Distance Learning – a closer experience in the Modern Web?

The following post was first published by Waterstons: http://bit.ly/1exE2dc. This was also part of a series on the power of technology. For further information on anything below, please contact me through this site, or Waterstons.

Introduction

I’ve been a student on more than one distance learning course. I began by studying photography and film through the Open College of the Arts, before moving to the Open University for a Computing degree.

Throughout my time on these courses, I have discovered there are many challenges to the successful implementation, delivery and student experience of education delivered through distance learning. Some of these issues are well addressed already, such as coursework compliance, with many online submission processes now readily available. In fact, many universities use online processes for their regular courses now, not just for distance learning.

Some challenges are far harder to address. During my photography courses, it was important to have the right equipment available. If I attended a learning establishment, this would have been simpler, with equipment being available to borrow when required, and rooms such as photography studios easily accessible to perform specific activities. However, distance learning required me to have all these resources available when required, either limiting the content of the course, or potentially at huge personal expense. Unfortunately, these kinds of challenges are not easily fixed by improvements in modern technology; there are always going to be logistical challenges such as these when it comes to distance learning.

One issue which will continue to have an impact on all distance learning courses is the issue of tutoring. The challenge of providing convenient tutoring in a way that supports distance learning is critical to providing a quality learning environment, though providing convenient and accessible tutoring is not a simple task on a distance learning course.

How Tutoring Works now

There have been are several types of tutoring provided to me on my distance learning courses. Face-to-face tutorials have been provided.  When a course is popular, these are not too bad and locations are usually available within an hour of where I live. However, as the courses become less popular tutors become less readily available, and I have had to attend tutorials which may be more than two hours’ travelling-time away.  This is certainly not very convenient for a half day tutorial, and underlines the need for a more accessible tutorial for distance learning.

I have contact details for my tutor; an email address and phone number which are useful for the occasional instance where I require one-to-one assistance. I have used this tutoring method about three times during my distance learning, mostly for clarification or feedback on my assignments; and it is not a great interactive experience. It certainly does not address the real need for a convenient method of tutorial.

This leaves an ‘in-between’ method; a group tutorial online. This is provided via an application called ‘Elluminate’, a desktop program allowing for a chat room type experience where the tutor has several tools available to aid learning. It does feel more like the beginning of the future for distance learning but the application left a lot to be desired, causing me several issues when I used it.

Tutoring on the Web

Recent advancements in browsers have led me to investigate an alternative to the Elluminate software and the whole desktop program solution for distance tutorials. Many of the tools are readily available on the web to provide an excellent interactive experience in a student’s browser.

This is an incredible advantage. Firstly it means that you no longer need to distribute an application to every student taking a course, instead being able to host a single application on a server and make it available as a web page. This is likely to have a significant cost benefit, replacing the need for bulk licensing. However, two more significant benefits can also be realised by this new technology.

Firstly, we can overcome all the significant issues that may occur in a desktop program; I personally had issues where my microphone did not work with Elluminate due to incorrect drivers, and many other incompatibilities may exist between various students’ hardware and distance learning programs. This can only be addressed by updates to applications, which may be difficult and costly to distribute.

By utilising all this functionality in browsers this risk is completely removed from the application itself, instead letting the browsers deal with it. This means applications are developed once, and trust the browsers to make sure all new hardware is supported; something which they are far better equipped to do bearing in mind the scale of the companies creating them.

Secondly, it brings a subtler benefit by providing smoother integration into existing systems. Distance learning often currently relies heavily on websites; by creating a website for tutorials, this can be integrated into the existing website and can provide a seamless design between course websites and tutorials. Education providers can go further by providing links directly in a course website or even automatically notifying a student when their tutorial starts, via email or a browser based notification.

Example remote learning environment

An example interactive tutorial environment in browser

An Interactive Experience

There is so much that is possible directly in the browser now; with the advent of HTML5, video and audio became fully supported without the need for plugins. New technology is looking to exploit this, and a current experimental technology called WebRTC (Web Real Time Communication) makes it possible to stream video from one person to another in-browser. This allows a real-time broadcast through webcams from a teacher to all students in a tutorial, or to create a Microsoft Lync-style meeting experience, where all participants’ webcams can be accessed in the browser.

Even though this is still experimental and being developed, it is possible to see it currently in action. For demonstrations of this technology, the official WebRTC website provides a range of demos, and a great video example (http://www.webrtc.org/demo). However, WebRTC is not available across all browsers yet, with Internet Explorer being a key example of one that does not yet support this technology. This might mean we cannot rely on WebRTC yet; however we can look to explore the technology and the possibilities it opens up, and implement it for those browsers that do support it; just not making it a critical part of a learning experience yet but rather an optional extra.

There is plenty we can take advantage of now though, including real time communication. This mainly comes down to a technology called SignalR, which allows the opening of a persistent connection to a server. Usually when browsing the web, you make a request to a server for a particular URL and it sends some data back (the page associated with that URL). This is the end of the communication; we ask the server a question, and it responds. This is not very useful when we want real time communication, as to approximate the effect we have to repeatedly ask the server if they have anything new for us. This is equivalent to the child in a car on a long journey repeatedly asking his parents “are we there yet?” It’s not very efficient and it’s not very useful, as we can only receive what we want when we ask the question.

SignalR changes this; it tells the server where the client computer is and how to communicate with it, then listens for messages from the server; it doesn’t need to ask a question to receive data. What this means is we have real time access to data. As soon as the server has data, it can send it to us, and it doesn’t have to wait to be asked by the server. In this scenario we have a child that at the start of the journey says to his parents “you know where I am, just tell me when we arrive”.

What does this mean in our tutorial scenario? We have a really efficient, scalable, and responsive way of producing real time communication. We are able to provide real time chat applications and to allow one user to perform actions on another’s browser. We can see who is connected in our tutorial session, who is missing and what everyone is doing. We can even have a teacher teaching a tutorial on an interactive whiteboard, and have students connecting remotely, able to hear and see the entire tutorial with almost the same level of interaction as if they were in the room.

Return on Investment?

So why would you want to move away from the tried and tested methods, and put your faith in the web? I’ve already alluded to some key points regarding this question; by moving our interactive tutorials to a website, educational providers can integrate far more tightly with the rest of the learning experience. A website removes the disjointed experience that students may feel with a separate application for their tutorials.

By also implementing a website, the application uses defined web standards. This removes the need for updates to support new video and audio formats, instead letting the browser vendor deal with these issues.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, educational providers need not worry about distributed licensing, and the problems raised by having a distributed website. By using a bespoke website, educational providers only need to provide a URL to students, whether that is through the learning portal or other means. It also enables educational establishments to differentiate themselves by identifying and providing key areas of improvement in the distance learning tutorial and making them available through their online tutorial website. Features may be added regularly to provide a unique and highly interactive learning environment.

Another key advantage of utilising the browser is the ability to support tablets and mobile devices. This is a huge benefit as it allows students to partake in tutorials far more easily; many people will have mobile devices far more accessible than a desktop PC. Although tablet support for WebRTC is very limited currently, SignalR and the benefits it brings are available and I would expect a more complete experience with WebRTC in the future as third parties are beginning to implement the technology for tablets already.

Conclusion

Remote learning has come a long way in the past decade, but the possibilities are really just beginning. A lot of proprietary applications have been used in the past, providing educational providers with most of the technology required for creating an interactive learning environment.

As more and more of our time is spent on the internet, more resources are becoming available and more applications are moving to the cloud. Web portals have long been established in many learning environments, providing students with quick, convenient access to many valuable learning resources. However, with the improvement in browser technology, so much more is possible.

Exploiting the ability to conduct real time tutorials via a browser has so many advantages; the technology may be developing all the time, but it is certainly worth investigating the potential solutions, as the benefits they bring can be enormous. From a student’s point of view, having everything available in one place is the way remote learning should be, and not having to install many different applications for different purposes is the ideal.

From a teacher’s perspective, being able to have an interactive learning environment that is easy for students to connect to and use will create a far better connection between teacher and students in a remote learning course. Providing an experience far closer to face to face learning, whilst still making courses as accessible as possible, can help give a connected learning experience similar to in-class education; improving quality, reducing cost, and overcoming the productivity challenges faced by distance learners and teachers.

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