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Computer is the most useful tool not only in the business world but also in the educational area. The environment of the computer, Information and Communication Technology has been vital part of learning and through the Internet; the students can learn to build up not only their learning skill but gathering additional knowledge and skills. Promoting the interaction of the technology in education the development of the Virtual learning or Technology enhanced Learning is introduced. Since the Internet's inception, continual advancements have changed the way in which people live, work, and communicate.
1.2 Problem Statement
Many universities in the world adopt technology enhanced learning in order to improve and expand learning opportunities. In this regard technology as the main tool should be studied how it works in order to understand how it can help the learning process. One of the many classes of technology enhanced learning is called e-learning. In this setting "e" stands for electronic that tends to represent the technology as mediator in the learning process. E-Learning has been defined by various authors in different ways. For example one of the definitions is "E-learning system is defined as the entire technological, organizational and management system that facilitated and enables students learning via the internet" (Levy & Murphy, 2002).
In information and communication technology discussion, distance learning is of great importance as it is not only a medium but also a metaphor as well. The expanding scope of technology is reaching the under developed countries and they are now trying to get their education structure to benefit from these technologies. I strive to investigate the relationship between the impact of these technology particularly distance education with the underdeveloped countries to keep in view the Virtual University of Pakistan. The Virtual University, Pakistan's first University based completely on modern Information and Communication Technologies, was established by the Government as a public sector, not-for-profit institution with a clear mission: to provide extremely affordable world class education to aspiring students all over the country. Using free-to-air satellite television broadcasts and the Internet, the Virtual University allows students to follow its rigorous programs regardless of their physical locations. It thus aims at alleviating the lack of capacity in the existing universities while simultaneously tackling the acute shortage of qualified professors in the country. By identifying the top Professors of the country, regardless of their institutional affiliations, and requesting them to develop and deliver hand-crafted courses, the Virtual University aims at providing the very best courses to not only its own students but also to students of all other universities in the country. The University opened its virtual doors in 2002 and in a short span of time its outreach has reached over sixty cities of the country with more than a hundred associated institutions providing infrastructure support to the students. Pakistani students residing overseas in several other countries of the region are also enrolled in the University's programs.
1.3 Research question
The growing number of students in Virtual University of Pakistan and its success prompted us to study the phenomenon behind its success. They are providing the education by what factors and what is the role of ICT will be analyzed in this research. The following questions are mainly related to this research:
1- How does E-Learning Education is conducted by Virtual University of Pakistan?
2- What benefits does a virtual education system provide to the students?
The study focus on the how ICT based education system work specifically in Virtual University of Pakistan and the research is about benefits of these technologies towards the students. E-Learning teaching methods, teacher and student relationship, E-learning drawbacks, E-learning challenges, the role of organization, and finances would not be discussed. The comparison among e-learning systems of other institutes is also not discussed as there is no other such institute in Pakistan to perform such kind of comparison.
1.5 Research Objectives
This research is about virtual education, as the delivery of education by means of electronic media by making use of various techniques such as the Internet, intranet, extranet, Ethernet, teleconferencing or audio conferencing, video conferencing, cable networks, broadcast by satellites, interactive television, and CD-ROM. This research considered two objectives that fueled the entire study. First, the study attempts to understand the online education system of Virtual university of Pakistan. Second is to measure benefits of e-learning for students.
2- Chose and motivate research strategy
A research is an investigation that is conducted to explore the problems. This exploration is needed to study a group or population, identifying measurable variables, or hear silenced voices. Qualitative research begins with assumptions, a worldview, the possible use of a theoretical lens, and the study of research problems inquiring into the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problems. To study these problems, researchers use an emerging qualitative approach to inquiry, the collection of data, and analysis. The process of qualitative research consists of a flow from philosophical assumption to worldview and through a theoretical lens, and studying of social or human problems. Then a framework exists for the procedure. The goal of qualitative research is to discover patterns which emerge after close observation, careful documentation, and thoughtful analysis of the research topic (Cresswell John W.,2003).
There are a number of ways to carry out social sciences research like experiments, surveys, histories, case study, and the analysis of archival information. Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages depending on three conditions: Types of Research Questions, Investigator control over behavioural events, and the focus on contemporary as opposed to historical phenomenon. The case study is preferred strategy when "how" or "why" questions involved, investigator has control over behavioural events, and the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon. The case study method allows investigators to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real life events such as individual life cycle, organizational and managerial processes, neighbourhood change, international relations, and the maturation of industries (Yin, R.,1994).
All research strategies can be used for three purposes: exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory case studies. Although case study is a distinctive form of empirical inquiry, many researchers consider that case studies are less desirable form of inquiry than either experiments or surveys due to following reasons:
Lack of rigor of case study research.
Case has little basis for scientific generalization.
Case studies take too long and result in massive, unreadable documents.
This research plan is started by an Introduction: about impact of computer, information technology and e-learning, followed by background study and problem statement's discussion as well as an overview of Virtual University of Pakistan. Next, research questions among these issues are picked and narrowed down to the research purpose that is meant to direct the research into the specific given area. Methods: These include characterization, inductive versus deductive approaches, as well as quantitative versus qualitative studies. Moreover, validity, reliability and generalization are discussed. Theoretical Framework: This section presents theory about acquisition of learning, and is interconnected with the informatics part of the research; including ICT, e-learning and virtual education. Empirical Findings: It presents the questionairs and interviews, divided into three settings, namely teacher, student and technical staff perspectives. Analysis: The findings from the questionairs and interviews are discussed and further re- lated to the previously mentioned theories as well as to current matters on the subject as well as the aim of the research plan is to answer the research questions. Conclusion: Lastly, discussions about the quality and ethical issues of qualitaive research.
3- Chose and motivate method/s for data collection
According to Marczyk et al. (2005) "science can be defined as a methodological and systematic approach to the acquisition of new knowledge". To keep in view these findings and scientific value of a research work the method is crucial. For a successful research the first step is identification of research questions that to be answered. Moreover, based on these research questions, a set of operational variables in form of hypothesis or theoretical model should be identified. The final step for valid research is design the proper method that would in reliable way measure the changes in the identified variables in the problem statement.
When a question is asked, the answers may have different deductions on the study depending on what kind of knowledge that is pursued for. Ruane (2006), identifies the following four different knowledge categories; explorative research, descriptive research, explanatory research and evaluating research: Explorative research aims to find out a phenomenon or matter that has not yet been discovered. Descriptive research depict a more detailed description of a phenomenon that require detailed facts to provide a clear understanding of the researched field. Descriptive research usually answers a "why" and "what" question. Explanatory research explains a phenomenon and answers the "how" questions. Evaluating research directs at determining opportunities and drawbacks of a phenomenon.
For my reseach plan, three types of research can be assessed. First and foremost, apart from justifying the value of a virtual education method, the first research question in this research plan is also aiming for a clear description of e-learning and an education via Virtual Education System. Therefore, the knowledge used for the first research question is of a descriptive sort. I will ask the "why" and "what" questions when investigating the answer. The second research question deals with implications and the advantages provided through a virtual environment which requires a thorough explanation and answering "how" questions. Furthermore, the research also requires determining the value of virtual environments. Therefore, the knowledge used for the second research question is explanatory research and evaluating research, since two different aspects are covered within the same research question (i.e. explaining implications and determining or measuring the value).
In research, there are two primary research methods that determine how to go about conducting the research. These are called the inductive and the deductive research approaches. Trochim (2006) differentiates the deductive approach from the inductive approach by explaining that the "inductive reasoning works the other way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories.
My research will take on the inductive approach since the research is initiated by the empirical studies and remaining to progressing new theories based on existing studies. This research is posing questions which are expected to answered through empirical findings. Firstly, as stated in the research question, I am assuming that there are assisting tools that develop and improve the authenticity and achievement of high presence in a virtual environment. Secondly, what are the benefits of e-learning for students. As this reasearch aims to initiate through empirical studies, an inductive approach can be seen as most suited for this kind of research.
Specifically, this research will use a qualitative method and there are several justifications for this. The qualitative method was chosen as a result of expectations of the research questions. In other words, the potential types of answers were considered before choosing the type of research to be conducted. The first research question requires a qualitative answer, by asking the working procedure of e-learning system. These cannot be measured by quantity, hence, qualitative research was chosen. The second research question also requires a qualitative answer by asking significance of virtual education for students rather than to ask that how many students are availing or satisfied by virtual education.
The measurements of the factors are based on empirical research methods primarily questionnaires and interviews. According to Kazdin (2003) empirical research is usually based upon measurement. Measurement could be regarded as the base of scientific inquiry, and therefore the choice of proper measurement techniques and strategies are an essential component of research methodology (Marczyk et al. 2005). Since this research has also elements of a case study, therefore it will be very important to identify the stakeholders. The importance of identification of stakeholders is mentioned by different authors like Yin (1994) and Kazdin (1982).
With the reference to the research problem, the main stakeholders are: students, teachers, the technical staff of Virtual University of Pakistan. The students as stakeholders will provide a valuable input regarding the usefulness of using e-learning system since they are the actual users who are availing benefits of such system. Teachers are also a very important stakeholder in the process of e- learning system adoption since they will be content providers in such systems. The last one two stakeholder is technical staff who are managing this system and better now the working of e-leaning system.
Qualitative research methodology followed due to its following characteristics which will be used in this research plan:
Qualitative research methodology enables data collection through open-ended observations, interviews, documents, and all other means of data collection (phone calls, emails, scrapbooks, & other emerging forms).
Qualitative research is emergent instead of pre-described, a lot of things can emerge during research; existing questions may changed and new asked depending the scenarios of the research.
Qualitative research considers socio-cultural aspects and helps to research in very complex environment for extracting the exact required information.
Qualitative research helps in exploring information which comes through looking into individual's behavior and also characterizes the honesty and openness to research.
Qualitative research gives a large number of strategies of inquiry which help in proposal design.
4 - Chose and motivate the collection techniques - interviews etc
4.1 Data Collection
Data collection is a series of interrelated activities aimed to gather good information to answer research questions. These are locating site / individual, gaining access and making report, purposefully sampling, collecting data, recording information, resolving field issues, storing data. Data collecting is performed through many forms such as interviews, observation, documents, and audiovisual material (Cresswell John W.,2003). This research plan consists on collection of empirical data with an aim to explore Virtual University's online education system and its benefits for students. As this is an inductive research method which typically implies drawing of general conclusions based on the empirical data. In this case the focus is on two data gathering techniques: questionnaires and interviews by email and by phone. From this perspective it can be said that this is an inductive research method. Typically inductive method implies drawing of general conclusions based on the empirical data. The empirical base for inductive method will be the measurement of the stakeholders' impact in different factors for implementing e-learning. Measurement in most of the cases is regarded as fundament of the scientific inquires therefore the measurement techniques and procedures are viewed as essential component of the research method (Marczyk et al. 2005).
In this case the focus is on two data gathering techniques: questionnaires and interviews. The questions of the questionnaire are used for data collection from students. This questionnaire is designed with predefined answers and also has some open questions for general reflection. Interviews are done with teachers and technical staff. Interviews are structured which means that they will get a set of questions and they will answer. There will not be any follow up questions. The data collected in this manner potentially offers more insight concerning issues related but not limited to: pedagogical, evaluation, resource support. The scientific status of the interview does not belong to the method of natural sciences because the characterization of qualitative interviews can be scientific or unscientific depending upon the chosen definition of science. In qualitative interview, features of understanding appear from positivism. In social sciences, positivism has entailed a philosophic bureaucracy that suppresses the subjective and social dimensions of social research. It is claimed that qualitative research interview lacks objectivity due to in particular interaction inherent in the interview situation. Qualitative research has to be regarded progressive and quantitative research as repressive. Qualitative interview is uniquely sensitive and powerful method for capturing the experiences and lived meanings of the subjunctive's everyday world. Qualitative interviews are used in today's market research to predict and control consumer behaviour (Cresswell John W.,2003).
Different forms of interviews serve different purposes: Journalistic interviews are means of recording and reporting important events in society, therapeutic interviews seek to improve debilitating situations in people's lives, and research interviews have the purpose of producing knowledge. However, there are not necessarily hard and fast distinctions between these interview forms. One form of research interview is a semi-structured life world interview. It is defined as an interview with the purpose of obtaining descriptions of the life world of the interviewee in order to interpret the meaning of the described phenomena. Qualitative interview throughout the history of psychology have been a key method for producing scientific and professional knowledge. Twelve aspects of qualitative research interviews are life world, meaning, qualitative, descriptive, specificity, deliberate naiveté, focused ambiguity, change, sensitivity, interpersonal situation, and positive experience.
When determining the interview format, there are a few different types to consider in order to justify for why the specific type was chosen. At one extreme is the structured interview, where the interviewer asks the respondent a predetermined set of questions which cannot be changed or restructured. An unstructured interview on the other hand, takes on an opposite approach. In such an interview the respondent is able to talk freely about the topic without any steering or influence from the interviewer (Teorell & Svensson, 2006). In between these two extremes is the semi-structured interview where the formulation of the questions can vary depending on the respondent.
In my research, the interview will be of a semi-structured type. This is because even though there are a set of predetermined questions to be asked, the author would like to give the respondent the chance to contribute more without restricting to the author's questions. This is because the respondent is not only experienced within the field, but there is also a possibility for the respondent to add additional comments which may contribute to the research even further. However, there is also a need of predetermined set of questions in this research, since the research is aiming for getting the research questions, which are specific, answered. In other words, the research is in need of such flexibility.
In addition, Franzén & Günes (2008) explain: "Moreover, semi-structured interviews will enable adaption to each respondent and interview setting by al- lowing us to: change formulations of the questions, reorder them, and follow up with new questions if needed. A problem with a less structured approach is the increased difficulty of carrying out the analysis due to the complexity of the information gathered (Holme & Solvang, 1997). Nonetheless, we believe the gains will be superior to this drawback."
5- Argument for case selection/informant selection
5.1 Theoretical Framework
Learning is a basic cognitive process of mental and social change over an entire lifetime (Gagne, R. M, 1965). Currently, new technologies offer the opportunity for pupils and students to communicate and interact with multi-medial learning resources and simulated environments (Holzinger, A, 2002). Consequently, technology can enhance motivation, which is a vital aspect of learning, deliver information when needed, and encourage to solve problems and satisfy curiosity. Most of all, new technologies also offer the possibility to scaffold learners through an extended process of capturing and organizing situated activities.
According to MedicineNet (2004), the term "cognitive" means "pertaining to cognition, the process of knowing and, more precisely, the process of being aware, knowing, thinking, learning and judging. 'Cognitive' comes from the Latin root 'cognoscere' meaning to become acquainted with. Cognoscere is made up of 'co-' + 'gnoscere' = to come to know". Cognitive learning proposes that it is the individual's awareness, thinking, learning and own judgment that reforms the data into a meaning, resulting into new acquired knowledge. Another, definition of cognitive learning is made by Gielen (2008), "Cognitive learning is defined as the acquisition of knowledge and skill by mental or cognitive processes, the procedures we have for manipulating information 'in our heads'. Cognitive processes include creating mental representations of physical objects and events, and other forms of information processing." Gielen (2008) emphazies that cognitive learning enables us "to create and transmit a complex culture that includes symbols, values, beliefs and norms.". According to these theories, learning is not seen as a one-way retrieval of information rather that the individual forms his/her own information by applying prior experience, information and value which makes the process of information retrieval unique to the individual.
Bondelli (2007) argues: "The traditional educational system is not very effective in actually teaching students to learn. It ignores ex- periential learning in favor of purely intellectual, which decreases the effectiveness of the learning. It is extremely dependent on standardized testing, which is not as valuable as they claim and is actually harmful to the actual education. It is authoritarian in nature, which ignores the student's input in deciding how and what they are to be taught." Commonly used tools in traditional education may include cassette/tape recorder, CD- player and video. In addition, white/blackboards, bulletin boards for announcements, e- mails and other audio devices are some of the many tools that are commonly used.
E-learning is generally related to Web 2.0, which is basically the Internet that we know of. Furthermore, e-learning opened up a new way of learning and crossed the boundaries for traditional education. Students and other users to get registration to log in and get access to the online courses, both by online and book reading, and complete assignments which are usually handed in either via e-mail or other online mediums, such as through the intranet or other internet platforms. E-learning implements technology that enables virtual university and personal learning environments. A virtual university is a university that implements online learning management systems or virtual learning environments and provides tools for virtual institute. E-learning is the main concept that includes enabler technologies implementation for both virtual university and personal learning environments. Universities and colleges are digitized by implementing ICT. The maximum extent of digital university is the virtual university, where the whole learning process is managed and maintained digitally.
5.2 Empirical Framework
The questionnaire will be conducted with students registered in any course of Virtual University of Pakistan. These students might be belong to any faculty of Virtual University of Pakistan. The questionnaire will be online on VU website for 10 to 15 days. The questionnaire will comprises on 20-25 questions which will be formulated with predefined answers. Since the questionnaire will be conducted using web based system all the questions with predefined answers will be mandatory for the students to answer.
5.2.2 Mail Interviews
This research will also be conducted interviews with technical staff and teachers. Due to geographic distances these interviews will impossible to do in person; therefore these intervies will be conducted via email and skype voice calls.
6- Chose and motivate data analysis method/s
Traditional education has been dominating for a long time, and is still dominating as an educational system in all over the world. As an alternative, e-learning came out as a result of quickly developing technology and the Internet boom triggering new business opportunities through the web. E-learning is an advance educational approach where learning is partly or solely based online through intranets and other platforms, where students and teachers communicate via e-mail, Skype or other communication mediums. Students may download the course material and exercises from the internet and complete assignments to hand in, usually through the interconnected computer environment. Besides, e-learning is independent of time and place, facilitating flexibility for distance learning. As e-learning is an advance way of learning, in other words, e-learning is an alternative way of learning. Consequently, I can say that e-learning is an enhancement of traditional learning. It is an alternative approach enabling a different way of learning using different tools to acquire knowledge and communicate.
Virtual learning reaches a little further and involves online learning, much like e-learning. However, virtual learning emerged as an alternative way of e-learning, by enabling 3D virtual environments for learning. Instead of communicating via mediums such as e-mail, Skype or MSN Messenger, virtual learning is independent of place but facilitates real-time audio communication as well as representative icons, such as avatars increasing user creativity. Likewise, with virtual learning, it is possible to attend courses and participate online digitally without physically being present. As a result, we can say that virtual learning is an improvement of e-learning. Virtual learning is the most in demand of all people in gaining knowledge and degree. Virtual learning is a computer-based study, where it involves computer-enhanced learning information and studying materials that primarily gain from computers and internet connection. This Virtual learning is not just for the students but also it is very beneficial for the elderly people and working adult who is working full time and managing a family because it could help them to quench their thirst from knowledge. Virtual learning helps students earn their degree in a very convenient way, in which they could study during their free time at their home that provides comfort to them. Through this Virtual learning, it helps the individual to enhance and improve their current career in which they can get a better wages opportunity and achieve higher placements in their fields of work.
7- Chose and motivate form for writing up the study
Writing this research plan is not only an interesting experience especially this give me lot of ideas for my master thesis project. This research plan gave me ideas about how to explore the social sciences field, research questions, appropriate theoretical framework, research methods, collection of empirical data, data analysis and conclusion. Having in mind my previous experience, I will provide some own reflection upon this research plan. By being familiar with infrastructure of Virtual University of Pakistan, I will learn more about virtual education system and can implement my research in my home country.
8- Discuss how to achieve good scientific quality and ethics
In qualitative research, concern about assessing quality has manifested itself recently in the growth of guidelines for doing and judging qualitative work. Users and founders of research have had an important role in developing these guidelines as they become increasingly familiar with qualitative methods, but require some means of assessing their quality and of distinguishing "good" and "poor" quality research. However, the issue of "quality" in qualitative research is part of a much larger and contested discussion about the nature of the knowledge produced by qualitative research, whether its quality can legitimately be judged, and, if so, how. Quality in qualitative research can be assessed with the same broad concepts of validity and relevance used for quantitative research, but these need to be operationalised differently to take into account the distinctive goals of qualitative research (Seale, 1999).
Marxist, feminist and other perspectives from critical theory argue that the quality of research should be judged in terms of its political effects rather than its capacity to formulate universal laws or apparently objective truth. The overriding criterion for judging the quality of a study is its capacity to emancipate, empower or otherwise make free a particular oppressed group of people (Lincoln and Denzin, 1994 cited in Seale (1999). According to Seale (1999), social researchers should engage in philosophical and methodological reflection as an integral part of their practice.
Positivist criteria for judging the quality of research studies is to analyze it with political and constructivists attempts. Internal Validity is the approximate truth about inferences regarding cause-effect. Measurement validity is necessary for the development of methodologically awareness. Interpretive criteriology considers 'validity' and 'reliability ' which is very far from the positivists and even relativists criteria. Crieriology in qualitative research experiences contradiction because of difficulty in regulating the creativity as the objective, conceptual flexibility and freedom of spirit (Seale 1999).
Validation is certainly an aspect of evaluating the quality of a study. Quality of study can be evaluated by methodological standard, post-modern and interpretive perspectives. As well as a high quality narrative study, a phenomenology, a grounded theory study, and ethnography, and a case study are standard of evaluation. Issues of reliability and validity go beyond technical or conceptual concerns and raise epistemological questions about the objectivity of knowledge and the nature of interview research. Objectivity as freedom from bias refers to reliable knowledge, checked and controlled, undistorted by personal bias and prejudice. Such a common sense conception of objective as being free of bias implies doing good, solid, craftsman like research, producing knowledge that has been systematically cross-checked and verified.
Qualitative research is then invalid if it does not result in measurements. In a broader conception, validity pertains to the degree that a method investigates what it is intended to investigate, to "the extent to which our observations indeed reflect the phenomena or variables of interest to us" (Pervin, 1984). With this open conception of validity, qualitative research can, in principle, lead to valid scientific knowledge.
Ethics are norms for conduct that distinguish between or acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Ethical behaviour helps protect individuals, communities and environments, and offers the potential to increase the sum of good in the world. Researchers need to develop better understandings of the politics and contexts within which ethics are regulated. Researchers need to be reflexive, holding up their activities to ethical scrutiny and also investigate how social scientists have developed and evaluated their practices around the concepts of informed consent, confidentiality, beneficence and non-maleficence, and the problems relating to research relationships.
There are three main categories of ethics; metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. Metaethics is concerned with the analysis or logic of moral concepts (Nino, 1991; Proctor1998, cited in Israel & Hay (2006). It involves: exploring the meaning, function, nature and justification of normative judgments (Jorgensen1971 cited in Israel & Hay (2006). Normative ethics is more critical that a grasp of metaethics. It offers the moral norms which guide, or indicate what one should or should not do, in doing particular situations. It provides frameworks that allow to judge people's actions and decisions as right and wrong, good and bad. Applied ethics involves investigating how normative ethical theory can be applied to specific issues or to particular situations and circumstances (Singer1993 cited in Israel & Hay (2006). Examples are of such field include environmental, medical, professional, and business ethics.
Research is an academic field which is why it also needs to be reliable, trustworthy and legitimate. Owing to its nature, research credibility is not only crucial, but is also a factor that determines a study as an academic and serious research which is valid and reliable. Ruane (2006) segregates validity in to two fields: internal validity and external validity. Internal va- lidity refers to issues within the causal validity concerning if the overall research arrange- ment or the research design can demonstrate cause-effects if there are existent cause. To achieve internal validity means to be able to show changes within an entity or variable, which is dependant on changes in another entity (Ruane, 2006).
Reliability refers to legitimacy or credibility. Reliability is achieved when the research gives the same result every time it is studied and scrutinized. However, we will have to consider and give exception to intrinsic changes within the studied variable (Ruane, 2006). Conse- quently, reliability is determined through how measurements are exercised and how accu- rate the researcher is when arranging the information. Hence, it is natural and important to maintain the dependability and trustiness of information when conducting research (Holme & Solvang, 1991).