Distance education has a history that spans almost two centuries (Spector, Merrill, Merrienboer & Driscoll). This period represents significant changes in how learning occurs and is communicated from basic correspondence through postal service to the wide variety of tools available through the Internet; society has embraced new forms of communication through the years (Moore, Dickson-Deane, & Galyen).
According to BatesA.W. (1985). Distance education refers to a mode in which students and educators are situated in different places and/or time. Unlike in the past, distance education is delivered by printed materials and audio tapes via postal services. Students usually have to study independently and in isolation. But today with the advances in telecommunications technologies, distance education can now take place through multi-media, such as radio broadcast, video-conferencing, online learning platforms. Institutions of higher education are facing the pressure and challenges of integrating technology into their teaching. According to Heydenrych et al (2003:424) as part of a distance education initiative, communication technologies can be used to market educational products, support communication and other forms of structured activities, or deliver courses completely online. Following the technology imperatives, institutions may engage technologies for the sake of technology or in order to provide learners with needed technological skills for the workplace. But when the pedagogical imperative is given priority, the quality of teaching and learning stands to be enhanced. Heyderych et.al,(2003: 434). Chang, Lim, Ha, Lee, Kang & Cha (2007), have indicated that in recent years the temporal and spatial barriers are alleviated because of the advent of mobile technologies which are cheaper and more convenient communications so that students and educators can access information and communicate with one another anytime anywhere ubiquitously by using various mobile devices. Mobile technologies bring both new opportunities and challenges to distance education as this was discovered by Kushner (2009:289) where a serious complaint by students registered in course using e-learning environments is that they are overloaded with vast amounts of information, and that they often feel more burdened in those courses compared to traditional face-to-face courses that do not use such environments.
Bates and Poole (2003) suggested that technology has an important place in University teaching, but it needs to be utilized with care and discrimination. It is no longer a question of whether we should use technology but in what contexts and for what purposes technology is appropriate for learning and teaching. At The Open University of Malaysia, for instance, the blended learning pedagogies were formulated right at the start to cater to adult learning patterns and styles and to optimize a variety of media in order to provide an environment conducive to learning. While the core learning material is the printed module, other methods or media are used to support it.(Abas, 2009:533).
E-learning refers to electronic applications and processes to learn. E-learning applications and processes include Web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms and digital collaboration. Content is delivered via the internet, intranet/extranet, audio or video tape, satellite TV, and CD-ROM. It can be self paced or instructor led and includes media in the form of text, image, animation, streaming video and audio.
Acronyms like CBT (Computer-Based Training), IBT (Internet-Based Training) or WBT (Web-Based Training) have been used as synonyms to e-learning.
The benefit of E-learning:
Increases access: Instructors of highest calibre can share their knowledge across borders, allowing students to attend courses across physical, political, and economic boundaries.
Convenience and flexibility to learners: In many contexts, eLearning is self-paced and the learning sessions are available twenty four hours of the day weekly. Learners are not bound to a specific day/time to physically attend classes.
It develops skills and competences needed in the 21st century: It particularly ensures that learners have the digital literacy skills required in their discipline, profession or career.
The Barriers which usually come in course of pursuing online education:
Technological barriers: The technology linked with e-learning is tricky for some students and professors to navigate. Some professors might not take benefit of all the sorts of technology that are available, which lessen the value of the class.
Distractions: Most students that are e-learning have several life distractions. Some have children, full-time job, deep relations, which can lessen the precedence of school. Students who are fighting procrastination, online infatuation and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, might find it hard to concentrate.
Less interaction: Whereas some personality traits fare better working in cyberspace or by themselves, an individual that likes working in teams is probable to extricate from e-learning. Classroom interactions can promote friendships, build a healthy learning experience and hold every student responsible. Nevertheless e-learning can invoke feelings of estrangement because of lack of immediate response from teachers and close communication with students.. E-learning also doesnt imitate a number of careers. For instance, plenty of jobs employ personal training. Thus, exclusively takes class by e-learning puts an individual at a drawback if he or she doesnt have sufficient practice learning through social means.
No Hands-on Practice: Principally e-learning also restricts the chances to pertain the lesson away from the classroom to social experiences. Also by mainly e-learning an individual misses out on joining student associations and organization that might build skills, networks and confidence.
Not prepared: Students and teachers might not be ready emotionally, academically and technologically to teach or learn through e-learning. Teachers who are not given the required training might feel besieged by the technical demands, lack of status and lack of face to face contact with the students. The capacity to transmit a quality message through e-learning might be particularly hard for teachers. Students might not be motivated, disciplined or mature enough for e-learning. Some students are still novice to appropriate study methods and need more support from a teacher. Thus e-learning might be too independent for few students.
Face-to-face courses
Most distance education systems around the world use the services of part-time tutors as a link between learners and the University.
Tutors serve as part of the student network of any distance education university. The literature has so far indicated the face-to-face tutorial support has more impact than online non-interactive mode of teaching. This was also revealed in 2004 in China where offline services still dominated the learner support design with institutions providing face-to-face tutorials (Wang, 2005:8). Online learners were also were made to rate offline support services compared to online; and it emerged, according to Wang (2005:9) that online learners still preferred the conventional classroom-based learning style of interacting with, and receiving knowledge from, their teachers face-to face, despite the fact that there alternative online support provisions available to them. It has been noted by Boitshwarelo (2009:) that although blended learning solutions can be appropriate approach to increasing access to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa but these solutions, however, need to be pedagogically grounded and their design should take into account not only the target learners and their immediate implementation environment but also systematic constraints and affordances. (Boitshwarelo: 2009: 15). Internet accessibility in Africa is almost nil especially in rural and remote areas this therefore means that that online teaching will benefit certain individuals especially those who are living and working in the cities lest we embark on the possible use of M-learning which connects to mobile phones.
The roles and competences of the tutors in distance education
The South African Institute for Distance Education s tutors guide on supporting distance learners emphasizes that tutors provide the essential human contact between the learners, the course materials and the organization. (SAIDE, 1998). Tutors therefore need to possess multiple competences identified in various studies as cognitive, effective and systematic (Mishra, 2005:148).
The students conceptions of the nature of the interactions in tutoring are as follows according to Price et al. (2007:15):
Pastoral Care. The tutor offers support and encouragement, and provides the student with confidence. The tutor develops a personal relationship with the student where the student can talk freely. S/he listens to personal difficulties and provides support when difficult circumstances in the students life. According to Brigley et al. (2007:257), students perceptions of the tutor role appeared to change over time because in that study the students who were on third year level were seeking academic rather than pastoral input from tutors. They indicated a need for tutor support with reflective learning and to develop their practical teaching project.
Provide Leadership: The tutor should learn the way forward and act as a guide.
Provide constructive feedback: The tutors feedback must be of developmental nature i.e. tutors should provide constructive feedback by presenting conceptual or overarching criticisms as opposed to nit-picking. Prompt feedback on TMAs [tutor-marked assignments] is essential.
Initiate group learning/peer group support, initiating collaborative learning: Tutors should enable students to feel part of a group and share in a collective experience. They should encourage personal interaction with other students, setting up study groups, working in groups, being part of a study group, and enable students to feel part of a community.
Learner autonomy: Tutors should enable the student to have say in the tutorial content. Tutors should not be authority figures students dont want an authoritarian tutor.
Online Tutoring: The Role of a Tutor in Online Tutoring
According to Gerber et al., (2007: 234) three general roles of a tutor are content-related, social and organizational support.
In the content-related function, a tutor provides information, gives explanations to critical concepts and leads the discussions. Price et al (2007:7) indicates that there was a significant difference in items that constituted good tutoring between the students who receive face-to-face support and those who receive online tutoring in the sense that those who receive online support rated their tutors less favourably across all items. One possibility is that tutors who provide online support were less competent or less well trained than the tutors who provide face-to-face support.
The social task of the tutor is to facilitate and maintain the interest and motivation of participants.
The administrative function is about the processes of planning and designing class activities.
According to Richardson (2009: 69), there is no significant differences between students who received face to face tuition and those who received online tuition either in the perceptions of the academic quality of their courses or in the approaches to studying that they adopted on those courses provided that tutors and students receive appropriate training and support. Price et al., (2007:15) noted, online tutors and students need to be trained to compensate for lack of paralinguistic information through their use of explicit verbal cues. Price et al., (2007:15) also argued that many students come to online with inappropriate expectations and would benefit from supervised experience of online tutoring environment. It was also discovered the major contributing factors underlying the low utilization of rates of online learner support reported by online students in China stem from their lack of self-directed learner qualities and learning strategies (Wang: 2005:9).
The lack of systematic tutor support and training had, according Wang, (2005:12), a domino-effect on Chinese online education system because most tutors did not have an in-depth understanding of online education as a unique teaching pedagogy. The unknowingly perpetuate and clone traditional face-to-face practices in their tutoring process which in turn reinforces passive learning habits amongst students, rather than transforming them into self-directed learners cable of effective learning online. DAnotoni, 2003, says that only after tutors grasp an in-depth understand of the pedagogical dynamics of online education, will they be fully equipped to effectively facilitate students to develop into competent online learners. Tutor support and training is important and cannot be overemphasized.
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