Study better in cyberspace

Log on and you can learn in a much more flexible and collaborative way

The future is incontestably digital: the internet is changing the way we do all sorts of things, from shopping to working to running our social lives. Education, though, has so far largely remained anchored in the old world – but even this is beginning to change.

Universities are fast becoming receptive to the new horizons and opportunities the internet offers. Of course, distance learning is an established concept, but modern online learning is a far cry from old-style correspondence courses.

Flexibility and collaboration are the key advantages to the new style of online learning, according to Alan Southern, the director of postgraduate studies at the University of Liverpool's management school. Classes are small and based around web forums. Students are given some reading or research, and can interact with their instructors and peers in evolving discussion threads. One-to-one access to tutors is readily available, and the beauty of the system means that classes do not have to happen in real time.

Discussions will be open for days at a time, meaning that students can ask their questions when their time zones and work schedules allow. It's all done on a low-tech platform for people with slower internet connections.

"We are playing to the strengths of the technology – the real time aspect doesn't add anything online," says Southern. "In this format, a student can go away and do some more reading or have a harder think about the subject before coming back and rejoining the discussion.

"We've avoided transferring what we think as the 'classroom on campus' experience into the online environment, so you won't see conventional-style lectures taking place."

Online learners are a different crowd from on-campus students. They're generally older and probably in full-time work, and either can't spare the money or the time to complete a traditional course. Many have decide that a degree is the best way to advance a career, but that it isn't practical to leave their job to study for one.

Unsurprisingly, the Open University, the heavyweight champion of distance learning, is also embracing the brave new digital world. "Most of our courses now have an online component," explains Niall Sclater, OU's director of learning innovation, who favours a hybrid approach to online learning.

"There are pros and cons to all technologies," he says. "To do away with traditional methods does not work – but you do have to use new techniques for what they're good for. Distance students can feel isolated, so the internet helps them connect to each other in a way that wasn't possible when they were using bits of paper sent out to them."It's more efficient from our point of view, too. Students are submitting their assignments electronically, and the marking is done electronically. There's not a lot of point in using the mail any more."

The OU is taking a much higher-tech attitude with its content than many, and is using all sorts of media, like wikis, videos, audio, animations and virtual whiteboards. It also holds scheduled learning activities, when a class logs on at the same time to use video- and audio-conferencing and collaborative applications. It is even pioneering lectures held in the online world Second Life.

"One of the things we're doing is trying to make all our student-facing systems mobile friendly," says Sclater. "Smart phones are going to be huge. They can take small chunks of learning – reading, podcasts or quizzes – wherever they are."

Peter Crookes spent nine years on and off studying for an open degree in science, maths and computing with the OU. His job as a meteorologist keeps him travelling, and he was only able to get the degree he needed to move his career to the next level by flexible online study.

"I couldn't have taken these courses in any other way," he says. "When you're in work, you just don't have the time to dedicate yourself to a full-time degree. With the OU, I could fit the degree around my life. Sometimes I had a lot of time on my hands at work, and I just went online and studied.

"My degree is opening doors for me. I can go for better jobs in the met office; it's really improving my career."

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