Can distance learning be widely adopted at academic institutions?

Manish Thapa

Introduction

With time and evolution of structures, the teaching practices and classroom set-up have also evolved. Internet facilities have been widely adopted in educational practices across the world. With the evolution of internet and communication technologies, distance learning is now the widely discussed subject among academic institutions and policymakers (Traxler, 2018). Many academic institutions across the world have been conducting full-fledged certified degree programmes from distance learning modality (Owusu-Boampong & Holmberg, 2015). There are millions of people, who study through YouTube videos and short term (credited/non-credited and certified/non-certified) courses at different online course platforms such as Coursera, edX and so on. Owusu-Boampong and Holmberg (2015) reported that over three million interested people every month visit Studyportals, a platform to do distance courses available there. Many new students hit several websites in search of online courses to pursue higher education.

Technologies have been widely used to deliver course contents, for instance, broadcasting through television and radios, video conferencing through apps such as Skype, Zoom, Viber, Google Meet, and so on, sharing of educational materials through e-mail and having discussions through online based forums have been widely adopted. In developed countries where they have minimum ICT infrastructure, distance learning has been officially recognised and widely adopted. However, in the case of least developed countries like Nepal, there lies the question: “Can distance learning be widely adopted at academic institutions?”

History of distance learning in Nepal

Nepali education setting has been dominated by the face-to-face teaching-learning system. Historically, it was limited to Gurukul (teacher’s home or temple), Gumba (managed by the Buddhist community) and Madarasa (managed by Muslim community) (Pangeni, 2016). Formal education was started after the establishment of Durbar School in 1853 (Sapkota, 2012). In 1978, His Majesty’s Ministry of Education launched Radio Education Teacher Training Programme (RETTP), a quarter of the whole ten month primary teacher training, to develop teachers’ professional skills.

The tenth Five-Year National Development Plan (2002-2007) introduced distance learning in the education sector and highlighted the need for the open university to broaden access to higher education. The Government of Nepal formulated Open Education and Distance Learning (OEDL) policy 2007. OEDL policy helped formalise distance learning programmes and establish educational institutions for distance learning. Establishment of Open University was further stressed out by Three-year Interim Plan (2007-2010). Since then, Open and Distance Education Center (ODEC), International Centre for Academics, College of Professional Studies, British Council Nepal, and College of Distance Education and Online Studies (CDEOS) have been providing distance learning courses. Nepal Open University (NOU), a recently established university, offers a wide range of online courses and follows both synchronous and asynchronous modes of course delivery. Likewise, Tribhuvan University and Kathmandu University (KU) have been offering certain online courses since 2011. The progress rate and expansion of full-fledged distance learning have been somewhat limited due to lack of smooth electricity supply and internet with high bandwidth, the poor economic condition of a large population, lack of distance learning-friendly curriculum at universities and lack of trained human resources (Pangeni, 2016). However, distance learning has benefitted particularly employed people.

Adoption of distance learning during COVID-19 pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the potentiality of distance learning in Nepali academic institutions has been one of the widely discussed issues. Education sector similar to other fields is affected by COVID-19 as academic institutions are forced to shut down. However, several efforts have been made by various institutions to minimise the impact of the crisis on education. National TVs and radios continued their SEE-related tuition classes as usual. Academic institutions such as Ace College and Kathmandu University started to teach courses on Zoom classes. Being one of the students at Kathmandu University, I have experienced how distance learning can be productive and intimidating.

Distance learning was a completely new experience for me before my enrolment to M. Phil at Kathmandu University. Before COVID-19 lockdown, I had completed 30+ non-credit short courses through online platforms. Those non-credit short courses were completely different from any academic course. Short courses on an online platform are more about self-paced learning with flexibility in learning hours, tests, and assignment submission (if any) by learning through reading texts, listening to audios and watching visuals. Meanwhile, the academic course through distance learning is somewhat similar to classroom modality in terms of timing, assignment deadlines, course contents and teaching-learning modality. Moreover, it is launched as an alternative to regular classes for which there may or may not be any supporting classes once lock-down ends and the university will be able to resume face-to-face mode of learning. I am, therefore, curious to know how physical classroom teaching will be resumed. By the end of the lockdown, most of the courses may be completed. For me, distance learning has been more useful and efficient than traditional classroom modality as I can stay home and study my courses. However, the experience of distance learning differs depending on the nature of courses, students’ interest in studying online and also the state of internet connection.

Increases adaptability to technologies and increase digital literacy

Distance Learning itself is carried out through the optimum use of available technologies. In the current scenario, some schools and academic institutions have adopted information and communication and technological (ICT) tools to conduct teaching and learning activities. However, it has been limited and mostly relied on the availability of resources such as internet facilities and digital technologies.  I believe such practices of ICT tools increases digital literacy and skills. During COVID-19 pandemic, some of the schools from urban areas have initiated distance learning.

The major difference, I found in distance learning is about the use of teaching-learning materials. In regular classroom teaching, instructors mostly use limited resource materials such as markers, whiteboards and textbooks/notes with occasional use of PowerPoint and visuals. Distance learning modality widens the use of resource materials and teaching-learning materials. For instance, an instructor can easily instruct through visuals and animations available in visual streaming sites (YouTube) and guide through a wider range of published texts with examples to clarify the concepts. I noticed an instructor can easily shift from one PowerPoint to another and link contents from one chapter or theme to another with examples to help students understand the concept. Distance learning also provides students with an opportunity to perform multiple tasks at the same time. While listening to the instructor, students can search for wider arrays of learning materials to understand the taught concepts. Upon any confusion even after going through learning materials, students can inquire with their instructor to get issues clarified.

Distance learning in post-COVID-19 scenario

Looking at the prospect of applicability of distance learning among Nepali academic setting in the current situation, it seems challenging. Although the use of internet facilities may allow learners to learn from their place, limited or no access to such facilities particularly in remote villages is the major concern to develop distance or online learning in Nepal. However, the underlying opportunities and lessons gained through COVID-19 pandemic should not be neglected in a rapidly growing education culture. Experience of distance learning has helped academic institutions and policymakers find the difference between a face-to-face physical class and technology-based distance classes. Discussing on wider opportunities of distance learning, academic institutions should introduce academic courses through online mode. Many employed enthusiasts who would like to achieve a higher qualification can study from their place.

With the experience of distance classes and having brief insights about its positive and negative consequences, I passionately believe that the current courses focused on theories and lectures can be operated through distance mode too. Meanwhile, academic institutions can either revise the existing course or develop a new course for distance learning. I believe that distance learning can complement conventional physical classroom teaching.

 

Manish Thapa is an M. Phil student at School of Education, Kathmandu University. He has over seven years of experiences on research and knowledge management at I/NGOs. His professional interests include research and advocacy through professional and loose networks focused on community development issues.

References

Owusu-Boampong, A. & Holmberg, C. (2015). Distance Education in European Higher Education – the Potential. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, International Council for Open and Distance Education

Pangeni, K. S. (2016). Open and Distance Learning: Cultural Practices in Nepal. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-learning. Vol. 19. No. 2. https://doi.org/101515/eurodl-2016-0006

Sapkota, S. (2012, September). Teacher Education through Distance Mode: The Nepalese Experience. Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology. The Open University, UK

Traxler, J. (2017, December 30). Distance Learning- Predictions and Possibilities. Education Sciences. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8010035

 

Cite as: Thapa, M. (2020, July). Can distance learning be widely adopted at academic institutions? http://eltchoutari.com/2020/07/can-distance-learning-be-widely-adopted-at-academic-institutions/

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