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According to a growing body of research, distance learning is becoming increasingly popular in all spheres of education in general and as a way to deliver higher education in particular. The data about distance learning expansion in higher education context are supported by the range of distance learning courses provided in higher education institutions (Liu et al., 2006, Croft).
When discussing distance learning it is necessary to first define what we mean by the term. For example, the oldest term referring to learning at a distance is 'distance education', a type of education experience which has existed for more than 100 years and therefore was not originally associated with ITC technologies. Soren Niper (1989) defined three generations of distance education: correspondence teaching, multimedia teaching (integrating broadcast media, cassettes and some use of computers), and teaching with new interactive computer technologies. Taylor (2001) extended the classification to five generations and noted that the development of distance education has been progressing along the line of increased flexibility, interactivity, delivery of materials, and access. The 'fourth generation' of distance education is characterized by flexible learning (e.g., CMC, Internet-accessible courses), and the 'fifth generation' that provides access to the complete range of university services at a distance through online portals. Generations 3, 4, and 5 move way from directed and noninteractive courses to the courses characterized by a high degree of learner control and two-way communication, as well as group-oriented processes and greater flexibility in learning. Regarding two-way interaction, it has to be noted that originally distance education was seen as the one that does not support enough interaction, e.g., Keegan (1986) stated that in 'distance education' students are most often taught as individuals, not in groups, and are physically separated from both the teacher and other fellow students. Keegan's definition of distance education is perhaps the most commonly cited in the literature and involves five qualities that distinguish it from other forms of instruction: '(a) the quasi- permanent separation of teacher and learner, (b) the influence of an educational organization in planning, preparation, and provision of student support, (c) the use of technical media, (d) the provision of two-way communication, and (e) the quasi- permanent absence of learning groups'. It is the last characteristics that has been debated a lot in the literature (Garrison & Shale, 1987; Verduin & Clark, 1991 to name a few and the earliest opponents to this view) because this definition excludes a lot of recent applications of distance education that are group based. Even though distance education does not always incorporated the use of newest computer applications (dist ver online....), it is presently mostly associated with the use of ICT.
In general, besides distance education the literature presents a variety of different terms defining learning through ICT that do not necessarily include physical remoteness: e-learning, virtual classrooms, web-based learning, computer-mediated communication, online instruction, and borderless education to name a few. The difference between the concepts has been widely discussed in the literatur. For example, Sarah Guri-Rosenblit (2005) who speaks about the difference between distance education and e-learning, which involve the extent of physical remoteness, the target audience and costs involved. Liu (2008) mentions that education delivered at a distance is also variably referred to as 'e-learning', 'on-line learning' and 'distance education' (Liu, 2008). (croft) The term 'distance learning' has been used in the literature to incorporate programmes that are based online but which also include face-to-face contact sessions. Such programmes are also referred to as 'blended learning' programmes. We adopt the difintion of that Bernard at el (2004) provide which defines distance education as '(1) Semipermanent separation (place and/or time) of learner and instructor during planned learning events; (2) Presence of planning and preparation of learning materials, student support services, and final recognition of course completion by an educational organization, (3) Provision of two-way media to facilitate dialogue and interaction between students and the instructor and among students'. (p. 388)
There are a number of advantages to the use of distance learning. They include: distance from learning centre, flexibility, easy upgrading, individualised learning, novel methods, assessment and documentation (Cook). One of most often quoted advantages is flexibility. Students can be more flexible when learning, they can learn at times which are more suitable for them. So the primary benefit of studying at a distance is the advantage that of flexibility in terms of time, convenience and location.croft)(clark-ibanez). Distance learning programmes address the demand for flexible training that addresses the realities of work/life pressures and this is a key benefit of distance learning for professionals (Wall et al., 2006).(croft)
However, there are a number of disadvantages. Unfortunately, technology often fails, there may be electricity cuts and also students' computers may not support the learning system, and there are all kinds of learning systems! Students can experience ICT related problems including: incompatible software; incorrect hardware; inability to use software correctly; and computer viruses. These can lead to frustration and anxiety (Salmon, 2000; Connolly et al., 2005). (croft) Besides, it is often discussed that learning online can bring isolation to the classroom, and students can have different learning styles and different needs. Online learning can take much more time from the student as well, and there are a number of reasons that can prevent student from learning online effectively, for example, poor time management skills.
The availability of distance learning has led to a greater diversity in student type, which is a key challenge for delivering online programmes (Connolly et al., 2005; Lorenzetti, 2005; and Lake, 1999), as students in higher education use a wide variety of learning styles. Lynch (2004) suggests that aural learners perform well in traditional lectures whereas those with a visual learning style would favour the Internet. However, much online teaching may 'fall into the trap of 'one-size-fits-all' approach' (Wall et al., 2006, p.1). T(croft) Students' individual learning style and motivation for studying may affect their willingness and need to interact with others (Liu, 2008), and therefore their experiences of isolation.
Barriers and challenges to the learning experience identified in the literature, including isolation, (croft) Research by The Higher Education Academy (Park, 2008, p.16) found that 22% of distance learning students mentioned 'the risk of feeling isolated' as a challenge, reflecting findings that personal interaction is important for student learning (Ipsos MORI, 2007). Psychological isolation may result from the physical and temporal isolation experienced by learning at a distance (Lake, 1999). This issue is also raised by Wegner et al. (1999); Barrett and Lally (2000); Hartley et al. (2001); Rovai (2001); Dickey (2004); Lorenzetti (2005); and Stodel et al. (2006). Isolation can be understood as being in terms of such dimensions as time (concurrent study); space (geographic dispersal); social (awareness of others), intellectual/experience (academic ability and life experiences); profession (subject related expertise); ICT knowledge; sensory (ability to see/feel/hear peers); cultural; and subject (if anyone else is studying the same topic). Reassurance and peer contact (Venter, 2003) as well as appropriate support (Lake, 1999) is required to overcome this isolation, yet this is a challenge without face-to-face contact. (croft)
Various methods can be used in distance-learning courses to 'reduce feelings of alienation' (Dickey, 2004, p.290). The notion of building an online community for learning has been explored, suggesting that this can overcome the absence of physical contact between students (Liu, 2008) and improve teaching (Thomas, 2002) by allowing for structured interaction (Garrison et al., 2000) or as a peer support network (Hartley et al., 2001). A
Blogs have been shown to create a sense of community among students which may reduce psychological isolation (Dickey, 2004).
Other issues that can affect the nature of online communications include the permanence of postings; the creation of social relationships between people; the perceived usefulness of the activity; the fluency of online dialogue; students' desire not to offend others with their comments (Stodel et al., 2006). In addition, requiring students to communicate with each other precludes learners from learning alone where desired (Gulati, 2008).
The use of personal tutors, online/telephone assistance, work place mentors, peer learning, group induction sessions, study skills workshops and access to local libraries have been suggested by Talbot (2007). These mechanisms are used in the Government sponsored e-learning initiative, the Foundation for Government (F4Gov) programme, which is for improving individual and organisational performance in the Civil Service (Talbot, 2007). It is noted that these measures seek to overcome isolation not by technological innovation, but by introducing a degree of personal contact, either between peers, with work colleagues and between students and tutors.
Mentoring can be used as a way of providing advice and guidance to new students starting a particular course. Barrett and Lally (2000, p.7) proposed a 'peer mentoring' approach to overcome isolation through the creation of a 'student community'. Student experiences were recorded on CD ROM and circulated to subsequent cohorts to provide 'supportive voices' for students, which were described as 'interesting and motivating' by students (Barrett and Lally, 2000, p.7). This was advocated by Miller et al.'s (2008) research into nursing practice, suggesting that students need to form two relationships, one with their tutor and then another with their mentor (Miller et al., 2008, p.395).
However, in most studies I read it is mentioned that all these difficulties can be overcome when the course is carefully designed and the tutor works properly.
There are anumber of requirements that a distance course needs to meet in order to be successful. The use of technology in itself does not necessarily make learning interesting or engaging (Cleveland and Bailey, 1994) and it does not necessarily ensure academic success (Wegner et al., 1999). (croft) According to Bernard et al. (2000), for collaborative learning to be successful a 'learning community' needs to be created so that the student feels part of a wider group.
Motivation is the most important factor for effective learning according to Rogers (2001). Motivation is therefore important for all students, whether studying on traditional face-to-face courses or at a distance (Rovai et al., 2007, and Whiting et al., 2008). Traditional students are more likely to be extrinsically (externally) motivated whereas distance learners tend to be intrinsically (independently) motivated (Whiting et al., 2008). Our ur study focuses on the latter who, unlike traditional full time students, are studying whilst in related employment and are likely to be motivated from the outset by having 'more interest, confidenceâ€¦and conceptual understanding' (Whiting et al., 2008, p.288). Part-time students are typically adults in full or partial employment and/or having family and social commitments. Among the older students at least three distinct groups can be identified: second-chance students; professional workers; and adults seeking to broaden their education in order to become better acquainted with new fields of knowledge. The proportion of students joining distance education for professional upgrade and for recreational purposes will grow immensely in the future." (p. 487)
Reasons for choosing distance learning included flexibility, convenience, time and cost. Many respondents stated that learning by distance suited family, lifestyle and work commitments. The lack of availability of relevant courses near the home location of students was also a factor in deciding to enrol on a distance learning programme, as was the course content, suitability and uniqueness. Motivation for enrolling included improving skills, financial, professional progression, knowledge/CPD and personal satisfaction.(croft)
Self-discipline, careful planning (Liu, 2008) and time management (Alexander, 2001) are skills that need to be embedded into the course. Whilst this can also be true of traditionally taught courses, physically attending lectures demands accountability from students (Dickey, 2004), which in turn may assist motivation through social engagement with peers: distance learning does not have this benefit where the autonomy of the student necessitates higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Whiting et al. (2008, p.293) note that the design of distance learning materials can be specifically tailored to encourage intrinsic motivation in students, by providing 'stimulating coursesâ€¦ and challenging tasks'. Such an online element could also be incorporated into traditional classroom teaching to encourage more independent thinking (Whiting et al., 2008).
Besides that, new relationships appear between a student and a tutor. In online education a tutor is basically what a teacher is in a traditional class. In online learning the learning is more student centered and there may be even more communication. For example, I remember my online learning experiences as the most rewarding learning experiences in my life.
And the teacher needs to be there to help them. In general, there is much burden that is put on the teacher in an online course. Teacher can have burn out. And also teachers are different in the online course. They need to have different qualities. And they need to support the students online. the special role that a tutor plays in online learning. An much has to be said about teacher-student relationship in online course. (croft)
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