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New Models For Distance And Virtual Learning


Dr Michelle Selinger

Director, Education Practice Public Sector
Cisco International Limited, UK
Internet Business Solutions Group

Technology is changing the way we view both distance and virtual learning; they no longer need to be solo activities in which learners struggle to make sense of a text, or watch a documentary in isolation with nobody nearby to share and interact on their interpretation or help to critique it. This does not preclude solitary working but, instead, offers the learner choice – choice as to whether they learn on their own, or with others either close by or at a distance. A range of collaboration tools making use of video, voice and messaging technologies now provides the learner with instant access to their peers, their teachers, and experts in their field of study. Learners choose whether to attend in person, from their home or another location via virtual classrooms or video conference, or to catch up later by listening to a podcast or watching a video of the session – along with all the discussion, questions asked and responses given.
They add their own responses by tagging the recording and ask further questions, point to resources that refute or validate a theory a teacher has proposed, and generally catch up with, and maybe go beyond the content their teacher or external expert has presented to develop a unique understanding of the subject which they then share back with the group.

This technology however requires a new way of thinking about teaching and learning since it depends on students interacting with their peers in new ways and entering into constructive debate with teachers. It puts the learners in more control of their learning and provides opportunities for them to test out new theories, and go beyond the curriculum through online interaction with the wide range of relevant and adjacent multimodal resources and experts accessed remotely. There is no longer reliance on not just the teacher for sources of information pertaining to the subject being studied. However, as expert in the domain of study, the teacher is able to help learners to make sense of contradicting sources of evidence and information and help them to understand and question the validity of each resource.

Additionally students are able to select resources to learn from in the formats that suit them best. Some may prefer to read and think about what they have read then discuss it with others. They may choose to discuss it in real time through text, voice, video or in person, or asynchronously in a discussion forum with others. Others may chose to discuss some ideas first to clarify their thoughts and then follow up with readings and more discussion; while others may prefer to watch or listen to a lecture on the subject before doing any of the above. There are a myriad of ways in which learners access knowledge and assimilate it in ways that may be useful now or at a later date.

As distance and virtual learning become increasingly collaborative, the old models of static text and online multiple choice assignments will start to disappear.They will be replaced by multimodal resources and new opportunities to demonstrate understanding both collectively and individually through selecting the tools and resources that demonstrate their understanding of that subject best – this might be a wiki, an essay, an animation, a set of images, a podcast, a video, or a web page that uses more than one of these media.

Collaboration is at the heart of most successful organisations. Workers need to collaborate more and more as they learn to do their job and improve the profitability and/or effectiveness of the organisation as it becomes more complex and as knowledge needed to keep up with the ever changing economy expands. No one person will be able to do their job without support from others. It is time that education changed and developed good models for collaboration for students to take with them and adapt to the workplace. Distance and virtual learning is a good place to start – the model can then be developed for the physical learning spaces in educational institutions.


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