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Open Learning and Distance Education has impacted the whole arena of education in many different ways. A UNESCO paper identifies some of the main areas and sectors where open and distance learning has contributed in a great way. The areas include general education, teacher education, vocational and continuing education, non-formal education and higher education.
The report states Higher Education is the single major area most benefited with most number of ODL mode programmes in offer is under this category.
"The success and expansion of [technology enabled] single mode open universities on the one hand, and the transformation of traditional universities to dual mode universities on the other, are important contributions to the diversification and development of higher education systems, UNESCO (2002)"
The transformation was not overnight, the nineteenth century saw national railways supported national postal systems that took higher education beyond the boundaries of the campus premises, the use of technologies such as radio and television came in and added another dimension but the biggest step forward came near the end of second millennium with the open availability of the Internet and the advent of WWW. This emergence of Internet based - eLearning has significant pedagogical, economic and organizational implications and it has become a significant element within the main stream education as of today.
By now the wave of change, higher education via ODL has swept across the Globe, Year 2012 marked with an exciting announcement from two of world's most leading universities who work on a joint project called edX to offer free online courses to promote access to higher education covering a wide spectrum of subject areas. (Ref: http://www.edxonline.org/)
Defining open and Distance Learning
Open learning is a learning philosophy which is not fixed in any particular way but maintains openness (in access, delivery and interpretation). Davis (1998) articulates that there are numerous definitions and interpretations for Open learning but many authors: Rowntree, Jack, Paine, Lewis and Spencer etc, all agree on the notion "Open" there comes a strong emphasis on flexibility, the removal of barriers and the adaptation of a learner centered approach that challenges some of the well known pedagogical assumptions of traditional face to face learning or class room learning.
Often there is an amount of confusion arise in distinguishing distance learning from open learning and at times these two terms are used interchangeably though not quite accurate. Kember and Murphy (1990) note: "the equation of open and distance learning is not supported by the literature" While Hodgson(1993) notes, "the terms [open and distance learning] are obviously not synonymous" .
Compared to the effort of authors in defining open learning the definition for Distance learning could be put as simple as a form of learning where the student learns while separated from the tutor. Desmond Keegan (1995) gives a comprehensive definition for distance learning. According to him distance education and training result from the technological separation of teacher and learner which frees the student from the necessity of traveling to "a fixed place, at a fixed time, to meet a fixed person, in order to be trained.
Where as Kember and Murphy (1990) came up with some what a more comprehensive view of open learning as follows
Etc., etc refers to all the other closely associated terms, such as correspondence courses, self-paced learning, student centered learning and flexible learning
"Open learning interpreted as an umbrella term"
Models of ODL
Towards the later part of twentieth century saw development of significantly useful technologies especially in the field of information and communication technology which has in turn led to an astounding growth in distance education, both in the number of students enrolling and in the number of universities adding education at a distance to their curriculum (Garrison 1990, McIssac & Gunawardena, 1996).
Though the availability of modern technologies: multimedia, animation, virtual reality, content management systems, ever increasing processing power of PCs, increased network band width, portable devices, mobile internet connectivity etc have immensely helped distance education to become a more feasible and attractive alternative to the mainstream education now than ever before.
However the literature in the field reveals a conceptually fragmented framework leaving much room for further research towards establishing solid theoretical foundation and appropriate models capturing the whole dynamism of open and distance learning. Having said this, the following models were identified and chosen to examine the case of open & distance learning for this research.
While the academic literature on open learning is relatively less there has been a wealth of literature on distance learning as date backs to 1970s or even earlier. Much of the research on this area carried out from the 1970s and 1980s concentrates on comparisons of distance learning with other educational learning methods developed in 1950s on teaching and learning theory. During this period of time much of these research conducted were primarily by educational psychologists who concentrated around the concepts of pedagogy that mostly applied for children learning but indeed to a great extend not adequately covered the adult leaning paradigm which is a notion more connected the concept of open learning. Holmberg (1981) attempted to relate what constitutes distance learning to various teaching and learning theories. His study was on models that were already established in behavioral learning theory and had then been applied to distance learning. He concluded that some of the models in place were more applicable and adaptable than others to distance learning.
Similar attempts of researching distance learning have also examined the generally established models of education and learning. As in the case of Rumble (1986), examined a number of models and theories with an attempt to integrate the defining characteristics of distance learning. He went on to identify three main educational models to which distance learning could be closely related to, namely the institution-centered model, person-centered model, and society-centered model.
The institution-centered distance education model
Here the primary focus lies on increasing the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the institution as a provider of mass education which is much compatible with the many distance education projects in the formal education sector. In this model the learner is to a great degree a passive recipient of the educational content developed by the content producers. Direct communication between learners and content producers is usually minimal and in many cases non-existent.
The model is not much in line with the "open learning" concept where person-centered approach is more applicable which could give the learner agreater control for a large part of his or her learning so he could determine where, when and how to learn. Where as institution-centered model almost deprives or lacks the personal choice aspect of learners in developing their own course
Person centered educational model
Unlike the institution centered model which limits choice on the learner's part in terms of when, where and how to learn, the person - centered model places the learner as being an "independent" consumer of the products of the system.
This model stress the need fora learning contract concept , where a negotiated agreement of individualized courses of study are incorporated and agreed with mentors acting as a support mechanism in the learning process.
The person-centered approach is more compatible with the philosophy of open learning than is the institutional approach, in that the focus is placed on the individual. The institution still has a role to play, but the needs of the student are placed more centrally.
It is worth noting mentioning here, looking from a mere cost perspective one might argue this model is not practicable in many cases with a larger number of students but it is possible to make a counter argument that more the flexible and open the system is, it helps to save more the time for a tutor to spend with individual student .
Society centered model
This model places more emphasis on group work based learning in the form of identifying problems and relating them to the personal experience of its members than relying more on texts and secondary materials at first.
As argued by Anderson (1999), to achieve the greatest degree of success, the teaching act needs to be integrated with the learning act. This has been achieved to an extend in the Society- Centered approach through group learning and high degree of dialogue among students as well as in the faculty.
With this model the roles of the distance educator and of the centrally produced materials take significant change. The materials provided become aids to the group learning process which can be drawn on where this is felt to be useful, and groups also produce materials for their own use and for inter-group exchange. This model is more consistent with the philosophy of open learning than that of pure distance learning where in mere distance learning the dialogue between the learner and fellow learner or tutor often being limited to occasional meetings.
Twigg (2003) contributed to the literature on Open and distance Learning to a further level up by presenting five educational models supported by web-based technologies namely the supplemental model, the replacement model, the emporium model, the fully online model, and the buffet model. An analysis on these five models is of direct relevance to this research title as web based learning plays a significant role in the delivery of BIT degree and this form of leaning is an integral part of this whole degree programme.
The Supplemental Model
As Twigg (2003) notes, the supplemental model retains most of the traditional classroom model characteristics but allows instructors to facilitate outside-of-class student meetings as well as providing students with access to course materials inside and outside of classroom time through the use of Learning Management Systems enabling automated repeated quiz sessions, CD- ROM based interactive learning content with simulations and movies to make the off campus learning experience much engaging.
In this model classroom instruction remains main focus and software or online technologies are used solely to augment classroom activities yield better outcome Twigg has recorded various observations on how the technology enabled supplemented learning activities impacted on student performance, the recorded impact was significantly positive. Students utilizing LMS facilities were able to take and retake quizzes to gain mastery of material without the instructor as an intermediary.
In essence with the supplemental model much of the lecture portions of courses remain in the traditional class room model but the laboratory or exercise portion of the course can be accomplished without a human intermediary. This model is of direct relevance to the majority of BIT students who opt for traditional class room learning through the partner institutes while make use of the mandatory LMS based activities, and resources directly provided by the University. The implementation of this model by year 2004 had a positive impact in first year pass rates and increased the exam sitting percentage among the BIT students. However it should be noted that still a significant percentage of students opt for self studies where by they miss the traditional class room based lectures.
With regard to delivering education for an IT Degree like BIT, the suitability of supplemental model could be rated as moderate. The model includes a significant amount of class time activity as the on-campus model [for those opt to join a partner institute] for receiving traditional mode of face to face learning and for practicing important application [programming] skills, however, it has the same deficiencies as the on-campus model in that access to classes and the flexibility of when to attend classes can be low which is a limiting factor for students from rural areas where a partner institute is not available.
BIT course delivery too shares the same criticism that the courses are not tailor made or individualized enough like any other course delivery under supplemental model. The use of online technologies is often confined to content delivery, student assignments and practice quizzes. The off class time interaction with faculty is much limited in the same manner as traditional on-campus class settings. However interaction among students is some what high in the form of online discussion forms.
According to Twigg (2003) the emporium model eliminates all class meetings and replaces them with a learning resource center featuring online materials and on-demand personalized assistance.
The model requires a significant commitment of space and equipment and it is based on the core idea that let the student decide when to learn, when to access course content and what choice of learning materials, how much time to be spent on each such material based on his needs instead of being it the instructor's choice. Student gets this level of flexibility with the support of sophisticated instructional software and one-on one on-site help
Murray and David (2008) explain the Emporium Model as the one that replaces traditional classroom meetings altogether with virtual, on-campus learning center meetings that aggregate many course sections of students. This model is designed to serve large numbers of students through technologically structured education based on a university's need to achieve economies of scale. The mass customization of education in this situation comes from being able to discern the most often asked questions and commit the answers to software programming.
Murray and David rate this model quite low on both access and flexibility stating students need to synchronously attend the online session even though they will also be individually accessing the educational material via computer, this is of contrast with what Twigg portrayed as the level of flexibility the student would enjoy. Also the amount of dialogue between the participants and the faculty has been rated low while structure being rated moderate.
Overall the suitability of the emporium model is low relative to its ability to provide Degree level IT Education like in the case of BIT Degree as this model lacks the level of dialogue needed by students with fellow participant and with the faculty in building the technical and team based working skills. This model also suffers from the potential for low access and flexibility as students are expected to physically gather at the learning center to have access to the content and support.
This model is not practicable by the University in the delivery of BIT for the reasons afore mentioned
The core idea of the buffet model is that students need to be treated like individuals rather than one homogenous groups and should be offered many more learning options within each course. This is in contrast with the other four models: supplemental, emporium, fully online and replacement models. Twigg (2003) says these four models take a course design approach similar to that of a traditional class: that is one-size-fits-all approach though a much improved one. Twigg argues the use of information technology in teaching and learning can radically increase the array of learning possibilities presented to each individual student. Thus, the "right way" to design a high-quality course depends entirely on the type of students involved. He suggests by customizing the learning environment for each student, institutions are more likely to achieve greater successes in the delivery of courses.
Murray and David (2008) while commenting on the buffet model draws an analogy to what Davis(1998) described as person-to-person model in the backdrop of extensive technology support. Each student is individually evaluated regarding their learning style to assist in the selection of the most appropriate educational program. Each student involved with this model of education is required to sign a contract at the beginning of each course. Murray and David rate this model moderate and not high, in giving access by the inclusion of tests, signing of contracts. The selection of traditional or class room learning components impact on the level of flexibility each student would have. The model allows reasonable amount of dialogue provided sufficient numbers in the faculty and the mode that the student opts to fulfill a particular course activity.
The model scores low on structure since each student picks exactly what and how he approaches his program of study at the enrollment of the course through a contract.
Owing to the cost constraints and the limited availability of faculty for the content creation and examinations part when it applies to BIT education being it a popular external degree followed in a wider geographical landscape this model is not being acceptable for the University of Colombo though the models' richness of individualization could significantly enhance the learning experience and the candidates performance.
Fully Online Model
The Fully Online Model, as depicted by Twigg (2003) concentrates large numbers of students under one faculty member, with extensive reliance on software. This situation can lead to impersonal student feedback and monitoring. Murray and David suggested a varying approach to this model. Instead of Twigg's (2003) fully online model with its large class sizes and impersonal approaches they proposed a structure having an upper limit of 100 students and a nonacademic course assistant for each course. Where the non academic assistant shall address about ninety percent of student inquires which doesn't call for the intervention of the faculty members.
This model too takes a "one size fits all" approach since the goal is economy of scale for faculty and assistants, and all students are exposed to the same "virtual classroom" experience. Exams are given online. Faculty can offer attendance optional, live lectures by using web technologies and resource enhanced presentations. Such a model would greatly increase access and flexibility other than the optional live lectures which some may want to or need to attend for clarification. However since this model too takes a one size needs to fit all it is some what rigid on structure. Also this model's rating relative to dialogue is between low and moderate, which depends on the nonacademic assistant's ability to field most of the students' inquiries. Murray and David (2008) give an overall rating for this perspective of the fully online model as moderate.
Fully Online model is practical for a near hundred percent online deliverable degree like that of BIT. The type of content, structure of the exams papers the assessment requirements for the BIT Degree can all be very well accommodated by this model. In fact those students who opt for self studies by not choosing to attend lectures at any institutes are relying on the provisions of this type of fully online model with certain exceptions of written exams and viva which is a matter of policy than of a technical issue on the part of the University.
Twigg (2003) stresses the key characteristic of the replacement model is a reduction in class meeting time, replacing (not supplementing) face-to-face time with online, interactive learning activities for students. The assumption is that certain activities can be better accomplished online, either individually or in small group setup than in a class. In certain cases outside class activities take place in computer labs in others, they occur online through discussion forums so that students can participate anytime, anywhere. A key strength of the replacement model is, it rather than assuming that face to face meetings between the student and faculty is the sole best setting for student learning, projects falling inline of the replacement model have given significant amount of thought about why (and how often) classes need to meet in real time and the content of that meeting in relation to the desired learning outcomes
Murray and David (2008) call this as a hybrid model in which a small number of educational sessions often much less than half of it, are conducted in the traditional on campus format and the remaining class sessions are delivered via online. This model received a moderate rating with regard to access and flexibility where both could decrease if the number of traditional on campus class sessions increase. Dialogue can be higher than the traditional on campus model as online communications come into play any time. Structure of the course is less rigid compared to the on campus model as the faculty is in a position to provide additional individualized instruction via online if the number of students is within manageable limits.
This model looks ideal for an online IT degree with practical oriented lessons conducted in campus fashion while rest of the teaching could be done online with live streaming or on demand downloadable content. Tutors could be assigned to each group of students to facilitate in the online mode learning. This model was used in Sri Lanka by the University of Moratuwa for one of their external IT degrees with the use of online tutors but for an overall student count of not more than hundred. Unfortunately lately the University dropped this online tutor support and adopted a model similar to the "supplemental model" using its online resources and partner organizations teaching resources and faculty owing to cost factors and internal reasons. In the case of BIT degree of University of Colombo with new student registration over 2000 each year allocating adequate numbers of online tutors seem to be far from practicable in the light of the University of Moratuwa dropping such facility even for a manageable number of students.
The actual delivery model of BIT
Establishing the Conceptual Frame work
There is a wealth of literature over college drop outs and student performance issues in the traditional as well as distance learning Education. To mention a few such studies:
In the context of Open and Distance Learning a study was carried by Bocchi, Eastman, and Swift (2004) attempted to establish a profile of a successful online student within the context of the Georgia WebMBA program, a coalition between five universities in Georgia.
In the context of Sri Lankan Higher Education through ODL mode Karunananda (2007) published a research on OUSL: country's premier Distance Education center, on its course delivery titled How can Open and Distance Learning effectively facilitate IT Education in Sri Lanka? in his study he suggested OUSL realistic strategy to explore the possibility of obtaining private sector collaboration for certificate courses in IT, citing the examples of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India and the Bachelor of Information Technology (External) degree, University of Colombo.
As the literature survey begun due importance was given to comprehend sufficient insights to form a sound understanding of the issues of drop outs, and prolongation.
Drop out of studies is the detention or interruption of studies before concluding them Cabrera et al (2006) list down the different types of dropouts:
Involuntary drop out (for administrative non-fulfillment or violation of regulations);
leaving the degree program to begin another in the same institution;
leaving the degree program to begin another in another institution;
leaving one university to go to another to complete initiated studies;
giving up university studies to begin training itineraries outside of the university,
or to join the workforce;
interrupting studies with the intention of returning to them in the future;
The prolongation of studies is the academic failure that De Miguel and Arias (1999) define as: the difference between the time invested and the time theoretically predicted to finish one's studies.
Cabrera, L., Tomás, J., Álvarez, P. y Gonzalez, M. (2006) identified a list of 7 psycho-pedagogic variables in relation to university drop outs:
the learning strategies,
the capacity to delay rewards,
the quality of faculty-student relationships,
the capacity to overcome obstacles and difficulties,
the ability to maintain clear long-term goals,
the ability to firmly establish the direction or course of the future,
the ability to complete academic goals and graduate early
They argued these variables are key determinants in students' decision to persist on the course or to dropout.
Following an extensive literature survey the author identified two particular research works are of direct relevance to this particular research, which could serve well in formulating the conceptual frame work of this research
A study conducted by Fozdar, Kumar, and Kannan.(2006) on the Reasons Responsible for Student Dropout from the Bachelor of Science Programme at Indira Gandhi National Open University - the study serves as a good point of reference as focused Degree of this study was delivered in a similar set up: Asian county, undergraduate Degree delivered via Massive online courses + Blended learning through regional centers where the medium of Instruction is not a native language for all participants.
A study conducted by Andersson (2008) titled Seven major challenges for e-learning in developing countries where the major part of the study covered the eBIT programme (BIT Degree) - though there were many research papers submitted by other authoritative authors like Hewagamage, Wickramanayake et al on the topics of curriculum building, eLearning content creation, use of ICT to enhance Delivery of External degree programmes etc. Andersson's study is of paramount significance to this research as perhaps it was the only comprehensive study that directly investigated the challenges faced bit eBIT students carried out so far.
The study conducted by Fozdar, Kumar, and Kannan.(2006) on IGNOU BSc Degree programme revealed 3 categories of factors responsible for students discontinuing the courses.
Lack of sufficient time for study due to: a) change in family circumstances, b) change in employment status and c) marriage
Poor health conditions
Absence of interaction with other students
Financial constraints due to: a) high programme fee and b) high expenditure on account of attending laboratory courses
Admission to B.Sc programme of conventional system
Admission to some professional programme/course
Programme/Course related reasons
Difficulty in learning science through distance
Expectation of programme not met
The language (English or Hindi) used was quite difficult to understand
Unavailablity of programme in mother tongue
Difficulty in term-end examination papers
Difficulty in doing assignments
Programme was too time consuming to study all the courses
Student support related reasons
Insufficient academic support from study centres
Study centre too far from residence
Insufficient counselling sessions
Difficulty in attending laboratory sessions due to: a) personal reasons, b) family problem c) employment and d) distance
Lack of proper intimation regarding theory and lab counselling sessions
Lack of responsiveness from: a) study centre, b) regionalcentre and c) head quarters
Non- receipt of: a) course material, b) assignment and c) other relavant information
(Adopted from: the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning)
As stated earlier this research finding becomes particularly of importance to this research as the model of delivery of the Indra Gandhi National Open University has much resemblance to that of BIT course delivery of University of Colombo with, eLearning and blended learning options through many private sector and state facilities such as IDM, ESOFT, MATRIX , DEMP etc in the case of the latter.
The study by Andersson (2008) on eBIT (BIT degree of UCSC) focused on 7 sets of Inhibiting and facilitating factors for e-learning and the
Adopted from International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology (IJEDICT), 2008, Vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 45-62
Here research concluded by reporting on the seven (7) major Challenges students face on the BIT Degree Programme as follows
Support for students
Teaching and Learning Activities
Localisation of content
Attitudes on elearning
Narrowing down the scope to be manageable is a key to make the research success, taking in to consideration of the time factor and the purpose the author carried out an initial analysis on the available secondary form of data and conducted quick interviews with academic staff involved and the students in the backdrop of the extensive literature review. The significant findings of the preliminary study are as given here.
Access (Reach)/ Institutional Support
Though a major objective of ICT enabled Higher Education like eBIT is to reach out the deserving students regardless of the distance barriers at least in a selected geography (country, continent, etc) the statistics presented by Attygalle et al(2006) shows it was not the case at least up to year 2005. Graduates have hailed only form five districts continuously and only 16 out of 25o districts in Sri Lanka has ever produced BIT graduates (in the first 3 intakes) though each district had a population of deprived students with necessary A/L results but fell short of the cutoff marks of the traditional state universities.
The case could have been owing to less availability institutional support in the respective geographies and/or poor ICT infrastructure preventing the full scale utilization of this ICT enabled External Degree.
Secondary Education (Stream)
Although BIT degree is open to any A/L stream it has been observed there is an uneven distribution in the numbers graduated when compared with the secondary education background they come from. It warrants a further investigation to determine if the chosen A/L stream has any significant impact in the success rate of the student.
(Data source: UCSC)
Also another observation is gender imparity in terms of the beneficiary of this Degree programme. The Gender wise graduate distribution is not even (Source: UCSC BIT Graduate Statistics)
Though each course carries same number of credits (4 credits) and thought for same number of hours (60 hours), when observed the course wise examination results the pattern appears to have an absurd trend for course to course comparison as well as the year wise case.
For example year 2008 the course CS1 shows a significant deviation from rest of the three courses of the same semester. The course IST shows a significant variation in pass rate for year 2009 and 2011. There is no general pattern observable. An investigation could reveal if these fluctuations has a significant negative impact in student proceeding to the next level thus perhaps a cause for dropout and lowering the final output.
Establishing the conceptual Frame work
McGaghie et.al (2001) stressed the need of a conceptual frame work in research reporting as follows: "Linked to the problem statement, the conceptual framework sets the stage for presentation of the specific research question that drives the investigation being reported"
Formulation of the conceptual frame work would add clarity to the direction of the research at least for the reader's perspective. First it helps to identify the research variables clearly and secondly it clarifies relationships among the variables which is under investigation of the research.
The literature review undertook so far by the researcher helped to identify the critical factors pertaining to student success. They are student secondary education (A/L), gender, language difficulty (localization), examination structure, academic support, proximity of a suitable study center.
Though this research is of a quantitative type one, limited scale of qualitative fact finding was also done by the researcher by way of informal (unstructured) Interviews with members of the teaching staff, examiners, and selected group of students in a limited scale in order to cross validate the relevance of these factors before finalizing the conceptual frame work. This was done to ensure the validity of the research.
These quick fact finding sessions while attested the importance and relevance of the identified factors to student success another two factors namely the perceived usefulness of the BIT programme and family support were suggested by the members of the teaching institutes. Though these suggestions increases the scope it appeared fair and of direct relevance to the objective of this research and was accepted by the researcher.
The conceptual framework and the set of research hypotheses formulated are presented in the next chapter titled "Research Methodology".