Living with the internet: learning online
Living with the internet: learning online

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Living with the internet: learning online

1.3.2 The development of online learning

Online learning is a relatively new phenomenon but over the last few years many colleges, universities and workplaces have started to use online learning as part of their courses. The UK government-appointed Dearing Committee was set up to consider the future of higher education, and in the Dearing Report, published in 1997, made its recommendations. One of these was that all students should have access to a networked computer by 2000/2001 and their own networked portable computer by 2005/2006. Hence these skills of studying online are likely to be very relevant to your future.

Why was the Dearing Report so certain that students would require access to computers? Partly because the members of the Dearing Committee believed that the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) could increase the quality of education, but mainly because they believed that use of ICT was key to delivering education cost-effectively. A background assumption of the Dearing Committee was that there would be a substantial increase in student numbers in higher education; however, this would only be affordable if there was a reduction in the unit cost of education, and use of ICT was seen as instrumental in achieving this.

Online learning could be cheap. For example, if lectures could be replaced by web pages containing the same information, material could be provided to an unlimited number of students at virtually no cost. However, this relies on a very limited notion of what online learning should be. It assumes that learning and teaching occur by simple transfer: knowledge is poured out of the teacher into the passive learner, and can equally well be poured through a computer screen as face-to-face.

But effective learning and teaching surely requires more than this. Educational researchers would point to many other facets of learning, for example that learning has a social dimension. Talking through ideas with teachers and other students and collaborating on group tasks may be important occasions for learning. Classroom learning can provide these opportunities, but it is a challenge to provide equivalent learning opportunities online. The communication technologies provided by the Internet are essential to enrich online courses.

Online learning is one method of distance learning. For an institution such as the Open University, which has been offering distance learning for over 30 years, online learning provides another way of achieving its mission, particularly as expressed in its mission statement:

OPEN AS TO PEOPLE The Open University is open as to people – making university study available to an increasingly large and diverse student body, and providing learning opportunities that meet individuals' lifelong learning needs.

OPEN AS TO PLACES The Open University is open as to places – providing learning opportunities in the home, workplace and community throughout the UK and selectively elsewhere, and serving an increasingly mobile population.

OPEN AS TO METHODS The Open University is open as to methods – using and developing the most effective media and technologies for learning, teaching and assessment whilst attaching central importance to the personal academic support given to students; and working collaboratively with others to extend and enrich lifelong learning.

OPEN AS TO IDEAS The Open University is open as to ideas – developing a vibrant academic community that reflects and supports the diversity of intellectual interests of all our students and staff and that is dedicated to the advancement and sharing of knowledge through research and scholarship.

(Source: Plans for Change, The Open University, 2002)

Online learning can allow students to study at the time and place that is convenient for them. This fits into the view of a learning society espoused in the Dearing Report, where learning continues throughout life, 'on demand' and often situated in work.

So is online learning the answer? An idealist view is that the medium and mode of learning should suit the content and the learner, so that a course may best be composed of a variety of different components delivered through the medium that best suits them. This may include both online and face-to-face learning, and a mix of media including print and online elements.

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