E-Learning: A Revolutionary Approach to Teaching-Learning Process

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Today, when the life is moving very fast, and the world is going under rapid change and development, it has become imperative, to develop and employ modern technologies and approaches, in all the spheres and situations of life. Since the Teaching Learning Process (TLP) forms the very basis of human development, it also needs to be crowned and facilitated with new approaches and technologies, to make it more, comprehensive, qualitative, scientific, universal, and easy to common access & reach.

Almost everyone, somehow connected to education, would have come across the term e-learning, which when used effectively is not simply an add-on, but has potent bearing on all the aspects of the teaching-learning environment. A close study of the literature available on the subject, and the people’s perception of the meaning of the term e-learning shows a wide range of variation not only at the management level, but also at the academic level among teachers and the students. E-learning does indeed have many dimensions and approaches; with associated spheres of influence each having different requirements and constraints pertaining to that environment, therefore one size does not fit to all. Here we start with an outline of the e-learning landscape introducing the common variants.

Broadly speaking, the term e-learning, in the most general sense, refers to use of information and communication technologies in the teaching learning process, with the intention to enhance its effectiveness, and cover a wide range of tools and technologies. The idea of using technology in classroom is not new. From use of projectors, calculators, and relatively more recently slides are all familiar examples of this idea. On the other extreme, one can visualise a completely electronic learning scenario with no direct human involvement in the role of a teacher. In between, there is a wide spectrum of points. One can use these technologies to affect different aspects of the TLP. The list below gives just a feel for these.

Communication e-mail, discussion board, chat.
Content slides, slides on line, web resources, simulations.
Assessment Online assignment submission, online test.

You can choose pretty much any combination from this. While it is difficult to call just using slides as e- learning, somewhere along the spectrum you move into e-learning. It is hard to draw a universally acceptable dividing line, and perhaps it is of no interest either.

A common phrase that props up in most discussions of e-learning is “Anytime, Anyplace, Anypace learning”.  What does this mean? In traditional classroom learning, the teacher and the learner assemble at one pre-specified place – the classroom normally – at a specified time. If a learner comes late or is at the wrong place, he would miss the instruction. Similarly, all learners are expected to follow the same pace set by the teacher. The mechanism cannot adapt to the pace variation among the different learners. Thus, this mode of instruction is same place, same time and same pace. You can relax one or more of these, substitute ‘same’ by ‘any’. For example, any place, relaxes the need to gather at one single place. The teacher and the learners can be at different geographical places, but the time synchronisation is retained. Video lectures live telecast is an example of instruction by this mode. Any time relaxes the need for teacher and learner to be available at a common time. When you make content available on your website – video, slides, notes, etc – so that learners can access and peruse them when they want to, you are enabling anytime learning. Any pace is relatively more challenging. In any pace learning, different students can follow the course at their own individual pace – a fast learner can finish the course in shorter time than a slow learner. While the three sound similar, the complexities of implementing the three from the perspective of pedagogy, technology, software complexity, etc are quite significantly different. Any place is generally handled by making the course accessible over the web, so that anyone connected to the web can have access. The pedagogic implications of lack of face to face contact can be partially alleviated by use of video connectivity, though it is expensive in bandwidth and cost. Any time largely requires the course to move away a lecture based format, since the teacher cannot assume the presence of the learner when he/she delivers the lecture. Similarly, the teacher may not be available when the student is perusing the content and wants to ask a query.  Pace relaxation requires significant changes in the course plan itself, since different students may be at different stages in the course at any time. These require changes in all aspects of the e-learning framework.

Apart from this range of options, there is another important dimension in the e-learning space – of time synchronisation. This is closely linked to any time learning issue discussed earlier. We classify same-time e-learning as synchronous learning – both the teacher and the learners are present at the same time – and any time learning as asynchronous. Synchronous learning resembles the traditional classroom learning but for the fact the participants are physically spread out geographically. This is also called virtual classrooms (in contrast to the physical classroom). The primary technology constituent for this mode of learning is a mechanism to transport the teacher’s activities – primarily lectures,  slides, etc – to the students and their questions and comments back to the teacher, in real time. The alternative mode is called Asynchronous learning. Here it is not assumed that the teacher and the learner will be online at the same time. Web based learning, in general, works on this mode. This mode uses content repositories for offering content, and discussion boards, e-mail, etc are used for communication. Chat, which is a synchronous tool, is also often included for discussions.

There are a few more terms which often come up in discussions of e-learning. From the early days of computing, people have been talking about using computers for enhancing TLP. That brought computer based tutoring (CBTs) into existence. A computer is used as a standalone device here. There is no use of internet or any communication tool. Where e-learning scores over this, is in its ability to bring the power of communication and collaboration technologies into the learning process, along with the vast resources available over the Internet. So, we will consider e-learning to mandatorily require the use of Internet and communication tools which allow the user to interact with other learners and the teacher.

Intelligent tutoring systems, another relevant term, is an attempt to mimic a human teacher beyond the delivery of content. It tries to incorporate a deep understanding of the domain of teaching, pedagogical principles, remedial instruction, high degree of individualisation, etc and provides more tutoring than instruction. It uses sophisticated computer science technologies such as artificial intelligence. Recently, there are also talks about m-learning, where the attempt is to exploit the fast growth of mobile and handheld devices in imparting education. While there are severe restrictions on this technology to provide the full functionality of a normal educational environment, it is found effective for specific learning activities, and is now an active area of research.

Due to different perspectives that people have, there are number of different answers to the issue as to why we need e-learning. However e-learning is seen desirable from number of perspectives some of which are outlined below:

Shortage of Human Resource
In many disciplines, shortage of qualified teachers is a problem plaguing most educational institutions. The quality of the available teachers is another major concern. Given the financially attractive opportunities in the industry and poor academic environment that is seen in most of the educational institutions, teaching job is among the lowest in the preference list for many. While hardly anyone looks at e-learning as an alternative to traditional teaching, in this context, it is seen to expand the reach of the available teachers.

Time, Place and Pace Independent Learning
As mentioned earlier, for many, the need to come together at a fixed place at a fixed time is a major constraint. This is particularly true for those pursuing courses in part-time mode, the just in-time learners, adult learners, etc. The freedom to connect to the course setup at any time of your choice, and from any place is a major incentive for e-learning. It also enables learners to take to studying when they feel that it is the best time for them to study, and hence provides for adapting the TLP to the learner’s individual characteristics.

Comprehensive Learning Experience
This is a very important, but often ignored and under-explored aspect. When exploited effectively, e-learning enables a high degree of personalisation and a wide range of instructional methods. Powerful simulation environments, multimedia capability and high-end visualisation support enables learners to relate the subject much more deeply and comprehend it fully.

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Content Creation
India, despite her IT-prowess, is still a poor contributor of content in the Web. Part of the reason is that very few of our teachers are online.

Improved Quality of Teaching
When one gets into practicing e-learning to any significant degree, one will be creating much of the course material electronically. These are a lot more reusable compared to written notes, used otherwise. These can be improved over the years using user feedback, and hence results in better quality of material.

Methodical Feedback and Evaluation
Bringing assessment and other activities under e-learning enables you to gather much more detailed feedback on various aspects of the course. These include quality of questions, quality of content, qualitative judgement on students’ performance, etc. These can be used to enrich the quality of instruction at an institutional level.

From the list given above, one can see the many types of benefits that e-learning can bring in. However, e-learning offers a rich set of options to choose from. Proper choice of these options is important to reap the intended benefits.

The main components that make up the course are the teacher, the learner, the content, the assessment mechanism, communication and collaboration mechanisms, and the administrative aspects. In e-learning also, one needs to have all these. Some of them change in style to suit the new medium; but most of these exist in a visibly recognisable form. Arguably, the most talked about Indian e-Learning project is the NPTEL project. NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning) was conceived in 1999 and funded by MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource and Development). Under the project, 7 IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IISc (Indian Institute of Science) Bangalore, worked on the Rs 20.5 crore project from 2003 to 2006, to create 112 video courses and 116 web courses. Coming to the usage of NPTEL resources, here are some interesting statistics:Visitor Count: In the initial 10 month period since September 2006, there were 580,000 visitors to the site and of which 160,000 were registered.NPTEL site usage: As per Alexa site, 21% of visitors to iitm.ac.in website visit the NPTEL section. The iitm.ac.in website has a rank of 9813 in India.Another commercially successful initiative is MBA Programs being conducted for Working Professionals using Satellite Video technology, by institutions like IIM-Calcutta, IIM-Calicut, IIT-Delhi, IIFT, IIT Bombay, XLRI etc. This was done by these institutions using services provided by companies like HughesNet (formerly Hughes Direcway), Reliance Infocom and now NIIT Imperia.

Premier institutes like IIMs, IITs and XLRI etc provided faculty who take the classes, run the program, ensure quality and institutes provide certificates to students.

Satellite-based video technology is used to beam live lectures from the institute studio to the centres. Learning Management System software is used to supplement this for giving assignments, reading material and collaboration among students and faculty. The companies also set-up studios in partner institutes to enable lecture beaming.Now as we see, it was a comprehensive solution encompassing quality content, great technology, and services (marketing, infrastructure etc) to meet student need. Sakshat Portal from MHRD is another well-known e-Learning initiative. Modelled on lines of MIT OCW, it has been designed and developed by IGNOU for Ministry of HRD, as a repository of eBooks, e-Journals, Digital Repository and other student-relevant information. Study material is classified into various topics. Another related initiative again from IGNOU is eGyankosh – another digital repository for learning resources. Some of the other lesser known e-Learning initiatives/ projects in India are: Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham – This initiative launched in 2004 uses satellite technology to connect campuses of Amrita University located in 4 cities of South India.

BITS Pilani – It has established a virtual university, with DIT sponsorship. Jadavpur University – It started a new inter-disciplinary “Masters in Multimedia Development” course in 2000-01 as a distance education course using print material, CD ROM, and web-based learning environment.

Aligarh Muslim University – It worked on a project in 2006-07 to take its distance education program online, starting with a few courses which are industry-relevant.

Central Institute of English and Foreign Language, Hyderabad – It had a project for online learning software set-up and usage in 2006.Many other universities and colleges had small projects/ initiatives where they bought software, hardware and other technology products, got content development done for e-Learning launch. It includes Hyderabad University, Kerala University, Terna College Mumbai, MDI Gurgaon,  etc.

So far as the future of e-learning is concerned, according to Market Data Retrieval (MDR) in USA two thirds of colleges and universities offer long distance learning courses and the number of institutions offering accredited degrees have increased to 55%. New varieties of e-Learning have emerged with help and push from emerging technologies. Tuition on line has taken a new meaning where a varied help is now available both free and paid for on demand on any subject instantly. This has relieved pressure both on the teacher and the students.

Future learning is now focusing on learning beyond the classroom and curriculum. Institutions need to upgrade employees by offering re-training programmes. These are both costly and time consuming. By designing these programmes and content via e-Learning methods both time and money are saved. The innovative method is also self promoting as it increases the curiosity level of individuals for self promotion and career enhancements.

Apart from education, in the technical field too doctors and other professionals are getting a fair chance for keeping abreast of developments and discoveries and even participation in these activities through interactive delivery processes. Looking further, this being the global market era, the consumer is being made aware of immense openings, opportunities and bargains through this method. Medical tourism is one recent example of e-Learning where serious information and fun have been mixed for delivery of marketing content.

To conclude, e-learning has created a new dimension in education, both within and beyond the curriculum and is still looking at further opportunities of becoming more useful via new emerging technologies. We are really on the threshold of new opportunities and this is just the beginning of new horizon of education. Let we join our hands to realise this end.
Author is Assistant Professor in Deptt of Computer Science, Islamic University of Science & Technology. He can be reached at [email protected]

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