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Distance Learning

Education is one of the key pillars on which our society is built. This is because education is seen as the ticket to a better job and a better life. It is the key to unlocking a bright future which would otherwise be closed to those who do not have the right skills and knowledge. Of course there are exceptions to the rule as with anything. Notable ones include Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the technology titans who did not complete their college careers, but went on to build Microsoft & Apple! But that does not apply to the vast majority of us who need to take a more traditional route to find their place in this ever complex and changing society. And yet finding the right route to education is sometimes complicated by social status, financial background and even geographical location. In earlier times such things would be limiting factors that in many cases could not be surmounted. However today with the advent of modern telecommunications and the internet we are now seeing innovative solutions emerge for education delivery that are breaking down previously strong barriers. This has resulted in the development of the field of Distance Learning, or the concept of delivery of educational courses remotely to a variety of students without them having to be in the same physical classroom as the teacher. Technology is helping to create a new class of students where before there could be none, irrespective of their social and financial status, location or ability. In this article we will explore the background, evolution and challenges ahead for this remarkable method of learning.

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The Evolution

Traditionally education has been viewed as a service to be delivered by a teacher to a student in a defined location following an approved curriculum. Until the late 20th century this has been the model that has always been followed and was seen as the only way to seek an education whether in primary or high school, graduate or post graduate and even in vocational training programs. This began to change first with the amazing developments in the telecommunications industry. When it started we only had the telephone and ability to talk point to point via voice. The first evolutionary step occurred with improvements in technology and further innovation that saw the transmission of not only voice, but data and video over telecommunication networks. We could not only listen to other people, but see them, start interacting with them in real-time and share information. Video conferencing in a business and government setting began developing as a more common interface to complement the telephone, and this gave rise to the idea of delivering training and courses live and remotely. However while the technology had developed, the costs were still prohibitive as video conferencing was not something that could be used on a mass scale for the common man. Telecommunication companies still charged way too much to make it financially feasible. Additionally you still had restrictions on where these video based networks could be accessed and in many cases it was still point to point, meaning that even though you were transmitting remotely this could only be done between certain locations which was a major limiting factor. Therefore distance learning was still restricted to a few, even though there were attempts to expand it. The full potential for this would have to wait until technology could provide another development that could make this available on a more of a mass scale.

This occurred with the second evolutionary step which was the advent of the internet. It saw the development of a vast, open network of computers and people that could connect, share and interact “online” in real-time, by leveraging the telecommunications networks already in place. People no longer had to be limited by where they were located to connect remotely with others. The expanding and inclusive nature of the technology meant that internet access points started becoming as ubiquitous as the electric power point was. The explosive user growth and connections in this field, coupled with another series of technology innovations that included high speed networks and higher bandwidth for transmission of large amounts of data, voice and video brought the financial cost of streaming live video and voice through the internet to levels in line with mass scale application. For the first time it was possible to conduct meetings, seminars, discussions and yes training and educational courses remotely, in real-time, in a financially feasible manner from almost any location. So with the technology in place and ever improving, costs reducing with mass scale implementation with higher bandwidth and quality, it was only a matter of time before Distance Learning become a full fledged educational delivery model. The thirst for knowledge and improvement provided the impetus to start building curriculums that took into account this evolving distance model. From both a social and business perspective this opened up a field of innovation that could simultaneously work towards the betterment of society, and at the same time lead to the development of a whole range of new education delivery providers specifically catered to this evolving industry. Let us examine now some of these in more detail.

Professional Learning for Higher Studies

One of the first areas to take off in this new era was the professional courses sector. These included such things as executive training seminars, graduate level courses, language training and technical trainings. The concept used here was real-time connection between the instructor and groups of students located at different places. All were provided with internet connected computers and each location could access live streaming video from all the other locations. In essence you could listen to the instructor, view the slides and course material being discussed online via the computer, and interact with fellow students and the instructor to debate and query each other. So basically all the major features of a class room exercise without being in the same physical location. The main advantages of this model are clear. The first being that the educational or training institutes can access a larger pool of students without multiple physical locations, as well as having digitized course materials shared, which reduces operational costs while simultaneously making it more profitable for them. The second point is the benefit for the students. Travel and location costs no longer need to be a limiting factor for them. As long as they have a high speed internet connection which is quite low in cost these days, accessing a relevant course is as easy as paying the fee and signing up. People may question the effectiveness of such a delivery model, but it has been shown that the education imparted is of a similar if not greater quality to a normal class delivery, and the students’ retention and involvement is not significantly impacted. A large number of universities are now transitioning a number of their courses to this model as they have seen the effectiveness. A number of degree programs are now offering a mixture of distance learning and on-site education to reduce costs and attract more students. Growth in this field has been amazing and one of the prime examples of this is Coursera. It is an online educational platform that delivers courses on a variety of subjects from top institutions including the Ivy League, and many of them are for free. This is one more way to share and grow knowledge!

Primary School Education in the Third World

Another area that has begun developing is the long neglected primary school sector. This is the fundamental building block of the educational system from which students are nurtured to learn and grow, while they transition to more advanced studies later. However this is one sector that has often resisted change. The idea of distance learning being applied here is difficult to accept especially in the Third World, as many argue that children being of a young age need the presence of an instructor in order to learn and be motivated. If you focus on the poorer countries you will see that many educational facilities lack basic infrastructure, dedicated teaching and have overcrowded classrooms. It is common to believe this is an area that cannot be touched by the evolution in distance learning. In fact studies have shown this thinking is outdated and even obsolete and a number of NGOs and Charities have been working on innovative solutions to prove just that. Let me give you an example. High speed internet access need not be only available from a fixed line network. It can also be accessed through mobile networks as well. One NGO has been connecting various villages without effective schooling with Mobile Internet connections which are solar powered and are cheap to procure and install. They have negotiated with the local and state governments to subsidize the cost and hooked these connections with a central training location in a major city. At the village location a basic facility has been setup together with a donated computer and projection system sponsored by a major corporate house. A local village representative is trained in its use and the village council is paid a monthly stipend to maintain and secure the equipment. At the time of the classes children are asked to meet at this location and watch the classes in real-time with the instructor interacting with them. The advantages to this are that you have access to a pool of experienced teachers who can impart education to multiple locations, and thereby reduce the focus on quantity of teachers and instead focus on the quality. Students can get a basic education at the place where they live which is subsidized by the government and industry, resulting in parents being more likely to send them as they know they are close by. The standard of the education imparted is of a greater quality and the level of attendance and retention is much higher. Of course you still need a teacher to visit for things such as evaluations and tests, but one begins to think as technology advances a solution may be found for this as well.

Medical Training

Another fine example is in the field of healthcare. As we all know healthcare costs are exploding as our population grows and ages. Lifestyle and environment based illnesses are growing, while at the same time common injuries and surgical procedures need a similar level of attention. The training of healthcare professionals whether they are in nursing, emergency care or surgery requires many years of study and experience. Here again distance learning has provided a unique way to enhance this process by linking these professionals with experts in their field. Let me give you some examples. We can begin by taking the case of surgery which is complex and specialized, with a focus on different parts of the body. We all know that study in this field covers a certain amount of course study, as well as an amount of live experience interning in a medical facility. This is where the innovation in distance learning is helping. Surgical trainees can now watch surgeries live at a variety of medical facilities on line being done by experts in their fields. This complements their studies as well as gives them real-life exposure to the methods and procedures practiced by the best in the field. Another application is in the area of consulting where new health care professionals need reference and guidance from experienced practitioners. A network of doctors has formed an online panel of experts that are accessible for such advice and learning in different medical fields. This is a service that is beginning to be provided at major medical institutes because the collaborative and learning nature of these forums has led to improvement in medical delivery, as well as streamlined diagnosis and treatments. Finally in the field of Mental Health it is common to learn about various conditions, but it is seldom common to view them in live situations. Again this is being provided on a trial basis in which interning mental health professional are able to view a number of subjects in different locations under the treatment of experienced doctors. Real-life exposure to such cases provides a great value to students in their own studies, and as this service grows it will greatly enhance the services of mental health professionals. As you can see there are many ways distance learning is addressing the needs of the medical fraternity and it is clear that this will only grow in the future.

The Transformation

Thus from the above examples and discussion it is clear that distance learning is providing a variety of options to society to enhance and build on education. However the point to note is that distance learning incorporates two separate but intertwined concepts, which are the education itself and the delivery model. The innovation that distance learning brings to our world is the freeing of the delivery model from its physical constraints, and providing students regardless of their background or field of study, full access to the training they need wherever it may be. The future of this field is debated endlessly but there are two major trends that we can see developing. The first of these is that education is moving away gradually from a physically located service to a digitally provided service. It is predicted in the next 50 years we will see a greater portion of education and training imparted by distance learning rather than onsite learning. The second point is that with the explosive growth of the internet and the falling costs of bandwidth and storage, we will see the growth of large databases of online on-demand training being developed which will encompass both expert and general fields to complement real-life instructor based training. You can view this as a digitized encyclopedic reference that can be accessed worldwide, on line. Distance Learning will soon be referred to Online Learning as more of us transition to this model and accept this as the standard. In terms of innovation this can only be viewed as the next step in the evolution of our educational system. One that we can be sure will be seen as a step for the betterment of us all.

The Challenges

However while it is good to be positive on these trends it is also worth pointing out that innovation always faces resistance. One of the fundamental outcomes of this change in the educational delivery model is that many of the old structures of the educational establishment will have to change. First and foremost is that teaching has to become more specialized and quality based. In the past when physical locations demanded a large pool of teachers from which to draw on, it was common to find many wanting in their capabilities. This will have to change as teaching authorities will need to focus on improving the qualifications and capabilities of their teachers, who may be required to teach in locations mostly remote from where they are resident. Another challenge to be addressed is the issue of fraud and regulation of online education providers. For every valid provider there will be several that are focused not on the quality of the teaching or their courses, but on the number of students they can enroll. There will need to be a regulator for these online education providers just as we have for our physically located institutes. A certification mechanism will need to be instituted so potential students and organizations can confirm the capabilities and experience of potential providers. There is also the challenge of providing distance learning in poorer societies for which government authorities will need to reorient the goals of the public education system. Too often we find governments too slow to react to change and see education authorities get bogged down in bureaucratic inertia and rules. Rather a fundamental review of education delivery should be encouraged with the goal of leveraging the benefits that the new delivery model of distance learning brings to school going children and future generations. NGOs and Education lobby groups should actively seek positive public change in this arena. Finally curriculums will need to be revised to reflect this evolving reality and they will need to take into account distance or online training as part of their deliverables. Too often it has been said that lack of teachers, or the quality of teachers and teaching methods often mean sub-standard teaching is accepted as the lesser evil rather than no education at all. If societies have to realize the full potential of their populations regardless of their social strata, then curriculums need to be revised to reflect the reality of being able to access a highly skilled pool of teaching resources that can be accessed remotely and cost-effectively for the benefit of all. These are some of foremost challenges that are faced in the field of distance learning as it is found that innovation often happens faster than the ability of our society and its structures to adapt. If we are to make full use of the potential of distance learning both the private and public sectors along with educational authorities and service providers need to work together to address these issues. Their aim should be that of a stronger, more inclusive teaching methodology that instead of focusing on location and structure is focused on learning, curriculum development and effective delivery through distance learning for the betterment of future generations of students at all levels.

Conclusion

From its beginning as a byproduct of technological innovations, to its establishment as a viable educational alternative, and finally its transformation into a full scale educational platform for the future, it is difficult not to be enthusiastic about the future this concept of distance learning brings to our society. As I mentioned there are many challenges but the potential offered is much more than that. Each step of human innovation has been accompanied by a leap in our knowledge and this can be seen as one more of those steps in this journey. Those that take these changes positively and move forward to address this proactively will ensure that the next generations will be trained for a more innovative future. Those who do not address it will see themselves starting to be left behind. We need to build on the promise of Distance Learning through the technological innovation that is driving it, to leverage its full potential. This is a unique opportunity so let us not miss it.

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