THE CHALLENGES OF VIRTUAL EDUCATION

Mr Alejandro Franco J

E-dUCO Research Group Moderador

E-mail: alejofranco@yahoo.com

Psychologist, Specialist in Psychoanalysis

Software & Systems Engineering Undergraduate Student

Research Group E-dUCO Moderator

Social Sciences Faculty Professor

Eastern Catholic University, Colombia

 

 

Abstract

The article shows the challenges at administrative,teacher-student and technological levels that should face the University toenter virtual education: the teachersí resistance to the technology and thepedagogic change; the studentsí resistance to take the responsibility of theirlearning process in an active way; and the technological, administrative andlegal challenges that implies the three levels of virtual education (totallyvirtual, half-virtual and virtual support to face-to-face courses). It outlinesthat the university should lean on research for not entering this processwithout an appropriate strategic planning, and it suggests some strategies toadvance quickly toward this goal.

 

Virtual education is a teaching-learning process based on theprinciples of active pedagogy (the student should take the responsibility of afrequent and effective participation), with the characteristics of distanceeducation (during all classes, or most of them, the students and the teacherwill not meet personally, although this could happen in a virtual space), andwith the possibility of synchronous or asynchronous interaction (for example,they can chat with each other in real time using internet services, but also bye-mail or participate in e-groups that are asynchronous technologies that don'trequire that both are on-line at the same time).

 

In the international arena, virtual education grows everyday, offering programs in basic and secondary education, as well asundergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Today itís possible to take virtualcourses at some of the most popular universities in the world, which certifiesthe credits that the student acquires at the end. Many other universities,sensitive about the distance problem of many of their candidates, and of theschedule difficulties in others, have begun to implement virtual programs withthe purpose of reaching those students that canít assist to their campus.

 

Nowadays, Eastern Catholic University at Rionegro (Colombia,South America) is advancing toward three levels of virtual education: totallyvirtual, half-virtual and virtual support of Campus education, not only with theintention of increasing the number of students (reaching those that are far awayor whose schedules make impossible to assist to the campus), but also with thegoal of improving the quality of the educational process, adding active pedagogyand multimedia tools to the "on Campus" programs. Having that in mind,the University created a Virtual Education Committee that begun their workaround two years ago. The process has been delayed partially due to problems inthe acquisition and assembly of a virtual educational platform, but probablyalso because of the natural human resistance to change.

 

Right now, the process begins to take a new impulse fromresearch, with the foundation in May of the Research Group on Virtual Educationand Multimedia Technologies for Teaching and Learning, "E-dUCO"; thisgroup has already begun to carry out the first experiences of virtual courses inthis sense, as well as to present the first research project that look for toopen him the one in route to the whole process. The group worksinterdisciplinary, this way: from the skills of engineering we have thetechnological support, from the education specialists we have the pedagogicsupport and from the ability of social sciences we worry about the motivationcomponent and also about educational and social psychology (analyzing the bestway of awake motivation and to promote interaction in the course). Among the"E-dUCO" objectives is to give support, from research, to the VirtualEducation Committee, and it is in this interaction that we have visualized thefollowing challenges that, although they have been thought for our University,they are the same ones that will face any other university in the sameconditions.

 

 

Challenge 1: To overcome the teacherís resistance to enterin the technological era

 

Unfortunately, today there are professors that don't know howto read an email neither how to take advantage of the internet to improveresearch. Sometimes resistance is very strong and they only start this processwhen they are forced to, or even just ask for help to a colleague so that he/shemakes it for them. There are probably two big factors that influence thisresistance: ignorance and lack of motivation, the last one due to certainunconscious resistance. It is very probable that the first factor (theignorance) can be corrected with training, but in the second one is probably theadministrative area the one that should incentive teachers. Concerning theunconscious resistance, this could be the result of computer-relatedfrustrations (frustration promotes aggression), of the fear to face new things(fear for changes), or of the narcissistic idea (some kind of omnipotence) thatthere is nothing that the machine can do for us in the teaching-learningprocess.

 

Challenge 2: To overcome the teacherís resistance to changein the pedagogic level

 

To teach in a virtual classroom doesn't mean to film atraditional class and to put it in the internet so that the students attendvirtually; neither it means to record it, to transcribe it in text and then tocopy it in a web page. It means to transform the traditional pedagogy toward anelectronic pedagogy in which the professor becomes a facilitator of thestudent's learning process and an active pedagogy supporter. This"new" pedagogy supposes that the teacher should be qualified in newpedagogic techniques, but also that it should renounce, totally or partially, tothe face to face interaction in class, and, for some of them, this is verydifficult.

 

For many professors it can also be a threatening experienceif they don't feel comfortable in writing, because interaction in virtualeducation is given mostly in this way (and we know that frequently it is a greatdifficulty for some teachers to write). Also, for many, to face the new coursecould be the problem, when he/she is already accustomed to use an easy pedagogyin which the same class is repeated semester after semester without having tomake the effort of researching, of improving, of enlarging the cognitivespectrum. Here the strategies must promote training in the new techniques, andthe administrative staff should make the necessary to push teachers toparticipate in them, since we have verified that when this process depends inthe teacherís will, they resist changing.

 

Finally, many teachers allege that excessive work load is theone that doesn't leave time to do research or to enter these new fields of thevirtual education. The administrative staff of the university should establishmechanisms to verify this and, in that sense, to make the appropriatemodifications so that in each professor's work load thereís a space in thissense.

 

Challenge 3: To overcome the resistance of the students towork without a "father" in front of them

 

Our students have the habit to work in a space in which onlythe professor speaks and directs his class, during all classes. This makes thestudents to adopt a passive position (based in just listening to the teacher);in this case, the good teacher is the one that makes all the effort, while thebad teacher is the exigent one, the teacher who makes work their students andthe one that doesn't give everything. The consequence is that an enormousdistrust is generated toward the facilitator teacherís role, which is theposition of the professor in a virtual course, but, at the same time, itgenerates a resistance to leave the laziness and the easiness to a position inwhich should be been responsible for what memorizes. The "father"professor is the one that has all knowledge (the only one) and all power (ofdirecting to his students to where he wants). It is a position that generates alot of satisfaction because of the power recognition and for the admiration thatmany times it raises, but at the same time itís a position that prevents thediversity of ideas, promotes the repetitive learning and kills creativity.

 

At the same time itís a professor that protects the studentíslaziness who can then rest peacefully without being forced to think, just pushedto memorize information for the tests and sometimes to analyze, but only withthe contents given in the class, never with further researching, never readingor experiencing more than what they are requested to do. In this sense, the new"Credit" system in Colombian education tries to solve the problem, buta deeper change is needed: we won't win anything forcing the students to makethings that they don't like. If learning becomes an obligation then we finishcreating a "study phobia" and a "research phobia". We shoulddevelop joyful and creative learning techniques that allow the student to bemotivated toward his/her knowledge acquisition process.

 

Challenge 4: To overcome the resistance of the students totake an active position in their search for knowledge

 

It is necessary to admit that, in general, most of ourstudents have become more and more lazy. And there are many factors that play asignificant role: the automatic promotion that, from the school or the highschool makes the student to think that it is the same thing to win or to lose(itís almost impossible to lose, thereís always a strategy to avoid this),the lack of motivation for knowledge in teachers (and also in the parents) thatis contagious to the students, the absence of a social ideal that makes ofstudying with effort a sublime goal to reach, the mental resistance to do hardintellectual workÖ Everything must be added when we consider proposing amethodology that wants to transform that passive position in the contrary. Whenthe student notices that he/she will have to move from their passive position,he/she prefers to begin to protest, and it is then when he/she attacks theteacher, the course, and even the school or the university, telling everyonethat he/she is thinking in leaving the institution. This aspect, mainly in theprivate area, and in face of the economic crisis, force some institutions togive up in their efforts to promote active pedagogy, without realizing thedamage that is caused promoting students that donít deserving it, and withoutseeing the consequences for the society that will receive a high school graduateor a professional that it is not qualified as such. For this particular case,politics are required to promote active pedagogy from the first academicsemester, because it is necessary to start an entire adaptation process thatsubstitutes the previous passive pedagogy for an active pedagogy that promotesthe passion for knowledge and not the boredom for learning.

 

Challenge 5: To overcome the technological, administrativeand legal setbacks

 

The first setback is the technological one. To implementtechnologies that allows virtual education itís necessary to have moreequipments (internet connected computers) for the on Campus students that aregoing to attend half-virtual courses, and also for those that will have virtualsupports to their classes, and that don't have a computer with an internetconnection in at home. This would also require a bigger band width so that, inthe event of a simultaneous use of all the university net resources, the serverdoesn't become the factor that makes too slow the visit to the courses. Morecomputers, more bandwidth, means bigger education quality if they really takethe opportunity, and also means the possibility to attract more students(including distance students), but, obviously, it also means more money. Also,if thereís a full entry in the process, it will be quite useful theacquisition of a technological platform that organizes the whole processcohesively (two of the most recognized tools in the market are WebCT andBlackboard, but there are other examples). As I already noted, it is possible tomake virtual education with free tools, but much more teacher hours are used forthe design, the organization and the execution of the course.

 

The second setback is administrative. Given the bigresistances that this change will bring, if there is not a real desire on theadministration to push this project in all the university, the process willfail. The first data are conclusive, after an invitation to an undergraduatehalf virtual course during the last semester, neither one alone of the studentsaccepted the invitation. The invitation became extensive to carry out the samecourse, this time totally virtual, to all the teachers and the administrativestaff: 34 people registered, but three weeks only five of them continue toparticipate assiduously. What this indicates is that thereís a motivationabsence, so it will be necessary to generate it, with clear and objectivepolitics, with promotion and with benefits to people who participates.

 

The third setback is the legal one. The university mustdefine the rules clearly for each type of experience (virtual, half-virtual,virtual support) so that the whole community can be guided in the process. Thismeans that itís going to be necessary to think about how to remunerate theperson that creates the virtual course, the one who creates the half-virtualcourse or the one who creates the virtual support; also itís necessary todetermine how to remunerate the person that facilitates the virtual course andhow to remunerate the virtual assistances and the time connected to internet.Student regulations and educational statutes should be modified including thisperspective, creating a solid and organized frame that foresees all thesituations that can be faced.

 

After looking all these five challenges one could think thatto overcome them is a dream, but dreaming is the first step to achievesomething. If it is possible to create a combined and organized motivation amongthe administration, the faculties (with both teachers and students) and thetechnology, we will be able to advance together toward this new tool that theworld of distance education offers us in the technological era: virtualinteraction.

 

Final Notice

 

We should write down that for the realization of thisexperience of a virtual course for the time being are not using a virtualeducational platform as those that previously name and that integrate all theresources in one, but rather we combine a series of free tools (they are not theonly ones, but they have a good quality; the only cost is to allow them to placea window with publicity in the page that the user can close with a simplemaneuver). They are:

 

To harbor the courses: Yahoo Geocities ( http://geocities.yahoo.com).

To have the discussion lists: Yahoo Groups ( http://groups.yahoo.com)

To use the synchronous written discussion or " chat " there are several options, but we use Yahoo Messenger (http://messenger.yahoo.com) and Microsoft Messenger.

To design the web pages : Front Page Express, Netscape. Sometimes we used also other programs like DreamWeaver or Front Page XP.

For the self examinations we use a free software called internet Custom Test, created by Vantarakis Software, (http://www.customtest.cjb.net /).

To design the courses we have used two strategies, apart from the experience that each one has had in their work as teachers: the reading and analysis of the newest books in the subject, and the attendance to some free virtual courses in internet (almost always in English, like in the Barnes & Noble University http://www.barnesandnobleuniversity.com).

 

Bibliography

 

1. COLLISON, George et al. (2000). Facilitating Online Learning. Effective Strategies for Moderators. Madison, Atwood Publishing.

2. HANNA, Donald et al. (2000). 147 Practical Tips for teaching online groups: Essentials of Web-based education. Madison, Atwood Publishing.

3. PALLOFF, Rena M. y PRATT, Keith. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

4. PALLOFF, R. y PRATT, K. (2003). The Virtual Student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

5. SALMON, Gilly. (2003). E-tivities: The key to active online learning. London, Kogan Page.