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Distance education: A-grade for e-learning?

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The challenges of e-learning

A surprising effort?

Setting up a course online can potentially raise the profile and extend the reach of any teaching institution. It also requires a major investment of time and energy and the constant evaluation of the distance programme by students and faculty to ensure positive results.

All the effort involved might come as a surprise, considering distance learning is not new. It has indeed existed for over a century, but it's only in the past few years that e-learning programmes have started to proliferate and become an almost ubiquitous educational option.

Since 1999, when the term e-learning was seemingly coined, the demand for online education supported by multimedia technologies has soared dramatically, prompting teaching institutions to tailor their own e-learning education programmes.

Candidates enrolling in higher education distance courses are typically professionals looking to improve their careers, students with families who find it difficult to stay away from home, students with disabilities who cannot travel easily, or mature students yearning for new professional opportunities or making up for the years they never spent at university.

Some institutions have been more successful than others

In practice, the challenges of e-learning are far greater than converting traditional educational methods into electronic resources and its framework reaches beyond the educational content of the programmes. Understandably, some institutions have been more successful than others in going the distance, so to speak, with their e-learning programmes.

According to an article, published in the Guardian in August 2004, "US universities lead the way in e-learning" as "more than a third of higher education institutions and 97 per cent of public universities offer courses online".

However, in Europe the situation has evolved at a more cautious pace, especially as the failure of e-University (UKeU), a programme set by the British Government to offer online courses to students worldwide, did little to inflate the e-learning bubble.

"Mission critical"

The BBC reported in March 2005 that the e-learning movement in Europe was now gaining momentum with a "growing demand for online courses". A survey of 150 universities highlighted that they now "saw e-learning as 'mission critical'" and showed an emerging trend, among nearly two thirds of those institutions, to "collaborate with other institutions – both nationally and internationally".

In the American experience, universities that developed distance education programmes designed around their core competences as not-for-profit ventures generally fared better than those embarking on the e-learning platform as a commercial enterprise.

A winning e-learning formula

There seems to be a few determining factors essential to a winning e-learning formula. Research by Fisher and Baird (2005), "Online learning design that fosters student support, self-regulation, and retention", suggests that the successful outcome of distant learning programmes depends in part on how effectively students and teachers interact with one another, because "When online learners have a stronger sense of community, they feel less isolated and have a greater satisfaction with their academic programmes".

A notion of proximity

The very notion of proximity is inherently absent to distance learning, but a lot of activities can be implemented to instigate a virtual sense of community and build bonds between students and faculty. Some lecturers devise online discussions, synchronous video classes, outside lecture communities on shared topics of interest, peer evaluations, e-journals, etc., to fill this gap.

Role of support staff

Another key aspect of online education is the role of support staff in bringing the programme together. From the registration process to the technical support of students and the infrastructure necessary to the technical development and maintenance, ancillary staff keep the community afloat. They are a highly dependable resource without the assistance of which effective distant programmes would not be able to function.

In this respect teaching institutions need to invest a significant amount of resources to ensure that all the right media have been used for their educational programmes and the right personnel have been assigned to their implementation. To facilitate the information management process in e-learning programmes some institutions also resort to systems known as virtual learning environment (VLEs) in the UK and learning management system (LMS) in the USA.

Positive results

When it comes to comparing e-learning with classroom education little "rigorous" research has been conducted so far. The generally perceived consensus, however, is that distance education yields positive results. A recent survey published by the Sloan Consortium, a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education, and analysing "the quality and extent of online education in the United States, 2003 and 2004" from the responses of over 1,100 colleges and universities, highlighted that a vast majority of students were "at least as satisfied with an online course".

A selection of Emerald articles on e-learning:

Akeroyd, J. (2005), "Information management and e-learning: some perspectives", Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 57 No. 2, pp. 157-167.

Fisher, M. and Baird, D.E. (2005),"Online learning design that fosters student support, self-regulation, and retention", Campus-Wide Information Systems, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 88-107.

Gordon, G. (2004 ), "E-learning: a philosophical enquiry", Education + Training, Vol. 46 Nos 6/7, pp. 308-314.

Williams, P., Nicholas, D. and Gunter, B. (2005), "E-learning – what the literature tells us about distance education: an overview", Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 57 No. 2, pp. 109-122.