How are Universities Improving the Distance Learning Experience?

Higher Education, AI

Distance learning is the most significant phenomenon occurring in higher education today, but it certainly isn’t a new concept. Back in 1858, the University on London became the first university in the world to offer distance learning degrees. Lectures were sent by via phonograph and later via radio broadcast.

But it wasn’t until the Open University was established in 1969 that distance learning gained real traction. The Open University pioneered the distance learning form as we know it today and is still the UK’s main provider. But other UK universities are starting to see the potential of reaching out to students around the world with online courses that can offer all the academic rigour and support of a face-to-face degree without the inflexibility.

While distance learning has gained popularity over the past decade, it hasn’t been regarded as the most exhilarating way to study. Although online courses cover cognitive skills, students miss out on an important dimension of learning: engaging other intelligence and more intensive interactivity.

A report by Bloomberg Recruiter indicates that employers want job skills that go beyond cognitive ones. The skills they most desire include communication, leadership, creative problem solving and strategic thinking skills. But students in these online classes aren’t able to develop these interpersonal skills as easily. That’s because they need to be developed by engaging in creative experiences, such as leading class discussions or working in groups.

Up until now, this has been one of the major drawbacks to distance learning. But not anymore – online learning is about to receive a serious make-over.

New technology such as virtual reality, online lectures, e-portfolios and interactive study experiences, are enhancing today’s online learning experience, and there are plenty of innovations in the pipeline. 

Mixed reality teaching and learning environments (MiRTLEs) are being explored to enable online students to enter a real face-to-face lecture virtually and we expect this to become an increasingly popular facet of online degrees. The idea is that the online students can view the lecture, lecturer and other face-to-face students from a first-person perspective via a webcam. In the lecture hall, distance-learning students will appear either as an avatar or as themselves – via their webcam – on a large screen that the face-to-face students and the lecturer can see.

Immersive virtual reality is also beginning to establish itself in the education field.

Imagine you’re a surgeon, and a patient is rushed into your operating room. He’s been in a car crash and it’s your job to make critical decisions to save his life. Your heart races. You need to act fast — well, you need to act fast in this immersive VR app. Created by Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in conjunction with Immersive VR Education, the app is realistic enough to train medical professionals for real-life hospital situations.

Much of the work being done in the educational immersive VR space is for specific training purposes. It gives users the physical and emotional responses that they would have if they were there in person, helping them to make fewer mistakes on the job because they already recognise the environment.

Artificial Intelligence and content based chatbots are also becoming an essential part of the distance learning environment.

The implication of chatbots creates an interactive learning experience for the student, similar to a one-to-one conversation with a tutor.

But where chatbots really come into their own is with the ability to adapt to the pace of each student’s learning. We all know that students learn and absorb information at different paces and this requires a specific methodology of teaching. However, chatbots have the ability to adapt to specific needs and requirements of a particular student. They can be used in a wide spectrum, be it teaching people how to build website or learn a new language.

As exciting as all this technology may be, human support will still be vital in creating a more personal experience while students embark on their distance learning courses. Student advisors will be crucial in providing the right kind of support when it’s needed so no one feels alone.

Today’s distance learning programmes are enabling students to enrol at any university in the world, without needing to move there. Geography and time differences just add to the global study experience, as do cultural differences. If delivered well, distance learning of the future is set to be a highly interactive, rich, stimulating and rewarding experience for all students.

To see how ANS are helping the University of Staffordshire to enhance its digital learning experience read the press release here.

Posted by Helen Thomas