Distance learning: Something wiki this way comes

Online technology is roaring ahead, helping to create a global electronic classroom.

The news this year that a number of American universities had taken their distance-learning programmes into Second Life, the virtual online world, might appal traditionalists; but technological evolution is a vital part of remote learning, and always has been.

While campus-based students attend lectures and seminars, distance learners are taught by constantly evolving methods. And the pace of change shows no signs of slacking.

What began with print-based courses in 1858, with the University of London External Programme, has moved through stages of radio instruction, audio-visual teaching and conferencing, and CD-based learning. Now providers such as the University of London, the Open University and the University of Leicester are embracing all the possibilities of the online world: podcasts, blogs, wikis and all.

"It's a very exciting time," says Niall Sclater, the director of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Programme at the Open University. The VLE is, put simply, an electronic classroom: a website through which providers can manage the learning experience for students, and allows students to access a host of resources while communicating with tutors and students. "We're helping students to get to know each other better, and their tutors too, by using blogs, online forums and wikis," Sclater says. "Tutors might keep blogs to inform their tutor groups of what's going on. Students are also using blogs for learning journals. Another group of students gathered their findings on a wiki, a website where people can contribute, comment and change things. They said they didn't see how the project could have been run without the wiki."

The VLE can incorporate versions of social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, which can help to mitigate the comparatively high drop-out rates suffered by distance-learning providers.

"This is a big departure for the Open University," says Sclater, who is co-ordinating a £5m project to develop the VLE. "We've been primarily an institute that's sent out text and relied on the occasional face-to-face interaction. With the internet, we've got all sorts of ways to institute change."

Distance-learning providers are clearly working on mobility. "We have a project where we are looking at what can be done to help distance learners through mobile phones," says Professor Jonathan Kydd, Dean of the University of London External Programme. "Reminding students of deadlines and exam dates in a friendly way via text is a way of giving them the sense that they're part of the learning community." As capacity increases, it will be possible to download assignments and submit essays using mobile phones.

Universities are also finding ways to strengthen the academic experience. "What's going to be interesting is remote students being able to access all the resources that campus-based students can," says Kydd. "Access to libraries no longer means having access to the building itself."

Indeed, the number of books and journals that are available online has increased hugely in the past five years. "We're sending out less print," says David Christmas, director of business administration at the University of Leicester. "We're simply referring students to our sophisticated electronic libraries."

But this is all irrelevant if issues of accessibility are not overcome – a real concern in developing countries and remote areas. "There are real-world problems," Christmas says, "and there are still issues with bandwidth and speed."

This is where the most exciting developments are. The OU is working with Intel on an offline facility that could offer online functions and updates when an internet connection is available. Whole courses could be provided on a USB "pen" drive, which is inserted into any computer or laptop. With the recent development of the $100 laptop, it's hard not to see the educational potential on offer.

There are other developments: wireless LCD screens, where difficult words can be touched for an instant definition; ePortfolios, where students can exhibit work and create CVs; synchronous whiteboards (if I draw on my whiteboard, it appears on yours), and so on.

But it's not all technological madness. "One of the most amazing technologies ever invented is reading from paper," Sclater says. "It's a key way to learn, and it's not gone away." Phew!

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: We are currently looking for a Geog...

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links