Open space for anytime learning

September 8, 1995

Dispersed trainers are logging on to conferencing-based masters modules.

Many institutions now run distance-learning courses. However, the Advanced Learning Technology programme offered by the Centre for Studies in Advanced Learning Technology at Lancaster University was one of the first in the country to be based around computer conferencing.

The part-time programme is designed to support the acquisition and extension of the skills needed for the design, development, evaluation and use of advanced learning technology. It is open to anyone with an interest in advanced learning technology. Participants are generally working in traditional training environments or in higher, further or adult education.

There are 12 free-standing modules, to be taken independently or combined with other work to gain a diploma or an MSc. They cover both theoretical and practical aspects, and emphasise learning as well as technological issues. Current modules include cognitive psychology and theories of learning, project management, authoring systems and authoring languages, and multimedia and learning. The assessment task for each module is individually negotiated, and students are encouraged to apply a module's subject matter to ongoing work.

Six modules are offered each year, and each module is self-contained, making it possible to join the programme at any point in the cycle. Some people take only one or two modules, as a way of updating their knowledge on a topic of interest. Others complete all 12 modules, not always consecutively, plus one or two other pieces of work, to obtain a professional qualification that reflects the needs and interest of the participant and their organisation, as well as the central concerns of the programme. The course is structured so that the full MSc is normally obtained within two to three years, although more flexible arrangements can be made.

Each module has two 24-hour residential sessions: an introductory residential to start the module and a follow-up session after eight weeks. In between, course members have a period of home or work-based study. They maintain contact with tutors and other course members through a computer-based conference.

The conferencing system used is Caucus, a Unix-based system. But it is likely that a more user-friendly system such as Lotus Notes or First Class will replace it. Participation in the conference requires access to a personal computer and modem. So far, this has not proved problematic: many people already have a machine at home, and need only purchase a modem. Some employers allow workplace resources to be used. Each module has its own conference space, divided into topics, and each topic typically has several postings. These vary a great deal in content and style: long, short, humorous, serious, trivial and argumentative input can all be found. Participants can log on to the conference from anywhere at any time. Once there, they can read and post comments on the existing topics, or can start their own topic of discussion.

Although the main participants in the conference are tutors and course members, invited guests are also welcome. The conference for the courseware engineering module had contributions from courseware developers in a German aerospace company (Dornier), an Italian IT company (Tecnopolis) and an American software company (Courseware Inc.). Another module on open, distance and student-centred learning, had a lively conference with guests from universities in Colorado, Ontario, London, Essex, Milton Keynes, The Netherlands, Rhode Island and Illinois. They included authors of assigned readings such as George Landow and Elske Heeren, IT specialists with an interest in open learning such as Scott Grabinger and Harvey Mellar, and students doing a similar course at a United States university.

The use of conferencing removes the sense of isolation that distance learners can often feel. It provides a supportive environment where learners can communicate with tutors and, most important, can exchange knowledge and experience with one another. They can discuss issues raised by the course material, receive feedback from others on proposed assignment tasks, input ideas for residential sessions - in fact, anything that members of a more traditional course would discuss face-to-face. Moreover, they can do this from home or from work, at the times which most suit them.

For most people, participation in the ALT programme must be fitted around full-time employment, family life, and many other commitments. The modular structure and flexible approach of the programme, combined with the usual advantages of distance learning, help ease the burden of conflicting demands. This way of learning is accessible to a much broader range of people than more traditional approaches. The use of computer conferencing further enriches that experience, removing the geographical boundaries and constraints of time and place often imposed on those seeking professional and personal development.

KAREN VALLEY Karen Valley is a lecturer in the department of educational research, Lancaster University.

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