Thursday, October 18, 2007


According to Sir John Daniel “Distance Education (DE) is any educational process in which all or most of the teaching is conducted by someone removed in space and/or time from the learner, with the effect that all or most of the communication between teachers and learners is through an artificial medium, either electronic or print”. Therefore, by definition, in DE the normal or principal means of communication is through technology. The advancements of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the last two decades have made DE more relevant today than ever before.

Globally, over the last two decades, the mode of delivery in DE has moved beyond the traditional correspondence system to include more sophisticated systems that may be categorized as follows: television and radio systems, Multimedia systems, and Internet based systems including the broadband networks.

Educational television and radio systems use various delivery technologies terrestrial, satellite, and cable television and radio to deliver live or recorded lectures to both individual home-based learners and groups of learners in remote classrooms where some face-to-face support might be provided. Some systems offer limited audio or video-conferencing links back to the lecturer or a moderator at a central point.

Multimedia systems encompass text, audio, video, and computer-based materials, and usually some face-to-face learner support delivered to both individuals and groups. In this approach, which is that used by the open universities, instruction is no longer an individual’s work, but the work of teams of specialists: media specialists, information specialists, instructional design specialists, and learning specialists. Programmes are prepared for distribution over large numbers of learners, usually located across a whole country.

Internet-based systems are used to deliver multimedia (text, audio, video and computer-based) materials in electronic format to individuals through computers, along with access to databases and electronic libraries. Thus enabling teacher-student and student-student, one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many interactions, synchronously or asynchronously, through e-mail, computer conferences, bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messaging, etc.

The convergence of all communication networks including the satellite network, the telephone network and the internet has been brought about by bringing all the backbone technologies to a common digital platform. Thus heralding a future that promises to be even more exciting for the distance learner. Learners today can download multi-media educational content via internet from the comfort of their homes. Institutions have also successfully experimented with live web-casting of important events through the internet. It is only a matter of time before live web casting of regular lectures becomes routine.

The spread of broadband Internet communication is stimulating new types of educational organizations and also stimulating re-thinking about the effectiveness of the older ones. Thus the new technologies are being taken up with equal enthusiasm by open universities, correspondence schools, and other DE institutions.

Non-traditional providers, including private profit-oriented new companies are entering the global market, selling educational services online, especially to adult learners in the labour force. In Europe and America some for-profit online programmes have grown twice as fast as the conventional DE institutions’ programmes which have some face-to-face interaction. Some traditional education institutions are responding to such competition by establishing their own for-profit affiliates, while corporations have established their own in-house systems to meet their own needs for ‘just-in-time’ and ‘just-enough’ education.

The growth in enrollment of learners which often includes cross border learners, especially by for-profit providers, has resulted in adverse quality issues. However, a quality culture has been emerging among the DE institutions. All mega universities, including seven in Asia, have developed and implemented Quality Assurance standards and procedures in key areas of distance education activities, and at least three mega universities in Asia have institutionalized a central QA unit and sought the development of a more systematic and coherent quality culture.

Internationally, convergence of traditional campus-based higher education with distance education and the blurring phenomenon between the two modes has been observed. Increasingly, conventional universities have been embracing innovative DE programs and e-Learning. In Korea for instance, of the 201 colleges and universities surveyed in a study, 85 percent of them had implemented e-Learning and are equipped with technical infrastructure and operational supports.

Increasingly, countries and institutions see DE, especially e-Learning, as an alternative mode of delivery to widen access to education, satisfy continuing educational needs of adults, expand trained workforce, and/or train teachers to improve the quality of schooling. Pedagogical changes have been observed in DE. For example, one-way broadcast-based or correspondence courses have been replaced by two-way interactive courses, problem-based, case-based, and/or resource-based learning. Personalized learning and support services have been introduced in several DE institutions as well.

Whereas advanced ICT offers options to both expand educational opportunities and improve upon quality, it poses many new challenges as manifest in the 'digital divide’ in developing countries. However, with rapidly declining tariff rates and prices of handsets, cellular phones with computer like capabilities could become the instrument to bridge the digital divide. Integration of the Internet and futuristic concepts like virtual reality and miniaturized projectors into the mobile phones hold the key to portable education – anywhere, any time.

Manoj Tirkey,

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