Distance learning and the virtual classroom: learning from what works

Distance Learning is not a new concept in education, but the way that it is delivered has changed dramatically from the days of correspondence courses or even the inception of The Open University in 1969, which then utilised television and radio broadcasts.


By John Lugo


ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2012 brought together three speakers in the session Distance Learning and the Virtual School whose research and experience looked at students as young as nine years old to adults in the United States, Finland and across the European Union. The session was chaired by Paul Bacsich with Antti Huttunen of VIRTA in Finland, Nikolaos Zygouristas of the Lambrakis Foundation and Margaret Korosec, University of Hull & Hymers College, UK speaking about her experience and findings at the Western Governors University in the United States.


The three speakers explored similar issues such as: Who were the target students? What were the tools available? And discussed what they viewed as successful components of distance learning delivery. The age range covered by these sessions challenged the notion that distance learning and the virtual classroom were a benefit to time-limited adults who were looking to gain qualifications for career advancement, or for students suffering from disabilities who physically could not access the traditional classroom.


In the Finnish city of Turku, the VIRTA project, underway since 2008, has been looking at how foreign language and orthodox religion courses could be administered to students between the ages of nine and twelve in a distance learning environment. The project used web conferencing to connect the students with the teacher from their own school locations, minimising the need to travel and allowing them to interact with one another. During his presentation, Antti Huttunen stressed how this model was beneficial to Turku and how it was being encouraged in other parts of Finland to address basic access to learning in a cost effective manner. One such project connected several schools who had students interested in learning Spanish, but not one school had enough students to merit hiring a teacher, so by connecting them in this manner, the students were able to access their choice language and the schools were able to share the cost of the course, which in an increasingly difficult financial climate is important for educational institutions. The programme did highlight that while the technology needed by the user could be either a laptop, tablet or mobile device with operational camera, the technical glitches could have an effect on learning, particularly with respects to foreign languages, but that overall the project found that students who learned through the web conferencing format had equal results to those who learned in a traditional classroom setting.


Nikolaos Zygouritas of the Lambrakis Foundation explained that the VISCED project found 70+ virtual learning programmes were in operation across 19 countries. The project identified some key factors in the success of virtual schools across Europe, by no means a definitive list, but they translate across international borders. These include usability and the need for systems in place to be user friendly for all levels involved in the educational process. This ensures that there exists a sustainable technical infrastructure ready to meet the needs of its users in a timely and efficient manner. There was also a need for clearly defined and assessed learning outcomes on an individual basis and a leadership in e-learning on an institutional level. These key factors and challenges for educational institutions in an increasingly competitive market were also discussed in another session New Ventures in Online Learning where Matthew Mermagen of Pearson discussed their current partnership with institutions like Leeds Metropolitan University, in which the public and private sector were working together to enrich the student experience, but most importantly, retain students.


Margaret Korosec presented the session with her experience and findings from Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit private online university in the United States. She stressed in her findings that distance learning was not intended to replace traditional institutions. With respects to WGU, she states, “The competency-based, fully online, self-paced model is intended to address the needs of the adult with work experience but no degree. It is a model that fits in the spectrum of available higher education options.” In terms of alleviating fears that distance learning options – as they increase – become a direct threat to traditional academic institutions, it is important to stress that in each of the cases presented by the speakers and Korosec in particular, the target group in question were still those who were not able to access the traditional classroom whether for personal reasons or in the case of Finland, a need to deliver cost effective education. Some key factors in the competency-based model at WGU for success included combining their approach with the ability to self-pace, no requirement of seat time, having the courses completely online, flexible and offering rolling enrolment. Margaret also believes that “interaction with both the student mentor and the course mentor is a critical component of the WGU model. The student mentor follows the student through their entire program. They are available for weekly check-ins and for tracking overall progress. The course mentor is available for specific content of specific courses.”


The message coming through from the speakers is the need to explore and utilise distance learning tools currently available and share successful models trans-nationally as well as continue to develop techniques whilst retaining the ‘human’ element of interaction, whether it be through web conferencing or Skype. Distance learning and the virtual classroom will not destroy traditional modes of learning but rather bring non-traditional students together in the building of a new tradition of learning.

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