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CHALLENGES AND BENEFIT OF EMERGING TECHNOLOGY IN DISTANCE EDUCATION
This paper summarizes research into recent trends in education and training, including the use of technology and flexible learning techniques to deliver programs and assess students. The structured research, which was heavily internet based and international in nature, was carried out during 2010-11. A core component of the research reported in this paper is a review of developments in distance education in order to identify the challenges and opportunities faced by educators in using technology to provide/enhance the distance learning experience. The objectives of this paper are to: Briefly review the waves of change sweeping through higher education; Explain the fundamentals of flexible/blended/e-learning; Identify the challenges and benefits faced by educators in using technology to provide/enhance the distance learning experience; and Consider why the take-up of technology for the delivery of distance education has been slow in the world today. Education today is in an era of rapid change where the traditional educational paradigms are being superseded. The primary medium for knowledge, books, is being replaced by information on demand from the internet; learning in a classroom is being replaced by the capability to learn anywhere; and technology is no longer viewed as an expense; rather, it is viewed as an important differentiator in the provision of learning services. MET operates in this changing educational environment and, in this respect is no different from other providers of education and training services. To be educationally sustainable and provide its users with relevant services, education and training providers have to successfully negotiate a number of educational paradigm shifts, pedagogy and technology challenges.
1.2 Distance Education
Distance education is formalized instructional learning where the time/geographic situation constrains learning by not affording in-person contact between student and instructor. In person education is formalized instructional learning where the time/geographic situation constrains learning by requiring synchronous person-to-person interaction. We believe that by considering the constraints present in each type of learning, we level the playing field for researching differences between the traditional, in-person education and distance education. We propose that traditional learning and distance learning becomes co-equal, each has its affordances and each has its constraints, which should be enumerated by research. Our belief runs counter to the prevailing concept that distance education is the weak stepchild of in-person education. A focus on constraints may release us from repeatedly proving the null hypothesis, that distance education is not different from in-person education. Clearly, there may even be times when distance education proves superior. Distance education has clear affordances that in-person education does not, permitting, for example, extended time for reflection before answering, use of distributed resources without interrupting the flow of discussion or class presentations, permanent recording of many interactions (listservs, bulletin boards, and e-mail) for research and evaluation purposes. Thus, we propose that the affordances of distance education be compared to the affordances of in-person education and the constraints of distance education be compared to the constraints of in-person education, providing a level playing field for research. Synchrony as a Variable Characteristic of Distance Learning Distance education, according to the definition we have established, encompasses a vast array of possible situations. However, these situations can be grouped within two major categories, each with its own constraints. The two categories are synchronous and asynchronous distance education. Synchronous situations provide affordances that allow “real-time” interaction between student and instructor. Synchronous situations are time sensitive but geographically insensitive. Examples of such situations would be teleconferencing, video teleconferencing, online chat. In contrast, asynchronous situations do not provide affordances that allow for “real-time” interaction between student and instructor. Asynchronous situations are both time and geographically insensitive. Examples of these situations are correspondence courses, e-mail and web/server-based instruction. These two basic categories of learning situations can be applied to another Subcategory of learning. Distance exploration and distance serendipity can also take place synchronously or asynchronously. The definitions are the same as above, the situation is the same, but a time scale difference exists (possibly days or weeks). Thus, a web surfer can be involved in a personal, goal-directed online chat—synchronous distance exploration and later communicate by e-mail with a domain expert—asynchronous distance exploration Or, this surfer may run across an interesting piece of trivia and explore it through hypertext—synchronous distance serendipity (Cell 6s)—or by mistakenly posting a message to a listserv and receiving unexpected input from list member—asynchronous distance serendipity.
So whether you are using the equivalent of Phidippides to learn (correspondence courses) or the more modern equivalent of the Mercury method (electronically mediated), the definition of learning, education and distance education apply to all of the media being used. It is the situation and its constraints and affordances that change, dictate the media used and influence the learning and thinking that occurs. It is hoped that this proposed definition of distance learning, the conversation within the field that it begins and the subsequent shared consensus is a necessary step in developing distance learning as a scientifically researchable discipline.