What is happening to higher education? There is a search for increasing the effectiveness of learning and expanding educational opportunities by using a combination of information technology and distance education. Teaching with technology takes time. There is the challenge of choosing equipment, redesigning courses, learning software, and building new protocols for projects, quizzes, course administration, feedback routines, lectures, and course administration. Today, these efforts must be somehow carried out in addition to continuing to teach and update current courses via the traditional means. The challenge of each innovation is that it must be carefully measured against the successes of the traditional approaches. In addition, when dealing with technology, methods and techniques mastered last year or even last semester are often upstaged by new products that involve new time-consuming “re-learning” needs. Technology makes it easier for instructors to respond to students individually, even between classes and after the course is over. It also gives access to more course material, more media, more simulations, and more powerful indexing and search protocols. This article will review common tools and technologies used in distance education and demonstrate why they can facilitate learning and expand the educational opportunities for both distance and traditional students.
For many years, technologies have been used to facilitate learning. In the early 1980s a group of researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) realized the enormous potential of technology to enhance learning when they used a computer-mediated system to facilitate a regular face-to-face class. The system was introduced to students in a number of Computer Science and Information System courses. Due to the amount of material covered in lectures, there was not much time for dialogue and only a few students participated when there was a class discussion. The instructors introduced asynchronous group communication technologies to communicate discussion questions and assigned grade-point credits for student participation. One-hundred percent of the students participated in these discussions outside of regular classroom hours. The extent and depth of the discussions changed the nature of the classes. Most important, because students had the time to reflect on the ongoing discussion before participating, their contributions were comprehensive, with more well-thought-out comments. Also very significant was the equal participation by students for whom English was a second language. They could reread the online discussion as many times as needed before replying. The computer-based activity monitoring and transcripts, electronic recordings of the discussions, showed that foreign students spent two to three times more in a reading mode and reread many discussions far more often than the American students.
In addition, professors now have the ability to monitor activities and review the electronic transcripts of student involvement, which gives the instructor insights into how students are learning. By reviewing the transcripts of the online discussions, it becomes obvious what and how students are learning. For courses with a high pragmatic content, such as upper-level and graduate courses in topics like the design and management of computer applications, students are required to utilize problem-solving approaches to evaluate the trade-offs between conflicting objectives. In a traditional classroom environment, especially in large classes, it is very difficult to detect whether students are accurately incorporating the problem-solving mental models that the instructor is attempting to convey. When instructors review the transcripts of class discussions, they are given insights into the approaches students are taking to master the material. Unfortunately, in the early 1980s few wanted to hear about a revolution in normal classroom teaching or were willing to expend the effort to dramatically improve classroom education. It was only the rise of distance education that generated interest in learning about the educational potential of the technology.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Synchronous Group Communication Technologies: Technologies that allow real-time, interactive communications and require participants to be online simultaneously.
Distributed Learning: Learning situations in which the students and instructor are located in different localities; a bit broader than distance education, as it can be used to refer to both education and training.
Pen name signatures: Names participants choose for online participation that may or may not allow other participants to identify them.
E-Learning: The use of technology to assist in the educational process. It is often used to refer to learning situations (both education and training) in which the students and instructor are located in different localities. However, the instructor and teacher can be in close proximity.
Distance Education: Learning situations in which the students and instructor are located in different localities at least for a portion of the class.
Asynchronous Group Communication Technologies: Technology that allows participants to send and respond to messages without being online simultaneously.
E-Learning Technologies: The technologies used for e-learning.