E-learning - the future of higher education

The debate on the effectiveness of digital-learning formats compared to classroom learning is ongoing.

Often referred to as e-learning, many educationalists are recognising the significant value that e-learning offers and now consider it just as (if not more) effective than classroom learning, while others claim that e-learning does not produce the same level of learning as a formal classroom setting does. To better understand the merits and benefits of e-learning, we spoke to Mike Thoms, Head of Institution at Boston City Campus & Business College.

“It is important to recognise that e-learning is used in both distance and contact (face-to-face) learning situations and the benefits of the technology are drawn into the teaching and learning strategy in various ways. E-learning can be used as the principle strategy to present all or the bulk of the learning, or it can be used to supplement or augment other strategies,” says Thoms.

Thoms further states that the perception about e-learning not offering the same value and potential as when studying in the orthodox manner, is being questioned by educators and policy makers alike. “Boston, for example, offers degree, diploma and higher certificate programmes registered on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). These are national, credit-bearing qualifications, comparable to those offered by other higher education institutions delivering programmes in the contact mode, and they prepare the student just as effectively for the world of work,” says Thoms.

In evaluating the merits of face-to-face learning environments as compared with digitally-driven e-learning environments it frequently comes down to a question of the kinds of learning outcomes linked to a specific qualification. While students learn in a variety of ways, e-learning may suit many students’ learning styles.

“The encroachment of ‘the digital’ in our lives is not just shifting the traditional ways of how we come to know things, but also how we come to be in a global, super-complex and digitally enhanced world. When we learn, or make new meanings for ourselves, we frequently do this in relation to the interactions we have with others and the world. And this is where things are changing rapidly – all these new mediums of interaction call for new approaches to studying,” says Thoms.

Thoms emphasises that all studying is hard work and demands commitment from the student and that e-learning does not make studying necessarily ‘easier’. What it does however offer is a broader access to higher education, particularly if physical attendance at a campus is not feasible or ideal, and with the added benefit of flexibility and cost-savings associated with things like travel or accommodation.

“Although the initial investment by the training provider to construct e-learning programmes is considerable, these programmes are generally more affordable for the student,” says Thoms.

Another great advantage of many e-learning programmes is that students can literally study anytime, anywhere. “E-learning allows students to plan their level of participation and their time according to their own needs and their individual circumstances”. Tessa Bircher, a full-time working professional and mom, who is studying towards her Degree in Management Marketing, says “E-learning offers the right flexibility for anyone who is already juggling work, family and studies, I can’t see myself fitting in formal classroom time when I’m already limited for time”.

Although South Africa has a well-established, credible university sector, the sad reality is that hundreds of thousands of aspiring students that qualify to participate in higher education are turned down due to the limited spaces available at these institutions. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with e-learning platforms where the potential to accommodate students is not dependent on physical infrastructure.

“Residential universities are expensive to establish and operate, and restrictions on capacity in our higher education system are dictated, quite literally, by the number of seats available in lecture theatres and specialised training labs. The Department of Higher Education & Training considers access to higher education to be a social justice issue and sees distance education options using e-learning strategies to be part of the solution. E-learning is therefore a developmental imperative for higher education,” adds Thoms.

E-learning strategies are also being effectively used in access or gateway programmes (into higher education) allowing everyone with a matric a chance at following an academic pathway that will lead to access to higher education such as degrees and diplomas. “It is likely that demands for greater capacity in the secondary school system in South Africa, (particularly for students that do not have a Grade 12 and cannot be accommodated in the secondary school system) will see many of these students turning to e-learning options such as those provided at Boston, whether these are a Grade 12 equivalency or an occupational programme focused on acquiring skills-for-jobs,” says Thoms.

Thoms concludes by saying that e-learning should be considered by almost anyone and everyone wishing to further their studies: “Those who may find it difficult or too costly to commute daily to a campus, or who prefer to study with more flexibility due to personal circumstances, are ideal candidates for e-learning programmes. E-learning strategies may well be the answer to producing better equipped graduates for the new world-of-work.”

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