The expanding role of online learning
More than two-thirds of those surveyed from academic settings say their institutions offer online courses today. The specialization, customisation, and convenience that distance education affords have found an eager audience among students, working professionals, and employers. Many academic institutions, and especially those with a public-service mandate, consider online learning key to advancing their mission, placing post-graduate education within reach of people who might otherwise not be able to access it. Recently named the top wired university in the US by PC Magazine, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign offers a case in point. As Scott D Johnson, CIO and associate dean for online learning in the College of Education, observes, “As a public, land-grant university, our mission is grounded on the premise of education for all.
” In January 2008 the university marked a significant leap forward in what had already been a long history in distance education, by launching the University of Illinois Global Campus—an integrated online programme created in collaboration with the colleges and academic departments at the university’s residential campuses. “The ability to offer greater access to educational opportunities was the primary catalyst,” Dr. Johnson acknowledges. “There are many people who desire certification or degree programmes who simply cannot attend a residential programme, be they single mothers, working professionals or non-traditional students. It’s part of our public mission to reach those people, and we see e-learning as a vital tool in making that possible.
” While distance-education programmes continue to grow in number and to improve in quality, most survey participants see online courses as a supplement to face-to-face classes, and nearly two-thirds of respondents maintain that traditional degrees carry greater credibility than those earned online. Corporate participants hold this view most staunchly. Few participants (11%) say that online and in-class students are likely to take the same classes together and compete for top grades.
Perceptions may be shifting, however. A number of elite institutions, such as Johns Hopkins in Maryland and Stanford University in California, offer highly regarded online courses, and students who complete coursework through Stanford’s Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) and matriculate as undergraduates may use these credits towards their bachelor’s degrees.
Case study The Open University of Catalonia
In existence for 14 years, with 45,000 students from 45 countries around the world, the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in Spain has a long history in the field of online learning. Llorenç Valverde is the UOC’s vice-rector of technology and leads educational-technology initiatives and innovations.
“What’s different about the UOC,” says Mr. Valverde, “is not just that the university is 100% online. It’s that the student is at the center of his or her own academic programme. This is the main point of our learning model. We have moved from the stage where professors are giving lectures to a point where students, mentored by their faculty members, can take the knowledge that they need directly.” The UOC’s virtual desktop, for example, allows students to navigate at will through tabs that feature planning and scheduling, teacher and classmate communications, a digital library and web resources, and testing and assessment.
Many of those who attend the UOC work full-time, have families or have other commitments. They come to the UOC to pursue post-graduate degrees, to obtain specialized certification or to complete their bachelor’s requirements. Inspired by this demographic, the UOC recognized early on that distance education is not only about recording videos and putting them online. “I cannot imagine making a student sit down in front of a computer and listen to a one-hour lecture after dinner and a hard day at the office.” Instead, says Mr. Valverde, “our aim and the aim of all of those involved in education, distance or not, should be to use technology in a more proactive and interactive way, to help students in their learning process.
” With that end in mind, Mr. Valverde states that the UOC’s greatest challenge is aligning educational content and interaction with the right channels. “The computer will not be the only interface to offer high-quality distance learning,” he says. “Mobile technologies will allow an increasingly diffuse array of interactions, extending the reach and accessibility of educational offerings to more students. If we can think about that sort of world, where the computer is not the primary medium, then the challenge becomes how to deliver content and interaction effectively across all channels, particularly with new possibilities such as social networking, coming online.”
Author: Sandip Majumder
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