Research shows that over 4.6 million students enrolled for online courses in 2008, a 17 per cent increase on the numbers reported for the previous year. Despite global economic challenges, 2009 saw yet another increase, as more and more students opt for the accessibility and convenience that online learning offers.
However, globally the debate continues around the true value online learning offers compared with more traditional methods. Though e-learning offers flexibility and the opportunity for improved one-on-one interaction, traditional methods - with pre-arranged schedules, set assignments and group interactions - still provide local learners with the needed infrastructure and tools to sustain effective education at any level.
South Africa’s educational sector recently launched an interactive telematics online learning programme, whereby 14,000 matriculants now engage and interact with lecturers via satellite link. Experts predict this to be merely the beginning and as technology continues to advance and develop, education will have to follow suit.
So what’s the verdict? Ian Yoell, Regional Director of global qualifications at Edexcel Southern Africa, believes online learning should be viewed as a supplementary yet equivalent tool and support structure that is neither superior to, nor less effective than, traditional methods: "One technique is not intrinsically better than the other. The combination of online and traditional offers the best of both worlds".
Scott Anderberg, a Director of Pearson’s Learning Solutions group in the UK, concurs: "The internet and all that it enables is simply another tool available to educators and students to facilitate the process of learning. It allows a variety of factors the classroom prohibits such as variance, personalised feedback and multiple means of social and communal engagement, as well as easy access for students that are unable to attend classes on-site."
It's important to note that every online programme is different. Some are based entirely online, while others, called hybrids, require that students attend lectures or write tests at a physical campus.
"Though research substantiates online learning to be largely positive, learners and educators should not ignore its constraints," says Yoell. In a fast-paced society, one of the main reasons millions of scholars enrol for distance learning is a demanding lifestyle. However, this can be the very reason learners find it challenging to succeed in the online sphere. Depending on the course or programme, other limitations include the lack of interaction with a larger study group, costly technology upgrades for the institution or college and local internet bandwidth constrictions.
For students who have taken the plunge and opted for online learning, Yoell has outlined recommended strategies for success:
- It's important for students to set definitive goals at the beginning of the course. Divide the material into manageable and realistic segments and set achievable targets.
- Accountability is increasingly important. Bringing the digital learning experience into the physical realm can be enormously beneficial to the student’s commitment levels.
- Other important elements include joining a study group, identifying your learning style, celebrating your success and asking as many questions as necessary to succeed.
Anderberg predicts that over the next five to ten years, mobile education, personalised learning and the collection and application of relevant data and technology will influence and improve educational outcomes and ultimately shape the face of e-leaning. Few institutions have the resources to use and interpret statistics, trends and analytics, but the ability to do so is increasing rapidly. In-depth research and technical information around e-learning continue to double year-on-year and will do so for the next few years. Anderberg concludes, "The education sector will be operating on an entirely different model come 2020.
"Distance learning does not render traditional methods obsolete. As technology evolves, education will develop alongside it. The method or channel of instruction does not determine success. Students need to learn in an environment best suited to their needs and capabilities, whether traditional, online or mobile."
Notes to editor:
Edexcel, a Pearson company, is the UK's largest awarding organisation offering academic and vocational qualifications and testing to schools, colleges, employers and other places of learning in the UK and internationally. The company operates in more than 85 countries, with nine million examination scripts completed every year.
Leanne Koopman, Traffic Integrated Marketing
Tel: 021 425 7111