Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Online Education - Real Learning Experience, Not Just Content Delivery!
DEANZ conference is one of the largest conferences in the Southern Hemisphere on the theme of distance education. Over 90 people attended this year's biennial conference, held 26-29 April 2000 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The majority of attendees were from New Zealand and Australia, though some were from the nearby islands and Canada.
Although the conference theme, "Supporting the Learner through Open, Flexible and Distance Strategies: Issues for Pacific Rim Countries", suggested an intent to focus on issues related to Pacific Rim countries, most of the presentations, in fact, dealt with issues of global relevance. The essence of the conference was that enough time has been spent on providing online "delivery", and now it is time to focus on online "learning". Both presenters and audience believed that individualised interactivity in online instruction is sorely lacking. Some sense of satisfaction came from the outcome of the conference. A number of projects that were presented are considering online learning. The results should be evident in the near future.
The conference was formally opened by Ian Smith, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Otago. In his remarks, Smith mentioned that university education is rapidly embracing flexible learning, though teachers are still the organisers and facilitators of the learning process. But the scenario has changed in the sense that more time is now spent on preparation of learning materials, managing use of that material by the students, and assessing student performance, rather than spending time on preparing lectures that could be delivered simultaneously to a large number of students. He stressed that the "one-size-fits-all" model of education is no longer appropriate.
Further, discussing the use of technology in the learning material, Smith emphasised that it is vital to see the conference theme "supporting the learner" in its literal sense, and thus technology should be used in support of educational strategies and not the other way round.
He went on to say that this change towards open, distance, and flexible learning did not come free. Although it is true that institutions have gained students by favouring these practices, the process of learning individual characteristics of students and developing appropriate teaching strategies, using the latest technology, has been expensive and time consuming.
Following the same track, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Scott, from University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, mentioned that there seem to be lots of nice ideas about how to implement technology, but if these ideas are not implemented in reality, they are wasted. He emphasised the need to be practical and use the "read and match" approach where technology is selected and mixed, according to the requirements of the course, students and discipline, rather than treating face-to-face instruction and technology-based online instruction as two separate entities.
Another keynote speaker, Laurence Zwimpfer, from Zwimpfer Communications Limited, Wellington, New Zealand, discussed the reliability of technology during its use in online education. In a fun speech, he asked the audience some basic questions related to their experiences with technology. (For example, how many individuals replied "personal communication" to a mailing list by mistake? It was interesting to see that people in fact had more problems with technology than expected.) With the fast-moving pace of technology upgrade and the increasing number of available technological choices, he said, performance expectation on the part of users has increased, but some users question if the technology can be trusted or not.
The other two keynote speakers focused on regional issues, though such issues could also be found relevant elsewhere. Cathy Gunn, from University of Auckland, New Zealand, examined the profit motives against educational quality in flexible learning. She mentioned that New Zealand's educational system still values educational quality more than anything else and hoped it would remain that way. She related her experiences during her involvement in the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) in the UK educational system (where funding was given to a large number of projects to develop computer-assisted learning modules) and noted that, according to the audit, only a small percentage of the total investment was actually used to produce a quality project.
Russell Bishop, from University of Waikato, discussed the status of Maori individuals in mainstream education. He noted that if we are serious about equity issues, we need to observe that sense-making processes are different for individuals from different cultural backgrounds. He proposed a model classroom where young people's sense-making processes are welcomed, integrated, and enhanced. At such a place, existing knowledge from different cultures will be acceptable and official, and no one culture's opinions will be forced on another's. This may create completely different interaction patterns than what we are used to, but then this is a new process with expected new outcomes.
A unique characteristic of this conference was the parallel sessions arranged for single papers so that each presenter had about 45 minutes for presentation and discussion. This not only allowed people to attend the presentations in which they were really interested (rather than sitting through a longer session where only one or two papers were of interest) but it also facilitated deeper discussion between the presenter and the interested audience.
Another interesting aspect of the conference was its focus on pedagogic issues and not on describing the development of the systems. This focus immensely improved the quality of the discussion and facilitated continuation of discussion themes over the sessions.
Although the presentations in the conference were not categorised in any formal themes, various categories did emerge based on the issues discussed by the presenters.
One major theme under which a number of papers could be classified was "effects of technology application in online learning":
Marion Simmelman discussed the benefits of a Virtual Independent Learning Centre which has three major strands: Real Web (Web-based collection of nearly 500 tasks written by experienced teachers), Easynews (radio news broadcast), and Workcom (workplace-related tasks linked to World Wide Web). All strands allow students to take up various learning tasks and try them independently. They also have discussion groups for students and teachers to discuss these tasks and other issues of interest.
Ian Reid demonstrated the benefits obtained by standardizing the knowledge management of online courses. He explained that the model they have adopted provides centralized maintenance of course Web sites while distributing responsibility of content provision to the teachers. This ensures that every course has at least a basic Web site, and teachers find it easy to fill in the content in readymade templates.
James Higham presented a similar approach to standardization but at a much finer grain, at the level of units within one course.
Kinshuk presented a Web-based online delivery system for lectures and demonstrations that is now being extended to integrate various other teaching functions such as adaptive student guidance, an authoring module for teachers, and free-form search and query capabilities.
Catherine Wallace and Karl Pajo emphasized that the advantages of technology will not be seen in the educational sector if the willingness of the staff is not taken into account. They presented the findings of a survey of staff about their current use of Web-based technology and major barriers preventing them from using the technology. Not surprisingly, most staff did not believe Web-based technology was any more effective than conventional correspondence approaches to distance learning!
Greg Collings described the evolution of a computer-aided learning system for tertiary-level biology and discussed both the success areas and the pitfalls that others may avoid.
Lisa Emerson described the Online Writing and Learning Laboratory at Massey University, which aims to provide learning support services to all students, regardless of location. She made it clear that this laboratory does not provide academic subject-specific support; rather it supports academic achievement by focusing on generic skills which should be transferable across disciplines. In a separate presentation, Bruce MacKay explained the functionality of the Online Writing and Learning Laboratory, in particular, forums, chat rooms, and randomly selected self-review quizzes.
Antonie Alm-Lequeux discussed the benefits of World Wide Web in creating interactive learning environments for language learning at a distance.
The theme of collaborative learning once again attracted the interest of participants through a number of papers:
Peter Rosman described his experience with collaborative projects offered to over 750 schools under the Global Classroom Project (GCP) and CyberFair. The results have been positive in bringing together "like to like" groups to compare work, and for short period discussions or information sharing.
Iris Wilkinson presented a whole workshop devoted to the topic of collaborative learning. The main focus of the workshop was on the use of online learning as a changing paradigm of educational process with a particular focus on collaboration as a student learning outcome. He demonstrated the "virtual" classroom he has created for one course he is teaching and explained how students are gaining more than just the course content, in terms of greater involvement, communication skills, and much more.
Ann Trewern mentioned that teachers need support in providing dynamic and worthwhile learning opportunities for students with the use of technological tools. She talked about two curriculum-based interactive projects where teachers were provided good support for the classroom implementation of information and communication technology and the subsequence results were positive.
Derek Wenmoth presented Globalnet.2000, a project for young people aged 10-16 that establishes a communication network involving individuals, schools, and community groups. This network is expected to become self-generative, building on existing links as well as establishing new ones. The Web site associated with the project includes a variety of online forums and discussion centres, a resource area for teachers, and some imaginative interactive dimensions.
Ann Trewern and Kwok-Wing Lai discussed the theoretical underpinnings and design principles used in setting up an online discretionary-use, professional learning network, called the New Zealand Learning Network, for primary and secondary school teachers within New Zealand.
Many papers related to student experiences in online and/or flexible learning:
Annie Weir discussed the issues related to student feedback in courses and demonstrated results of a study that revealed course questionnaires to be a reliable, verifiable, and useful means of determining course quality and student satisfaction.
Kristeen Lockett discussed the issue of student loneliness in the online learning environment and the resulting decrease of motivation and increase in the dropout rate. She described the Online Campus project, which attempts to enhance learning, motivation, and communication, and decrease isolation.
Lee Hsiu-Chuan described a research project to develop computer-mediated education programmes in the tourism discipline. The project adopts a student perspective on the Tourism Distance Learning Programme in New Zealand and Australia. In the process, it seeks to identify the key areas of improvement and ongoing development of computer-based learning resources.
Models and strategies of online learning
Various papers in the conference focused on new models of online learning:
Susan O'Kane-Powell and Judi Walker presented the connected learning environments model, which represents the processes involved in developing online resources and creating online learning environments. They expect that the model will be a useful starting point for those involved in online learning or have interest in using the World Wide Web as a medium for the learning process.
Kinshuk proposed a human teacher model in the design of Internet-based intelligent tutoring environments. He mentioned that the current intelligent tutoring systems are unsuccessful because they cannot be customised to suit the teacher who is implementing them. He noted that the proposed human teacher model would consider the attributes and roles of a human teacher - both as a designing collaborator and as a teaching collaborator within a joint cognitive system.
Judith Blanchette discussed the role of computer-mediated communication in increasing the potential for interaction, and at the same time creating the need to learn new ways to use language. She emphasised that it is important because the communication strategies that instructors and students have been socialised to in the face-to-face setting are not always adequate in the online context.
Jens Hansen proposed a "subsumptive theory" of distance education which claims to adequately encapsulate and explain how contemporary distance education engages a plethora of information and communication technology developments while facilitating an intractable, deregulated environment, and fulfilling the demand for flexible solutions.
The DEANZ conference was a successful experience. Despite its regional stature, many new ideas and research were presented. It was clear that distance learning is now expected to be more than just the one-way delivery of instructional material. The focus seems to be turning to providing a true learning experience by exploiting the two-way interactive functionality of the Internet.
Dr Kinshuk is Senior Lecturer at Massey University, New Zealand.firstname.lastname@example.org