A variety of learning methods may be used in the educational process.
We shall consider several, some of which are appropriate for web delivery, and compare them to conventional educational methods.
We shall focus on learning methods to emphasise the importance of student participation in the educational process.
We are all familiar with conventional educational methods which are based on lectures and supporting activities. However, in this section we shall consider learning methods from the point of view of four main elements in the educational process:
Academic Staff, that is tutors and lecturers
The Educational Provider, that is the educational organisation that provides the resources and infrastructure that enables the educational process
The educational culture, which includes political factors, and which strongly affect the educational process
The educational cultural environment strongly influences the structure and functionality of the learning environment. In the UK, particularly for higher education, students do not only study what they are interested in; they also study for a qualification. Consequently they tend to have a preference for studying at established universities that award recognised first degrees and post graduate degrees.
Universities are, in the main, well established with extensive infrastructures in place. The organisation and administration of a university is complex and provision of the infrastructure is expensive. Course durations are virtually controlled by the pervasive cultural environment and each year of study is organised to fit the academic year.
Quality assurance, which is strongly affected by political factors, requires courses to be internally validated by universities and possibly accredited by external professional bodies.
The high costs associated with university study are a consequence of the complexity and scope of the learning environment infrastructure. From the point of view of students that study at a UK university full time this now involves them in considerable expense and deprives them of some of their income for several years.
Of course students benefit from studying at university, not only from their formal studies but from participating in university life.
The fairly rigid structure of established educational establishments, and political factors, impose severe constraints on curriculum development. If a university whishes to increase capacity it is faced with major planning and financial problems. On the other hand if student recruitment is below capacity tutorial and administrative staff may feel threatened.
When tutorial staff are fully loaded, or overloaded, which is often the case, time to make significant changes to the learning environment is often not available. Changes to the environment normally evolve, often in an unstructured way.
The learning environment of traditional distance learning courses strongly resembles that provided by traditional on campus courses with the obvious exception that face to face lectures are not included, so students are required to learn in relative isolation from each other.
An obvious advantage of distance learning is that students may study at times and in places that are convenient for them. Consequently they may be in full time employment whilst studying, which allows them to generate income and possibly avoid debt.
Infrastructure requirements for distance learning organisations may be much less than that for universities, for example lecture rooms and laboratories are not required.
Capacity is usually controlled by the availability of tutorial staff but in principle expanding capacity is mush less onerous than for organisations that provide on campus education.
Distance learning is more flexible than on campus learning but many would argue that the educational experience it provides is inferior.
It is clearly possible to combine both on campus and distance learning environments, a notable example being the Open University in the UK.
E-learning is a relatively new player in the educational sector. Course material is made available on the World Wide Web and/or the intranets of educational establishments.
Students may study course material available on the web anywhere, at any time and in any location that has internet access.
Similarly, on campus students may study material on any on campus computer that is connected to the university intranet.
Access to course material is not confined to lectures, although lectures may still be used in the e-learning environment.
Course material is centralised, which means that it can be updated regularly and maintained quickly.
In principle course material may be distributed amongst a number of educational establishments, located anywhere in the world, with access by several educational and training establishments, resulting in possible cost reductions.
An interesting aspect of e-learning is that academic staff may not be needed to reside on campus, they may tutor from remote locations, which means that tutoring resources may be distributed over wide geographical regions.
The e-learning environment is flexible for both students and staff. However, provision of high quality online course material is expensive and time consuming.
Blended learning is a combination of different learning methods. For example a distance learning course that is web based may have a residential component. An on campus course may have a variety of supporting web based methods. Blended learning offers diverse and flexible learning platforms to students, tutorial staff and educational establishments.
The availability of all the course material on the web for on campus students may change delivery methods significantly. Instead of formal lectures interactive workshops may be used. Students can read through course material before each workshop and learning methods during workshops may revolve around student exercises which requires extensive student participation. Students may interact with other students and the tutoring role becomes that of facilitator, but with intervention when appropriate. Students actually enjoy this learning approach and commented favourably on it on several occasions.
Other activities are possible, such as assignments and projects: projects that are relevant to student career aspirations can provide high levels of motivation.