvement of both the participants.

Synchronous activities involve the exchange of ideas and information with one or more participants during the same period. A face-to-face discussion is an example of synchronous communications. Synchronous activities occur with all participants joining in at once, as with an online chat session or a virtual classroom or meeting.

Virtual classrooms and meetings can often use a mix of communication technologies. e-learning can provide major benefits to the organizations and individuals involved.

Firstly, e-learning allows people to avoid travel, thus reducing the overall carbon output. The fact that it takes place in a virtual environment also allows some reduction of paper usage. With virtual notes instead of paper notes and online assessments instead of paper assessments, e-learning is a more environmentally friendly solution.

Secondly, the fact that instructors of the highest caliber can share their knowledge across borders allows students to attend courses across physical, political, and economic boundaries.

Recognized experts have the opportunity of making information available internationally, to anyone interested at minimum costs. This can drastically reduce the costs of higher education, making it much more affordable and accessible to the masses. An internet connection, a computer, and a projector would allow an entire classroom in a third world university to benefit from the knowledge of an opinion leader.

Thirdly, in many contexts, e-learning is self-paced and the learning sessions are available 24x7. Learners are not bound to a specific day/time to physically attend classes. They can also pause learning sessions at their convenience.

E-learning has been getting main concern to the Government of Pakistan for the socioeconomic growth and cultural modifications at grassroots level in the country. Since some certain reasons were contributing to the dilemma of high illiteracy. By the year 2000, it was becoming obvious to the Government of Pakistan that its dream "Education for all" would not come into reality until the introduction of latest technologies and ideas in the education system. The government's aim was to promote e-learning for the human resource development and capacity building. The need for e-learning recognized because targeted progress was not achieved by the conventional education system as it had close connection with some obvious deficiencies including; Severe shortage of high quality faculty from school to university level, high? cost of education specially by conventional means, most of the higher education institutes are located in the urban area, and social factors that don't allow certain people to go other cities.

This was a common understanding among the policy makers that this new phenomena of e-learning will produce more synergies with the existing established infrastructure and will impart its contribution to sustainable development. By anticipating the significance of e-learning Ministry of Science and Technology planned to exploit the potential of Information Technology and established a Virtual University and National ICT R&D Fund with the aim "Education for all" and lifelong learning. After observing the magnificent growth and outstanding developments in the physical infrastructure of Pakistan in recent past years, the UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization), which is mainly responsible and carrying out multidimensional activities throughout the developing world for sustainable economic and industrial development, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and human resources development by promoting the transfer of technology by applying modern technologies such as e-learning built the partnership with Ministry of Science and Technology to establish a Virtual University in Pakistan.

So the Virtual University was established with the collaboration of UNIDO. The Virtual University has been offering many professional degree-offering programs on bachelor and masters level in various disciplines like Computer Science, Business Administration, Commerce, Public Administration, and Psychology. Beside its degree offering programs the university also offering some diplomas and certificate courses as well. The University has been following a hybrid model of e learning with many local campuses in many district headquarters of the country along-with T.V channels and LMS. Virtual university has in collaboration with many private institutions in different district headquarters around the country and using those as local campuses, where the student could use the internet and watch the lesson on T.V.

The major stakeholder on higher education level is HEC (Higher Education Commission Pakistan). HEC initiated a project of "Online Lecturing and Net-Meeting and using IP-based Video Conferencing System" for provisioning of Video Conferencing facility at all public sector universities and establishment of excellent video conferencing lecture room. Initially this project was started in 18 public sector universities. The lectures delivered/broadcasted were aimed to develop fundamental concepts, to enhance the critical thinking for under-graduate and graduate students and to discuss innovative technologies/research work in the fields of modern sciences for students and faculty members. The 1st phase was started in September, 2006 eminent scholars from Pakistan delivered interactive lectures on various topics and recorded lectures from foreign universities were broadcasted.

It was decided that in the second stage interactive lectures from foreign universities would be arranged. Nobel Laureates/Eminent scientists/researchers will be invited to deliver lectures to share their knowledge/research work. This program will continue and the remaining 32 universities in 2nd phase will become part of the program. The primary objective of introduction of Video Conferencing facility is to enhance students teachers interaction through distance learning, bridge the gap of good faculty, meet the shortage of faculty members at the universities located at far-flung areas and ultimately to uplift the standard of education in Pakistan.

(Writer is the Lecturer, Defence Authority College of Business, Karachi)
atif.hassan@dacb.edu.pk