An overview and benefits of Distance Learning

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The traditional classroom or on-campus teaching and learning method incorporates a face to face study setting, where the students and the trainers are physically present at the same place, same time with considerable real time interaction taking place.

What is Distance Learning / Education?

This is the type of education taking place when the teacher and the learner are separated by a physical distance, time or both. Technological means are used to bridge the gap between the student and the teacher. When compared with traditional face to face teaching and learning, there are a number of differences observed in this mode, and therefore the pedagogical approaches and the instructional system design are also needed to be changed accordingly to achieve the best practices in Distance Education (DE).

The history of properly organized distance educational programs runs even up to the 18th century using printed material (2)

What are the major characteristics of DE?

In a traditional face to face setting, the teaching and the learning occurs as a synchronous process whereas in the DE setting, it could be either synchronous or asynchronous. Hence, according to the technologies used to bridge the gap, the DE is broadly divided into two groups viz. synchronous and asynchronous.

The conventional printed materials, audio-cassettes and the newer technologies such as email, voice-mail and on-demand streaming are few of the examples for asynchronous technologies where the participants access their course material on their own time table.

The web-based VoIP, video conferencing, web conferencing, live streaming, telephony etc. are examples for synchronous technologies where all the participants should be present at the same time though they are physically apart.

It is very important to understand that what matters most is not the instructional medium but what the instructional outcome is. Therefore a careful selection of the most appropriate media while considering the advantages and disadvantages of each of them is a major determinant of the success of an online course. Rather than using a single medium, a mixture of various media maybe more effective for a successful DE program.

In a DE program, the curriculum as well as the teaching / learning process should adopt different strategies to overcome existing barriers between the teacher and the learner. It basically means that all the steps in a teaching/learning process, viz. the mode of delivery, teaching strategies, learning strategies, instructional material design, assessment and the evaluation etc. should be adapted to suit the DE.

For an effective DE program, different teaching strategies may have to be adopted. In a traditional face to face setting, teachers could monitor the efficiency of teaching /learning process by the students' activities, behaviours and body language etc whereas in DE it may be an extremely difficult task. Therefore, the educators should realize the value of prompt and adequate feedback as well as the guidance by means of effective communication methods such as emails, telephony, video conferencing and chatting etc.

With regard to the mode of delivery, 4 main types of technologies are used in DE viz. audio, video, data and print. The main advantage of using audio, video and data tools is the ability to use them synchronously with a greater degree of interactivity and real-time accessibility. The print material, which is the pioneer instructional material in DE, is an asynchronous delivery technique. It may used in the forms of text books, course syllabi and study guides. The easy usability, transparency of the instructional material, easy reference and the non-threatening nature of the instruction are few of the advantages of the print.

It is very important to design and deliver content effectively in a DE program so as to suit students' capabilities. Attention should be specially paid to the delivery technologies and the different communication styles.

In a DE setting, the learner is isolated with lesser competition from fellow students and less interaction with teachers, therefore the motivation of the online learner is a key factor. The importance of reflection should be emphasized on self motivation and the learning process etc.

Usually the distant learner is an older, working individual with family commitments and other responsibilities. Therefore the students should be educated regarding the appropriate learning strategies.

Morgan (3) suggests that distant learners are not clear about their learning experiences so that they tend to be engaged in superficial learning rather than deep learning. Hence teachers and learners should clearly understand the importance of learning process, outcomes and goals.

The design, development, evaluation and the revision of the instructional material should be done carefully to suit the students' and the teachers' background.

Since the participants may consist of a broad mix of students with different characteristics such as their needs, ages, cultural backgrounds and educational levels etc, the students' standard should be carefully analyzed before designing the DE course.

The assessment of the students may be very difficult in a DE program because of the gap between the teacher and the student. In a face to face setting, the teacher could use the techniques such as direct questioning, listening g to the student's questions and comments and the facial expressions etc. to assess the student. In the absence of these techniques, a distant educator has to implement various other techniques, for instance, quizzes, online assessments, chatting, MCQs and assignments to overcome this difficulty.

Discuss the features of 'online learning' and its use in a Medical Education setting.

The "online learning" is the computer and network-enabled transfer of knowledge and skills (4). It is usually asynchronous and offers the teachers and learners a vast number of benefits.

In this modern era, the online learning is the most prominent mode of distance education, in which the multimedia-rich content is delivered using the features and tools pertaining to the internet / intranet environment.

Discussed below are some of the features of an online learning program:

There are 4 key elements in a successful online program (5) .

The students

Online programs are more suitable for the working, older students who have family commitments and live long distances from an on-site campus. The student should be a mature, self-motivated person with written communication skills and a minimum level of competence in technology. Therefore, the students should be well informed and educated prior to the commencement of the course regarding the importance of communication skills and the ability to work collaboratively.

The curriculum

When compared to the traditional face-to-face setting, an online course also should achieve the same teaching and the learning outcomes. It is more often a challenging task to develop a sound curriculum while applying all the educational concepts to an online-curriculum.

The course should be comprehensive enough to replace the traditional face -to-face setting.

Adoption of an appropriate format (e.g. hypertext format) for each and every topic would encourage a learner controlled self-directed information gathering with the freedom for exploration without being confined to the lecturers' notes (6).

It is more appropriate to develop an online program on a short-term modular structure with clear dead-lines while enhancing the collaborative nature of online learning.

The assignments should be clear and less complex and the feedback should be prompt and comprehensive for optimal learning.

The application of knowledge to real world and the critical thinking should be encouraged with building up of new knowledge and the skills.

The objectives should be clear and achievable using the appropriate technologies.

The curriculum should facilitate the collaborative learning with student-student and the student-teacher interaction while assuring a friendly virtual learning environment. It is important to design the curriculum with application of the Social Constructivism theory which is more suitable for an online learning setting.

The facilitator

The role of a trained facilitator is very influential for the success of a course. He should know how to integrate life experience, communication, professionalism and content into the learning environment. The students should be encouraged to learn actively and preferably collaboratively with a self-directed approach. As suggested by Hiltz (7), the online discussion is a vital component of active online learning which is important for students' reflection. The educators should effectively deliver the course content while monitoring the learning process, providing necessary feedback, assessing and facilitating the teaching / learning process.

The technology

The most appropriate technology should be selected based on the needs and the objectives of the program. It should be user friendly, easily accessible, affordable and reliable. The changing nature of the technology may be a limitation for online courses and the designers have to focus on to this aspect when the sustainability of a DE program is considered. The course administrators have to be confident that the technical issues are not going to interfere with the learning process.

There are certain advantages of an online learning environment.

It offers greater flexibility (8) in time and place to the students as well as to the teachers. They can obtain their education according to their own schedule (9) and can do it from the comfort of their own home/university or even on the go. Therefore we could reduce the number of teaching staff while recruiting more students than otherwise.

Students or the teachers don't have to travel long distances. It saves time, money, effort and the environment.

Apart from the initial comparatively higher expenditure on planning and developing the course, the maintenance costs are usually low. Therefore it is more economical.

Most of the modern online platforms have important functionalities such as tracking students' progress and presenting course contents, promoting student-student and student-teacher interactions and delivering self-directed learning including assessments and feedbacks (10).

The use of new technologies for course delivery will itself attract more students (11) .

The use of online learning in medical education:

As discussed above, an online learning setting demonstrates the advantages such as flexibility of content delivery and retrieval by the teachers and the learners, cost-effectiveness in the maintenance phase of a course and suitability in the pedagogical approach etc.

Even though an educational program could be entirely conducted as an online course, a blended learning setting would be more practical and appropriate in most of the instances.

In the field of medical education, the above positive features could be utilized effectively to achieve the educational outcomes and goals in various levels of educational programs. E.g.:

In an undergraduate medical education curriculum, online learning material could be used as an adjunct to the lectures, self-instruction material or as a platform for collaboration.

In a graduate medical education program, a busy medical officer or a post-graduate trainee could be offered certain lectures or other asynchronous instructional material online, so that he could access them according to his own time schedule.

In continuous medical educational programs, the medical practitioners could be offered the training through online learning techniques.

High fidelity eLearning materials such as virtual patient simulations, applications such as Second LifeĀ® could be incorporated in to the field of medical education.

Adaptive learning, which is the best learner centered learning approach, could be encouraged using online learning.

Describe 'web 2.0' features incorporated in the Moodle platform.

What is web 2.0?

Web 2.0 is a term associated with web applications which facilitate designing and development through Interactive information sharing, interoperability, and user centered design and collaborations on the WWW.

Web 2.0 is based on certain principles:

The content is user generated and produced individually.

It promotes collaborative learning as well as working with a higher level of interaction between the users.

Therefore the architecture is designed to enhance participation.

It also allows networking with various individuals and groups.

It is very helpful for the research purposes.

With the emergence of the web 2.0, the concept of "Education 2.0" was also described. It incorporates the relevant web 2.0 applications in to the field of education.

What is Moodle?

MOODLE (abbreviation for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment)) is a Learning management system or a Virtual Learning Environment which is used as an online teaching/learning platform. It is a free and an open source application. It has the advantage of being guided by the "social constructivist learning" philosophy where the learners interact and collaborate to construct new knowledge as they interact with their environment. This pedagogy also accommodates different types of learners and is on par with the Web 2.0 education.

Here are some of the web 2.0 features which are incorporated in the Moodle platform.

Blogs - a blog is a system that allows a single author to write and publicly display time-ordered posts, on to which the readers can add comments. Blogs can be integrated into Moodle so that the users can share their views and information, build up knowledge and deliver news, course announcements and feedback.

Wiki - is a system that allows one or more people to build up a corpus of knowledge in a set of interlinked web pages. This offers the collaborative nature for the Moodle platform.

Pod casts are used to integrate audio streams into the Moodle application. For instance, these could be used to provide introductory audio material before lectures or even used as lecture materials.

Video streaming could be used to add videos as the learning materials, for example, a lab procedure could be found in a Moodle program before it is being taught.

Social networking, tagging or mesh up technologies - these are powerful technologies in web 2.0 for interactive information sharing.

In the future, it would be reasonable to assume that Moodle will largely cater to the growing demand of online learning with social interactions and web 2.0 would be the basis for many of such technologies.