Peculiarities of Cyberspace

Everywhere in the world 'virtual universities' arise, which serve their students mainly and sometimes solely by 'distance education'. For some this implies a sad goodbye to the good old times of the 'snug' visits to lecture halls and rooms. For others it means a cordial welcome of a new era in which the quality of education may be considerably upgraded, in which learning processes may finally be individualized to a great extent. At the same time an enormous increase of scale (and thus improvement of efficiency) can be realized.

What do we imagine when we think of 'distance education'? Hopefully not an increase in (social) distance between students and teachers. Is it possible to organize distance education in such a way that the social distance between teachers and students and amongst students can be diminished?

Do virtual universities and faculties contribute to the quality improvement of education? The first results of research into the effects of computer mediated education make it likely that this is indeed the case. The question is under which conditions virtual educational institutes actually contribute to the improvement of the quality and effectivity of education.

Does distance education lead to an improvement of the efficiency of education in practice? In principle distance education can increase the number of students unrestrictedly. But doesn't this possible massiveness of education harm its quality?

A revolution in the land of education

We used to be educated in the classroom or the lecture hall. All pupils or students come together in a certain room at a certain point of time. In that same room the teacher takes his place in front of the class and talks about a subject. The pupils are expected to pay attention and to take notes. We have know for years that 'class teaching' of 'formal lecturing' is one of the least effective forms of transfering knowledge.

By using modern Internet technology it is possible to change the complete educational system readically. The chanches of high-quality distance education have increased considerably. Mutual communication, which is essential betwee teachers and students and among students, doesn't necessarily imply a simultaneous presence in one physical room. The era in which being educated was identical to paying visits to lecture halls and lecture rooms is coming to an end. 'Distance learning' brings education to the student; the student no longer needs to go to the educational institute. Teaching (instructing) and exchanging opisions (discussing) can nowadays also be realized via videoconference-techniques, which do not require the physical mutual distance between teachers and studente and among students.

"Distance education is planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching and as a result requires special techniques of course design, special instructional techniques, special methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as special organizational and administrative arrangements." [Moore & Kearsley 1996]

Although learning is emphasized in this definition, yet it is assumed that teaching is a prerequisite for learning. That way learning is still conceived as a kind of service being offered to pupils instead of as something which is being done by the learners themselves. So, in many cases distance education is not much more than a computer-mediated replica of the traditional 'learning-by-teaching' model. This lead to the continuation of the culture of teaching and to the frustration of the development of a culture of learning.

In the concept of 'learning at distance' learning and the learners are at the centre. 'Learning at distance' includes all learning processes in which learners (making use of the most divergent information and telecommunication technologies), appropriate sources of information. It is a learning process which is controlled by the learners themselves in an open learning environment, structured by educational professionals. 'Learning at distance' facilitates non-directive, interactive and creative learning processes and stimulates the development of teachers and teaching styles which are effective for such learning processes.

Learning in your own time

Modern technology provides many possibilities to give and receive 'distance education'. But the question remains whether we should aim at a full duplication of face-to-face instruction. Interactivity between teachers and students can be realized in greatly divergent ways: the telephone (one-way video and two-way audio), two-way video or graphic interactivity, two-way computer connections or response terminals.

Internet technology creates the opportunity to realize a completely new type of education: asynchronous, just-in-time, individualized education.

  • Asynchronous
    Current education is synchronous: students have to be present at the same time in a certain place to listen to a lecture or to participate in a seminar. Putting high quality courses on the Internet enables students to choose their own moment to appropriate these courses. This way the emphasis shifts from teaching to learning.
  • Just-in-time
    Current education is based on the just-in-case principle: the greater part of the course material students receive is of the just-in-case type. They are supplied with knowledge in case they need it. A great part of this knowledge will not be needed. Besides, at the moment of transference the student often doesn't have a need for this knowledge. There is also the out-of-phase type of knowledge: people need it, but not until much later in their lives. According to optimistic estimations about half the just-in-case knowledge is stored. Computer-mediated just-in-time education breaks with this tradition: strictly speaking specific and general knowledge is only tranferred when the student needs it. The essence of webtechnology is supplying 'education at request'. Courses are worked through and knowledge bundles are appropriated at the moment the learner has a distinct neet for them.
  • Individualized
    Current education is based on the principle of collectivity: the educational programmes are attended by all students together and their exams are given at the same time. Within limits students can follow their own schedule, but that only counts for the private studying needed to pass these exams. Because distance education is by definition much more asynchronous and based of the just-in-time principle, it will be possible to individualize both education itself (appropriating knowledge and theoretical-methodological frames of reference) and the examination of results. In short: distance education offers students new possibilities to implement individual learning styles with a greater degree of learning autonomy.

Learning is best done in your own time and especially at your own pace and time rythm. You learn fastest when you yourself have a need for the knowledge and frames of referen which are relevant to the analysis or solution of a specific problem.

Learning styles and Teaching styles

Internet offers opportunities to introduce new learning styles for students and new teaching styles. It is naive to believe that by the extension of Internet connections with schools and universities the quality of education will increase automatically. This will only happen when we shift the accent from accumulating knowledge to new ways of communicating and to supporting the learning processes of students.

 The main changes are:

  1. A shift of class education to computer-mediated access to educational resources.
  2. A shift of the student as a passive recipient of education to a learning process which is directed by students themselves.
  3. A shift of individual learning to group learning and group discussions.
  4. A shift of a homogeous and balanced curriculum to a rapidly changing curriculum that is offered in greatly diverging shapes and formats.

It is all about a switch to a student-focused approach of education, generating a greater amount of learning autonomy. Students who learn via Internet have the opportunity to make a connection with educational resources, and to explore these resources in an order which meets their needs. In open learning environments teachers don't act as 'guardians of knowledge', but as tutors, helping students to facilitate their learning process.

NetStudents learn better

Students learn as fast as or faster via Internet than in the traditional schoolroom. Sociology students participated in an experiment at the California State University at Nothridge (USA) in which a part of them studied via Internet.

The Internet students performed 20 percent better than those who were taught in class.

The netstudents appeared to be more co-operative and have a better understanding of the subject matter.

The research was done by Jerald Schutte and the results are available at: Virtual Teaching in Higher Education. See also Online students far better

Large companies, such a Hewlett-Packard have been saving millions of dollars in the meantime by making use of distance learning to train their employees more effectively and more efficiently than with conventional methods.

Distance learning is an effective and efficient means for higher and adult education, as well as for company-bound training programmes.

Learning without frontiers

According to the UNECSO there are 900 million illiterate people in the whole world and 130 children who do not go to school. The large majority of the pupils leave the educational system with limited skills and learning abilities. Their motivation to learn something after school is very little. The conventional school systems are very often at odds with the new ideas, discoveries and insights from the various scientific disciplines researching the learning process. Conventional educational systems are badly prepared for the challenges and chances intrinsic to the modern information and communication technologies and to the predicted 'information society'. In short: modern educational systems are hardly capable of meeting the diversity of learning needs of individuals and communities.

The UNESCO would like to do something about this. With the interdisciplinary project Learning Without Frontiers (LWF) she wants to contribute to the solution of the social and political problems entailed in learning. Innovative learning is of viral importance for both the development of the individual and of multi-cultural communities. The LWF accentuates socio-cognitive learning in all living conditions and remains distant from traditional educational views in which the emphasis is on transfer of knowledge through instruction (in a classroom or by means of distance education). She wants to enable individuals to choose their own learning communities and to shape them actively. This implies the lowering of barriers which block access to various chances to learn. But most of all it implies a supra-national effort to come to a critical re-evaluation of a number of presuppositions, processes, relations and approaches which underlie the conventional ecducational systems.

In order to develop a new vision of education the LWF is looking for partners (varying from governments to donor organizations and universities) with which she wants to discuss themes like local systems of knowledge, social justices, mediated and organisational learning.