December 14, 2012

Distance Learning : From Correspondence Courses to MOOC

Distance learning is a very seductive idea.

If we go back to the era of the Mahabharata, we learn about Ekalavya, the tribal boy, who on being denied access to Dronacharya's classes on warfare on account of his caste, taught himself archery simply by observing the teacher from a distance ! The tragic consequences of his effort are well known and should perhaps serve as a warning to societies in general and teachers in particular.

In a more realistic timeframe, approximately a hundred  years ago, correspondence courses appeared and over a period of time these courses became an integral part of various Open Universities. Unfortunately degree granting programs based on correspondence courses never acquired the popularity or employer acceptability of their classroom counterparts for a variety of reasons.

With the advent of computing technology, computer based training (CBT) programs appeared and while these never quite made it to the level of university courses, a lot of vocational training programs were developed on this model. This was particularly so in the case of training for computer oriented skills where both students and the course creators were generally comfortable with the usage of computer software.

Then came the internet and the "killer application" that it helped spawn -- the browser based world wide web. With rapid expansion of both bandwidth and computing power the teacher -- or at least his video, his words, his presentations -- could really overcome the inconvenience of distance and slide into the student's room, or at least his computer.

So is distance learning finally ready for prime time ?

Though a lot of us believe so there are quite a few sceptics who point out that like correspondence courses that were never quite able to replace the university, distance learning is destined to follow a similar trajectory. At best it might end up as a supplement to existing university programs and remain as that stepson who is allowed to stay along in the family along with the new children !

This is wrong and let me explain why it will not be so. It is not enough to have a good idea  -- there must be a field for the idea to germinate and grow into a big tree.

In 1987, when "IBM" personal computers were just about beginning to enter the corporate landscape ( in the Western world, not India ) Apple released a product called Newton -- a handheld computer called the PDA or personal digital assistant that was actually quite smart. Not only was it portable and could do many of the things that a regular computer could, it had some truly futuristic features like handwriting recognition. Unfortunately the product never quite caught on with people and was finally abandoned in 1998.

But only 12 years later, when the same company released a similar device, the famous iPad it got a rousing welcome and it has gone on to become one of the most successful products in the history of computing devices.

What had changed ? First there was the internet, the web and email but perhaps what was most important was mobile telephony. Thanks to the "field" prepared by these technologies, the idea behind the Newton PDA blossomed either as smartphones or tablet computers and has now become the most ubiquitous device that the world has ever seen. Now it is very difficult to question the relevance of any application that is based on these products.

How is this analogy relevant to distance learning ?

Let us assume that correspondence courses and computer based training programs are like the Newton PDA, an idea whose time had not yet come. What has changed since then ?

Before we answer this question, let us step back and examine the "competition". What is it that a traditional university has that distance learning must meet, match and exceed to be taken seriously. To understand that let us ask ..

What is a University ? At its most fundamental level a university has three critical characteristics, namely
  1. People : Lots of people, both students and teachers
  2. Space : A shared space that all these people can access simultaenously
  3. Interaction : An environment that encourages vigorous and rich interaction amongst all these people
Now let us look around us and see if these three conditions are being met anywhere in the digital world and the first place that we look at is

Social Media : Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, Google+, Instagram ... what is common to all these platforms ?

  1. People : Again we have lots of people, though not necessarily teachers and students, though they are not excluded.
  2. Space : Obviously these platforms are accessible to, and are indeed accessed by, all the people who participate
  3. Interaction : There is no dearth of interaction and in fact interactions are the lifeblood of any social media platform.
 What is even nicer is that these interactions can be very, very "rich" interactions, not just in terms of media -- that is images, audio, video -- but in terms of questions, answers, clarifications, comments, appreciation, criticism and even evaluation in terms of likes, shares and votes on each and every interaction. In fact I believe that social media interaction is far more richer in terms of diversity and depth than what could ever be possible in the physical world.

So the success of a distance learning program in emulating and surpassing a traditional university lies in its ability to map the university model on the social media model that has become so wildly popular.

In an earlier post I had explored how we could deliver Distance Learning on a Social Network Platform but if we look around we would see that the movement towards Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOC) is a step in this direction.In fact big name universities on either side of the Atlantic have come together to create two major consortia -- Edx created by MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley in the US and FutureLearn consisting of 12 British Universities namely  Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds,  Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick, along with UK distance-learning organization The Open University (OU)  -- have been formed to develop the concept. And then of course there is Coursera a commercial entity  and Udacity created by Google employees who have all stepped into the game,

Distance learning is no more a technology of the future. It is here and now as the technology is widely and inexpensively available. In fact, the way I would put it is that the bus is here but whether you board it or not is something that you have to decide and decide fast !

What would you need to get going ? That will be my next post.


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Jeanete Dowling 2:00 pm  
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