Web Conferencing in Distance Learning | TeachingOnline.Net

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Web Conferencing in Distance Learning

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When India got her independence its population was approximately 350 million. At present the population has crossed 1.02 billion. Out of the total population, nearly 400 million people are still illiterate. As education is an indispensable tool for the proper development and growth of an individual and society, in Article 45 of the Indian constitution, provision was made that the state has to provide free and compulsory education to all children up to the age of 14 years. Even after 62 years of independence this target is a dream. The regular or face-to-face educational system has been found to be inadequate to meet this demand for providing education to all.

Humanity is undergoing a great transformation into information society through newer communication technologies and their adoption in life and work situations. This has created a process of globalization and liberalization. In such a changing scenario, the major concerns of the higher education are: (a) increasing access to larger number of learners, (b) ensuring equity in offering learning opportunities and facilities, (c) making educational programmers relevant to the needs and requirements of the people, and (d) raising the quality and standard of education.

As we make the transition to the new information society, the existing educational system is bound to change to a newer system. The emerging system most probably will be the networked system of education. The university system mostly used printing medium and print technology for storing, transporting and communicating knowledge. The next system will be electronic media, for storing, accessing and retrieving knowledge. The open and distance education system is evolving and undergoing generations of changes. The correspondence courses relied mostly on postal communication; whereas, distance education is using multiple media such as print, audio, video, etc. The next generation will see electronic communication as the main way of storing and communicating knowledge.

The commutation technologies are in a great fix of change to higher technologies, which often require higher skills, higher knowledge and higher intellectual abilities for their development and the new technologies are coming up very fast and making the older, obsolete. Emergence of global communication network has not only created globalization and liberalization but also an urge for higher standards and quality.

There are two very different types of interactivity in learning: social and individual (Bates, 1991). Social interaction between learners and teachers need to be balanced with the individual student’s interaction with teaching­ learning resources, including textbooks, study guides, audio-tapes, videotapes and computer assisted learning programmers.

New Communication Technologies

Communication technologies can be broadly classified into two types :

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(i)   Mass Communication Technologies: These are mainly of the type of radio, TV, etc. However, modem facilities are allowing selection and interactivity as in cable, TV, various channels, teleconferencing, direct-to-home (DTH), etc.

(ii) Personalized Communication Technologies: This technology allows one to one or one to many as well as many too many selective communications. They include telephone, e-mail, fax, LAN, WAN, etc. Satellite communication is helping the development of various types of communication network and the internet is expanding fast for global communications.

(iii) Modern Information and Communication Technologies: The technologies especially with the merging of the telecommunications and computers, are revolutionizing the quality, complexity and speed of information being produced, stored, processed and transmitted.

This development has created enormous potential for the use of interactive technologies in open and distance learning.

In theory, communication involves a certain degree of interactivity; however the degree of interactivity varies considerably from one medium to another. A wide variety of descriptions are used to characterize educational media. Some selected media are-

Interactivity in Real Time

  • Two way video and audio (video conferencing)
  • One-way video, two-way audio (interactive televised instruction)
  • Two-way audio and graphics (audio graphic teleconferencing)
  • Two-way audio (telephone and radio talk back)
  • One-way audio (radio broadcasting)
  • One-way video (television broadcasting)

Interactivity with Recorded Message -not in Real Time

  • Computer Conferencing
  • Voice mail
  • Facsimile

One of the strengths of the multimedia model of distance education is that the learning materials, such as specially designed printed materials, audio­ tapes, video-tapes and computer based learning packages, aimed at teaching concepts and cognitive skills are associated with clearly defined objectives and the content of a coherent curriculum. Distance educators have also recognized the need to provide opportunities for social interaction to support effective learning. They have, therefore, tried to same late face-to-face communication through the development of instructional systems based on technologies such as audio-teleconferencing and computer mediated communication video-conferencing and computer mediated communication (CMC). These technologies can support continuous two-way communication between students and teachers.

The term ‘computer mediated communication’ subsumes all forms of communication which employ computers and networks to carry messages (Romiszowski, 1990). Computer conferencing is one of the several forms of computer-mediated communication (other examples are e-mail, news groups, bulletin boards, data base access and electronic journal). The nature of computer conferencing allows for sustained interaction between teacher and learner and among learners, to promote critical analysis and deep and meaningful learning. It does this by providing a shared learning environment particularly well-adopted for the support of collaborative learning activities (Kaye, 1992). This suggests that computer conferencing can be a useful tool in the promotion of collaborative learning and can assist the development of deep and meaningful learning for those who interact through the medium. Along with this collaborative potential, one of the primary influencing factors for facilitating critical thinking and deep meaningful learning may be the social presence within a computer conferencing environment.

Tools for Computer Conferencing

The key element of computer mediated communication is the integration of the desk-top computers with the public telephone network. Such services require a local microcomputer or terminal, a communications software package for each local micro-computer, a separate box or integrated chip called a modem which converts computer data into a suitable form for transmission via the telephone system, and a connection between the modem and a standard telephone line.

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Modems can operate at different speeds, depending on the volume of data to be transmitted. In most cases, the user has an ‘address’ (i.e., a telephone number) which connects the user to a host computer which via software packages provides a range of services such as electronic mail and computer conferencing facilities. Thus, an educational institution can establish an ‘Internal ‘ network of users, using a local area network and learners and teachers remote (from any campus) can also be connected to the institution’s network, via the public telephone system, creating an institutional wide area network. An institution’s host computer can also provide ‘gateways’ or access to other external networks, e.g., the internet. Alternatively, an individual can access other networks and world-wide. By October 1993, the number of people who were computer networked (i.e., on line) and who would send or receive messages on-line, was estimated to be approximately 35 million (Godwin, 1994).

Type of Computer-Conferencing System

Computer-Conferencing systems are broadly subdivided into two groups :

(a) Systems based on asynchronous communication which provide a shared work space for communication;

(b) Systems for synchronous conferencing which require and support participants interacting in real time.

Some of the more advanced computer-conferencing systems are able to support both of these functions. Of these two types of systems, the asynchronous systems are more widely used .

Asynchronous Systems

Asynchronous conferencing systems allow participants to place documents in a shared workspace to which other participants may then annotate (i.e., append notes). Annotations may take the form of-

  • responses to a document,
  • responses as part of a conversation,
  • additions to a sorted list of items,
  • evaluation of a document,

The items that comprise a computer conference are managed on an annotation server. Since the development of PLATO notes, a large number of computer-conferencing systems have been developed.

According to Woolley (1996) asynchronous conferencing system can be subdivided into 5 main types:

(i).          Centralized forum systems,

(ii).         Groupware systems,

(iii).        Bulletin board system,

(iv).        Usernet system or

 (v).        Mailing lists system.

(i). Centralized Forum Systems: These systems run and store their

Information on mainframe computers. The user interacts with the system via a terminal or a microcomputer running a terminal emulation session.

(ii). Groupware Systems : These are CMC systems and provide a range of workgroup coordination functions such as shared diaries and document sharing capabilities in addition to asynchronous conferencing capabilities. The leading example of a groupware system is Lotus Notes. Lotus Notes is also an application which established itself as a new category of software.

(iii). Bulletin Board Systems : These were developed by computer enthusiasts in the early days of micro computing for sharing software and information.

(iv). Usernet Systems: It is a distributed discussion system based on a set of ‘news groups’ classified hierarchically by the subject. Usernet news groups are propagated around the world to usernet sites via a variety of networks including the internet. Users obtain access to news groups to read and post messages by using a news reader. News readers are built into Netscape Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Usernet groups provide places where people sharing common interests can communicate. Some news groups are moderated. Moderated groups generally function more effectively than unmediated groups. Organizations can set up local news groups with the bounds of their own network by using the same usernet software that maintains the public newsgroups.

(v).Mailing List Systems : These are systems which manage discussion groups. A list-server maintain ns database of participants in the different discussion groups it supports. A person is able to joi n a discussion by e­ mailing a short message to the list server on which the discussion is maintained.

Synchronous Systems

Synchronous communication is communication amongst participants in real time. All active partici pants must be subset of all the registered participants.

Instructional Benefits of Com putter Conferencing

There are a number of educational benefits of computer conferencing such as-

(i)  Developing Academic Discourse: Computer conferencing can be used to develop student skill in analysis, constructing and defending an argument assembling evidence in support of an argument, and critiquing the work of other learners, as well as the work of other scholars.

(ii) Collaborative and Project Work: Harasin ( 1980) has stressed the value of computer conferencing for collaborative learning. The on-line environment is particularly appropriate for collaborative learning approaches which emphasize group interaction. Computer-conferencing facilitates the sharing of knowledge and understanding among the members of a group who are not working together at the same time or place. The common file of a conference provides participants with a ‘shared object’ which focuses and organizes the group discussions and interactions. Computer conferencing offers opportunities for learning collaborations that have hitherto been impossible. Computer conferencing can also facilitate group project work. Several students can work together on a project, which can be assessed. Through the conference the ‘marker’ can assess the contribution of each individual student to the overall project; alternatively students working together can be assessed collectively.

(iii)Knowledge Building: Harasin (1990) argues that the collaborative potential of computer conferencing enables students to engage actively in their own knowledge building or knowledge creation in three ways: through

(i) idea generation, (ii) idea l inking, and (iii) idea structuring. Teles (1993) identify a number of techniques to develop knowledge building through conferencing. The techniques he listed are-

  • Building knowledge domains: A mentor not only introduces a learner to the main concepts and facts i n a subject area, but also helps in developing the necessary cognitive skills.
  • Scaffolding: This refers to the support, advice, encouragement and feedback given by the mentor as the learner works towards mastery.
  • Reflection: Because of the asynchronous nature of computer conference, learners can research and reflect on practice before responding.
  • Exploration: Learners are put in the role of ‘experts’, to critique or advise on others’ work.
  • Sequencing Instruction: The mentor controls the sequence of instruction, presentation of information, learning of concept, presentation by the learners in their own words of what they have learned and feedback from others.
  • Peer Collaboration for Expert Practice: Co-operatively sharing knowledge with others.

(iiv) Ready Access to Help and Support: Students can use a conference to get help on specific topics either from their tutor or often from other students. Usually other students can provide better understanding or assistance than the tutor. Tutors can also call on help from other tutors, thus maximizing the range of knowledge i n the tutorial team.

(v) Emotional Involvement: It is associated with the removal of social isolation. Computer Conferencing can result in strong emotional involvement for learners in the process of learning and communicating with others which is unusual not only in distance education but often in conventional education.

It enables discussion and informal communication between learners and teachers. Computer conferencing can also encourage a more open-ended and social form of learning than pre-programmed computer-based learning. Thus, computer conferencing is most appropriate for those subjects or areas where interpretation and controversy are important. It also provides a means by which students can negotiate their own areas of study. It is particularly useful for areas where most learners have relevant knowledge and experience to contribute to the learning process, such as in professional development or more advanced level courses.

(vi)Active and Interactive Participation: Participants can ask questions, develop and participate in arguments and dialogue, respond to conflicting viewpoints, add new information and receive new information from other learners as well as from teachers or tutors. This can lead to intense academic discourse at a distance. Computer-mediated communication is probably method/technique which is the most powerful among all the methods and technologies currently available to distance educators for participation in learning process, especially due to its asynchronous and archival qualities which are lacking in audio conferencing.

(vii) Freedom from Constraints of Time and Location: Because the central computer server stores the message, which can be accessed by the users as per their own convenience, communication is asynchronous. Participants can join the conferences over a period of time, reading a “build­ up” of comments from others, and adding their own comments when they are ready. Thus, participants do not have to be at a set place or time to participate.

 

(viii) Learner Control: Students are able to contribute as much or as little as they want and when they want. If they prefer to ‘lurk’, i.e., read but not comment, they may do so. Sometimes students can set up their own conference on a topic in which they are interested, but which is not directly relevant to  the topic under discussion. Small groups can coalesce spontaneously around a topic of mutual interest.

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