5.24 Distance Learning

Computer learning has been familiar in adult-learning centers for decades, but distance learning extends traditional teaching methods through Internet-supported systems to greatly enrich the learning experience, primarily through creating a sense of community and mutual support. Accredited distance learning (also called online education) benefits students who work full- or part-time and so can't attend class at normal hours. In its commercial implementation, distance learning is used to train staff in company procedures and specialist skills.

Teaching Programs

A wide range of software exists, from simple packages that convert text files to suitable HTML pages to fully-featured programs like those from Macromedia and Trainersoft. The last are very versatile and fully-featured — but of course expensive and time consuming to learn. Tutorials in HTML form are a cheaper option, but pages need to be placed in password-protected directories and some pay-to-view system installed. Many subscription companies supply this service. Not everyone wishes to learn programming on top of putting a course together, and many companies supply simple page-generating software for elearning courses hosted with them. Some are purchased as separate modules for student, tutor and course administrator, but many are fully integrated and allow registration fees to be taken online. {1} Those building their own educational systems will find Ning, Drupal, Sakai and Moodle particularly useful platforms.


Educational systems commonly include provision for:

1. Easy setup and use: training videos.
2. Customizable appearance.
3. Access from PC and mobile devices.
4. Security features.
5. Moderated or monitored daily.
6. Email and sms.
7. Charging systems: major credit cards and PayPal.
8. Curricula details.
9. Student attendance at classes and sessions.
10. Gradebooks with weighting schemes.
11. User groups.
12. Blogs.
13. Wikis.
14. Forums.
15. Online chat.
16. Quizzes and question banks.
17. Assessment tools.
18. Social networking.
19. Foreign language support.
20. Student portfolios.
21. Information libraries.


Most US colleges now offer online courses, some 77% of them, according to college presidents interviewed in 2011. Some 51% of presidents regarded them as equal in value to classroom courses, but only 29% of Americans agreed. Some 15% of these presidents also reported that most of their undergraduate students have taken an online course, and believe the figure will rise to 50% in ten years' time. {8}

The World Is Open

A recent appraisal of open learning organized prospects about ten key themes: {9}

1. More material is becoming easier to access. No one can now know everything, even of one discipline, but the Internet has made it possible to know where information is stored and how to make best use of it. That information can be accessed on PCs, laptops, smartphones, $100 PCs, Internet cafes, hotel rooms and even computer kiosks in the slums of New Delhi. Google Books, Global Text Project, Open Content Alliance and Open Library Project already provide access to millions of digitized titles. More academics are self publishing. {22}

2. A Successful Business Model. Though the formal and online learning courses are being blended in many universities, with students deciding on the mix best suited to their needs, there exist for-profit universities that use online methods exclusively. The University of Phoenix, for example, is the largest private institution in the US, serving a population that is two thirds women and of average age 35. Capella University occupies the second largest building in the state of Minnesota and had had 20,000 students in 2007. Ramkhamhaeng, the open university of Bangkok, Thailand has over 600,000 students. The Indira Ghandi National University expected to have 2 million students by 2010. China had 1.1 million estudents in 2006, and another 2.7 million in correspondence courses. A decade from now could see distance learning accounting for a third to a half of all higher education and training in military, government and corporate establishments.

3. Growth of Open Source and Free Software. Software houses increasingly offer free trial periods, student versions, and cut-down renderings of their programs: a loss leader model that has come to be expected. But sometimes there is no commercial angle at all: Perl, Joomla, Unix and a host of similar computing languages and platforms have been developed by enthusiastic specialists and placed in the public domain. Professionals often prefer them: they're free, backed by large programming communities and can't be discontinued by corporate fiat.

4. Free Online Courses. MIT and other US universities (see below) are offering free courses online, and these are being translated to other languages and matched by an increasing number of similar courses in other countries.

5. Portals for the People. Access to information is becoming a fundamental human right, shown by the many thousands who contribute to Wikipedia (over 75,000) and the Encyclopedia of Life.

6. Open Information Communities. Youtube, MySpace, Facebook, etc. all created communities, and have led to sites hosting educational material: TeacherTube, SchoolTube, BigThink, Research Channel, SCiVee, WEbook, Scribd and the like.

7. Electronic Collaboration. Children increasingly collaborate and share experiences: in the USA on Club Penguin, and in China on 1Kg.org. Users of the last are asked to give away one kilogram of educational material as they travel through rural areas.

8. Alternate Reality Learning. Simulation is often used where practical training is prohibitively costly or dangerous (pilot skills, surgical techniques) and these approaches are spreading into school and college teaching. People learn by doing, and more so when it's enjoyable and satisfies clearly-formulated needs. Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other universities are creating 'islands' in Second Life, both for their students and the public at large. Similar sites teach community skills {14} and indeed much else. {15}

9. Realtime Mobility and Portability. Mobile phones are everywhere, and provide another teaching platform, particularly useful in deprived areas and in the third world generally. Mobiles phones and computer tablets travel with the student, who can therefore use the educational applications at any time. {16} An example is the SAT Score Quest for the iPad. {17} With devices like Livescribe's Pulse, students can take notes and recordings live, transferring them later to their computers. {18}

10. Networks of Personalized Learning. A networked information economy is emerging, with social media enabling students to share information and experiences. One example is Livemocha, where students learn languages by listening to native speakers. Other examples include Mixxer and FriendsAbroad (now acquired by Babbel). {19} Podcasts provide a similar service: ChinesePod for Chinese {20} and Kantalk for English. More one-to-one courses are offered by MentorNet, Tutor, Smart Thinking, Tutor Vision and Growing Stars.

All these represented the convergence of three trends: a Web 2 learning infrastructure, billions of pages of free and open content, and a culture of participation and knowledge-sharing.

Features of Online Learning Systems

Driven by the surge in mobile phone use and social media sites, the new world of online learning is: {12}

1. Personal: the courses can be tailored for individual needs.
2. Interactive: students learn by doing, creating and interacting.
3. Global: education reaches everyone with access to the Internet (or can play CDs).
4. Instant: students can start immediately, and continue at their own pace.
5. Largely free: even the commercial material is priced within most students' means.
6. Readily shared: with friends or learning colleagues.
7. Co-creative: students happily collaborate on projects.

Free Courses

An increasing number of universities and institutions make teaching and other material freely available in digital form. Examples:

1. MITOpenCourseWare. MIT's extensive list of free courses.
2. Learning Materials for Community College Teaching. Foothills Global Access.
3. Japan OpencourseWare. Consortium of Japanese Universities which have been providing OCW in Japan.
4. Open Yale Courses. Free access to some introductory courses at Yale University.
5. Open Education Resources. OERCommons. Over 200 free textbooks, etc.
6. Public Library of Science. Many free papers in medical and biological sciences.
7. Library Thing. Cataloging and social networking site provides cheap access to digital books from 700 libraries round the world.
8. Wikibooks. Over 2,400 open textbooks.
9. MERLOT. Peer reviewed online teaching and learning materials.
10. Connexions. Content Commons of free, open-licensed educational material.
11. Curriki. Open source curriculum and resources for the classroom.
10. Online Learning Resources. BBC. Site listings.
11. Library of Congress. 'American Memory': material under 18 headings.


1. How and why has distance learning become popular?
2. What features would you look for in selecting something for
a. technical training of staff, and
b. a university course leading to an accredited degree?
3. Describe some developments worldwide in distance learning.
4. Anyone can teach themselves to degree level today. Discuss.

Sources and Further Reading

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