Challenging Learners In Distance Learning Education Essay

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INTRODUCTION

The supply of online program is increasing nowadays. Many higher education institutions across the country are increasingly developing online program courses that were once only available in a face-to-face setting. Allen and Seaman (2008) reported that in 2007, 3.94 million students enrolled in at least one online course, an increase of 12.9 percent over the previous year. Between 2006 and 2007 there was a 12.9 percent growth rate for online enrolments. Private universities in America have been slower to implement online courses than public universities when comparing a total of 2,500 universities currently offering online learning programs. This case is true at Universitas Terbuka (Open University/UT) in Indonesia, where there is an increasing trend in the number of online courses and programs being offered. This increase in online course offerings is designed to meet the changing needs of its students. Most of them are working full time.

Lecturers teaching online courses face some problems. One of the main problems is determining how to effectively engage and challenge students in an online course format. Courses that are delivered online usually have the same objectives and student learning outcomes, and should aim to engage and challenge students in meaningful learning experiences similar to their face-to-face equivalents. I believe we can effectively challenge and engage these students through primarily interactive approaches in online teaching that are possible through the use of online technologies. In this essay, I will outline the efforts to engage and challenge students in an online course based on my philosophy of education. Firstly, I review my educational experiences in higher education. Secondly, I describe how to engage and challenge students in online courses. The gaps between teachers and students in distance learning are described afterward. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of the methods used for engaging and challenging students.

Study Abroad: The Transformative Experience

I completed a well-guarded childhood in the direction of my brothers and sisters, sheltered by loving parents, disconnected from my mother's affection, led by the authority of my father, brought up with a regard for truth and, independently, for achievement and reliability. I never thought I would end up studying education. In fact, this possibility was not even considered. At first, I was interested in medicine or information technology areas but then I discovered animal science as my choice. I started to teach my juniors in my undergraduate period. I was a teaching assistant of animal production and animal reproduction at that time. I enjoyed it very much. The experience I had with my juniors was very pleasant to me because I found a strong connection between my juniors and me. I wanted to make the students enjoy their classroom instead of being afraid of it. The most important thing of all is I want to be a teacher because a teacher leaves a good mark in a student's life.

Graduate study, on the other hand, is full of diversity. I have people of all backgrounds and abilities in my biotechnology classes, and I have been fortunate enough to meet quite a few of them. I completed a Masters degree in biotechnology studies from Flinders University of South Australia in 2007. This experience provides me with wonderful personal, academic and career benefits.

Now I am studying in faculty of education at Simon Fraser University to pursue my Ph.D. I am interested in one of the courses that is delivered in an online model via Dialogue Central. It is a set of accessories to supplement the face-to-face course. The online class seemed daunting at first, but the individual attention from the supervisor and lecturer at Simon Fraser University really made this an enjoyable alternative to engage with my class. As a professional educator for the last 10 years, I understand how valuable good instruction is for students and I found it here online -a rigorous and challenging program that enables me to delve into a course of personal interest and professional growth.

BASIC PRINCIPLES IN MY TEACHING

Basically I love to engage and challenge my students.  Coates (2005) defined engagement as "the extent to which students are actively involved in a variety of educational activities that are likely to lead to high quality learning" (p.26). In addition, Coates modified the term of engagement, based on the definition of many researchers, as "the quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes" (Coates, 2006 p.4). In this paper, I define the engagement as a conscious effort from the students to gain knowledge and experience (academic and non academic) from the learning process. Students and I should mutually engage each other to produce high quality learning process. I should not only engage with my students but also should engage with my society and the environment and vice versa. The learning environment, including an online learning environment, encompasses the systems and dynamics that facilitate and enable student engagement (Coates, 2006). It is reasonable to assume that the learning environment will have an influence on how students engage with their learning. Vygotsky (1978) symbolize the relation between the person and the society as "like a river and its tributaries, combines and separates the different element of human life" (p.126). He believes that this relation forms a dialectical process. Furthermore, Wenger (1999) mentions that mutual engagement represents the idea of encouraging diversity, specialization and different relations among the members.

Factors affecting the student's engagement is internally derived from the motivation to learn as shown by perseverance and externally derived from the encouragement of family and community. Based on my experience, there is a very close relationship between student's engagements and social factors. By understanding the positive effects on student's engagement is closely related to efforts to increase students' motivation to learn by themselves. It is true that students' motivation is not solely determined by the understanding of the course, but also influenced by other aspects of the personal nature of the student.

The most important part of my role as a lecturer is my relationship with students. It is obvious that it is impossible to have some universal approach to each student since each student is an independent individuality with his or her own needs, interests, and potential. I teach many subjects in distance learning model in Open University of Indonesia. My experience at undergraduate levels has shown me that students do not engage well in an online classroom because many limitations, for example: lack of traditional contact between teacher and students and the technological illiteracy.  To understand and learn my students' limitations, to find out how to help them overcome those limitations, so I engage my students. 

I am realizing that online discussions with fellow students and the instructor is the central to the learning process. I challenge student to develop technique to promote their learning experience and success. I challenge my students to stay motivated in online class so they can study independently. Students` motivation is beneficial asset to their online learning process and learning experience. Another strategy to challenge the students is to make connection with their peers. They can receive and provide support for each other. It also supports a sense of being a learner not being a user of technology. Citing the opinion of Paulo Freire, a true human nature is to be the perpetrator or the subject, not the patient or object. I respect my students as a subject of learning not an object.

To promote the engagement process, I must present not only synchronously and asynchronously; but also emotionally and socially in the online class. Garrison and Anderson (2003) defined social presence as "the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, as real people through the medium of communication being used". According to Garrison and Anderson (2003), the formation of community requires a sense of social presence among participants. As they state, "it is inconceivable to think that one could create a community without some degree of social presence" (p. 49). The advantages of social presence are supported by many authors, for example: to promote collaborative learning (Gunawardena, 1995), a significant factor in improving instructional effectiveness (Tu, 2002) and to encourage learning satisfaction (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997). Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) also reported, social presence is a strong predictor of satisfaction with computer-mediated conferencing environment. They also mentioned that "social presence" is as a predictor of overall learner satisfaction in a text-based medium.

THE CHALLENGES OF TEACHING IN DISTANCE LEARNING

To get my students present, I employ interactivity and I use various media.  Because of face to face contact are gone in distance learning, it is my responsibility to create an interesting environment in which students are willing to do the work, and want to help themselves in ways they did not have in the past.  I get to challenge them, to make them think about issues they have never considered before and to improve their understanding of new subjects. 

However, I should foster mutual respect with my students. To meet this goal, it is necessary to know my students. What is important here is the necessity to know not only students learning skills and abilities but also their cultural and social background that is important for mutual understanding. This is why I need to be integrated in student's community in order to perfectly understand my students, their behavior and their motives in order to properly interpret it and adequately react. I integrate into student's community via Facebook and students' mailing list. This social network helps me and my students engage deeply.

The cultural transmission of values was identified as one of the major functions of conventional universities. Can online learning in virtual university serve as proper vehicles for the transmission of academic values, and for the transmission of cultural values in general? A number of authors have argued that they cannot. They have argued that a profound learning experience, which includes the transmission of academic values, requires real-world settings in which people engage in face-to-face interaction. This, indeed, seems to be the feeling of many educators throughout the world.

There are also supporters who are optimistic about the possibility of transferring academic values in distance education, as well as the possibility of developing genuine apprenticeship relations and building genuine academic communities. Distance learning can transfer academic values, if the environment of online learning is place in the right way by faculty members and administrators. I believe that a collaborative learning can enhance the academic value transfer. In my opinion, transferring academic value should therefore be considered an integral part of the development of online learning, and should indeed be a recurring activity within universities themselves.

CLOSING THE GAP

Distance and time of teachers and learners is separated in online learning. The bridge between teachers and students is mediated by technology. In addition, online environments lack a number of direct communication features between teachers and students which results in the difficulty to assess and understand needs and feelings of all concerned. Another gap between student and student is teacher's teaching style. Some facilitators do not facilitate interactions between students in their course and some of them encourage student to interact using dialogue central. Another equally important factor is the learner factor. Some students like to go to mailing list and interact with other students, while others like to keep silent.

I consider students as the providers of information and vice versa. I integrate technology into my classrooms. I teach my students how to use information as a means for learning knowledge and not an end user. They use technology as a complement to learn themselves and the environment. Teaching with technology is a hard work.  If the goal is to communicate something meaningful, then any technology I use must also be meaningful.  My varied experience has given me many opportunities to teach with and through technology.

Of course, technology will be a problem if we cannot master on it. Teaching online is teaching with and through technology, and building a successful online class relies on the teacher's ability to advance in technology. The bottom line is that technology can help me or trouble me in the classroom.  For me, as an online facilitator, technology is my medium.  Without the thoughtful employment of technology, we neither engage nor challenge our students. Technology will be meaningless. Dreyfus's view (2002) that meaning requires commitment and real commitment requires real risks. According to Dreyfus, anonymity and safety of virtual commitments online lead to loss of meaning. He shows how the Internet ignores essential human capacities such as trust, moods, risk, shared local concerns and commitment. So, I will use technology wisely.

I teach by dialogue as I encourage my students to participate and share their ideas with me and their peers.  I think it is very important for learners to express themselves to others in order to grow and develop their thought. In order to overcome the passive learning of my students, I use many supportive and polite words to motivate my students as they struggle to open up and express their views. It is not easy for them to organize and share their ideas and feelings with their facilitator or even with their classmates. I believe in discussions they will develop better understanding on how to cope with difficulties and obstacles. To learn about the self and the environment is what I attempt for in my classes. I strongly believe that knowing ourselves is the mother of knowledge. I believe each of students has many selves that their peers need to learn about so students can utilize each other to help their colleagues solve learning problems. I suggest my students to observe themselves and their peers by online conversation. My experiences as an online tutor have helped me understand the importance of professional development and have given me tools to use in my classes. Professional development has become increasingly important as a way to ensure that teachers succeed in matching their teaching goals with their students' needs (Helleve, 2010).

Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2002) has presented an extensive argument against distance education as a means for transferring values. He argues that education centrally involves the transmission of skills and a process by which educator fosters commitments in their students and stimulate them to develop strong identities. He then argues that such skills, commitments and identities cannot adequately be transferred in distance education since they require bodily presence and localized interactions between students and teachers. This requires a relation of apprenticeship, which according to Dreyfus cannot be attained on-line.

Only by working closely with students in a shared situation in the real world can teachers with strong identities ready to take risks to preserve their commitments pass on their passion and skill so their students can turn information into knowledge and practical wisdom. (p. 377).

I disagree with Dreyfus. The advance of technology can help transferring values. For example, we can use computer simulation. It provides a method for checking our understanding of the real world by modeling a real environment. They facilitate "interactive practice" of real-world skills by focusing on essential elements of a real problem or system (Heinich, Molenda, Russell & Smaldino, 2002).

I support the Freire's concept that the students should no longer be the passive recipient of information but they should in fact be actively involved in constructing knowledge. Jonnasen (1996) argued that the technology should be used as a tool to learn with as opposed to using it as a teaching tool to learn from. This requires students to be in the center of learning while designing artefacts or manipulating information with technological tools. Jonnasen (1996) refers to computer conferencing as a "mindtool" that prompts a larger amount of reflection and analytical thinking while still connecting learners. "Mindtools" to engage students in constructivist activities that support critical thinking and problem solving instead of teaching for memorization (Jonassen, 2002). Mishra & Koehler (2006) further suggested that for an effective technology integration to occur in the classroom, teachers need to posses the knowledge of content, pedagogy, and technology.

According to Jonassen (2006), models are products of mindtools that enable the learner to externalize, through visual representation, their mental abstraction of a construct (its components and their interrelationships). He states that "If you cannot build a model of what you think you know, then you do not really know it" (p. xiv). Jonassen uses nine different types of software (databases, spreadsheets, concept maps, expert systems, systems modeling tools, simulations, visualization tools, hypermedia, and electronic conferencing) to demonstrate how learners can model what they know. He proposes that through the process of model building with these tools, learners will externalize their conceptions, reveal their misconceptions, and thus lead to conceptual change.

Engaging adult learner in online environment is a challenge regardless of the social status of the students. They are too old and too independent to follow facilitator's demands. To engage effectively, I encourage students' mutual understanding of what it takes to learn and confidence in their capacity to succeed in distance learning by providing clear instruction and support for meeting optimum standards. The curriculum provided by UT should be relevant to adult learners' experiences, cultures and long term goals, so they can see some value in what they are doing in their education. It is my task to interpret the curriculum so that they can obtain valuable knowledge.

Even though I can only engage cognitively, I believe that someday lecturers can engage behaviourally and emotionally with the students. With the advance of technology and the support of sophisticated infrastructure, behaviour and emotional engagement will be present. To face these engagements, lecturers should ready to upgrade their skills and to develop their professionalism. As I said before that teachers' professional development is needed to fulfill students' need. Upgrading and developing skills in technology is a must for teachers to meet students' demands and to provide better standard of online learning.

CONCLUSION

I feel that my past education experiences are invaluable in creating and maintaining my educational philosophy.  My educational background is varied and interdisciplinary. My educational philosophy is constantly being updated with the ever changing dynamics of student needs.  My main goal is to provide a safe and supported environment that is both engaging and challenging to the students all the while imparting a quest for knowledge and productivity into the future. Engaging and challenging students in distance learning is my most important concern. The most important impact that this philosophy will have on my teaching practice is that the distance learning students will experience greater success because of it.

I need to be responsible as a collaborative planner, communicator and facilitator in my distance education roles. I always try to close the gaps between teachers-students and between students in online learning. Closing the gaps can break down communicational barriers and overcome limitations in the technology and its implementation.

The hesitation of ability of transferring value in distance education will be overcome by the advanced of technology. The technology will provide a virtual environment to students that promotes understanding of the real world by modeling the structure and dynamics of a conceptual system or a real environment.

It is clearly evident in this paper that interactions and social presence are critical for enhancing motivation, communication, and a diverse range of skills and intellectual development in the distance educational process. Obstacles that might come up are the availability and reliability of the teachers. It will be very time-consuming to interact with every student, especially with large number of students. Therefore, it needs a mutual understanding between teachers and students.

In my point of view, the more time and effort students dedicate to, the more deeply engaged and the more internally motivated they are in interactive activities that promote learning, the more and better they learn and the more likely they are to persist and succeed.

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