Can online education improve learning environments in general?
At the Centre for Development Studies, University of Agder, Norway, we have the impression that our pedagogical methods applied in the mainly online fulltime study "MSc Development Management" can be useful to others.
When teachers venture into e-learning, they are as a rule compelled to rethink their teaching methods and pedagogical approaches. The virtual classroom is not intuitive. Teachers who think so, will quickly wake up to students disappearing from their course in droves, and to very negative evaluations. Teachers and course developers will have to keep up by building teams making learning communities of practice in order to increase understanding and prevent dropouts.
MSc Development Management (DM) students in Ghana working F2F and in virtual, international group rooms
Teachers in poor countries acquiring online teaching competence, will be attractive on the international market. Not only as school teachers, but as corporate trainers as well. Increased opportunities for international joint degrees, increasing ICT competence and access to ICT technology are factors that can reduce the problem of brain drain from poorer to richer regions.
Typical problems at many universities in developing countries can be lack of capacity, manifested through overcrowded auditoriums and campuses, overworked lecturers/professors and brain drain over to private sector or abroad. These issues in turn lead to quality concerns such as difficulties with recognition of competence, questionable relevance and currency of information, libraries and curricula. There is also a lack of competence in the use of information and communication technologies and the ability to participate in internationalisation and joint study programs. In order to achieve development goals and make it possible for poorer areas to benefit from globalisation, closing the digital gap between rich and poor areas is crucial.
Online education, or blended: in combination with on-campus sessions, or purely online, presents new problems and challenges to professors, tutors, administrations and course-writers. To make a good online learning environment in a “virtual” classroom, there are various support and training needs for all involved.
Online education addresses many of the expressed problems
The days when a professor could expect to have a dialogue-lecture with 12-15 students in a classroom seem to be gone. Even in rich Western countries professors must expect to lecture for big numbers of students, while small classes are terminated due to fiscal reasons, even if the subject is considered important. In poor countries, severe campus overcrowding is the rule, where more than a thousand students may have to squeeze into auditoriums constructed for 300-400 persons.
Lectures can be useful arenas for inspiration and motivation. Learning might be more efficient in other arenas. Students at KNUST, Ghana
“When I studied for my undergraduate degree about thirty years ago, we were 6 students in the final year class. Today, there are often about 100 plus students in the same class; at times the class may have to be broken up into two groups and when a lecturer has finished with one group of students he has to proceed to the other and deliver the same lecture”. Professor Emmanuel Frempong, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, 2008.
Big classes may lead to reduced quality in teaching, for students as well as the teachers, who often find repeated “monologue-lecturing” boring. Overcrowded classes give the lecturers heavy workloads, increasing the risk of “brain drain” to other countries. Many teachers ask for good alternatives to the traditional ways of teaching. However, when people are stressed with increasing workloads, they tend to cling to known routines and avoid investing energy and money in experiments. There will therefore be ambiguous feelings about new approaches to teaching and learning.
Increasingly, people ask if technology can help, and many educational institutions consider venturing into e-learning. With the advancement of electronic communication technologies, there is also a trend of increasing cooperation in national as well as international networks, even between competing educational institutions. The digital gap is still there, but it might be closing. Asia has more internet users than USA and Europe combined. There are probably more than 100 million internet users in Africa, and the growth in Africa since year 2000 has been over 3000%. Internet penetration is between 30 – 40 % worldwide (Internet usage stats).
According to UNESCO, the overwhelming majority of developing countries, despite difficulties, problems and fears, seek as far as possible to take part in the formation of the global educational community. Most countries are eager to develop their competence and capacity in online education.
A frequently returning problem is that many governments tend to believe that as soon as technology is in place, the problem is solved. However, education is about very much more than dissemination of information. In the Delors report (2008) to the EU commission, it was emphasised that learning is multifaceted:
- Learning to know (learning to learn, general knowledge & understanding)
- Learning to do (skills, competence, practical ability in a variety of settings)
- Learning to live together (tolerance, mutual understanding, interdependence)
- Learning to be (personal autonomy & responsibility, memory, aesthetics, ethics, communication & physical capacity)
DM students, University of Agder, Norway, working online in internationalised virtual rooms in the LMS Fronter
Technology alone cannot possibly solve this. In addition obviously comes content, pedagogy, various learning resources and personal support and guidance. There are no intuitive shortcuts to a general and good education. Good education will come with a price tag. Accept that! There is no free educational lunch. Advanced societies must accept massive investments, in many cases, reinvestments in public education. The alternative is not nice, and will be extremely much more costly. On the other hand, education is socio-economically very profitable. According to an OECD report, federal, state, and municipal governments make a profit of $231,000 per invested dollar on each American who graduates from college–mostly through higher income taxes and lower unemployment benefits (Davidson, 2013).
Build knowledge societies
A World Bank report (WB 2002) suggests several measures for building knowledge societies and reducing the problem of brain drain from poor to rich countries. Among the suggested measures are increased reliance on joint degrees; purchasing ICT equipment for scholars and bridging the digital divide. Other suggestions are life-long-learning approaches, creation of international quality assurance frameworks in higher education, international recognition of qualifications and avoid sending scholars for longer sojourns of study in industrialised countries.
“Program and project components that include staff development activities based on long-term graduate studies in a high-income country are likely to be vulnerable to staff defections. Evidence is mounting that shorter courses abroad are less likely to result in human capital flight”. On the other hand; “Strengthening the capacity of tertiary education institutions to respond flexibly to the new demands of knowledge societies will increase their contribution to poverty reduction through the long-term economic effects and the associated welfare benefits that come from sustained growth” (WB 2002).
Some universities have found that heavy investments in ICT may not necessarily work well in education. Lessons learned so far indicate that in addition to technology, new ways of thinking and new ways to learning are important success factors.
High quality education
“Traditional in-person teaching can be replaced by or associated with asynchronous teaching in the form of online classes that can be either scheduled or self-paced…. a new pedagogical model involving active engagement of the students rather than passive reception of information, opportunities to apply new knowledge to real-life situations, representation of concepts and knowledge in multiple ways rather than with text only, learning as a collaborative activity rather than as an individual act, and an emphasis on learning processes rather than memorization of information” (WB, 2002).
There is still a need for the teacher organising good instruction. Good, safe and loving learning environments as a rule requires good organisation. Most young persons need authoritative, adult guidance. But the uncritical, one-way dissemination of a rigid curriculum is no longer that useful in the information age. Standardised curricula and standardised multiple choice exams are not part of the answer, but might rather be a part of the problem. There are good pedagogical approaches that can be applied to online education. With quality assurance and professional guiding, educational institutions anywhere can offer good e-learning worldwide.
There are many problems and challenges down the road. The need for training of tutors, professors and other supporting staff is increasingly urgent to avoid repeating the costly mistakes some universities have done the last 10-15 years. The global community needs to find good ways of increasing educational quality for the new masses of student groups and lifelong learners while keeping costs down and maybe even find new sources of income. One of the answers to these challenges is increased use of appropriate online education.
Pictures: Å. Bjørke
Burnett, N. (2008) The Delors Report: a guide towards education for all, European Journal of Education, Vol. 43, No. 2, UNESCOhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1465-3435.2008.00347.x/pdf
Davidson, C. (2013) Why Does College Cost So Much–And Why Do So Many Pundits Get It Wrong?, HASTAC, http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2013/08/24/why-does-college-cost-so-much-and-why-do-so-many-pundits-get-it-wron
Internet usage statistics (2014) http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm accessed 25.02, 2014
UNESCO (2002) Open and Distance Learning. Trends, policy and strategy considerations. Division of higher education, Paris.http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001284/128463e.pdf Accessed 12.02.14
UNESCO (2014) Visions of learning, UNESCOhttp://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/rethinking-education/visions-of-learning/
World Bank (2002) Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education. A World Bank Reporthttp://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTEDUCATION/0,,contentMDK:20283509~menuPK:617592~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:282386,00.html Accessed 25.02.14
(Complete blog article here)