Distance Learning Concepts and Technologies

Distance Learning Concepts and Technologies

Raymond Chiong (Swinburne University of Technology, Malaysia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-014-1.ch056
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Abstract

The rapid growth of information technology has opened up the possibilities of corporate learning and a completely new dimension to the progress in education and training. Educational and training programs that were once delivered only through a face-to-face setting can now be done electronically due to the advancement of technologies. As a result, the advent of distance learning has enabled not just flexible learning which is independent of time and space, but also significantly reduced the cost in acquiring necessary educational or professional training. Distance learning through virtual classroom is thus being considered by many to be the next revolution in the marketplace, with an estimated potential growth of $23.7 billion worldwide in 2006, according to a study conducted by the International Data Corporation (Downes, 2003). This article aims to provide an overview of the concepts and technologies of distance learning, and discuss the critical factors that determine the successful implementation of a distance learning system. Before going into further details of the distance learning concepts, it is necessary to look at some of the definitions of distance learning that have been proposed by various parties. Waller and Wilson (2001) from the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council in the UK defined distance learning as “the effective learning process created by combining digitally delivered content with (learning) support and services.” This brief but concise definition shows that distance learning is in digital form. In a more lengthy definition, Broadbent (2002) refers distance learning to training, education, coaching, and information that are delivered digitally, be it synchronous or asynchronous, through a network via the Internet, CD-ROM, satellite, and even supported by the telephone. From this extended definition, we see that distance learning can be synchronous where the learning process is carried out in real-time led by instructor, or asynchronous, where the learners can self-pace their progress. Zhang, Zhao, Zhou, and Nunamaker (2004, p. 76) in their paper described distance learning as “technology-based learning in which learning materials are delivered electronically to remote learners via a computer network.” This definition reiterates that there is a shift of trend from the old-fashioned classroom learning to the more mobile learning where the remote learners everywhere can learn. As distance learning is still a relatively new discipline, the term tends to evolve from time to time based on the technological advancements. As such, the above mentioned definitions are by no means definitive but suggestive. Generally, the emergence of distance learning concepts a decade ago can be reasoned from two factors: the needs of corporations and the availability of technological advances (Faherty, 2002; Urdan & Weggen, 2000). From the corporation aspect, one must cope with the fact that knowledge plays an important role in delivering immediate skills and just-in-time information the industries need nowadays. As knowledge becomes obsolete swiftly, it is essential for corporations to find a cost-effective way of delivering state-of-theart training to their workers. From the technological aspect, global network access has become widely available with an increased Internet bandwidth, a broad selection of available software packages, and a wide range of standardized distance learning products. This has made it possible for everybody with a computer and an Internet connection to learn in a way that is most convenient and comfortable. Learners are able to customize their learning activities based on their own styles and needs, and decide for themselves when to study in the midst of busy schedules. Nevertheless, many corporations still hold doubts towards the effectiveness of distance learning. Deficiencies in support, content, quality of teaching, cultural, and motivational problems are some of the main concerns that have been raised (Rosenberg, 2001). For individuals, especially the older generations, the fear of technology is something to overcome (Nisar, 2002). This somehow confines the prospect of distance learning to a limited number of age groups. Meanwhile, the flexibility of self-paced learning also leads to the possibility of spending less time in study when workload in other areas increases, which could be quite detrimental to the learning process. Although some obstacles do exist in the adoption and implementation of distance learning, the benefits of it can be tremendous if the design and delivery are well catered for. A few core elements which are deemed to be essential for successful implementation of distance learning systems have thus been identified. The following section describes these core elements.
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Distance Learning: Definitions

The rapid growth of information technology has opened up the possibilities of corporate learning and a completely new dimension to the progress in education and training. Educational and training programs that were once delivered only through a face-to-face setting can now be done electronically due to the advancement of technologies. As a result, the advent of distance learning has enabled not just flexible learning which is independent of time and space, but also significantly reduced the cost in acquiring necessary educational or professional training. Distance learning through virtual classroom is thus being considered by many to be the next revolution in the marketplace, with an estimated potential growth of $23.7 billion worldwide in 2006, according to a study conducted by the International Data Corporation (Downes, 2003). This article aims to provide an overview of the concepts and technologies of distance learning, and discuss the critical factors that determine the successful implementation of a distance learning system.

Before going into further details of the distance learning concepts, it is necessary to look at some of the definitions of distance learning that have been proposed by various parties. Waller and Wilson (2001) from the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council in the UK defined distance learning as “the effective learning process created by combining digitally delivered content with (learning) support and services.” This brief but concise definition shows that distance learning is in digital form. In a more lengthy definition, Broadbent (2002) refers distance learning to training, education, coaching, and information that are delivered digitally, be it synchronous or asynchronous, through a network via the Internet, CD-ROM, satellite, and even supported by the telephone. From this extended definition, we see that distance learning can be synchronous where the learning process is carried out in real-time led by instructor, or asynchronous, where the learners can self-pace their progress. Zhang, Zhao, Zhou, and Nunamaker (2004, p. 76) in their paper described distance learning as “technology-based learning in which learning materials are delivered electronically to remote learners via a computer network.” This definition reiterates that there is a shift of trend from the old-fashioned classroom learning to the more mobile learning where the remote learners everywhere can learn.

As distance learning is still a relatively new discipline, the term tends to evolve from time to time based on the technological advancements. As such, the above mentioned definitions are by no means definitive but suggestive. Generally, the emergence of distance learning concepts a decade ago can be reasoned from two factors: the needs of corporations and the availability of technological advances (Faherty, 2002; Urdan & Weggen, 2000). From the corporation aspect, one must cope with the fact that knowledge plays an important role in delivering immediate skills and just-in-time information the industries need nowadays. As knowledge becomes obsolete swiftly, it is essential for corporations to find a cost-effective way of delivering state-of-the-art training to their workers. From the technological aspect, global network access has become widely available with an increased Internet bandwidth, a broad selection of available software packages, and a wide range of standardized distance learning products. This has made it possible for everybody with a computer and an Internet connection to learn in a way that is most convenient and comfortable. Learners are able to customize their learning activities based on their own styles and needs, and decide for themselves when to study in the midst of busy schedules.

Nevertheless, many corporations still hold doubts towards the effectiveness of distance learning. Deficiencies in support, content, quality of teaching, cultural, and motivational problems are some of the main concerns that have been raised (Rosenberg, 2001). For individuals, especially the older generations, the fear of technology is something to overcome (Nisar, 2002). This somehow confines the prospect of distance learning to a limited number of age groups. Meanwhile, the flexibility of self-paced learning also leads to the possibility of spending less time in study when workload in other areas increases, which could be quite detrimental to the learning process.

Key Terms in this Chapter

LMS: Learning management system. A software application that allows the development and delivery of online learning or teaching courses through the Internet.

Synchronous: A real time two-way communication that occurs at the same moment without any delay.

Learning Objects: A reusable unit of instructions for distance learning where the presentation is normally separated from its content, thus allowing content reuse.

Internet: A globally connected electronic communications network that links computers around the world together.

Asynchronous: A two-way communication that proceeds independently of each other with a time delay.

Distance Learning: The effective learning process by which technology is used for delivering education in ways where the learner does not have to physically be in the place where the teaching is taking place, and access to the instructor is gained through technologies such as the Internet, interactive videoconferencing, and satellite.

Web-Based Training: A form of computer-based education in which the teaching materials are accessible through the Internet.

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