Thursday, August 19, 2010

Distance Learning & Quality Issues

By Mrs Aarti Dhar

Distance Learning has arrived. It’s in! It’s happening! Reasons may be varied – an ever-growing market, increasing reach and access, growing revenues, corporate clients or the ever-expanding student population.

Technological advancements have made alternative modes of education an all pervasive phenomena. Along with regular institutions, adding distance learning programmes, special centres and schools of learning are being established precisely for this purpose. Corporate houses are joining hands with institutions and academic colleges to bring learning to the workplace. Multiple resources are being tapped for the benefit of professionals as well as students. Witnessing all this frenzied activity, one cannot help but wonder about the quality of the education or learning being delivered.

There are certain commonalties between traditional education and distance learning, viz. electronic communication, computer workstations, archived material, libraries and databases, hence many issues are relevant and common to both. Any centre offering distance learning facility increases its scope and scale to render services for various segments of students. On the other hand, students studying in a particular school of learning on a regular basis can also enroll for special courses in other institutions.

Any institution providing distance learning must be clear about its educational and academic objectives, of all its programmes offered, their relevance to their targeted audience on the basis of needs — regional, national and global. To accomplish all this, initiatives need to be considered to set up and maintain quality objectives, policies and infrastructure. A fair amount of thought has to be given to faculty development in order to make them efficient distance educators, and for inculcation in them of the effective methods of teaching; this, however, requires not only a plethora of team workers, computer technicians, counselors, administrators and other support personnel as librarians, etc but financial resources and logistical support also are to be taken care of. We cannot underestimate the material and human investment in organising and managing all this paraphernalia.

Economic benefit should not be the only driving force as it may or may not occur at all. Challenges can keep growing with increasing enrollments which may call for infrastructural expansion, hence it is sensible to have a realistic and practical approach. Casting a glance at other comparable institutions and centres of learning is one way; another is to work out the 'what to’ of practices and devices and 'how to’ of finance management.

Relevant parties can be requested for regular inflow of information and guidance as this solicitation can prove beneficial in programme planning, execution, evaluation, maintenance and improvisation of services offered. There is a need to ensure quality of learning delivered by distance mode as there aren’t many prescriptions around.
There are two parties in question — one that designs the curriculum and the other that is the reviewers or quality checkers ensuring certain parameters for the education provided. Distance learning is a learning system where the learner works alone or in a group guided by study material provided by the school of learning, away from its campus.

IGNOU is one such example; however, it calls for additional motivation and discipline on part of the student as there is little direct contact or support from the organisation. However, such learning can be combined with communication devices such as text computing methods, audio, video or telephonic contacts with instructors concerned. Video conferencing is another instant way where students can work at ease at their own pace and time. There can be multiple dimensions as far as interaction with instructors is concerned. A classroom presentation video can be witnessed by a group in an office; a CD ROM may also provide a learning task. The prerogative of utilising different educational technologies and methods rests with the parent campus to serve different segments. This learning device (distance education) breaks all geographical barriers, confinement, employment constraints, as well as disability; however its quality must be comparable with the one available on campus curriculum.

At the very outset, students must be given a clear idea about requirements of admission, process of registration, payment policies, and facilities of counseling, tutoring and placement. They should, at the time of enrolment, be told about performance expectations, deadlines, attendance and the calendar of events. Students should be encouraged to take initiative in asking questions and reaching out for help and guidance. Hotlines are a good option for round-the-clock access to academic and administrative assistance. Details about inter-student and student-teacher interaction should be worked out to fulfill course requirements, collaborative group learning activities and effective participation. Technology offered by the institution must support all this.

The Faculty and its Role:
The mode of learning is not teaching-centred and this has to be kept in mind. Hence, the faculty team has some challenging jobs to perform in creation of course objectives, learning material, assessment of learning and student performance, calling for high quality facilitators comprising the team. Qualifications and experience are essential components of creating high quality distance educators and instructors. Such facilitators have to concentrate on organisation and delivery of relevant information. Faculty commitment becomes vital in such a context and appointing some experienced specialised faculty respected by the peers can do the trick. They can form a nucleus and specific cadre and assist and guide development of the rest of the faculty team. The role of faculty in this set up is very different from the traditional role faculty plays — that is of instruction and teaching. In this set up, the job requires organising relevant learning material according to the course demands in the areas of content and mission, creating such a material, delivery of it and learning evaluation. Effective means and methods can be worked out by the faculty together, in brainstorming sessions and inter faculty discussion sessions. Faculty should be encouraged to create an institutional culture as it can have long term beneficial effects. New technical and pedagogy skills should be honed by the faculty members as a part of a well thought out strategy.
Definite process for management of faculty and its development as well as structuring out a reward system, are sensible ideas keeping in mind the institutional culture, learning specifications and technology available, faculty should be assigned specific roles and their interaction should be encouraged. All the resources and management should be in sync with the mission and the goal set. Hence, it makes sense to work out strategies for recruitment, motivation, development, monitoring and rewarding of faculty and making the team realise the significance of the relevance and ‘newness’ of course content. For special programmes, special faculty and design can be formulated.

Regarding course content clarity is the watchword. What is to be taught and how is all important. Once objectives are made clear, modalities best suited to the purpose can be worked out. Help of experts and specialists can be sought in specific areas. Substantial meaningful learning content must be created and delivered as well as scientific way of assessment has to be implied and developed. Innovations and improvements must be encouraged. Student accessibility is also a very important factor.

The learning mode requires careful deliberation. Group or individual learning whichever suits the purpose can be adopted, a group can be collected at a given place and time by the instructor and more personalised arrangements with tutors, outside the group meeting time, can be arranged for.

Elements in the working of the Distance Learning System:
Once the mode of learning is decided, specialised system can be developed. Technology can be one of its tools; it may or may not be the latest keeping in mind suitability and cost effectiveness. Again the mantra is – the need of the programme. However, whatever is chosen should be flexible enough to adjust to any changes in circumstance and technology employed should be manoeuvrable, worthy of being monitored, and reviewable.

Evaluation and assessment methodology is pivotal in such a set up in the long run affecting the student-behaviour, results and revenue. Assessment mode may include project assessments personal interaction and formal testing but also should be summative encouraging and comparable with conventional programs. Since student responsibility is more in such a mode of learning timing of evaluation should be made clear to all students at the very outset. Careful attention must be paid to resources with possible issues kept in mind with strategies to deal with them. Sufficient resources should be primarily considered in basic planning policy formulation and budgeting. They should suffice for faculty training library and computing services student orientation and training, all kinds of technical assistance, registration, counseling, and delivery system of course material and evaluation. Efficient support services administrative and technical with a clear responsibility chain and clearly defined mutual expectations must be developed.
To sum up, to maintain quality in distance learning goals and learning objectives must be well-defined, curriculum should be well-designed, faculty on board must be accordingly chosen and trained, available technology should be used optimally, careful attention paid to development and delivery of the learning material, proper assessment procedures, institutional commitment to the cause and adequate technological support are all keys to qualitative and successful distance learning, which has arrived in full steam and is here to stay.

What is most important is the academic, cultural and linguistic diversity of a large country like India what may be one man’s medicine may prove to be another man’s poison. What is suitable for Tamil Nadu may be of no use to Bihar at all, hence under all circumstances courses should be tailor made for their audience and not blindly designed after popular western or even other Indian distance learning centres or else they will fail to serve any purpose.

Agawam D, History and Scope of Distance Education, Sarup Publications, 2007.
Husain, Distance Education: Theory and Practice, Anmol Publishers. 2007.
Matheswaran, V.P, Distance Education: Student Support Services, Anmol Publishers, 2005.
Prasad Deepesh Chandra, Distance Education, KSK Publications. 2007.
Puri Usha, Distance Education, Pragun Publishers, 2006.
Reddy Adityanarayan, Continuing Education for Globalized Era, Sonali Publishers, 2007.
Sharma, Dinesh Chander, Management of Distance Education, Anmol Publishers, 2005.
Sharma Madhulika, Distance Education: Concepts and Principles, Kanishka Publishers, 2006.
Siddiqui Mujibul Hasan, Distance Education: Theory and Research, APH Publishers, 2007.

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