Wednesday, July 13, 2011

EduMOOC; Online Technologies Today and Tomorrow

During the first two weeks , because of the pressures of daily works, I was able to add my blogs on EduMOOC weekly topics only at the end of each weekly discussion. I believe that blogs are suggested to be added during the course of the weekly discussions itself. Therefore, in this week I prefer to be a good learner :) ...and hence this blog now.             

While thinking about the topic for the third week of our EduMOOC, that is, “Online Technologies Today and Tomorrow”, we cannot proceed without reviewing some basic information related to the earlier topics in the series. Virtual learning activities gained amazing pace in 1990s with the advent of Internet. Internet based online education originally began through various business houses using online training courses to prepare their newly recruited employees. Subsequently this method got popularity among universities and other academic bodies. Later with the advancements in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Open Distance Learning has become a favourite choice of individuals, business houses and academic institutions alike through what is called Learning Management Systems (LMS) or Course Management Systems (CMS).

LMSs have got strengthened further with the adevent of Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), a collection of standards and specifications for web-based e-learning. SCORM defines communications between client side content and a host system called the run-time environment, which is commonly supported by a learning management system. SCORM also defines how content may be packaged into a transferable ZIP file called "Package Interchange Format".

Learning/Course Management Systems


Learning/Course Management Systems have bestowed the learners and trainers in the ODL system with amazing tools to dramatically enhance learning and teaching experiences far above the conventional face-to-face set up. These systems can facilitate formal and informal as well as synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning environments. They have features like web-based admission & approval system, Internet or Intranet Virtual web-based administration systems, assessment and competency modules, digital libraries, white boards, video/voice/text conferencing and chat, email etc. Thus Open Distance Learning, aided by C/LMSs, has expanded the scope/ and boosted the effectiveness of learning in Educational and Industrial sectors alike. It was further reinforced by free and open course management systems like Moodle. Moodle provides enormous freedom to individuals, institutions and organizations to design their own web based course management systems that can be hosted at their own facilities.

Moodle - Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment is one of the most popular Free and Open Source Course Management Systems with more than 50,000 registered installations across the world. Its features include course development, student registration and management, assignment submission, discussion forum, files download, grading, moodle instant messages, online calendar, online news and announcement online quiz, wiki etc It also permits the addition of more modules. The most important peculiarity of Moodle is its ability to run without modification on Unix, Linux, FreeBSD, Windows, Mac OS X, NetWare and any other systems that support PHP and a database. Moodle facilitates an outcomes-oriented learning environment (see http://www.moodle.org)

Similarly, the information revolution that the wiki websites  have triggered also deserves a a very loud mention here. Though we cannot see wiki as a perfect LMS, it can add enormous value to the e-learning ecosystem by way of facilitating collaborative content generation, collaborative development of assignments by learners etc. The success of L4C (Learning4content) programme started by Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and now being implemented by OER Foundation in connection with WikiEducator project is the best example for this. Other popular LMS solutions are Blackboard, Joomla LMS, Canvas LMS, WiZiQ, Foundation Elluninate Live! etc.

Unlike traditional setups, in e-Learning, revision of study materials is rather easy and low cost. Since the content is stored in digital repositories, revision, remix and redistribution of the content to the learners at different locations is no more a problem. Similarly each module can be used for different courses without any extra investment. For example let us consider the Meta Course concept of Moodle. In this arrangement a learning manager can link a course to any number of other courses. Suppose a Degree or Diploma program requires courses C1, C2, C3, and C4. In this case, we can create a "Diploma or Degree" course as a normal course (non-meta course). Thereafter we will designate courses C1 through C4 as meta courses and each would show the Diploma/Degree course as the "child" course. When a student enrolls in "Diploma or Degree", he or she will be automatically enrolled in courses C1 through C4.

The Meta Course concept as discussed above will be very much helpful for the partners at initiatives like Open Education Resources university (OERu) to share/adopt courses.

Innovative strategies for simpler and low-cost solutions

While we think aloud about LMS/CMS solutions, there are many simpler and cost effective ways. For example the free open source print & e-book titled ‘Learning Perspectives 2010’ published by the MASIE Centre and the Learning Consortium contains an article by Julie Clow of Google, which gives a picturesque narration of innovative staff Training and Development methods that are being implemented by Google. The learning teams at google have come to the conclusion that conventionally printed guides and other learning materials do not provide a significantly better learning experience. They have tested this hypothesis in creating a leadership programme for early-career Googlers. They did not have time, budget or resources to create a highly polished programme. They wanted to train a few thousand Googlers spread across the globe quickly. They have decided to tap into the freely available leadership resources on the web. For this purpose they have drafted a series of simple emails that contained some basic context of the leadership themes along with links to the free content as noted above. Each email required only a few minute’s learning activity such as read an article, watch a video or answer a few questions.

In the above learning initiative of four week duration, they have kept their participants on track by holding virtual synchronous brief sessions at the end of each week, which also built a sense of community. The programme received high feedback scores. Participation and completion scores fell in the 80% - 90% range; which was far higher than the typical eLearning completion rates. The demand for the programme is very strong now.

Learning Perspectives 2010 is available at

http://www.learning2010.com/images/stories/learning%20perspectives%20ebook.pdf

Support of social networking platforms

Pre-knowledge of learners is an unchallengeable condition for any higher education course to be successful. As I have pointed out in the previous blog, skills to use web applications is the most crucial pre-knowledge to pursue e-learning in its current forms. In this context, the service being rendered by online social networking applications are remarkable. They also contribute for implementing sustainable methodologies for e-learning by facilitating interaction and uninterrupted flow of communication. Therefore, I would say, social networking platforms are also an integral part of the e-learning ecosystems.

Connectivity


Connectivity is the lifeblood of any e-learning system. Nowaday, e-Learning systems primarily depend on Internet for establishing connectivity. At present the world Internet penetration is estimated at 30.2% (see http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm) It means a lot more has to be done to build connectivity infrastructure to present the world with an inclusive higher education system. Why?

In this context I would like to quote the words of Sir John Daniel, President and Chief Executive Officer, Commonwealth of Learning at the Meeting of Focal Points for Africa & the Mediterranean:

"...Today there are 165 million people enrolled in tertiary education. Projections suggest that that participation will peak at 263 million in 2025.

Accommodating the additional 98 million students would require more than four major universities (30,000 students) to open every week for the next fifteen years. What are our assets in facing up to this responsibility?”
Said that, it is very clear now that inclusiveness in higher education is possible only through networked (or ICT enabled) Open Distance Learning. As I have discussed in my first blog in this series, further expansion of the traditional class-room facilities to cater the ever increasing demand for higher education is almost impossible in most part of the world. It leads us to the hypothesis that inclusiveness in higher education is directly related to Internet penetration (to which spread of e-learning is directly related).

Fast and amazing developments in the mobile technology and the sinking hardware prices give us hope in this respect (though electricity remains to be a problem in some areas).

Community radio to bridge the connectivity gap


People cannot be kept waiting till the connectivity problems are fully solved. Alternative methods are to be used as intermediate solution to bridge the connectivity gap. In this context the community radio as being promoted by the Commonwelath Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA) of Commonwealth of Learning (COL) emerges as a priority solution..

We know that two way communication is not possible using radio, still effective broadcast of lectures are possible. Where there is no Internet penetration and difficulty in providing printed study materials in sufficient quantities, the most feasible method to promote learning will definitely be repeated broadcasts of radio lectures and discussions. An asynchronous-kind of interactivity can be promoted by encouraging learner participation in radio programmes and synchronous-kind by phone-in programmes etc . Your thoughts?


To tackle low-bandwidth issues


Some parts of our glob has got yet another problem. Connectivity is there. But sufficient bandwidth is not available to implement innovative e-learning tools which require audio/video streaming. In this context also I would like to point out another solution from CEMCA - EasyNow.

EasyNow is a select set of easily available open source tools that can integrate fast delivery of text, audio, video, slides etc through internet, even in low bandwidth conditions. See http://www.cemca.org/easynow/

Future...

I firmly believe that Open Distance Learning (ODL) supported by Open Educational Resources (OER) would build the Inclusive Mainstream Education System in the immediate future. For that to happen we require more intelligent systems that can provide credential services and facilitate simulation for lab experiments,etc. Similarly we have to bridge the connectivity gap through innovative technologies and infrastructure development projects. 

In the case of infrastructure development projects, we have to converge the efforts being put in and funds being pumped into by various national and international agencies to facilitate a concerted effort, only that can ensure success and sustainability.



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