Taking the lonely out of distance learning

June 14, 1996

Brian Gilding, Paul Helm and Robert McClements detail a case history of distance learning development that emphasises the personal element

The Bradford Management Centre's executive development programme must adjust quickly to the demands and needs of corporate clients. Eight years ago it became clear that, following the slimming down of management ranks in the 1980s, client companies were seeking a new approach, entailing rather shorter periods of residential courses for their executives, together with some individual in-house work.

Over the next four years the methods and techniques available for delivering student centred open learning at a distance were reviewed. Focus groups were set up with the major clients. That study concluded that the existing methods were unsatisfactory, particularly for senior managers as students, for three reasons.

* The learning material was so expensive to update or modify that it soon became dated.

* Interaction with the material was programmed: the student's questions had to be predicted and written into a traditional computer-based training framework.

* The learning experience was a lonely one. Senior managers and their companies found this unacceptable and therefore attempts to integrate residential learning with individual distance learning offered little chance of success.

A research and development project was launched in 1988. The result is a process that can meet the three objections and can offer an integrated approach to executive development.

A particular strength of the programme is the close involvement of tutors or facilitators with the executives. Residential courses are usually delivered to small groups of managers, frequently by two or more tutors. To maintain this personal link we feature tutors and advisors in the multimedia learning material, so the same people were involved in the various interactions between tutors and learners.

The tutors soon realised that a rather different set of teaching skills was required for this type of work as opposed to traditional teaching, and there was some tutor resistance and anxiety. The recent advances in bandwidth mean that course designers can now include whatever they think relevant, whether it is text, audio or video.

One stage of the learning process in which multimedia may well be superior to lectures or paper based materials is the student's initial exposure to the subject. Now that technology has finally caught up with tutors' imaginations, and students are more computer literate, we can expect to see this superiority consolidated.

The long-term aim is to store teaching material centrally where it can be updated at will, and distribute it through the communication system. But now material is distributed to learners on CD-Rom. Two course modules have been created: an elementary economics module and a strategic management case study based upon the remarkable story of Hewlett-Packard's success in the United Kingdom in recent years. Other modules are in preparation. The most recent experience has been with the Hewlett-Packard case study. The production of the case-study CD-Rom owes much to the support of the company, and Nick Earle, European marketing director of the company's computer systems organisation.

All the information and analysis we needed was made available, and Nick Earle agreed to feature in the CD-Rom. To test the effectiveness of the learning process we asked our current MBA students to take part in a simulation of distance learning. The CD-Rom was made available to the students for unsupervised study. Small groups of students worked through the material in an hour or two. As with all our case studies, there followed a plenary session led by a tutor. The room was linked by video-conferencing to Nick Earle's office in Bracknell. He observed the first part of the case discussion, and then joined in a further discussion session. The video-conferencing system used at Bradford was BT's VC8000 system, using the PCC software suite, and relayed over ISDN2. Nick Earle was using PictureTel on a Hewlett-Packard machine. The lecture room is well equipped for audiovisual aids, and Nick Earle's picture was projected onto the screen life-size. Video quality was good. The students were quick to broaden the discussion into the future of information technology, which made the interaction very meaningful and effective indeed. The session was ostensibly a success in terms of cost effectiveness - in fact it is unlikely that Nick Earle could have been involved other than by video-conferencing. All participants derived much encouragement from this process, to the point where we are determined to increase our efforts in this area. Of course, it is the opinion of the learners that matters. Much information and opinion was collected from the students. We found that the students were enthusiastic, but thought the experience was different from the traditional method. While they were reluctant to state a preference for either method, it was clear that they regarded reading from the screen as less comfortable and possibly less efficient than reading from paper.

Many showed that they are multimedia literate, but that this knowledge has come from games or infotainment software: their knowledge of the capabilities of the technology clashed with what they perceive as important to their course of study: they wanted more features, but not so many as to distract them.

This is shown in the enthusiasm for the method of assessment, a quiz. There was evidence of the quiz appealing to the competitive elements, and of learners playing the system - thinking more about the scoring algorithm than the subject matter.

There were problems caused by learning styles and methods suited to traditional delivery being applied to new forms of technology-based delivery. Most of the students were aware of this discrepancy, but unsure of how to cope with it.

The discrepancy disappeared during the video conference because the quality of the input, and perhaps the fact that they were in a group once more, made the technology transparent.

Three main lessons have emerged: * the personalising of the material is important * updating will become an issue and networking of some kind will be essential * unprogrammed interaction is vital.

Much has been learned about creating or writing multimedia course material and there appears to be no reason why we should not now go on to write more modules, basing them on faculty expertise that has been built up in various areas by some 30 years of delivering executive and MBA programmes.

The MBA is being delivered to UK clients, and the programme also has clients abroad. The prospect of communicating the multimedia learning to other countries is exciting. The technology, methods of accessing the system and the ease with which the user can navigate about the material are advancing. Our progress owes much to the support given by British Telecom. The economics module was created with their generous allocation of funds and time.

Current technology can provide a learning experience which builds on the best features of traditional teaching, though delivered through new media. The success of the Hewlett-Packard project was based on the importance attached to the content. The interaction among students and with tutors is facilitated, not replaced, by new technology.

Brian Gilding is chairman of international programmes and Robert McClements is director of the European telematics group, Bradford University Management Centre. Paul Helm is open and distance learning adviser, University of Bradford.

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