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Interactive Multimedia Technologies for Distance Education in Developing Countries - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, MAIN FOCUS, FUTURE TRENDS, CONCLUSION

learning technology based programs

Hakikur Rahman
SDNP, Bangladesh

INTRODUCTION

With the extended application of information technologies (IT), the conventional education system has crossed physical boundaries to reach the un-reached through a virtual education system. In the distant mode of education, students get the opportunity for education through self-learning methods with the use of technology-mediated techniques. Accumulating a few other available technologies, efforts are being made to promote distance education in the remotest regions of developing countries through institutional collaborations and adaptive use of collaborative learning systems (Rahman, 2000a).

Distance education in a networked environment demands extensive use of computerized Local-Area and Wide-Area Networks (LAN/WAN), excessive use of bandwidth and expensive use of sophisticated networking equipment; in a sense this has become a hard-to-achieve target in developing countries. High initial investment cost always demarcates thorough usage of networked hierarchies where the basic backbone infrastructure of IT is in a rudimentary stage.

Developed countries are taking a leading role in spearheading distance education through flexible learning methods, and many renowned universities of the western world are offering highly specialized and demanding distance education courses by using their dedicated high-bandwidth computer networks. Many others have accepted a dual mode of education rather than sticking to the conventional education system. Research indicates that teaching and studying at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks with intensive learner-to-learner interactions and instructor-to-learner interactions. Radio, television and computer technologies, including the Internet and interactive multimedia methods, are major components of virtual learning methodologies.

The goals of distance education, as an alternative to traditional education, have been to offer accredited education programs, to eradicate illiteracy in developing countries, to provide capacity-development programs for better economic growth, and to offer curriculum enrichment in a non-formal educational arena. Distance education has experienced dramatic global growth since the early 1980s. It has evolved from early correspondence learning using primarily print-based materials into a global movement using various technologies.

BACKGROUND

Distance education has been defined as an educational process in which a significant proportion of the teaching is conducted by someone removed in space and/or time from the learner. Open learning, in turn, is an organized educational activity based on the use of teaching materials, in which constraints on study are minimized in terms either of access, or of time and place, pace, method of study or any combination of these (UNESCO, 2001).

There is no ideal model of distance education, but several are innovative for very different reasons. Philosophies of an approach to distance education differ (Thach & Murphy, 1994). With the advent of educational technology-based resources (CD-ROMs, the Internet, Web pages, etc.), flexible learning methodologies are getting popular to a large mass of the population who otherwise was missing the opportunity of accessing formal education (Kochmer, 1995). Murphy (1995) reported that to reframe the quality of teaching and learning at a distance, four types of interaction are necessary: learner-content, learner-teacher, learner-learner and learner-interface. Interaction also represents the connectivity the students feel with their professor, aides, facilitators and peers (Sherry, 1996). Responsibility for this sort of interaction mainly depends upon the instructor (Barker & Baker, 1995).

The goal of utilizing multimedia technologies in education is to provide learners with an empowering environment where multimedia may be used anytime, anywhere, at a moderate cost and in an extremely user-friendly manner. However, the technologies employed must remain transparent to the user. Such a computer-based, interactive multimedia environment for distance education is achievable now, but at the cost of high bandwidth infrastructure and sophisticated delivery facilities. Once this has been established for distance education, many other information services essential for accelerated development (e.g., health, governance, business, etc.) may be developed and delivered over the same facilities.

Due to the recent development of information technology, educational courses using a variety of media are being delivered to students in diversified locations to serve the educational needs of the fast-growing populations. Developments in technology allow distance education programs to provide specialized courses to students in remote geographic areas, with increasing interactivity between student and educator. Although the ways in which distance education is implemented differ remarkably from country to country, most distance learning programs rely on technologies that are either already in place or being replicated for their cost effectiveness. Such programs are particularly beneficial for the many people who are not financially, physically or geographically able to obtain conventional education, especially for participants in the developing countries.

Cunningham et al. (2000) referred in their report that “notwithstanding the rapid growth of online delivery among the traditional and new provisions of higher education, there is as yet little evidence of successful, established virtual institutions.” However, in a 2002 survey of 75 randomly chosen colleges providing distance learning programs, results revealed an astounding growth rate of 41% per program in the higher education distance learning (Primary Research Group, 2002). Gunawardena and McIsaac (2003), in their Handbook of Distance Education , has inferred from the same research case that, “In this time of shrinking budgets, distance learning programs are reporting 41% average annual enrollment growth. Thirty percent of the programs are being developed to meet the needs of professional continuing education for adults. Twenty-four percent of distance students have high-speed bandwidth at home. These developments signal a drastic redirection of traditional distance education.” According to an estimate, IT-based education and the e-learning market across the globe is projected at $11.4 billion (United States dollars) in 2003 (Mahajan, Sanone & Gujar, 2003).

It is vital that learners should be able to deal with real-world tasks that require problem-solving skills, integrate knowledge incorporating their own experiences,
and produce new insights in their career. Adult learners and their instructors should be able to handle a number of challenges before actual learning starts; make themselves resourceful by utilizing their own strengths, skills and demands by maintaining self-esteem; and clarify themselves by defining what has been learned, how much it is useful to society and how the content would be effectively utilized for the community in a knowledge-building effort.

One of the barriers to success and development in Open Learning in The Commonwealth developing countries is lack of sound management practice. Sometimes the people who are appointed to high office in open and distance learning do not have proper management skills. As a result, their management practice is poor. They often lack professionalism, proper management ethics and so forth. They lack strategic management skills, they cannot build conducive working environments for staff, nor can they build team spirit required in a learning institution (Tarusikirwa, 2001).

The basic hierarchy of a distance education provider in a country can be shown in Figure 1, adapted from Rahman (2001a).

MAIN FOCUS

There is no mystery to the way effective distance education programs develop. They do not happen spontaneously; they evolve through the hard work and dedicated efforts of many highly committed individuals and organizations. In fact, successful distance education programs rely on the consistent and integrated efforts of learners, faculty, facilitators, support staff and administrators (Suandi, 2001). By adapting available telephone technology, it is easy to implement computer communications through dial-up connectivity. Due to non-availability of high-speed backbone, the bandwidth may be very low, but this technique can be made popular within organizations, academics, researchers, individuals and so forth. The recent global trend of cost reduction in Internet browsing has increased Internet users in many countries. However, as most of the ISPs are located either in the capital or larger metropolitan cities, establishment of regional centres and remote tele-centres located at distant places are now time-demanding.

Teleconferencing, videoconferencing, computer-based interactive multimedia packages and various forms of computer-mediated communications are technologies that facilitate synchronous delivery of content and real-time interaction between teacher and students as well as opportunities for problem-solving, either individually or as a team (Rickards, 2000). Students in developing countries with limited assets may have very little access to these technologies and thus fall further behind in terms of information infrastructure. On the other hand, new telecommunications avenues, such as satellite telephone service, could open channels at a reasonable cost to the remotest areas of the world.

Integrated audio, video and data systems associated with interactive multimedia have been successful distance education media for providing educational opportunities to learners of all ages, at all levels of education and dispersed in diversified geographical locations (Rahman, 2001b). To make the learning processes independent of time and place in combination with technology-based resources, steps need to be taken towards interactive multimedia methods for disseminating education to remote rural-based learners.

Computer technology evolves so quickly that the distant educator focused solely on innovation “not meeting tangible needs” will constantly change equipment in an effort to keep pace with the “latest” technical advancements (Tarusikirwa, 2001). Hence, availability of compatible equipment at a reduced price and integration of them for optimized output becomes extremely difficult during the implementation period, and most of the time, the implementation methodology differs from theoretical design. Sometimes the implementation becomes costly, too, in comparison to the output benefit in the context of a developing country.

Initially, computers with multimedia facilities can be delivered to regional resource centres and media rooms can be established in those centres to be used as multimedia labs. Running those labs would necessitate involvement of two or three IT personnel in each centre. To implement and ascertain the necessity, importance, effectiveness, demand and efficiency, an initial questionnaire can be developed. Distributing periodical surveys among the learners would reflect the effectiveness of the project for necessary fine-tuning. After complete installation and operation of a few pilot tests in specific regions, the whole country can be brought under a common network through these regional centres.

With a bare minimum information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure support at the national level, the learning centre can initially focus around 40Km periphery around the main campus, providing line-of-sight radio connectivity ranging from 2Km to 40Km depending on demand and connectivity cost to the nodal/sub-nodal learning centres. These could be schools or community information centres, or affiliated learning centres under the main campus.

To avail the best opportunity of interactive communications, collaborative approaches could be considered with similar institutions. Offering Internet services at the grass-roots level and effective collaborations among the distance educator and other service providers can set a viable model at the outset. Figure 2, adapted from Rahman (2001a), shows the growth pattern and mode of connectivity between these types of institutions. In the future, more such institutions can easily be brought under this communications umbrella.

A needs-based survey may be necessary during the inception period to enquire about the physical location, demand of the community, requirement of different programs, connectivity issues, the sustainability perspective and other related issues before the establishment of RRCs/DCs/CCs. Following different national consensus, education statistics and demand of local populations, the locations need to be justified (Rahman, 2003). The survey may even become vital for the learning centre authority at a later stage during operation and management.

FUTURE TRENDS


In the absence of a high-speed Internet backbone and basic tele-communications infrastructure, it is extremely difficult to accommodate a transparent communications link with a dial-up connection, and at the same time it is not at all cost effective to enter the Internet with dial-up connectivity. However, in recent days, availability of VSAT (Single Channel Per Carrier/Multiple Channel Per Carrier), radio link (line of sight and non-line of sight) and other Wireless-Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology has become more receptive to the terminal entrepreneurs and in a way more acceptable to the large group of communities.


Using appropriate techniques, Web-based multimedia technology would be cheaper and more interactive at the front end, accumulating all acquired expenses (Suandi, 2001). Diversified communications methods could easily be adapted to establish a national information backbone. By superimposing it with other available discrete backbones in time without restricting each other’s usage, the main backbone can be made more powerful and, hence, be effectively utilized. A combination of media can be used in an integrated way by distant mode course developers. The materials may include specially designed printed self-study texts, study guides and a variety of select articles; or course resource packs for learners containing print, video cassettes, audio cassettes and CDs for each course stage. Computer communication between learners and learners and educators plays a key role in using the education network system (e-mail, Internet, MSN, tele-conferencing, video conferencing, media streaming, etc.).


These distance education strategies may form hybrid combinations of distance and traditional education in the form of distributed learning, networked learning or flexible learning, in which multiple intelligence are addressed through various modes of information retrieval (Gunawardena & McIsaac, 2003). At the same time, infrastructures need to be developed to cope with the increasing number of distant students and availability of low-cost multimedia technologies. In this regard, a dedicated Web server can be treated as an added resource among the server facilities. The Web server is to act as a resource to all students, tutors, staffs and outsiders, providing necessary support in the knowledge dissemination process and a tool for collaborative learning/teaching. Information infrastructure has to be established, so remote stations could log into the Web server and download necessary documents, files and data at reasonably high speed.


CONCLUSION


Effective utilization of capital resources, enhancement towards an improved situation and success of collaborative learning depends largely on socio-economics, geographical pattern, political stability, motivation and ethical issues (Rahman, 2000b). Through sincere effort, concrete ideology, strong positive attitude, dedicated eagerness, sincerity and efficiency, distance educators may achieve the target of enlightening the common citizen of the country by raising the general platform of education. This sort of huge project may involve not only technology issues, but also moral, legal, ethical, social and economic issues, as well. Hence, this type of project may also need to determine the most effective mix of technology in a given learning environment to offer technology-based distant teaching as efficient as traditional face-to-face teaching.


Other diversified facts should be explored, especially by low-income-generating countries, when considering adoption of these advanced technology-based methods in distance education. Socio-economic structure comes first, then availability with affordability, as well as whether those remotely located students could at least be provided with hands-on multimedia technology familiarity. While university academics may debate the educational merits of interactive multimedia environments from theoretical viewpoints, practical issues like accessibility and flexibility of learning experiences have potentially significant impact on the effectiveness of student learning.


With a huge population living in rural areas, spreading education to the rural-based community needs tremendous planning and effort (Rahman et. al., 2000), and a gigantic amount of financing for its successful implementation. Affordability of high-tech infrastructure would necessitate a huge amount of resources, which might not be justified at the initial period, where demand of the livelihood would divert towards some other basic emergency requirements. High initial investment cost would discourage entrepreneurs to be easily convinced, and gear up beyond a pre-conceived state of impression with additional funding.


Absence of a high bandwidth backbone of information infrastructure in developing countries would put the high-tech plan in indisputable difficulties for smooth implementation and operation. A limited number of PCs per student/academic/staff would contradict with the motive of affordable distribution of technology-based methods to remotely located stations.

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