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Part Two: Learning

1. Learning

Learning is a social process involving the active construction of new knowledge and understanding through individual learning and group and peer interaction. This means that a key learning skill is that of communication. Clear communication, effective communication tools and channels are necessary pre-requisites for effective collaborative learning. One form of communication is dialogue. Dialogue, refers not only to the interactions between the learner and teacher(s) but also interactions between learners. The extent to which this occurs depends on the content of the subject matter, the overall educational philosophy in which the interaction occurs, the personalities of both teachers and learners, and the nature and variety of the communication media.

Technology is blurring the boundaries between distance, open and tradition education. It is important to consider which of these contexts learning is occurring and the video conference is being applied to.

1.1. Traditional learning

Students turn up to lectures and take notes. If they have a good lecturer they might take part in an active way. They attend tutorials, seminars or laboratories. Their learning is timetabled for them by the Institution. The course is time and location dependent. All students progress through the individual courses and the whole degree at the same pace unless there are exceptional circumstances. Many students do not take responsibility for their own learning. They may not be motivated to be more active participants in the learning process. They have the opportunity to interact with tutors and peers on a face to face basis at any time. As student numbers increase the possibility of face to face time with tutors is reduced. More students find they must work to pay for their studies and so the opportunity for dialogue with fellow students is reduced. Incorporating communication technology into this situation could well be seen as a direct replacement of face to face meetings unless the role of technology was clearly defined.

1.2. Distance Learning

“The learner is compelled by distance to assume a degree of autonomy that might be uncomfortable in other circumstances. In the same way the instructor in distance education is compelled to assume a more...supporting, helping role. When the teacher prepares instruction for a print-based, television or computer course, it is with the intention that the material will meet the goals established by learners and will be used as they go forward to achieve their goals, but whether the material is used remains outside the teacher’s control, and the decision depends almost entirely on the worth of the material in the programme.” (Moore 1990)

In this scenario, the course and degree is location independent. Students may undertake the course from any location. However it is not time independent. There is a minimum number of courses to be taken each term and a course is run at set times of the year and must be completed within a set time. Distant learners have less opportunity for interaction with peers or tutors. They are keen to achieve a sense of belonging with a peer community. Thus the introduction of communication technology increases the opportunity for interaction.

Three generations of distance learning associated with the historical development of production, distribution and communication technologies, can be identified (Bates 1991). The first generation had no communication possibilities and a high drop-out rate would be expected. The main focus of second-generation distance teaching has been on the production and distribution of teaching materials. Communication with learners has always been a secondary consideration, with communication amongst the learners being almost non-existent. The third generation is based on the new technologies of interactive communication (telematics, tele-education: the facilities afforded by the application of new telecommunication and computer technology). This technology now opens up possibilities for dialogue between teachers and learners, or between learners themselves, or even between teachers

1.3. Open Learning

Students undertaking an Open Learning Program have neither time or location dependencies. Thus the opportunity of interacting with peers is extremely limited: who else is taking the course at the same time and progressing at the same pace. This would mean only asynchronous, non-compulsory communication technologies would be applicable.

1.4. Why use Video Conferencing

New communication technologies are blurring the distinction between traditional and distant teaching. It has potential uses in both situations. The main pedagogical issue is to understand where the new technology will have real impact on learning effectiveness. Some of the technology will support a second generation approach, bringing new impact and efficiency to the second generation model. Other aspects of the technology, however, allow the constraints of time and distance to be greatly lessened in bringing the power of small-group face-to-face teaching to the individual desktop, in home or office. The opportunities within open learning is less clear. The reasons for using video conferencing in traditional and distance teaching are very different. There is also a role for video conference on an international basis.
  Traditional Education                 Distance Education
  Increased access to students	        Social contact
  Broaden the learning experience       Telepresence
  Distributed, virtual classes	        Group coherence
  Increased access to experts           Increased access to teachers and experts

                                Access to International expertise	
                                Cultural understanding	
                                Language learning	
Table 1: Why use video conferencing
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