Effectiveness of Distance Learning

New technologies allow us to increase access to more information, as well as giving us the potential to change the traditional role of teachers, who will be able to shift their educational interest from imparting knowledge to other aspects of the teaching/learning process and to new educational objectives. Information technologies can help with many learning problems and allow teachers themselves to spend more time exploring new ways to teach their subject, giving individual attention to student learning needs, etc. but it is important to identify optimum conditions for the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to give the best results in a specific educational environment.

Nevertheless, in spite of the potential advantages, these educational benefits are difficult to quantify and there is a need for better evaluation of the general effectiveness of teaching and learning with technologies compared with conventional teaching and learning approaches. Moreover, evaluation studies on the effectiveness of ICT in education should be able to provide consistent evidence not only on the use of new technology in teaching, but also considering this use in the specific learning context, because as stated by Laurillard, `Any educational method depends for its effectiveness on the students, teachers, classroom style, institutional milieu, and so on, as much as on the material or method itself … the context of learning is important enough in its influence on the effectiveness of new technology that it needs to be considered both in implementation, and in evaluation’. For this reason we must analyze the traditional model of teaching deeply and critically, considering the existing learning context and how it can be improved by introducing new technology.

The present research is focused on the improvement of student learning and the aim is to ensure best practice in effective teaching and learning using computer-assisted learning (CAL). To this end, research at Imperial College, as a result of a new internal teaching development grant scheme, continues in the following areas:

(1) To develop guidelines for defining the optimum operational culture for CAL and ICT

(2) Identifying barriers to utilizing these at present

(3) To provide guidelines for effective implementation and staff intervention of CAL/ICT into programs which enhance student learning in scientific and engineering disciplines.

This article describes the first stage of this research, intended to focus on the following issues:

o How widespread is the use of CAL/ICT at Imperial College?

o Which are the main barriers and resistance?

o How effective is the present use of CAL/ICT in teaching and learning?

The data are intended to be context-specific for a traditional, technical, research-based university and will provide a subset of the wider issues discovered by the recent review of the Teaching and Learning Support Network (TLTSN) and Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) that have generated a lot of very important data on the current experience of institutions regarding perceptions of the benefits, barriers to use and levers to fuller use of CAL packages and ICT.

The perceived benefits are considered to be the flexibility of delivery, the promise of distance learning and the professional skills development of the students; also where there is a specific need, i.e. for use of stable data sets or records, etc. It is clear that the benefits to learning have not been proven, or cost benefits.

The levers to fuller use have been perceived to be within staffing (commitment from management, computer-literate staff), strategies (infrastructure and recognition) and standards (information on developments nationally and internationally).