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Distance education is a learning process in which learners are separated in time and space from those conducting the learning. Open learning offers flexibility which is crucial for the distance learner who is constrained by various issues from engaging in regular study. 'In open learning, the constraints on study are minimized in terms of access, of time and place, pace, method of study or any combination of these' (Rahman 2003). Plus, studies have shown that distance learning has becoming popular modes of studies among students and working adults worldwide. This trend is also visible in Malaysia, with the emergence of several higher education distance learning institutions using Internet to support its learning activities such as the Open University of Malaysia, and Wawasan Open University and many other higher learning institution.
When discussing the approaches in distance learning, the hot issue to think about is the use of Internet in learning and teaching, particularly in distance education contexts. We argue that environmental changes make it necessary to adapt systems and practices that are no longer appropriate. The need to adapt, however, can be perceived as being technology-led and primarily concerned with requiring academic staff to develop their skills in using Internet. Distance learning covers education approaches that reach learners in their environment. These approaches are expected to be compatible with adult and independent learning designed to reduce the isolation of these learners.
'Besides providing access to learning materials like study guides, text books and CDs or other portable or mass media, distance learning requires that some kind of support mechanism be made available to students to help them overcome their learning difficulties, get supplementary information, evaluate their own progress and exchange ideas with teachers, tutors and fellow students' (Holmberg, 2000 & Keegan, 1993). Unlike classroom-based teaching, distance learning systems aim to provide education to large numbers of learners and, at the same time be flexible enough to cater for the various needs of the learners. Any exclusively distance learning institution requires do everything possible to ensure that all learning materials reach the learners timeously and that all relevant information is accessible to the learners (Trindade et al, 2000).
L. G. Kmamnja (2007) states that 'Information Communication Technologies' (ICTs) have for long been celebrated as the solution to access in education. New innovations like the internet and mobile technologies provide a great opportunity for mass delivery of education information especially in Africa where governments and institutions are struggling to equip the people with much needed skills for development. The use of Internet has been credited with among others, contextual learning, active learning, social learning and reflective learning (Barak 2006). Plus, Internet is also credited with enhancing the following important elements that are crucial to an effective distance learning situation.
Moreover, learning through Internet could create an active engagement of learners with the learning process and the content. Learners interacting in communities of learning where knowledge and information is shared openly in an environment that values participation and interaction between learners, teachers, and sources of knowledge (Miranda,2004). In other words, learners could develop a community where everyone could collaborate, help each other in our pioneering efforts, have fun, expand the ESL community and lastly able to help people learn English. Students learning a new language need a great deal of language support. Those who teach students learning English as their second language know that any language support is crucial for students' language acquisition. English Language students need a variety of language experiences. They need opportunities to hear, write, speak, and read English. Technology, especially Internet, can play an integral part in providing English Language students with valuable language experiences as they learn a new language. Plus, it could add motivation and often offers a way to present a new topic in an exciting way.
Nowadays, a lot people especially teachers have been using online communication in the English Language classroom. From an investigation of the experiences of dozens of teachers around the world who have used the internet in language teaching (Warschauer, 1995) as few common guidelines emerge that can assist teachers in successfully planning and implementing network based learning projects. Therefore, it has been proven that if technology could help a profession to make a step forward, why now a student themselves.
There are several possible reasons for using the Internet in English language learning. One rationale is found in the belief that the linguistic nature of online communication is desirable for promoting language learning. It has been found for example that electronic discourse tends to be more lexically and syntactically complex than oral discourse (Warschauer, 1996) and features a broad range of linguistic functions beneficial for language learning (Chun, 1994 & Kern, 1995). Another possible reason for using the Internet is that is creates optimal conditions for learning to write since it provides an authentic audience for written communication (Janda, 1995) and plus it can increase student's motivation (Warschauer, 1996). Next, is the belief that learning computer skills is essential for students' future success. Although, it is only a matter of using the Internet to learn English but it is important for a person to be able to function well on the Internet.
However, since there are so many ways to integrate the Internet into English Language learning, it is important for a learner to clarify his or her goals. If, for example one of the learner's goals is to master a certain kind of linguistic. Therefore, one should consider what types of language category would be beneficial and structure computer activities accordingly. If the goal is in writing skills, the internet activities should be structured so that they steadily bring about an increase in the types of writing processes and relationships essential to becoming a better writer. A learner should remember that little is usually gained by just adding random online activities into English Language learning. Clarifying course goals is thus an important first step towards successful use of the Internet.
There are many ways that Internet activities can be integrated into the overall design and goals of a course (Sayers, 1993). Learners could work with their lecturers to create research questions which are then investigated in collaboration with foreign partners. Learners and long distant partners can work collaboratively on publications or learners could use exchange partners as experts to supply information on vocabulary grammar or cultural points which emerge in the English Language learning.
In attempting to integrate online English Language learning, it is best not to be overly ambitious in the beginning. A situation which overwhelms both learners and lecturers in technical difficulties is not likely to bring about the desired results. It is better to start small and to create the kinds of activities which have a direct purpose and are well integrated into English Language learning goals. If these activities prove successful, then one can build from there and attempt a more ambitious plan the following semester. Mindful of the complexities which can arise in Internet usage, lecturers need to provide support sufficient to prevent learners from being overwhelmed by difficulties. This kind of support can take numerous forms creating detailed handouts that learners can refer to when class is finished while the lecturer could act as a facilitator to guide them.
As conclusion, learning for professional development is based on purposes linked to a broader vision of growth in the profession. Distance learning in an online learning environment has the potential to promote empowered learners who are able to meet the demands of ever-changing knowledge in society. It offers them an opportunity to interact with the instructor and fellow learners as they apply new knowledge in authentic contexts. Such collaborative and transformative learning has the potential to contribute to better learning outcomes, including the development of critical thinking and competencies.