By Suchitra Steven Samuel
Online education, also known as distance learning or e-Learning, differs from traditional education. Here students are not limited to a brick and mortar institution nor do they listen to an instructor face-to-face. They study in a virtual classroom free of walls, engaged in assisted, self-directed learning.
For those already employed, online education offers them a chance to advance in their careers, develop a higher level of personal confidence, and fulfill life-long dreams. Briefly, it is all about learner convenience. Students can check in, work on assignments, and turn them in when their schedules permit, not when college doors are open.
Dr Jeremy Williams, director, pedagogy and assessment; associate professor, eLearning, Universitas 21 Global, (U21Global), a premier online graduate school explains the concept behind this method of study in an interview with Panorama.
"I want people to think differently about eLearning, how different it is from mainstream learning. I look forward to a stage when eLearning will be just called learning like how e-banking has now become just banking," says Dr Williams.
He does agree it is not the same as being in a classroom. "We don't make any attempt to replicate what goes on in the classroom. What we do is to provide students with a truly authentic learning experience," he adds.
Just reflect for a moment on how people in the business world go about their daily lives, from 9am until 5pm day in and day out. What do they do? They go to the workplace, turn on their computer, use their mobile phone, send SMS, browse the web, download resources and search for information on the web and communicate via email. "Today, information and communication technology (ICT) are part and parcel of our work and personal life. If you are going to have a truly authentic business education, does it not make sense to use the same tools that businesses use?" asks Dr Williams.
He says that this realisation came to him a couple of years ago as he sat on his verandah in his property in Australia on a bright sunny morning. He had taught a batch of 50 MBA students the previous evening and was reflecting on it over a cup of coffee. "Though the class went reasonably well, I wondered how to improve the teaching, learning process. I realised that students are coming down to universities having worked in the Central Business District all day. They come to a very unnatural setting -- rooms, tables and chairs. How can we put hand on heart and say we are preparing these people to be international business executives not using the tools of the trade?" he asks.
"In online education we are not doing anything radical. We are doing what people do every day. We feel strange because the word ‘university' or ‘business school' or MBA conjures images of classrooms with boring professors. We've changed all that," he adds.
U21Global was established in 2001 as a premier online graduate school and offers globally recognised programmes backed by 16 of the world's leading universities. A joint venture between Universitas 21, an international network of 16 research-intensive universities and Thomson Learning, a leader in tailored learning solutions, U21Global combines the traditional quality of its founders with innovative modes of delivery on the Internet, providing students with substantial learning advantages.
The graduate programmes draw upon the best practice in education excellence and have been approved by U21pedagogica, an independent quality assurance body that ensures that the curriculum meets the rigorous academic standards of all 16 member universities.
How did you get all the universities together? Dr Williams says: "Trying to work with academics is like trying to herd cats together. It is difficult for academics to agree on anything. To get 16 universities to agree to set up U21Global was no mean feat. These prestigious very research oriented universities realised where the future lies."
There is a huge market for higher education in the world particularly in Asia. This cannot be possibly serviced by brick and mortar institutions. "If we start building universities in countries, we would never keep pace with the demand particularly in countries like China and India where the demand is great. Universities have realised they can offer their services in a different way to exploit demand. It is a valuable source of revenue for them. So they are pooling resources to develop this service. During the dot.com boom, a lot of eLearning companies were set up and they did a bad job of it. They would take text and cut and paste on the website saying it is eLearning. eLearning is much more. It is interactive and engaging. It is part of a long-term strategy," explains Dr Williams.
Do you find that older students find it difficult to come to terms with technology? A definite "No," he says. "Technological expertise is not required. I do agree that some people are more comfortable with technology. As long as you know the switch to turn on the computer, you overcome the biggest hurdle. Our MBA is not technologically driven, it is pedagogically driven. The most important aspect is student learning. There is no point in using intricate technology if students cannot use it. We use very simple tools in a way that allows depths of learning that students can only dream of. Once people experience eLearning, we will see a dramatic change."
Dr Williams opines that there is so much learning that can be done but is not done because people are weary of learning. eLearning increases the productivity of employees and develops a commitment on their part not so much in the UAE, but in other parts where eLearning has become a part of the corporate strategy of companies. For example, India has a high level of interest from the corporate sector, providing programmes for employees to raise their skill levels. As a result companies move up the value chain because they know that this is the way to be successful in a knowledge economy. "India is a good example. It has one of the highest economic growth rates in the word. It is a reflection of the strategies employed in the country," he notes.
Another suspicion related to eLearning is that there is no personal interaction. This is far from the truth. The level of interaction is in fact, far greater. Faculty members and students talk to each other often and even become friends. There is much bonding that happens online. "At a physical get-together of the student chapter, students sometimes greet each other with a big hug, which shows the strength of the relationship. This is not surprising, if you take into account the number of successful online businesses and even the popularity of online dating," he elaborates.
How do you see the future? "The next big push is 'learning communities.' There is far more synchronous interaction between students through Yahoo and MSN messenger, free Internet telephony, Skype and eBay tools. Thanks to technology we see who is online, like a virtual coffee lounge. Learning takes place and knowledge becomes etched in the mind."
With eLearning you can forget about musty old lecture rooms, or lecture notes that have been used for the last 20 years. Listening, reading and discussions enhance the learning process. With discussions, learning is enforced. The professor acts as a guide on the side as the student navigates his/her way though the course. Thus students have control over their learning.
How would you categorise the U21Global courses? Dr Williams says: "Beyond the flexibility provided which is ideal for working professionals, U21Global's course content, created by outstanding educators around the world, and connects our students to a global community of professors and students with different cultural and industry backgrounds.
"In our curriculum, global MBA case studies are analysed. Our students are citizens of the world and they learn to do business in a global environment. We are proud of what we've done and our quality is second to none."
Source: Gulf Today