Adekunle O. Eyitayo

This paper seeks to explore some of the issues that are beginning to emerge in the quest for use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, and their long-term implications for the traditionally print-oriented universities. To this end, the paper looks at some of the opportunities and potentials of networked education and how they are likely to transform higher education. It then examines some of the challenges that the universities will have to face in their quest to meet the demands of the digitised age. This paper also considers the implications of this trend towards networked education for the universities and for communication and promotion of adult education in less-developed countries, and ends with some suggestions on how to approach the transition to networked education. The author, whose article on “Web-based Lifelong Education” we published in issue No. 52, is a staff member of the Department of Computer Science, University of Botswana, Gabarone.

Networked Education: Emerging Issues and their Implications for Higher Education

The delivery of university education has changed little throughout the print era, and universities are still largely characterised by the traditional lecture, seminar and tutorial methods of the era. There is a growing consensus that the existing teaching infrastructure and pedagogical model are becoming obsolete, and that the present teaching infrastructure is not consistent with the new information-based, technology-driven society that is emerging today.

Technology has created cyberspace, which means an end to local and national boundaries. Anyone with a computer, a modem, and a service provider can now be connected to the border-less world and make use of its vast offerings. Anyone can teach, and everyone has the opportunity to learn anything, anytime and anywhere. Given the rapid pace of technological change the world is experiencing, and the impact it is having on the delivery of knowledge and information, both inside and outside the walls of the university, some educational leaders have predicted that the emerging electronic universities are going to be dramatically different from their predecessors.

The cyber era has the same empowering effect on society as when the printing press extended information to the populace many generations ago. However, as many have observed, higher education has been slow in coming to terms with the emerging global society. Many educators do not seem to be concerned that global non-educational forces such as business, technological advancements, and other government priorities may determine the shape of the electronic university. As access to cyberspace is expanding on a scale never imagined before, institutions of higher learning are being forced to react to the new developments. In some cases, colleges and universities have enthusiastically embraced the improvements as a way to expand their educational offerings and their reach; in others, a lack of resources or lack of interest has led to a more sceptical approach marked by a wait-and-see attitude. Perhaps, it is because of this type of attitude on the part of some institutions that the some contributors have warned that "unless universities get ahead of the curve of change and influence its direction, people who are less well equipped to take on the related questions will take over the job from us”.

The information age with its rapid evolution of digital technology can be equated with change and adaptation. This ever-changing world has serious ramifications for the various stakeholders in the educational process, such as students, educators, administrators of educational institutions, as well as employers of labour. Relevant and flexible learning environments must emerge in order to keep pace with the new developments in the society. The pressure now on the universities and adult training institutions, which in their present form are very much a print product, is to transform their theory, practice, culture, and traditions, to meet the demands of the digitised age. In the shift from print to electronic as the primary information medium, most of what is known, how it is known, who has access to it and how it will be used, will also be transformed. It is essential therefore, that institutions be well accustomed to the factors and issues affecting the transition from print-oriented education to electronic-oriented education.

The Networked-Education Model

Networked education, as a means of distance learning, is an instructional method that makes it possible for teachers and learners to be separated in time and space while the instructional gap between them is bridged by an appropriate technological medium. In networked education, computer and information communication technology (ICT) networks, especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, are used to bridge the instructional gap. Courses developed for networked education, often referred to as virtual courses, are delivered within a computer-based information system. There are no physical facilities such as chalkboards but rather educational environments that are facilitated through software and hardware. All of the learning tools and forms of interaction that exist in the traditional classroom exist in this “virtual” classroom. However, activities and interaction are mediated by computer software and Internet browsers, instead of face-to-face interaction.

Virtual courses are typically asynchronous, which means that there is no pre-arranged time or place of meeting. Students do not travel to an educational site at a specified time but participate by interacting with a personal computer connected to the Internet. Instructional materials and communications can be accessed at a time and place that is convenient to the student.

There are various dialogue tools for communicating in the virtual class. Some of these tools include electronic mail (E-mail), listservs, the World Wide Web (WWW), file transfer protocol (FTP), remote login (Rlogin), and Internet relay chat or “web chat”. These tools are used for two primary purposes: electronic dialogue and materials presentation. The type of communications possible with electronic mail, listservs and “web chat” facilitates electronic dialogue including discussions, questions, comments, and non-content related conversations. In general, these communications are frequent (daily), short in length, and do not require a review or analysis for an extended period of time.

The WWW is commonly used for materials presentation. Communications via the WWW include presentation of course content, assignments, quizzes, student projects and electronic research papers. In comparison with electronic dialogue, these communications are less frequent (typically once a week), longer and usually available for review over an extended period of time.

Opportunities of Networked Education

Distance education has been part of higher education in the English-speaking world since the end of the 19th century. Advantages have accrued to learners, to higher education institutions, and to the community through improved access, flexibility, relevance and accountability and quality of teaching and learning. The notion of the superiority of the traditional face-to-face classroom education mode has been challenged through research by some distance education professionals, in terms of learning outcomes, costs and methodologies, while some others suggest that the boundary between distance education and conventional education is becoming blurred, and is likely to disappear. These values of distance education, coupled with the opportunities of ICTs, are beginning to revolutionalise education. Some of the opportunities and gains which networked education is expected to offer are discussed below.

Increased Learning Opportunities

The range of institutions already offering courses over electronic networks is extensive. In the U.S. alone, over a hundred universities are now offering distance education courses using the computer electronic networks. Similar developments have been reported in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Millions of pages of data, from almost every country, can be accessed at the click of the mouse on a home personal computer. In Africa, the World Bank African Virtual University (AVU) project has been established. The disciplines on offer from the AVU include Computer Engineering, Nursing and Computer Sciences. Access is being provided for thousands of qualified students who would not otherwise gain access to tertiary education, particularly in areas of critical shortages. The inability of African governments to fund education for all qualified students was seen as a barrier that could be overcome by an AVU. The initial course offering was begun on the campus of Kenyatta University in July of 1997. A major African success story in this respect is the University of South Africa’s Internet project called the Students On-Line (SOL) virtual system, which is now reaching several thousand distance education students throughout South Africa. Virtual education programmes, alongside traditional degree programmes, are now generally seen as a means to increase access to education.

Flexible Learning

Access to learning rather than delivery of training is becoming increasingly important. Various contributors have pointed out the need to produce more autonomous, independent, self-directed learners, and self-responsible learners, especially within an interactive learning environment. One way educators can promote learner empowerment would be to adopt flexible learning whereby learners are given some control over what, how and when they learn. This can incorporate choice in dates of commencement and completion of studies, recognition of prior learning, choice of assessment, choice of topics and subjects studied and choice of order in which they are studied. These factors have been found to be very important in the education of adults. The role of a lecturer then becomes one of a facilitator of learning. Networked education is well suited to this type of flexibility.

Opportunities for Informed Choice

At present, distance education training is often offered to students as a last choice option when all other possibilities for conventional study are unavailable. An example is the ongoing Diploma in Primary Education programme at the University of Botswana through distance education, as a means of upgrading the qualifications of over 9,000 primary school teachers. This is the only option considered viable in the circumstances. Networked education, on the other hand, re-packages the opportunity as one of choice by individual students to meet their needs without assigning lower status value to one educational mode.

Improved Delivery and Improved Quality of Education

In conventional university teaching, classroom presentations to students are prepared in isolation by lecturers, who most often have little or no training in education. Peers rarely review such presentations. Whether they include substantial artefacts or not, they remain within the private domain of the lecturer and the immediate students. On the other hand, virtual education is often a team activity; the contribution of the expert is supplemented by those of the other team members with complementary skills such as instructional and media design. The virtual education approach recognises education as a team effort and accepts quality standards and accountability as normal, which can substantially improve delivery of education. Many experts support the view that distance education approaches, including networked education, can more easily have quality management processes and indicators built into them.

Access to More Information

Cyberspace represents an opportunity to have access to vaster educational and research resources than can be provided by one institution. These resources include tuition materials, research results, news and reviews, online books and online access to library catalogues. The author himself has benefited immensely from having access to lecture notes of colleagues on the Internet, and has directed his students at various times to some additional resources available on the Internet.

Opportunity for New Innovation

In networked education, footnotes, references and acknowledgements are gradually disappearing, in favour of the hypertext link to the original source. New forms of language, writing, reading, study and criticism are evolving from the digitised medium. As some contributors have observed, new literacies/competencies are required for networked education and universities are going to need new ways of conceptualising information, and new conventions in relation to scholarship. It should be expected that as more and more education is delivered online, new teaching and learning theories and practices will be devised, and ultimately a new form of academic scholarship with evolve.

Networked Education: Issues and Challenges for Universities

Several factors have given rise to the emerging networked-education imperative. Appraising each challenge is critical as higher education institutions face the challenges of the digitised age.

Responding / Adjusting to Change

The paradigm of the university as classrooms, campus and community of experts is deeply embedded in the concept of the university; the result was the marginalization of alternative views. This traditional view of the nature of the university with regard to teaching and learning is now very much under challenge. The structure of the university – its tradition and values – is now seen as one of the major obstacles to the new delivery of education. Some commentators on the future of university education suggest that what is now required in education is lifelong opportunities for learning, and for change, and that a degree as it is currently conceptualised and organised, for example, is unlikely to be appropriate. In Computer Science education, we are already experiencing this challenge, with more and more employers preferring candidates trained or skilled in particular proprietary software/hardware products over broad-based university education, and “industry certification” over university degrees. This puts great pressure on academic and training institutions to make extraordinary adaptations to their curricula and course offerings.

Changes in Structure of Knowledge

The transformation of the structure of knowledge from the stable, print base of the traditional institutions, to the interactive, technology base of cyber-education calls for new means of assessment. Content no longer has the same importance now that so much information can be stored, and so readily made accessible in digitised form. A major challenge faced by users of information in the digitised age is in differentiating the source and status of digitised information, as all information looks the same on the screen. All the indications of authority that accompanied a scholarly journal, for example, and which distinguished it from a popular magazine, are yet to be formulated for the electronic equivalent. This move from content to process is a challenge to the hierarchical organisation of the university system.

Academic Scholarship

Recently, a number of online journals have emerged. Traditional print journals are now making way for electronic forms and the latest research information is now presented online, on the Web. Apart from finding means to signal authority in the new media, academics also face the problem of how to get credit for their electronic contributions and educational web-sites. The challenge to the universities is the extent to which they, in their commitment to scholarship and academic standards of the past, will be willing to adopt new forms of academic practices, which will meet the needs of cyber-generation.

Intellectual Ownership

The main issues to be resolved here include the question of who owns the creations of academics. Some institutions are already claiming that they “own” all the intellectual property that their staff members produce. But when educationally “incorrect” materials are put out, who gets the blame? And more importantly, when cases of copyright violations arise, who gets sued?

Avoiding Marginality

One of the most salient features of the new education paradigm is the way it breaks down boundaries, with more universities becoming more like corporations and more and more corporations becoming like universities – sometimes hiring academics as intellectual workers. The boundaries between disciplines are breaking down, while the boundaries between teaching and researching are also receding, as more and more information is produced online. Much of the intellectual activity that has been bound within the university now extends beyond its border. Traditional universities will now have to compete with virtual universities for students.

Human Resource Implications

Educators will need to become computer competent to be able to function effectively in a networked environment. As more and more research/teaching resources are available online, teachers at all levels will be required to be as competent with ICTs as they were with print. Adopting the networked-education paradigm will therefore involve devising and implementing an extensive information technology competency and educational programmes for staff. Such programmes must seek to better inform and educate the university community about the advantages and methodologies of networked education. The training and re-training of existing staff will require a lot of resources.

Maintaining Quality

The ultimate goal of all higher education institutions is to provide effective, quality academic programmes. Research results have shown that the addition of online components to a course not only provides an additional layer of instructor accessibility, but also increases student motivation and participation in class discussions and projects. At the University of Botswana, where there has been some concern about the poor performance of First Year Science students, one of the recommendations of a Senate Taskforce on how to improve student performance in the Faculty is the use of Computer-Based Training (CBT) technology. In an attempt to improve instructional quality, many institutions will turn to network-based learning environments in order to make available a variety of customized resources that enables reinforcement, communication and collaboration, and to provide a broader and more accessible environment to their course offerings outside regular sessions.

Reaching More Students

With the increasing use of the Internet and multimedia capability of the computer – video, audio, etc – mainstreaming distance education has become compelling. The pressure to reach more students will likely drive more universities into adopting computer networks to provide access to its courses outside the borders of university campuses via a common technology platform. For example, traditional institutions can deliver high-margin programs like an Executive MBA or Master’s in Finance and Banking over the Internet, which provide much-needed new revenues, without incurring additional overheads. On the other hand, private virtual institutions, such as the University of Phoenix and the African Virtual University are creating competitive pressures by offering programs in the backyards of traditional campuses. Increasingly, universities will be required to justify investment in academic computing, especially computer networks, as an investment to reach a bigger marketplace of learners.

Networked Education: Implications for Universities and Adult Education Providers

Networked education offers an alternative way for institutions to provide distance education to a wider range of students, particularly working adults who already have access to equipment at work or home. However, while these facts give an indication of tremendous opportunities for many institutions, the possibilities for networked education in developing countries appear limited. The reasons for such limitations include inadequate and unreliable communications infrastructure; difficulty in maintaining the existing infrastructure; socio-politically motivated problems; high cost of telephone facilities, coupled with poor access to them; general lack of financial capability to acquire, and maintain new systems, or sometimes to promote effective research; and limited (or lack of) manpower in the application of new information technologies.

It is acknowledged that increasing costs, rising student numbers and the convergence of computing and communications technologies are creating pressures on universities to transform their mode of operation. This transformation would seem to depend on the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in teaching but at present, much of the use of ICT in teaching, especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, is at the pilot level with a great and varied amount of experimentation but no consensus as to best practice. Before embracing the networked-education paradigm, institutions in developing countries must look carefully at each of the following areas: policy and institutional framework, including human resources, accessibility to international networks, access by students, and support services.

Strategic Policy

Each institution must develop appropriate policies for evolving networked education programmes in its own context. The use of the Internet for distance education must be employed consciously and deliberately as part of a larger strategy to provide educat¼onal access to a large section of the society that cannot be reached through the traditional educational programmes. Strategic plans must address relevant issues and factors for success.

Institutional Framework

Each institution must establish an institutional framework to support networked education. Institutions must be prepared to develop new organizational structures to provide services that are distinct from the traditional on-campus services. Efficient learning strategies must be evolved that are student-responsive and based on the unique characteristics of distance learning via electronic networks. The framework must include consideration and awareness of the implication of this education paradigm for staffing, deployment of online courseware, accessibility of the online courseware to students, and support services.

Human Resources

A critical factor in the overall organizational structure is the issue of the human resources that would be available for implementing and supporting a networked education project. Teachers’ attitudes could be a major obstacle to widespread introduction of change in the way we use IT in our teaching. Some of this stems from the belief that using IT may actually increase rather than reduce the gap between students and teachers and the fact that creating and maintaining online course material is hugely demanding on lecturers’ time. Digital technology, especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, is changing the role of the classroom teacher. Education is moving from a teacher-centred system to a student-centred system, while the role of the teacher continues to evolve from that of a classroom autocrat to that of a mentor or facilitator. Achieving success in such a revolutionary change in the teacher’s role will require high levels of support in the form of training, policy transformation, and method of compensation, if it is to be successful.

Development of virtual courses requires a significant amount of time and effort on the part of the instructor/developer(s). Before an institution can adopt the networked-education paradigm, it must effectively address the following questions:

  • Will lecturers provide distance learning courses as part of their normal teaching load?
  • Will they receive extra compensation for virtual courses developed?
  • Will they be provided with release time to develop virtual courses that will be delivered online?
  • How will the lecturers’ performance be evaluated with these new teaching paradigms?
  • Will there be additional incentives to encourage lecturers to develop online courses?
  • Who will control the intellectual property rights to innovative materials developed for the networked learning system?

There is therefore the need to develop a systematic framework for human resource development and training in instructional design, delivery and evaluation.

Networked Education Facilities and Deployment

Universities must address the issue of networking and communications facilities. Access to the international networks must be planned for, with its immediate and recurrent financial implications. Whatever facilities are put in place must be carefully weighed against the set educational objectives. Alternative methods of communication and sending assignments should be identified in the event of equipment or electronic mail failure. Other methods of submitting homework might include fax or postal service.

Access by Students

Universities must consider the issue of student access in a networked environment. Access issues should be considered within the framework of learner development, which encompasses the preparation of the student for an education experience beyond the technical orientation. In a country where personal ownership of computers is not a feasible option, alternative arrangements must be possible, through affordable service providers or through a set of institutions collaborating to provide access to the Internet on a shared resources or association basis. For example, learning resource centres could be created at strategic places across the country where access is provided to virtual courses, communication facilities and other supplementary materials.

Support Services

Students in distance education need a wide range of support including information for potential students, guidance in choosing the right course, enrolment assistance, continuous support with learning, psychological stimulation to avoid higher attrition, and assistance in practical decisions including placement activities.

These issues involve management and organizational factors, which greatly affect how the learner perceives the learning environment. The way in which these issues are managed can act as a means to motivate the students and create a personal learning environment or may discourage the students and make the learning experience a difficult one. Regular feedback from the students is required, and course modifications have to be made on the basis of students’ feedback. A key management and organizational factor in courses offered at a distance is how quickly and efficiently feedback is given to students.

Conclusion

This paper has discussed and reviewed several issues that must be addressed in making a transition to networked education. Networked education holds great promise for distance learning and it is a viable way to increase learning opportunities, promote learner empowerment, provide access to more information and improve quality of education. In making the transition to networked education, however, universities must be prepared for change and sometimes, extraordinary adaptations. Inadequate and unreliable communications infrastructure, coupled with limited (and sometimes non-existent) relevant manpower can limit the ability of developing countries to maximise the opportunities offered by the new information technology. Effective utilization of the networked education paradigm by universities and adult education institutions therefore depends on the extent to which they are able to address these issues within their own context. It also depends on the extent to which they are prepared to make networked education part of a larger strategy of providing educational access to more people in the society.