|Distance Education in Engineering for Developing Countries - Education Research Paper No. 13 (DFID, 1995, 102 p.)|
|Section 11: Summary|
· Distance education is an increasingly important mode of education and training and is gaining ever more stature and recognition as a practical and potentially cost-effective way of learning and training in the UK and overseas.
· Distance learning is as subject to market forces as any other product or service. Providers and sponsors need to bear in mind that the notions of added-value and customer service apply in this field as in any other. The average distance learning student tends to be older, more mature, more experienced and potentially more demanding than the average full-time student. He/she will also be more isolated in terms of the study. The provider will therefore need to use a whole range of strategies to keep this person both satisfied and motivated.
· A major factor which encourages companies to use distance and open learning rather than traditional face-to-face instruction is the notion of "opportunity cost", which leads to the perception of distance education being cost-effective. Indeed, buyers of distance learning perceive it as both effective and cost-effective without necessarily having evidence of this. Little if any cost-benefit analysis is applied to training in any form.
· Employers familiar with open or distance learning are very ready to recognise the many practical benefits and results of the training, but the primary advantage to them is the use of the learners' own time for studying. Paradoxically, this is also the biggest disadvantage to open/distance learning due to the increased risk of slow or non-completion and drop-out.
· Distance learning courses generally require higher 'break-ever' numbers than conventional courses but offer the opportunity of greater economies as numbers increase. It should be noted however that low unit cost of training does not imply long-term effectiveness: the cost of training has to be examined in a much wider context.
· There is a considerable amount of distance learning material on the market; some excellent and indeed some of poor quality. Buyers/sponsors must not consider just the course contents, they must also scrutinise the potential provider for application of good practice and quality support systems.
· Most of the-UK engineering distance learning courses offered to overseas students appear to require relatively little "hands on" and are primarily text-based. It would appear that the lack of other support materials is due primarily to production costs. Funding is also the barrier to the lack of a local point of contact.
· Distance learning courses in engineering must offer participants the opportunity to gain a qualification, preferably one of international standing.
· Good distance learning is a learner-centred process integrated with active student involvement.
· Good student support enables students to study effectively and is vital to the potential success of a course. It requires significant investment of time and money if support is to be offered at a satisfactory level throughout the course. Some form of face-to-face contact may be considered important and is likely to increase student motivation.
· Investment in local infrastructure including an efficient local point of contact, will contribute significantly to the success of a distance learning programme. A system for mentoring would be a relatively inexpensive step in the right direction.
· Distance education by electronic means should ultimately be an extremely cost-effective way of training or educating considerable numbers of students. It does, however, require significant investment in hardware and courseware. There needs to be a strong belief in the system and the will to make it work: applying it by half-measures will not achieve cost-effectiveness. Nevertheless, the use of modern technologies such as computer-based learning, videoconferencing and satellite broadcasting as a medium of delivery could very effectively allow large numbers of students to be instructed in practical techniques.
· If distance learning materials are exported they may need to be tailored to suit local requirements and the local culture: judgement, experience and local opinion should be used with regard to the tailoring process. There will of course be trade-offs between the developmental costs, the quality of materials, the extent of modification and the shelf life of a course.
· Investment in market research is likely to ensure a programme is more applicable to the needs of potential clients and therefore ultimately more successful and effective. There has to be evidence of a large market to justify developing a new course. Modification of existing material is a much cheaper solution.
· Potentially promising areas for delivery of engineering training by distance learning would appear to be Eastern Europe, China (in the longer term), countries from amongst former British colonies, including the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean and some African countries.