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Stephen P. D’Alessandro M.A. (Mrktg.), B.A. (Hons.) Bus. Mang, FIM, MIoD, MCIM

Founder Director, AllSecure Ltd – eBusiness Systems

Let me start off by declaring my interest in elearning platforms. As the founder director of a specialist software development firm which has been offering online web-based elearning platforms to the international market since 2004, I obviously believe in the effectiveness of elearning solutions. Our firm has invested year after year in developing and providing an elearning platform that allows for the implementation of international best practices in the field. Despite the lack of support or interest by local institutions, most of which have not been prepared to invest in an elearning infrastructure, eBusiness Systems has developed and implemented its elearning solution on various international programmes with a number of established universities and institutions. The Covid-19 situations has vindicated our belief and commitment to the importance of a locally developed elearning platform. It confirmed the benefits of the software-as-a-service web-based solution, allowing clients to focus on the development and delivery of content and not on the development and administration of the learning platform.

As they say, “Necessity is indeed the mother of invention” and the Covid-19 crisis has certainly called for some innovation by so many players in many different fields. Education has been one of them. It is amazing how within a few weeks the elearning offerings have mushroomed. Most of these offer is a website which allows for file download and separate communication of tutors with students via one of the many online communication tools. With this hot-potch of online tools, many tutors and lecturers have been caught in this situation unprepared. They did not receive any dedicated training or preparation for design, development and delivery of online programmes. These well-meaning front-line educators have had no option but to try to replicate their traditional on-site lectures to the new online medium. I’ve even heard of three and four hour lecture sessions being delivered on a video conferencing platform by tutors reading off their notes! As far as the students are concerned, anything is better than nothing. Clearly, desperate times call for desperate measures!

Respecting a tradition of education

Most of us have had to put up with boring lessons in which the educator merely regurgitated his or her usually outdated notes in a droning boring manner. It was a painful experience then, and just as painful to remember now so many years later. On the other hand, many of us have had the pleasure and the benefit of attending classes delivered by a motivated and inspirational educator. They provided the encouragement and the stimulus to learn. Many of us can still remember influential teachers at primary or secondary school, teachers, whose teachings impacted our motivation to pursue studies at a higher level.  Others will no doubt recall the inspirational lectures and presentations given at tertiary level by educators who not only knew their subject, but knew how to make it relevant to their students and provide the critical context to the theory and concepts discussed. The role of the educator is not now, and never was, just to deliver information. The role of the educator was, and remains, to transfer the passion and love of knowledge in his or her subject area, to inspire and motivate students to want to learn and develop their understanding of the subject.

The Britannica[1] defines education as a discipline that is concerned with methods of teaching and learning in schools or school-like environments as opposed to various nonformal and informal means of socialization (e.g., rural development projects and education through parent-child relationships). In other words, education focuses on transmitting values and accumulated knowledge within society.

Ever since the first classrooms were set up in the early Egyptian civilisations more than three thousand years ago, students were brought together to share the wisdom and knowledge which the tutor was able to provide. Over the years this model was developed and all over the world educational institutions were established at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. These institutions where based in physical premises which served as meeting places for students. By travelling to this institutions, students could benefit from the expertise and on-site facilities and resources put-together for their education.

This model has served us well and over the years. We have seen this model developed and refined, to the extent that some of these educational institutions have become revered temples of learning. They provide the very best Faculty, resources and facilities to give students a tangible advantage in their education. Others have not met the standards expectations. Primarily due to a lack of funding, others remain buildings with poorly motivated Faculty, insufficient resources and facilities to meet students’ expectations. 

Defining eLearning

The traditional model of classroom-based education was challenged as far back as the 1700s when the first correspondence courses were launched. These courses were based on the use of a set of core readings and materials with instructions being sent to students via mail. Similarly, student coursework and queries were also sent via mail. This was a long drawn out process but it provided a channel to student who did not have many alternatives. In the 1800s it was Sir Issac Pitman who taught shorthand by mail who gave a boost to correspondence courses and these continued to grow in popularity over the years when in the 1920s some colleges included radio broadcasts and in the fifties television broadcasting was used to support distance learning. The eighties saw the use of internet based courses and since then as internet capabilities continue to increase, the growth of elearning has been on the rise.

e-Learning has been around for years and is here to stay! There is such a volume of on-line learning material that the move away from traditional classroom-based lecturing is steadily gaining ground amongst the most important stakeholders – the students.

At the basic end of the spectrum there is wide range of simple virtual learning environment (VLE) sites which basically serve as repository for files, documents, resources and data. These typically are suitable for (asynchronous) self-learning programmes where students have little or no contact with Faculty and merely download and follow the learning elements provided online. At the other end of the spectrum, are fully integrated learning management systems which combine full functionality (asynchronous) self-learning and (synchronous) collaborative learning tools which include course authoring, assessment tools, social learning and a mobile learning platform, often all integrated with e-commerce options. These usually provide small group online live tutorials or even one-to-one mentoring sessions by Faculty to students.

A full-service elearning platform allows for deployment of elearning best practices which are based on “flipping the classroom” activities. In other words, what used to be classwork, delivery of the class or lecture, becomes homework i.e. a self-learning activity which students can pursue at their convenience. What used to be homework becomes classwork. elearning provides an audit trail that can be picked up at any time, by any quality assurance process. The content of the material, the context and method of delivery, the relevance and accuracy of the content material, the general effectiveness of the speaker, all can be viewed and reviewed at the auditors’ convenience. This transparency, makes ‘flipping the classroom’ an even greater challenge. Not because the participants or the students cannot cope with it, but because many of the trainers and lecturers are not up to such close scrutiny.

eLearning is not a cheap alternative to traditional onsite learning programmes. Quality interactive online programmes require substantial upfront investment before the very first student is registered. It requires design and development of course materials specifically for online learning, and not just the scanning and uploading of current power-point presentations. It calls for recording of self-learning audio visual presentations and all the relevant post-production work to provide engaging content.

Functionality of a full-service elearning platform

eB-Learn is an award winning tried and tested platform that has been operational since 2004 and is now in its eight version release. It is not the only elearning platform out there, but as a locally developed solution it is certainly one of the best-of-breed full-service platforms which allows for the design, development and implementation of quality elearning programmes. A full-service elearning platform would include both synchronous and asynchronous learning elements.

Self-Learning Elements

  • Pre-recorded audio video clips – these need to be carefully planned and prepared to reflect a professional presentation and not merely a reading of the accompanying power point presentation or course notes . The tutor should maintain a fast pace in delivery without getting caught up in all the little details. When detail is necessary, then the presentation should refer to the relevant power-point presentation, course notes or additional reading materials. Each clip should be short, ten to fifteen minutes in duration to facilitate download and access via smart phone or tablet.
  • Supporting powerpoint presentation or notes to facilitate the absorption of the content being delivered during the presentation. The power-point or course notes should delve into the details of what is being presented.
  • Reference list should be provided to encourage students to go to source and not just content themselves with the elements identified by the tutor during the presentation. Such referrals can provide the key topics for accompanying tutorial sessions in which students need to present their understanding of the broader concepts put forward the in reference materials.
  • Reading list should be provided to encourage students to go to expand their knowledge base and get a context to the issues and concepts being studies. Such readings can provide the key topics for accompanying tutorial sessions in which students need to present their understanding of the context provided by particular additional or supplemental readings.
  • FAQs these provide an on-going source of content development as they are based on queries or issues raised by particular students that are of general interest to the student community.
  • Online Self-assessment/ examination facilities a critical function of the system to allow for evaluation of the participants capacity to perform following the participation in the specific learning activity. These evaluations could be merely for self-assessment, just for participants to check their level of understanding. Alternatively, it could involve more formal online examination type sessions related to the grading of a participant.
  • Document upload facilities for assignments & course work to provide a user-friendly and tracked method of collecting assignments and coursework in various electronic file formats within pre-determined timeframes to allow for marking or marking and correction as an integral part of the programme evaluation process.
  • Glossaries so important to ensure that participants get the right meaning for the abbreviations and appropriate technical words used within each subject area.

Collaborative Learning Elements

  • Calendaring facilities with auto notification of events is important to help build the online community network to motivate participants to log onto the platform regularly to participate in the various scheduled online activities.
  • File repository for sharing of documents which require student group interaction is an important functionality to support groupwork, particular group assignments.
  • Live video conferencing facilities for online tutorials including polling and recording session functionality for subsequent access which is the core of the inter-activity of an online elearning programme. The Faculty – Student interactivity is critical to the success of an online programme. It is this functionality which elearning platforms need to leverage through online tutorial/workshop sessions to bring into play the calibre and expertise of the Faculty to the benefit of participants.
  • Webinar facilities for larger audience access is useful in integrating the on-line lecture deliverable, as opposed to the interactive tutorial/workshop live events.
  • Forum sessions for discussion & debate of topics are powerful learning activities which are demanding on participants as each has to review and relate their own posts to what has been published by colleagues prior to their post.
  • Wiki section for topic exploration and sharing of information is an excellent tool to encourage sharing of information and collaborative development of project or issue research activities.

Administrative Functionality

  • Student registrations – the whole process of registering for a programme including the uploading of the relevant documentation, completion of any pre-programme screening work, selection interviews and evaluations and payment gateways, all conveniently accessed through a through a single portal.
  • Attendance and student participation records allowing for tracking and monitoring of student participation both in terms of course time and task obligations related to completion of specific learning objects.
  • Gradebooks allowing for detailed analysis of student grading and subsequent record keeping.
  • Issue of completion certificates and transcripts which could be fully or partially automated to ensure that students receive relevant certificates of completion for specific modules completed as part of a complete programme.

There is a need for a fundamental mindset change from onsite programmes being time-based with schedules for classroom sessions, to programmes becoming task-based with greater emphasis on the completion of learning activities and the accomplishment of learning objectives. A full-service elearning platform is required to provide an online virtual campus which can be home for the virtual community of students on a particular online programme. It calls for on going investment in the design, development and management of an-online campus, creating activities and events to engage and motivate students towards the completion of their online educational programme.

Concluding Remarks

The COVID-19 crisis has compelled many organisations, both public sector and private sector, to provide elearning solutions in a very short period of time, often with little prior preparation. This situation calls for a review of policies and actions by educational authorities and institutions. Thes should take into account that investment in physical classrooms and infrastructure in the educational sectors, must be accompanied by an investment in online learning capabilities. This includes better training and development of tutors and in quality recording and post-production editing of material to deliver quality interactive educational programmes to students.

This investment in online learning should be accompanied with a commitment to introduce blended learning programmes where appropriate. In this way, full-time students would participate in online programmes integrated with on-site collaborative learning activities held in physical premises. One could look at operating models where students would only have to attend physical on-site tutorial classes for say, 20% of the time they were expected to be in-class (pre-Covid-19), or models which involve less online content deliverables and more on-site deliverables in traditional classroom environments. If such models are adopted, a reduction by 80% in on-site attendance would allow the same physical facilities to cater for a fivefold increase in the number of students. This can only happen if more front-line and support staff to recruited to assist in the delivery of the programmes. Such recruitment could itself be based on an arrangement for remote and on-site work.

This need for additional staff is one aspect which demonstrates that interactive elearning is not a cheaper option but one which requires more staff to support and deliver the quality learning interactions which can be delivered through a multi-function elearning platform.  eLearning must be seen as a tool to keep up with the expectations and capabilities of a young IT literate audience that so far has had to cope with out-dated institutions and infrastructure. The debate on increased use of eLearning is should not be about it being better or worse than traditional learning. It should focus on how its utilisation, to differing degrees as appropriate, can provide the flexibility to design, develop and deliver interactive learning programmes that mix the best of both worlds to the benefit of the most important stakeholder – the student!

Mr. D’Alessandro is a committed entrepreneur and management consultant with more than thirty years of local and international consulting and business development experience. He has been involved in international post-graduate education in Entrepreneurship since 1999. He is the Executive Director of Advenio eAcademy, an NCFHE licensed higher education institution which has been providing certified online courses since 2013. It currently offers online certified programmes in Entrepreneurship and related subjects at MQF/EQF Levels 4, 5 and 7.