Within an international context, distance education for many decades was considered as the mode of learning devoted exclusively to the so-called non-traditional student. This was part of a group seen as a minority, which for various reasons — geographical distances, financial barriers or lack of time — was not able to attain what was considered ‘normal’ education.
Through different technologies, in a sequence of waves, distance education was offered following industrialized models of production to expand access in many educational levels at a lower cost. Many countries gave birth to ‘mega’ institutions serving student bodies in the millions based on standardized programs, with little to no interaction with tutors or peers in a collaborative fashion.
Online learning surged in late 90s as the latest wave of technologies supporting distance education initiatives. With the expansion of internet reach, the adoption of interconnected personal devices in all corners of the world, learning over the web has been much more expansive. The 21st century represents a world that is “increasingly urbanized and connected, where knowledge and innovation are the drivers of development”, said Mary Burns (“Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models, and Methods,” Education Development Center, 2011).
The challenges of going online in the region
According to Laila N. Boisselle (“Online-Learning and Its Utility to Higher Education in the Anglophone Caribbean,” Sage Publications, 2014), cultural aspects of Caribbean society and its community-based low-tech traditions and habits have contributed to a slow adoption of online learning. She recognizes, however, that online learning as shown through the growth of University of West Indies (UWI) has the potential of being an important vehicle of democratization of education. Online learning is bound to continue to expand despite its challenges.
In this context, online learning offerings are at the forefront of many organizations, which were not first adopters of this learning mode. These include not only higher education, but also corporations, NGOs, training centers, and associations. The need for continuous learning, just-in-time learning, and on-the-job learning have made the web a permanent medium for instruction. It has allowed for more customized content, greater interaction and collaboration, giving rise to rich learning experiences that surpass what exists in the traditional face-to-face environment.
For it to be successful, online learning requires a quite different organizational system. Design and delivery are performed separately, and more frequently than not become decoupled in terms of who’s responsible for such functional roles. The virtual environment often is achieved through a Learning Management System that encompasses pedagogical, technical and administrative aspects of course delivery. Quality control becomes a key factor in such a context. Many of those involved in teaching, developing materials, and managing education or training in traditional settings do not have the skills and knowledge required in this new landscape.
e-Learning: A desired skill for educators
Training professionals in the field of e-learning is now critical. According to Mary Burns, “teaching at a distance can be a major paradigm shift”, going beyond learning how to use new technologies. Not to diminish the hurdle of overcoming fear, feelings of vulnerability, and lack of skills to navigate comfortably the virtual environment, teaching online requires a change in the traditional ways in which instruction is delivered. Instructors will need to “embrace and model the learner-centered instructional approaches” that characterize this new mode of teaching. Besides having a deep knowledge of their subject area, they will need to adopt best practices of online pedagogy mediated by technology to create rich learning experiences for learners.
Instructors that have those capabilities are not easy to find, mostly because “few distance programs train instructors” adequately, says Burns. This is why INDES at the Inter-American Development Bank has recently started to offer its Online Tutor training course to a wider audience. The 6-week course offers participants a unique opportunity to learn the main skills for delivering quality online learning courses, including establishing an online presence, moderating discussion forums, deploying instructional design principles for online learning, and providing individualized feedback to online learners.
The course presents the fundamental best practices for online teaching, while creating real-world scenarios in which students can practice their new knowledge and skills. By taking first the seat of being an online learner, the course offers students an environment where they can model behaviors and learn by doing.
For more information about the IDB’s Online Tutor Training course, please visit our website here.