This article attempts to analyse the problems presented by the use of communication and information technologies in the education sector (ICT) – namely the Internet and the World Wide Web – and their long-term consequences on traditional universities. In this context, we will explore the possibilities and potential of online education and how they can transform higher education. We will also review the issues that universities must address if they are to meet the needs of the computerized age. We will examine the implications of the current trend towards e-learning for universities on the one hand and for the communication and promotion of adult education in developing countries on the other, and make some proposals on how to ensure a successful transition to e-learning. The author, whose article “Continuing Education with the World Wide Web” was published in our 52nd edition, is a contributor to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Botswana, Gabarone.
Online education: problems and consequences for higher education
The performance of university education has changed little in the printing era; the lectures, seminars and tutorials characteristic of that era continue to predominate in the majority of universities. There is a growing consensus that educational infrastructure and teaching methods are outdated and that today’s educational infrastructure is no longer adapted to the new information and technological societies.
Technology has created cyberspace and broken down local and national barriers. Today, anyone with a computer, modem and access provider can connect to the new world without borders and enjoy its countless offers. Anyone can teach and everyone can learn what they want, when and where they want. Given the rapid pace of technological change in the world and its impact on the transfer of knowledge and information both within and outside the university, some educational leaders predict that the new type of higher education will be fundamentally different from previous ones.
The cyber age has as much of an empowering effect on society as the era of the written press, which has brought information down to the lower levels of society. Nevertheless, as has often been observed, higher education has been slow to accept the idea of a global society. Many educators do not seem to be concerned that global forces outside the education sector – business, technological advances and other government priorities – will determine the shape of the future electronic university. Access to cyberspace is taking on an unprecedented scale and forcing higher education institutions to respond to the new situation. In some cases, colleges and universities have enthusiastically accepted the improvements and understood that they allow them to expand the volume and scope of their services. Others, due to a lack of resources or interest, are more sceptical and opt for a wait-and-see attitude. Perhaps it is precisely because of this kind of attitude that some donors have warned and stated that “unless universities take the lead and influence their course, it is people with less expertise in this area who will decide for them”.
The information age and the rapid evolution of digital technology are synonymous with change and adaptation. The permanent changes in today’s world have important consequences for the various actors in the educational process: students, educators, administrators of educational organizations, employers. The evolution of society therefore requires the creation of an adequate and flexible learning environment. The current pressure on universities and adult education institutions that still work with the printed tool will force them to change their theory, practices, culture and traditions to meet the requirements of the digital age. In this process of moving from paper to electronic printing, which will become the main means of information, the volume of knowledge, the modes of learning, the public having access to it and the way in which knowledge is used will also change. There is therefore an urgent need for institutions to prepare for the new conditions and consequences of the transition from traditional to electronic-based education.
The online education model
Online education as a distance learning tool is a teaching method that allows the teacher and learner to be separated from each other in time and space while remaining connected by an appropriate technological means. In online education, spatial and temporal separation is bridged by ITC networks, including the Internet and the World Wide Web. Courses designed as part of online education, often referred to as virtual classes, are delivered through an electronic information system. The concrete tool – the blackboard, for example – is replaced by a learning context based on software and hardware. All the learning tools and types of interaction that exist in the traditional classroom also exist in the “virtual” classroom, but the activities and interaction are done through software and browsers, not in the classroom.
Virtual courses are in principle asynchronous, which means that there is no time or place to meet. Students do not go to a higher education institution at a specific time but work in interaction using a personal computer connected to the Internet. The student has the choice to consult the teaching material and communicate when and where he or she wants.
Communication in the virtual classroom is done using several dialogue tools, including e-mail, list servers, WWW, file transfer protocol, remote connection (Rlogin) and Internet relay-chat or “web chat”. These tools have a dual function: electronic dialogue on the one hand, and the presentation of teaching materials on the other. The type of communication that is done by e-mail, list servers and web chat is used for electronic dialogue: discussions, questions, comments and conversations without a direct link to the content. Generally, these communications are frequent (daily) and concise, and do not require in-depth study or analysis.
The WWW is usually used for the presentation of teaching materials: course content, assignments, queries, study projects and electronic research documents. These types of communication are less frequent than electronic dialogue^ (once a week), longer and generally devoted to more in-depth analysis.
The opportunities offered by online education
Since the end of the 19th century, distance education has been an integral part of higher education in the English-speaking world. Learners, higher education institutions and the community have benefited considerably from improved access opportunities, flexibility, adequacy, contractual responsibility and pedagogical quality. The primacy of traditional classroom teaching has been challenged by research by some distance education specialists on educational outcomes, methodologies and costs; others believe that the boundaries between distance and conventional education are blurring and may even disappear. The benefits of distance learning and the opportunities offered by ITCs are beginning to revolutionize education. Let’s now look at the opportunities and benefits of online education.