In order to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of distance education, many institutions use some form of information and communication technology (ICT) for delivery and interaction. Although it is widely believed that the inclusion of ICT is beneficial to distance learning, policy makers have to consider several factors before embarking on a plan to integrate ICT in a programme of study. Some of these factors are:
- The specific purpose of inclusion, vis. the instructional benefits of technology-enabled education, as opposed to non-inclusion
- The commitment, skills and knowledge of distance education providers and practitioners with regards to ICT
- Learner access and connectivity to computers and the internet
- Learner readiness and attitude towards the use of ICT
- The availability of necessary web-based applications
- The cost of implementing, maintaining and sustaining ICT-inclusive programmes of study.
After these factors have been given due consideration, policy makers have to source the most efficient form of ICT for their institution. Learning technologies that are used in distance education generally fall into three broad categories, as detailed below.
- Technology to deliver material
Due to the time-space divide between providers and receivers, educational material is often re-versioned to meet the needs of learners. To strengthen an institution’s capacity to reach out to as many students as possible, material can take a variety of forms, such as print, audio, video and/or digital media. Efficient delivery of such content may be carried out through Internet technology, video conferencing and/or tele-conferencing, radio broadcasts, interactive television, cable, satellite or microwave links as well as fibre optics. The availability of infrastructure necessary for delivering and accessing such information varies from region to region, and policy makers often have to conduct some sort of research before making the choice of a particular content delivery system.
- Technology to develop and upload content
Content that is delivered in the form of multimedia, or what is often termed E-content, differs a great deal from print-based content. Technology used to develop E-content uses emerging web-based and multimedia technologies to create engaging educational materials, and complex concepts have to be introduced to learners in innovative ways. Often a large number of resources are required to transform print to digital content, and policy makers have to take into account the availability of such expertise among practitioners. Apart from the development of content, the educational institution needs to invest in the necessary software, hardware and infrastructure to upload and make content accessible to learners.
- Technology to manage content and interaction
Most ICT-inclusive distance learning programmes employ a Learning Management System (LMS) to deliver content and to facilitate interactions among learners and instructors. Policy makers may use the following ideas for the choice of an LMS:
- Interaction among groups of learners, and between learners and instructors may occur within a online forum. This is more commonly asynchronous rather than synchronous interaction. The purpose of assigned tasks or the reason for encouraging content-related interaction often determines the way in which the forum is organised or made available to learners and instructors. Most forums provide the anytime-anywhere accessibility to facilitate group learning and task-directed interaction.
- Apart from forums, an LMS may provide a virtual space for chatting and e-mail. These features are usually included because of the possibility of sending group e-mails - often by the instructor – and to provide learning support in the form of peer teaching.
- Tracking learner involvement in a course is another important use of a learning management system. Depending on institutional agenda, the LMS may be used to track the frequency and quality of learner involvement in the interactive forum, learner access to and performance in tests and online activities, as well as learner interaction with various forms of content that have been uploaded into the system.
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