Closing the gap in distance learning

by 10 Aug 2010

Distance learning has both grown in popularity and sophistication to become a very real learning solution for professionals. HR Leader looks at the latest trends in distance learning and how to get the most out of distance learning courses

The concept of distance education goes back to around 1728, when an advertisement in the US Boston Gazette called for students to learn a method of shorthand via weekly lessons in the mail. Today, distance learning is ever evolving due to ongoing advances in technology. Where mail, the telephone and email were once dominant mediums for distance learning, web-based VoIP, live streaming and collaborative learning through social media networks are some of the latest ways in which distance learning is delivered.

As a result of such technological developments, online delivery is no longer restricted to purely theoretical disciplines, according to Cratis Hippocrates, general manager of business development at Open Universities Australia (OUA). With an increase in the blurring of campus and off- campus delivery, he says innovative blended solutions are being used to deliver engineering, teacher education, nursing and bioscience. “The teaching focus is progressively becoming about using the online medium not to mimic an on-campus experience, but to create a valid and rich learning experience in its own right,” he explains.

“Online discussion groups and tutorials that operate in real time enable students to interact remotely with others in the same course are also a growing and increasingly important part of distance learning.”

Sam Meredith, vice president of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, says that mobile learning, through the likes of mobile phones and iPads, as well as collaborative learning through Web 2.0 technologies, are increasingly coming to the fore in distance learning.

“We have got to shift away from content to collaborative learning,” he asserts. “It really is about anytime, anywhere learning, so all that is needed is a time and place of the choosing of the learner. This incorporates just-in-time learning, so corporates and other organisations need to recognise that flexibility is required in this kind of learning.”

Distance Learning Benefits

The main benefit of distance learning is flexibility, according to Meredith, who also serves as manager of online projects in the educational developments unit of TAFE NSW (New England Institute). “So people can undertake learning at an off-peak period in the company’s work and they can maximise the benefits of the training to suit their strategies,” he affirms.

Distance learning also allows for the aggregation of learning across a company by tapping into potential peer group learning and trainers from around the world – in or outside of their companies, Meredith adds. “Employees can draw on expertise wherever it exists. So you can have learners in Singapore, Hong Kong and China all participating via technology such as Adobe Connect or a virtual training room, regardless of time differences.”

While there are minimal face-to-face interactions in distance learning, which can be seen as a disadvantage, Hippocrates says that distance learning providers can offer collaboration tools online, such as discussion groups and tutorials to share information and knowledge in most modules. “Online study groups enable students to connect with others studying the same units and to communicate, discuss assignments and interact freely,” he explains.

Distance learning providers such as OUA can also provide access to resources including online tutorial support to help with the necessary academic skills such as writing, researching, referencing and critical thinking, Hippocrates adds.

The role of HR

The main distance learning challenge that corporate students face is finding the time to collaborate effectively with classmates during an assignment, according to Hippocrates. Good time management is essential for corporate students, who say they can study around their work and family commitments, he elaborates.

Another common distance learning pitfall from an HR perspective is keeping employees engaged across more theoretical areas of study, according to Hippocrates. However, he explains that helping students focus on how the theory applies to their role produces better professional results.

“Organisations and HR professionals can make the most out of distance learning by researching the breadth of courses and units that are available to them and choosing the ones that most interest them and/or will give them the best competitive advantage in the workplace,” he adds.

Meredith also says that HR needs to get actively involved in the distance learning process. “Those developing the content need to be supported in this process. It’s not sufficient to develop some content and spoon that content to learners wherever they are located and expect them to engage with it easily,” he asserts.

“Some may well engage, but most won’t so it’s important that the HR or training professional supports staff in distance learning implementation so that they have the necessary mechanisms and technology to make it work.”

In providing web conferencing or virtual training rooms, for example, Meredith says the trainer needs to provide learners with easy access, a stable server and processes as well as opportunities to support and engage with learners once a week, either by way of phone, video or physical meetings and conferences. “You need regular sessions to ensure that they are on track and give them the opportunity to be facilitated. You are then giving them that sense of group affiliation or support,” he says.

Top 10 tips for distance learning success

1 Become familiar and ready with course materials. Familiarise yourself with programs used for the course and purchase books listed in your first reading lists.

2 Make sure internet access is sufficient. If your internet provider is unreliable, switch before courses start.

3 Set a study schedule and stick to it. This will help you keep up with the pace, meet deadlines, and ultimately succeed.

4 Create a workspace. Make a clutter-free, comfortable space with adequate light. Make this space your learning space and nothing else.

5 Set goals. And meet them. Your first goal may just be to organise your workload and that's a great place to start, but set even bigger goals for yourself as you move on.

6 Don't wait until the last minute. Don't wait until the last minute to finish and submit a project, because you never know what glitches technology will have in store for you.

7 Contact your instructor regularly. Keep in touch with your instructor and regularly contact him or her with any questions you may have.

8 Take practice exams. Time yourself while taking practice exams so you know whether or not you are assessing an exam within the allotted time.

9 Make or join a study group. Many distance learning online programs can link you up with your classmates, which can be worthwhile, both academically and socially.

10 Reward yourself. Always having something to look forward to will most likely help you stay dedicated

Source: www.topuniversities.com

DISTANCE LEARNING DIRECTORY

ECU - Human Resource Management

Online study at ECU means that you can still achieve a first class qualification, flexibly balanced around both home and work commitments. The postgraduate Human Resource Management course enables graduates and experienced managers to add value to their employment portfolio by gaining a qualification in managing and developing people. This allows students to customise their learning towards interests in people management, people development or workplace relationships. Visit http://www.reachyourpotential.com.au or phone: 134 ECU (134 328)

Cengage Education - BSB41007 Certificate IV in Human Resources

Covering recruitment and selection, performance management, industrial relations and more, this nationally accredited qualification provides the ideal foundation for those eyeing an HR assistant's role, or current HR practitioners seeking formal skills recognition. Offering all the flexibility associated with distance learning leader Cengage Education, the course allows students to study when and where it suits them yet enjoys full support from experienced tutors and mentors. Visit http://www.cengage.edu.au

Chifley - Technology Management - MBA

If you are in the engineering, science or professional services industries, the Chifley MBA (Technology Management) could be for you. It has been developed by industry experts for industry professionals. Its alliance with industry experts ensures that students are exposed to adult learning principles and can apply the latest management theories, tools and techniques back into the workplace. Visithttp://www.chifley.edu.au/postgraduateprograms or phone 1300 244353

Southern Cross University – MBA

Southern Cross University's Graduate College of Management offers the popular MBA program, which includes specialist streams in areas such as human resource management. The course can be studied via distance education, which incorporates a highly interactive online study environment promoting collaboration and a sense of community between students - regardless of whether they are studying in Australia or overseas. Visithttp://www.scu.edu.au/gcm

Learning Seat - Bullying Prevention course

Learning Seat members can obtain a deeper understanding of bullying in the workplace and their rights around the issue according to the law. The course is designed with the expertise of leading Australian law firm Clayton Utz and is written in easy-to-understand language for the everyday worker. It provides a practical translation of this legislation, which most courses on this topic lack, as well as tips and hints on how to imbed good practice into your everyday working life. Email customerservice@learningseat.com or call 03 8676 6900

Griffith University - Employment Relations & Master of Employment Relations

These two programs uniquely blend human resources with employment relations practices to create innovative and interesting content with strong practical elements. They include material such as workplace and institutional practices and strategies, employment law, negotiation and dispute resolution, managing equity and diversity, workplace health and safety, managing rewards as well as performance strategy. Students learn techniques to apply the concepts to their workplace. Visit http://www.griffith.edu.au/oua or call 1800 802 041