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Getting It Right: Enhancing On-line Learning for Higher Education using the Learner-driven Approach.

Abstract

On-line learning taps into the advancements in computers, communication, and information technologies to offer flexible learning. Learners are able to learn anytime, anywhere, and in a collaborative learning environment. On-line learning promotes the globalisation of education by making learning borderless. In a knowledge-based era, on-line learning is a powerful tool for knowledge creation and management.

This paper discusses the rationale for on-line learning in the Internet Age and proposes ways to improve its effectiveness in Singapore. The authors recommend the learner-driven approach to support the on-line learning initiative and address its implications on content design, academic staff, learners, management, administrative staff and facilities.

Introduction

With the advancements in computer, communication, and information technologies, the world is becoming one big connected place. Many traditional ways of doing things are being modified and replaced in the Internet Age of fast speed communications and instant connectivity.

The "new" or network economy encourages global competition and benchmarking. It has become critical for businesses to be able to deliver the best value in a seamless world. There is a need for net-savvy workers who are able to understand the technology-driven way of doing business.

In response to this worldwide trend, Singapore aims to be a knowledge-based economy (KBE) in the new millennium. Industry leaders are realigning their strategies to reflect the KBE thrust. The theme is being widely promoted through public campaigns such as the May Day 2000 "Better knowledge, better life" programme.

In education, the "thinking schools, learning nation" strategy has been adopted by the Ministry of Education. It is vital that the education system be aligned to hone the human assets into high quality intellectual capital.

Learning methods must evolve to deliver the new set of skills needed in the new economy.

Keen competition, high labour cost, need for lifelong learning, sophistication of net-generation learners, and technologies advancement propel the search for learning methods that are effective, efficient, exciting and enlightening in preparing knowledge workers for future work challenges.

On-line learning as a technology solution presents opportunities for both new ways of learning as well as knowledge and skills creation. In many ways with on-line learning, the medium is also the message. Many of the skills required to make on-line learning effective are the skills necessary to excel in the knowledge economy. However, technology solutions must engage successfully with human behaviour to be effective (Kelly, 1999). There is a risk with the technology hype that on-line learning is misconceived and used in inappropriate ways. Effective on-line learning is not just about putting information content on the Internet and facilitating access to it. It is about designing connectivity as a tool for the learner to use. The focus should therefore be on the learner and not the technology.

On-Line Learning Based on Learner-Driven Approach

This paper examines the potential of on-line education as a new way to enhance learning. It proposes the learner-driven approach to direct the online learning (OLL) structure. In Figure 1, the authors advocate that the educators begin with the end in mind. The first step focuses on mapping the desired outcomes of knowledge workers. This would include cognitive development, E-communication, teamwork, global outlook, cultural sensitivity and information technology-savvy in the contexts of their disciplines of study.

Seeking inputs from the employers is a good starting point because they hire the graduates. Employment rate and career progression become good benchmarks of the effectiveness of on-line learning in preparing learners for their world of work. Educators must determine the values that employers seek in their staff and instill them in the learners.

The values stipulated by employers drive the type of education philosophy adopted. The philosophy aims to address the "what", "how", "where" and "who" of learning. What should the learners learn today? Are these primarily content or process skills? How should they learn it? Is the classroom-based teaching model able to deliver this new set of competencies effectively and efficiently? How should educators tap the technological advancement to make learning more timely, more effective and easier than conventional methods of teaching? How has the profile of today's learners changed? Who are today's learners and what are their needs?

OLL can be designed to assess and benchmark students against the desired outcomes. In this manner, educators can aim to close the gaps and produce the desired graduate profile demanded by the employers. Hence, the model for effective OLL must start with the learners and address their needs.

Adopting the learner-driven approach in Figure 1, this section examines OLL learning as a viable vehicle to groom knowledge workers. The following are common plights in today's learning environment:

Scenario 1

Many applicants are keen in the course that the institution offers. However, they are unable to meet the attendance requirement because of their work schedule and travelling plans. On the other hand, the institution needs the minimum class size to start the course.

Scenario 2

Some of the students have already learnt to perform the basic skills in the course as a result of their on-the-job experience. They become disruptive and those needing the extra practice are distracted.

Scenario 3

Students want to seek clarification on the project material that they are working on. However, the lecturer is not available and the resource is out on loan.

Scenario 4

A large percentage of the current work force needs to be re-skilled urgently for work in the Internet era. However, they do not have the luxury of attending formal classroom training because of their full-time jobs.

Because the OLL approach is able to address these challenges in the learners and the teaching situations, it became a popular way to learn (Table 1). OLL is supported by the advancement in computers, communication, and information technologies. Hence, it works round the geographical, social and time constraints of learners. Now, learners can learn anytime, anywhere, anything, and at any pace.

Lifelong learning is important to keep learners competitive and updated in the knowledge-based economy. Workers must seek ways to upgrade themselves even when they have full-time employment (Majumdar, 2000a). OLL allows adult learners to combine continuing learning activities with their other roles.

Figure 2 illustrates the three phases of OLL. The lecturer-centred model of OLL focuses on the production and distribution of teaching materials. The technology-based model enhances the presentation of the contents via sophisticated audio and visual capabilities. Today's learners are exposed to techno-savvy entertainment and gadgets. Content must be presented in an effective manner to capture the learners' attention. Learners can tap the Internet technologies to access global knowledge beyond classroom boundary and study at their own place, time and pace. In other words, they can practise "just-in-time" learning by focusing on related topics on hand.

This is the place for self-learning. Learners no longer learn in a predetermined linear sequence. They can skip and reverse the topics according to their own level of readiness and prior knowledge. The emphasis shifts from mass teaching to customised-learning (Majumdar, 2000b).

Educators move from being the source of knowledge to managers and facilitators of learning. OLL does not treat learners as empty containers waiting to be filled with prescribed content. Instead, it draws on a variety of learning strategies and lets learners decide on their preferred way to learn. OLL is learner-centred, enabling learners to assume responsibility for their own learning. Because of the self-study feature based on the on-line material, learners can focus their classroom time on meaningful face-to-face discussion.

Simple self-tests and simulations are available for learners to assess themselves with prompt feedback on their performance to help them improve. This formative nature of assessment allows learners to build their competency over time. The gaming feature helps to enhance learners' memory retention via interaction and involvement.

The learning team-centred model simulates the virtual classroom in which learners interact with each other to expand their ideas via electronic forums and communication tools such as whiteboard, bulletin boards, internet relay chat, newsgroup discussion, E-mails, etc (Atwong et al, 1996; Natesan & Natesan, 1996; Seibert 1996; Siegel, 1996). This model assumes that learning is a social activity and learners tap the learning network to verbalise their thoughts. This technology promotes active group learning through computer-mediated interactions (Cordell, 1996). There is never a dull moment on-line due to the nature of collaborative learning. OLL is never static, but reflects the dynamism of the learning communities. This facilitates greater cognitive development, critical thinking, and the discovery of new knowledge than learning alone. Because the computer is an impersonal medium compared to classroom discussion, learners feel more at ease in expressing their thoughts on-line than in person.

OLL promotes a cross fertilisation of ideas. Group members may comprise members from different classes, schools, countries, etc, who are united in a common task. They develop skills to build relationship quickly over the net and to interact effectively despite the distance between them. It is useful for learners to be able to relate across cultures since the future working environment spans across geographical borders.

OLL also develops the electronic communication skills. It equips the learners suitably for the work world of the future where an increasing percentage of the communication will occur over the Internet (Hoffman & Novak, 1996). Through on-line education, learners learn to become comfortable with Internet communication mode.

The use of OLL to help learners better manage their time and learning style provides a viable flexible solution for today's busy learners (Table 1). An on-line learning package with clear learning goals and technology-based learning activities backed by cognitive principles can yield the desired results (Lye, 2000).

Enhancing On-line Learning

The technological advancement offers new ways to deliver, instruct, communicate and learn that are beyond the traditional classroom method. Hence, the focus of OLL should be on how to use the technology to enhance the learning outcome. It is about how the learners can learn more, learn more easily, learn faster and learn how-to-learn (Atwong & Hugstad, 1997). It is not about getting students to communicate with machines rather than their lecturers and classmates. The race is not on who has the latest and best technology.

Given the current hype on the Internet technologies, the greatest misunderstanding of OLL is that it is another form of delivery apart from the print media. Having one's Powerpoint slides on-line does not equate to on-line education. If this is so, then on-line education is restricted to distribution only (Figure 2).

In this section, the authors propose ways to improve the effectiveness of OLL (Table 2) in Singapore by assessing its implications on content design, faculty, learners, management, administrative staff and facilities.

Content design

On-line material should not be a mirrored version of the handouts in the classroom. If students in general do not enjoy reading print material, it is unlikely that they will read the same content on line.

On-line materials need to be presenting in a visually appealing manner to entice learners to read. Gaming tools must be available for interaction and memory retention. According to the American Society for Training and Development, research shows that learners typically remember 10 per cent of what they read, 20 per cent of what they hear, 30 per cent of what they see, 50 per cent of what they say, 80 per cent of what they do, and 90 per cent of what they teach.

On-line materials must be delivered in small chunks to help learners "digest" better. OLL is about bringing the classroom to the students. Academic staff must plan and execute live interactive Web-based events and learn to manage on-line environment. Learning objectives in terms of competency-based or knowledge-based outcomes should be defined clearly at the beginning to guide the learners (Conte, 1998). Based on Figure 2, information could be layered to help learners learn through the stages. At the distribution model, learners can conduct self-study on new knowledge that they are interested in. After self-studying, they can self-test to check their level of understanding. At the interaction phase, learners can participate in the simulation game to hone their application skills. Simulations offer significant on-the-job learning without the time, cost and risk associated with the traditional on-the-job workplace training (Wong, 2000). With the prompt feedback, learners are brought nearer to the next level of skills via formative assessment over the learning period. Finally, having understood the knowledge well, learners can interact with the other learners via collaborative learning to engage in critical thinking and reasoning. Learners may not necessarily move through these three stages in a linear manner. Academic staff need to acknowledge the diversity in their learners. Depending on their readiness and knowledge, they can skip or reverse the stages.

Because OLL pushes learning beyond class time and physical boundaries, the on-line material can involve the learners in an individual way. It can be linked to related information sites and allows the learners to choose their own approach and logic in exploring their topics.

The development of on-line content can incur high costs in software development and technological design. OLL can be extended to other global learners to generate revenue to recoup the development costs. To compete globally, on-line contents need to be benchmarked globally. On-line content needs to reflect the global views and best practices of the world instead of focusing on one particular country (Cordell, 1996).

Faculty

OLL is not a compensatory factor that recovers for poor curriculum design or ineffective teaching practice. It does not directly replace lecturers or face-to-face interaction among the learners and lecturers. Faculty engaged in OLL need to reform their curriculum design and content to suit the technology-based teaching environment. They must apply new communication styles and formats to take full advantage of the new medium (Judson, 1996; Majumdar, 2000a).

Faculty's role has changed from mere content providers to facilitating the learning process. Today, learners must be able to gather, organise information, judge its value and decide how to best present it to the others (Conte, 1998). Faculty must learn how to craft on-line lessons to engage the learners and develop the higher order thinking skills. Hence, there is a need to move beyond the production and distribution of contents to the collaborative learning stage. In a collaborative learning environment, industry professionals and alumni can interact with the learners in legitimate teaching roles. The content development should also be backed by sound pedagogical principles to bring about the desired cognitive development.

Unlike the classroom situation with personal interaction, the faculty need to find novel ways to manage and motivate their on-line learners. The classroom-based model of manpower planning needs to be modified to reflect the continuous nature of on-line facilitation and the number of on-line learners per staff.

OLL calls for technological skills that academic staff may lack. Most faculty are valued for their content expertise. They may not have the skills level to develop the on-line content in the required format. For example, the faculty may need to publish on-line materials in a visually appealing manner and be supported by gaming options to facilitate memory retention (Kompa, 2000). They need to be supported to deliver the on-line content. This is translated to time and cost for training, designing, testing, and updating of courseware material.

In the rapidly changing E-world, the strategy developing technological skills of faculty could be unreasonably costly. Instead, the content specialists should focus on the updating of their specialised fields and leave the software development to the technologists and visual experts. Courseware houses are well equipped to handle such projects in a cost-effective manner due to their economies of scale.

To address the high cost in sub-contracting the courseware development, the faculty should aim to reach global learners as a way to generate revenue to cover these costs. This will spur them to be world-class content developers as they now cater to a global audience.

Besides the content updates in their fields, academic staff should instead learn how to write on-line course specification highlighting the curriculum design, on-line delivery, assessment and activities. The technologists can work on the courseware development based on these specifications that are pedagogically sound. Faculty must learn to collaborate with their colleagues (Conte, 1998; Sheingold & Hadley, 1990). It is most likely that the subject team for OLL sees three types of academic staff: content-specialist, visual-specialist, and computer-specialist.

OLL calls for a change in behaviours for the learners and the faculty in the consumption of the education services. This change process must be managed well otherwise faculty's resistance to change in adopting new technologies can sabotage the entire E-learning effort. Possible resistance may stem from the perception that the current hype is faddish and hence, advocates a "wait-and-see" approach in view of the already heavy teaching schedule (Bryson & de Castell, 1998).

Learners

The profile of current learners is influenced by the classroom-based teaching method that is lecturer-centred. Lessons are mostly conducted one-way. Learners are passive in class.

OLL shifts the learning responsibility to the learners. Learners are empowered to plan for their learning strategy.

They have to do more work themselves in the computer-based teaching model than the classroom-based model. Are the learners ready for such a shift in power? Are they academically able to do learning on their own? Do they possess enough computer skills to navigate in the on-line environment? Do they have the financial ability to buy the hardware for OLL? What support do they need as they migrate from the current system to OLL?

Learning on-line may seem lonely and intimidating. A comprehensive orientation map is useful to tell the learners what to expect and the desired outcomes that they should aim for.

Learners should be supported by help desks in terms of technical advice as well as counsellors. The courseware used in the on-line lessons should be invisible and hassle-free. It should be user-friendly. Learners should be spending time understanding the on-line material and not learning the navigation path and icons.

OLL should address the needs and constraints of the different segments of learners. The adult-learners segment is lucrative given the need for reskilling. The global-learners segment is attractive to help increase revenue as well as inject diversity to the current learners.

Management

Managers, as change agents, need to manage the change process. There must be a culture that supports OLL. Managers also need to change their mindset on how to manage teaching resources in an on-line setting.

OLL offers flexibility to suit the learning styles and paces of the learners. Hence, some of the learners may complete their tasks faster within the time given. The issue of funding must be resolved for early completion of studies.

The physical building may be developed for classroom teaching and face-to-face interaction. If OLL takes off successfully, these classrooms may become under-utilised. Concurrently, there may be a shortage of computer laboratories.

Academic staff may not be assigned to fixed number of stand-up delivery hours or a fixed number of students. OLL means that staff may be rostered to provide round-the-clock facilitation to countless numbers of on-line learners.

Managers also need to track the trend and competitiveness of global education and find a niche to position their OLL. This calls for internationalising education and marketing.

Administrative staff

An integrated system that tracks all aspects of OLL is very important. The critical factor rests not on tracking the physical attendance of learners in classroom but their performance. An integrated database that provides all information about the learners would help the staff and administrators manage the on-line education process better. This system should also encompasses global learners and their different grading system.

Administrative staff also need to learn how to manage the front-end and back-end requirements of OLL.

Facilities

OLL relies heavily on computers, communication, and information infrastructure. Slow network connectivity and frequent breakdown will discourage on-line learning. Resource centres need to be accessible to learners so that they can learn when they want to. Hence, the operating hours need to be managed well, that is on-demand learning. Alternative learning sites near the learners' residence can be set up for OLL or test centres, for example, libraries and community centres.

Conclusion

Education in the new economy has a futuristic outlook. The term "futuristic" conjures images of progression, fast, hi-tech and virtual. At the same time, it is impersonal and reflects coldness. Educators need to sweeten this lack of personality with human interaction. OLL does not replace classroom interaction totally. It can be supplemented by face-to-face interaction. This is especially so in the early formative years where the learner's ability to relate to one another is important.

For OLL to work well, the pre-requisites of the learners must be in place, namely: one that can read, write, think and relate well to the others. In this aspect, OLL works best for adult-learners who are able to tap on their diversities and plan their learning strategies. The principles of adult learning are consistent with those of on-line learning:

* Adult learners enjoy self-directed learning

* Adult learners would like to factor their prior experience as a resource base for their learning

* Adult learners learn best when they understand how the new knowledge can help their work and personal lives

* Adult learners have a problem-centred approach to learning by learning just-in-time to solve the task at hand, and

* Adult learners are time conscious.

Finally, OLL should be learner-driven and focused on how to use technology to enhance learning. It is about how the learners can learn better and promotes integrated learning across subjects, faculties and boundaries. Educators should not be overly concerned over the technological aspects of OLL. Instead, they should focus on developing a sound pedagogical framework for OLL to ensure that the high cognitive development of learners is achieved.

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Table 1: Traditional versus On-line Learning
Aspect Traditional Learning On-line Learning
Focus Predetermined content Learners' choice
 Content-based Competency-based
Delivery Traditional group-paced, Self-paced and non-
 face-to-face, fixed and sequential, independent
 linear method of teaching: learning via
 One method of learning resource-based and
 One medium technology-enhanced
 Fixed resources activities:
 Fixed assessment -- pen Many methods of
 and paper assessment, learning
 judgmental, rote learning Many media
 Varied resources
 Many assessments --
 self-test, simulation,
 formative evaluation,
 critical thinking
Place Classroom Anywhere
 Bricks and mortar Virtual
Time Academic year Anytime
 Fixed pace
 Fixed time learning --
 timetable
Lecturer Instruction Facilitation
 Content provider Knowledge broker
 Reputation and status are Value in learning
 important
Student Passive Active
Outcome Behavioural Cognitive development
Table 2: Profile of On-line Learning
Course Design Promote mutli-disciplinary and holistic
 view
 Support collaborative projects
 Offer flexible and non-sequential
 learning
 Dynamic structure
 Stimulate and engage learners via
 well-crafted learning issues
 Continuous and formative assessments
 with feedback.
Interconnectivity Access different cultural environments
 Provide linkages to reference materials,
 resource person, related sources on a
 global scale
 Provide feedback from staff, learners,
 alumni, experts and industry partners
 Facilitate collaborative discussion
 among staff, learners, alumni, experts
 and industry partners
 Support self-administered tests and
 simulations.
Skills Enhance competencies
 Enhance electronic communication skills
 Enhance teamwork
 Enhance global outlook
 Enhance cultural awareness
 Develop critical thinking.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Singapore Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Eng, Chen Swee
Publication:Singapore Management Review
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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