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Introduction

The recent revolution in the field of information and technology has changed the world in many different ways. Education systems (teaching and learning) have also been immensely influenced by the invention and innovations in the field of information technology.

There are many types of education systems in practice in the modern world. All these different forms of education are broadly classified as face-to-face education and distance education. Distance education is further classified as

1. Correspondence education  mainly relies on the delivery of the content by postal means and learners send back their assignments back via postal means itself. With the advancement of technology, it is rarely used in the present academic world.

2. Electronic education – this is much more advanced and still very popular; it mainly involves the dissemination of the educational resources in the electronic devices so that individuals interested in the subject matter can access the knowledge and benefit from it.

3. Online education  this is the most popular type of distance education in practice.

In the present academic world, online education is one of the most popular phenomena. It refers to the education system that is available through distance communication systems and involves a range of activities that are performed through different kinds of communication strategies, tools and technologies.

The learners have to be connected to the internet technology and most of the time it also requires that the educators remain connected at least some points of learning activities.

The first online course was carried out via postal means (Harasim 2020), however, for many people, the interpretation of online education has significantly changed since then.

Telecommunication systems have been much more advanced, internet connectivity is improving and expanding every day, people are getting more and more used to the use of the devices and information technology.

 

1. Types of Online Education

There are many different ways to classify the type of online education. Although there is a straightforward and consistent understanding of what online means when you see the term in relation to education this becomes there is a tendency to mix up different kinds of learning practices.

In this article, we are using the term to include the education systems that are conducted from a distance with heavy reliance on internet connectivity.

We believe this interpretation will be a useful exposure and update for the school administrators, teachers, learners and parents to look at different possibilities and also choose which one best fits their context so that the decisions can be made accordingly.

The classification below is based on three parameters: first on the basis of interaction possibility, second on the basis of nature of engagement, and this based on the specific use of the technology and devices requirements.

Online Learning

 

1.1. Linear, Interactive and Collaborative Online Education

One the basis of the nature of engagement online education is classified as linear learning, interactive online learning and collaborative learning.

A Linear system is a one-way delivery of the content. The educator delivers the content and there is no opportunity to get back to the facilitators or to have a discussion for further clarity.

Needs further discussion is partly managed by providing further reading and sharing the places where the learning can get the opportunity to deepen their understanding in the areas further, whereas in interactive education systems the educators and learners have opportunities to interact, in some cases the interaction can be extended among learners.

This kind of learning opportunity is more useful for the learners as it provides opportunities to have more discussion and clarify the areas of confusion.

Collaborative education ensures and promotes collaboration among the learners and between educators and learners on the particular area of study. Different kinds of project work, teamwork, collaborative writing assignments are designed and practiced.

Although there are advantages and limitations of linear, interactive and collaborative learning, linear is thought to be more monotonous and less effective in linear systems than in the interactive and collaborative. In addition, in linear online education, the educators get delayed feedback, and feedback to learners are limited if any.

 

1.2. Synchronous, Asynchronous and Blended Online Education

Synchronous education refers to the education system that is delivered in real-time and educators and learners are required to be connected at the same time. This type of learning includes interaction, question answers, demonstration.

This is the best alternative for the face to the face education system. Works better when students are in the same time zone and available for learning in the specified time. This is also good for students who prefer to work in groups.

Asynchronous education does not take place in real-time which means the content is uploaded in the learning management system by the educators and the learners involved in the study in their convenience. As live interaction is not possible, it mainly relies on discussion boards, blogs, wikis, etc.

This type of online learning is very useful for students with time constraints, living in different time zones, and students who prefer to work on their own rather than in groups.

Blended learning is a combination of both learning asynchronous and synchronous learning. The educators and learners have the flexibility to agree and design the learning sessions. Live interaction is planned for the content where interaction is required and also periodically touch base on the areas of confusion, and for the content that needs more concentration and individual practice from the side of the learner’s other assignments are provided.

 

1.3. Fixed Content and Adaptive Online Learning

This is another very important classification of online learning. As the name suggests, content is predetermined and fixed in fixed content online education. Regardless of the level and interest of learners exactly the same content is delivered. In fact, such content is fixed in the system prior to the delivery and is not flexible.

Adaptive online learning is adaptive to the difficulty levels and interests of the learners. Depending upon how sophisticated technology has been used and how much flexibility has been maintained adaptation capacity may vary.

 

1.4. UNICEF Classification Based on Technology and Purpose

UNICEF has presented a very comprehensive picture of online education in 8 categories. The classification is primarily based on both the technology used and the purpose of the platform. This classification is very practical and useful for the learners, parents, educators, managers, and policymakers to make informed decisions on designing and implementing online education practices.

1.4.1. Digital Learning Management Systems

The digital learning management system is a platform for learning which primarily relies on the software application to allow access to the learning to the content, participate in the assessment systems, track the progress and also to carry out other administrative requirements. Some of the popular examples of the Learning Management Systems includes CenturyTech, ClassDojo, Edmodo, Edraak,, EkStep, Google Classroom, Moodle, Nafham, Paper Airplanes, Schoology, Seesaw, Skooler.

1.4.2. Systems Built for Use on Basic Mobile Phones

UNESCO (2013) in Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning defines, ‘mobile learning involves the use of mobile technology, either alone or in combination with other information and communication technology (ICT), to enable learning anytime and anywhere.

Systems built for use of the basic mobile phones are another popular type of online/distance education. The major advantage of such types is that it is accessible with mobile phones with limited functionality.

This is primarily useful in rural locations with limited internet connectivity and with the population groups for which basic mobile phones are the only devices available. Examples of systems built for the use of the basic mobile phones include Cell-Ed, Eneza Education, Funzi, KaiOS, Ubongo, Ustad Mobile.

1.4.3. Systems with Strong Offline Functionality

This is one type of distance education, this does not require discontinuous access to internet technology, the geographic location where the internet is very expensive or not reliable this can be a very easy alternative to online education. The learners can download the content when they have access to the internet and use the content offline for a longer period. Some examples of such learning platforms include Kolibri, Rumie, Ustad Mobile.

1.4.4. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Platforms

MOOC - Coursera

 

As the name suggests this type of education system is aimed at massive/unlimited participation of the learners via the web portal and other supplementary applications developed for easy access. Most of the MOOC platforms use some kind of offline features as well, open access, flexible study time, replicability of the same content used over a longer period of time with revision, or without revisions are some fundamental features of the MOOC.

Some examples of MOOC include Alison, Canvas, Coursera, European Schoolnet Academy, EdX, iCourse, Future Learn, Icourses, TED-Ed Earth School, Udemy, XuetangX. MOOC platforms have been very much an attractive learning platform for professionals for continuous professional development and career development.

1.4.5. Self-directed Learning Content

Uploading the disseminating self-directed learning content via online platforms is another popular distance education practice. Mostly this is linear in nature and the organizations and individuals providing such education often try to make them friendly to use and game like to make the content more interesting and easier to follow.

In addition to the learners who have dedicated time for learning, this is very useful for the teachers and professionals to refer to as and when required. Some examples of the self directed learning content includes, ABRA, British Council, Byju’s, Code It, Code.org, Code Week, Discovery Education, Duolingo, Edraak, Facebook Get Digital Feed the Monster, History of Africa, Geekie,  Khan Academy, KitKit School, LabXchange, Madrasa, Mindspark, Mosoteach, Music Crab, OneCourse, Profuturo, Polyup, Quizlet, SDG Academy Library, Siyavula, Smart History, YouTube.

1.4.6. Mobile Reading Applications

Mobile reading applications are also increasingly popular technology people use. There are different topics and types of the resources available, however, mostly the stories, books on history, autobiographies and other forms of literature are very popular.

Some of the examples of the mobile reading application include African Storybook, Biblioteca Digital del Instituto Latinoamericano de la Comunicación Educativa, Global Digital Library, Interactive Learning Program, Reads, Room to Read, StoryWeaver, Worldreader. 

1.4.7. Collaboration Platforms that Support Live-Video Communication

Live video communication is one of the commonly used technology to connect educators and learners in distance education practices. The live video features are complemented with other communication mechanisms and collaboration tools to facilitate effective communication, documentation, calendar management, attendance tracking and engagement from the side of the educators as well as learners. Some of the commonly used collaboration platforms with live video communication include Dingtalk, Lark, Hangouts Meet, Teams, Skype, WeChat Work, WhatsApp,  Zoom.

1.4.8. Tools for Teachers to Create of Digital Learning Content

Creating digital content for learners is an equally important aspect of distance education. There are tools that teachers can use to create interactive images, videos and incorporate other multimedia features in their online courses. The resources developed can be used for the purpose of online learning manually or via the use of the other learning platforms. Some of the tools that teachers can use to create digital content are Thinglink,  Buncee, EdPuzzle, EduCaixa, Kaltura, Nearpod, Pear Deck, Squigl, Trello.

1.4.9. External Repositories of Distance Learning Solutions

External repositories of distance learning solutions are very important platforms where the educators, earners can visit and explore about the learning innovations, distance learning and get insights on the available platforms. Although most of these platforms are not exclusively dedicated for the purpose of distance learning or online learning, there is so much anyone interested in online learning can explore from.

Some of those platforms include Brookings which is a great catalogue of nearly 3,000 learning innovations. Common Sense Education provides tips, tools and other strategic insights on self-learning both online and at home. Commonweatlh of Learning is more targeted at the policy makers, education managers and administrators. There is good information for teachers, partners and learners as well. Education Nation is the initiative by the Nordic to promote universal learning opportunities for free.

Similarly, EdSurge,  European Commission Resources,  GDL Radio, Global Business Coalition for Education, Keep Learning Going, Koulu.me, Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Profuturo Resources, UNEVOC Resources UNHCR are some other valuable learning platform to access such information.

1.5. Mass Broadcast Technology

The World Bank strongly encouraged the use of technology that can reach the large mass of the learners in order to minimize or to end the inequitable access to quality education and lifelong learning.

Mass Broadcast Technology- Education Television Programming consists of the low tech online and distance learning opportunities and the engagement strategies through Interactive Radio Instruction Programme, Interactive Television Instruction Programme, Mobile Learning Programme and Digital library.

1.6. Choosing the Right Type Learning Opportunity

The World Bank has recommended considering the following 5 Key Components while making decisions on the right type of learning opportunities. Those criteria include a very generic list and can be used in almost every context as guiding questions before making a decision on which one is suitable in a particular context.

1.7. Platform

The learning platform used is very important when the engagement is virtual. Many factors need to be considered while choosing the platform such as status of connectivity, available devices, nature of the content, age group of the learners and capacity of the educators.

For learners of the young age it is useful to choose the one that are run for relatively shorter duration of time and that allows the learners to engage in the offline activities related to the daily routine is most important to minimize the screen time and also help them continue developing social skills.

1.8. Content

The content you are looking for may also be the factors that largely shape the nature of the platform. For skill-based learning, demonstrative videos are more useful. For academic requirements, it is more useful to have blended learning opportunities that engage learners in real-time activities as well as the assignment that can be done by the students on their own within an agreed timeline.

1.9. Hosting

Hosting platforms available and resources to maintain and operate the available platform is another important aspect in choosing the right type of learning system. Normally, for the individuals and small academic institutions to engage a small number of students it is worth exploring some manual platforms that are available for free, while it might be useful to choose the sophisticated mechanism for the bigger institutions and for the programs intended to reach a large number of learners.

1.10. Connectivity

Internet connectivity is another determinant of exploring the right type of distance education. The education programme being delivered in rural locations, and most of the developing countries where internet connectivity is poor, it is worth exploring some kind of technology that can operate with minimal connectivity such as low tech mobile operations and the strategies which can partly be operated offline.

 

1.11. Training Support

The training support to the educators and administrators to allow them to effectively use the technology is another key aspect of choosing the type of programmes.

When there is an opportunity to adequately train the educators and administrators and orient the learners on the use of the technology it is useful to explore more sophisticated technology whereas, it is worth to explore low-tech options when it is not possible to implement the training support programme for the educators and administrators.

 

2. Planning to Deliver Online Learning:

Once you have chosen the most suitable type of education system for your context, it is important to have a proper plan for effective implementation. Below are some of the key points for consideration in order to plan an effective online/distance education programme.

Online Learning at Home

 

2.1. Develop a Short- and Long-Term Remote Learning Plan

To maintain the effectiveness of any of the learning programmes it is important to have both shorter-term and longer-term plans. This is more important and critical in the context of virtual engagement and e-learning classes.

Longer-term plan includes the availability of resources, maintaining attraction of the learning and variety in the learning process, while short-term plan has more specific focus on delivering timeline input responding to the learners queries, sorting out any technical issues and other daily operational issues.

2.2. Create an Inventory of Existing Content to be Deployed via Remote Learning (and Plan for How to Make Additional Content Available)

It is also important to have learner-friendly ways of displaying the content and ensuring how additional content will be available, how the quality of the learning be assessed at the level of learners as well as programme effectiveness. All these considerations are helpful in improving the learning environment and learning outcomes.

2.3. Organize Content to Align with Existing Curricula, Ensuring the Learning Opportunities Correspond to Educational Objectives

When such learning opportunities are related to the specific curriculum or the career development aspects or professional standards it is important to explicitly show the connection of the learning and articulate how this adds value to the learners. This is very important to attract and engage learners in learning opportunities.

2.4. Create a Virtual Help Desk to Support Caregivers, Teachers and Students

Finally, having a virtual help desk to support the caregivers, parents, teachers and students is very important. This can be operated manually exchange of the correspondence when such initiatives are of small scale or can be organized using some kinds of tracking mechanism and dedicated attendants when it is a wider scale programme.

2.5. Conclusion

Online learning and distance education has been increasingly popular all over the world. School closure due to the Covid 19 has further pushed all the actors towards more exploration of online learning technologies, conducting online classes which have ultimately contributed to the online learning technologies.

In the advancement of internet connectivity, technology is providing a good environment to accomplish desired outcomes and level of engagement through such engagements. The learning platforms and learning tools have also been increasingly available. Open access to online lessons and engaging learners in virtual learning opportunities have been improved. 

The interest of global actors such as the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF to educate and empower stakeholders in this sector is very motivating. Now, it is very important to consider the quality of the content and safety measures for young learners in such kinds of engagements. If properly used, such opportunities are increasingly becoming important as career opportunities for individuals.

 

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Anthony Cornell

Anthony Cornell is a freelance technology journalist. He reviews educational software and writes in-depth online course reviews from popular e-learning platforms. You can reach Anthony at anthony@learnacourseonline.com

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