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Pathways to dynamic networked learning: Initiatives in flexible design and delivery of education and training

Roderick Sims
University of Technology, Sydney


We are currently in a world of globalisation. As a consequence, and in the educational sector specifically, the needs and characteristics of the client groups - teachers and learners - are changing. For the teacher, there are new communications tools which can be used to augment and vary delivery and communications; for the student, these tools provide new means of access to education, to search for information, to link with other students and to operate independently. Are we, as participants in educational provision, in a position to adjust to and meet those needs?

This challenge is particularly significant with respect to distance education. While resources have historically been constrained to text based materials, it is clearly recognised that technology is (or will) play a critical role in both production and delivery:

The early 90s have spawned technological breakthroughs that will come of age by the mid-90s and will provide a virtually seamless world communications network capable of reaching every inhabitant on earth. The challenge facing distance educators during this decade is daunting, because a means must be found to create infrastructures that will harness this network's power to provide education, training, information and cultural programming in developed and developing countries. The concluding decade of the 20th century will be a time of change from the institutional based learning structures of the past few centuries to open architecture education that will occur at a time, place and in a configuration suitable to the learner rather than to the teacher or administrator. Distance education and its variants have potential to provide equity of access on a world basis by the millennium (Brown & Brown, 1994:3).
In fact, developments in technology continue to bring new promises for the effective provision and delivery of education. The recent growth and sophistication of electronic communications (such as the World Wide Web) and the increased number of individual subscribers has seen the potential for taking advantage of the technology grow. This paper examines the current state of new technology with the aim of provide a framework around which teachers and trainers can take advantage of the technology for educational delivery. In particular, the way in which new modes of teaching and learning can be integrated within traditional frameworks is considered critical:
The success of new media development or use of distance strategy in a previously face to face course situation will depend very much on whether the development is used in such a way that it "improves" the original course (Nicoll, 1995: 1).
The notion of dynamic networked learning (or "learning networks" as described by Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1995) is a reflection on the need to focus on the specific requirements of the learner: "learning networks are groups of people who use CMC networks to learn together, at the time, place and pace that best suits them and is appropriate to the task" (Harasim et al, 1995:4). If we can take advantage of the technology in such a way that we actually improve the educational process, then effective learning may well be characterised by new levels of engagement through which dynamic, meaningful interchanges take place between all participants in the learning process.

Flexible learning

One of the most important concepts of networked learning is that of flexibility - both from the teaching and the learner's perspective. But what is flexible learning? To some, it might mean the provision of courses which better fit the knowledge state of the student, where the "value of knowledge profiles becomes very obvious when considering individual students instead of groups" (Dochy, 1994:241), introducing the notion of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). If the learning is communications based, then the Internet can support packaged distribution and online browsing, suggesting that the learner either has the opportunity to access a particular instructional resource for delivery on their own computer, or to engage in a browsing activity whereby information chunks are accessed according to current knowledge or learning requirements (Andrews, Nedoumov & Scherbakov, 1995).

From another perspective, Harasim (1989, 1990) cited in Ellis, Debreceny & Hayden (1995) differentiated the characteristics of different educational modes:

Ellis et al (1995:212) extend this classification in noting that "recent advances in technology ... allow the amalgamation of Harasim's three distinct modes into a hybrid delivery mode (which) does not distinguish between on campus and off campus students". The importance of this is the removal of physical constraints for both the provision of and access to educational services.

However, it is also important to understand that changing the way in which education is delivered or accessed has new ramifications. For example, Wolf (1995) notes that an open learning environment useable at school, home and work has to be platform independent and scalable, multi-user capable, based on an open standard, able to support a hypermedia structure, work with free or inexpensive software, use client/server architecture, support communication via a network, integrate other interactive media and support working with real time applications. In summary, "to support self organised learning the computer mediated learning environment had to enable students to (1) create their own documents and construct links between documents (2) and communicate with each other to (3) cooperate and collaborate on their work/learning" (Wolf (1995:689).


Derycke, Smith & Hemery (1995:181) suggest that "networking the different educational agents (learners, tutors, teachers, advisers, academics) and linking the educational resources (documents, libraries) has become the new paradigm of advanced educational systems and projects". However, these authors also note some of the major issues confronting implementation, such as large scale use, accessibility, heterogeneity, support of novice users and malleability.

One of the major considerations in developing options for flexible learning is the support infrastructure, for which the following factors are critical:

The learner

New articulated programs are being developed, with the underlying design philosophy omitting details of location of students or teaching staff - the assumption being that creative use of human and communications resources will make the program viable. As Laurillard (1993:1) suggests
University teachers must take the main responsibility for what and how their students learn. Students have only limited choices on how they learn: they can attend lectures or not; they can work hard or not: they can seek truth or better marks - but teachers create the choices open to them... It is the teacher's responsibility to create the conditions in which understanding is possible, and the student's responsibility to take advantage of that.
More than ever before, teaching involves a significant client focus, specifically in terms of access, attendance and delivery. If these factors are not addressed, institutions may face potential rebellion from their client base. For the learner, "flexible" means:

The teacher

Perhaps the most significant consideration for the teacher is their actual role in an educational system based on flexibility. The following factors have been identified as significant considerations for those involved in the delivery of educational programs:

More involvement with students: If an educational program moves from a traditional delivery model to an off campus model where students communicate electronically, the teacher will find that more specific links are built with individual students. rather than student groups. However, the implementation of this requires significant rethinking in terms of the amount of time allocated to student contact; individual consultations can take an extensive amount of time.

Critical issues In addition to the considerations for the teacher and the learner, there are also a range of general issues which need to be considered.

Taxonomy of technology based initiatives

The ability of the Internet to provide links, regardless of time and space, between the student and learning resources is clearly a reality. However, what is significant is the extent to which such links in fact enhance the educational and learning experience. For example, one could view distance education as being "primarily used in selective situations to overcome problems of scale (not enough students in a single location) and rarity (a specialised subject not locally available). Such instruction is often seen as 'half a loaf' pedagogy; better than nothing, but not as good as face to face teaching" (Dede, 1995:7). Therefore, if we use technology to enhance the distance education process, then perhaps we are only using technology to support a second rate educational system. If this is the case, then we need to examine ways in which the technology can in fact provide the students with learning opportunities previously unavailable through any learning environment.

The following classification provides details of a range of options which may be considered by educational providers, and which provide new learning opportunities. The classification is formed as a result of three dimensions, as illustrated in Figure 1. The first dimension refers to the mode of learning, which will range from an instructivist to a constructivist model. The second dimension refers to access, being either closed (available to a select group of students/teachers only) or open (available to anyone on the network). The final dimension refers to the network learning options, as summarised in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Dimensions of networked learning

Date: Mon, 13 Nov 1995 18:22:20 -0500
To: kcraft
From: Barney
Subject: Some Comments on "Interactivity: A Forgotten Art"
Excellent paper. I think that a classification scheme for interactivity is very necessary, and this paper goes a long way in this direction. A few questions/comments on the 11 categories used:
Do you think that Hyperlinked Interactivity as an example (or subset) of Object Interactivity?
I don't think Support Interactivity needs to be a separate category. I think it is likely to fit into the Hierarchical Interactivity or Object Interactivity category depending on the method of delivery.
Do you think Construct Interactivity, Simulation Interactivity and Non-Immersive Contextual Interactivity are actually a continuum, with system control over the goals at one end, and complete freedom to explore the environment at the other end?
A few comments on Harry's comments:
>I wish to offer a challenge to this group. We talk a good game, but can we produce a practical application for all this theorizing? I propose that we INTERACTIVELY construct what we're talking about to serve as a model for others. How to do this? There is a Website set up by Paolo Tosolini that allows a person to distribute an interactive PC application (using MM ToolBook).
Charles Padgett pointed out the problem for Mac users if a platform specific environment like Toolbook is used. In answer to his question, there are platform independent environments that allow similar things to be done, Director and Authorware to name a couple. The problem with all of these tools, however, is that it is difficult to use them to produce some of the "higher" levels of interactivity described.


The re-emergence of telecommunications as a means by which teaching and learning can be enhanced is manifested in the development of learning networks whereby both the traditional methods of teaching and learning are open to substantial change. The means by which successful flexible learning environments will be created are dependent on the realisation by all participants (institutions, teachers and learners) that new ways of thinking are required to take advantage of the educational benefits available through technology. By realising the ways in which technology based curricula might provide new opportunities for student:student and teacher:student interaction, a new generation of educational provision will emerge.


Andrews, K., Nedoumov, A. & Scherbakov, N. (1995). Embedding courseware into the Internet: problems and solutions. In H. Maurer (Ed), Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1995. Proceedings of EdMedia 95. Charlottsville, VA: Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Brown, F. B. & Brown, Y. (1994). Distance Education Around the World, in B. Willis (Ed), Distance Education: Strategies and Tools. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Dede, C. (1995). The transformation of distance education to distributed learning.

Derycke, A. C., Smith, C. & Hemery, L. (1995). Metaphors and interactions in virtual environments for open and distance education. In H. Maurer (Ed), Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1995. Proceedings of EdMedia 95. Charlottsville, VA. Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Dochy, F. (1994). Investigating the use of knowledge profiles in a flexible learning environment: Analysing students' prior knowledge states. In S. Vosniadou, E. de Corte & H. Mandl (Eds), Technology Based Learning Environments. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Edwards, R. (1994). From a distance? Globalisation, space-time compression and distance education. Open Learning, 9(3), 9-17.

Ellis, A., Debreceny, R. & Hayden, M. (1995). The management of change towards telecommunications based education - a student perspective. In H. Maurer (Ed), Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1995. Proceedings of EdMedia 95. Charlottsville, VA: Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Harasim, L. (1995). Keynote Address. Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education. Melbourne. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne95/smtu/abstracts/harasim.html

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L. & Turoff, M. (1995). Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. London, UK: Routledge.

Nicoll, K. (1995). Some key considerations in adopting distance educational technologies or strategies. Project Report: School of Adult Education, UTS.

Olugbemero, J. J. & Kirkwood, J. (1994). Students' anxiety in learning through distance education. Distance Education, 15(2), 279-290.

Sims, R. (1995). Beyond the edge: Navigating the frontiers of educational technology. In M. Wilde & R. Oliver (Eds), Proceedings of the 1995 Australian Computer Education Conference. ACEC.

Wolf, K. D. (1995). The implementation of an open learning environment under world wide web. In H. Maurer (Ed), Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1995. Proceedings of EdMedia 95. Charlottsville, VA: Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Author: Roderick Sims
Senior Lecturer, Educational Multimedia
Faculty of Education, University of Technology, Sydney
PO Box 123, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia
Phone: (+61 2) 330 3872 Fax: (+61 2) 330 3939
Email: r.sims@uts.edu.au

Please cite as: Sims, R. (1996). Pathways to dynamic networked learning: Initiatives in flexible design and delivery of education and training. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 22-27. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ry/sims.html

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