Together alone on the edge of space and time

February 13, 1998

Green issues and teaching with technology are fertile areas for an experiment with distance learning, Claire Neesham reports.

Location is not an issue when it comes to enrolling on two new courses being run by the Telematics Centre in the University of Exeter school of education. This month the centre is launching a course on teaching effectively with information and communications technologies for student teachers and those in the profession wanting to develop new skills. Another group of student teachers from across Europe is starting a course on environmental education.

The centre has developed the courses to be delivered using a variety of distance-learning techniques. "Both the courses will be for groups of students studying in a variety of locations, sometimes together, sometimes alone and often at a distance from their tutors," explains Niki Davis, Exeter's professor of educational telematics. "We will mostly use the Internet and occasionally videoconferences. Both courses will have international invited expert teacher educators joining in." For example, the environmental education course will be led by Vittorio Midoro of the Italian national research council's Istituto per le Technologie Didattiche in Genoa.

Professor Davis says that both courses will be able to draw on the extensive experience of the participants in the Telematics for Teacher Training (T3) project funded by the European Union. As the lead institution in the project, Exeter's school of education has already gained experience of distance-learning techniques within the UK and with the T3 partners across Europe. The Exeter team took part in a trial of a web-based course for technology teachers created at the University of Oulu in Finland and presented in English for the first time last May.

The centre also has connections to local schools: trainee teachers can use videoconferencing for discussions with their tutors while on placement.

The course on teaching with technology kicks off tomorrow with a workshop in Exeter for students. The students will spend six weeks following course themes over the Internet. There will then be a second workshop day where the students meet each other and their tutors.

Although Professor Davis has designed the course to include workshops, she points out that it is possible to take the course without that. "Where a student can't get to a site, but they are already well enough briefed educationally and technically, then a tutor may be able to introduce them to a group working online."

Most of those enrolled on the Europe-wide environmental education course are in groups based at institutes of education, so students and local tutors within each country will meet face to face. "The groups from the various institutions in Europe will get the chance to meet each other via a video conference at some point during the course," says Professor Davis.

She believes that environment education, like teaching with technology, is an area that lends itself to distance-learning techniques as many of the resources can be accessed on the Internet.

Environmental education has the added advantage that it is an international subject: the information provided by the tutor in Italy will be as relevant for trainee teachers in Finland and Britain as it is for the Italian trainees in Midoro's institute.

Professor Davis hopes that these courses will provide a taster of the kind of environment that teachers will experience as the National Grid for Learning develops. She points out that some courses and people lend themselves to distance learning better than others.

"They are the ones where the students will have good access to, and good reasons to use distance-learning tools and approaches to flexible learning.

"An additional aspect is that some have better resources already online and these come in two forms: published materials on the Internet and access to people who are willing to provide another perspective that is valuable educationally."

As to whether distance learning will replace or prove more successful than traditional teaching methods, Professor Davis is cautious. She points out that the studies of the effectiveness of technology-assisted learning have produced varied results.

Dominic Prosser, the T3 assistant coordinator says that through the use of a mixture of media the learning process becomes more than just a series of lectures. There has to be interaction between tutor and learner. "It brings people together," he says, a point that the ICT training and environmental education courses intend to demonstrate.

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