Distance Learning – still a distant possibility?

The modern day classroom is a 300 year old legacy of the British Empire. They needed to manage a global enterprise without telephones or computers. What they needed was people with the exact same training and skills; people who could read, write and do arithmetic – enter the school. This is a system that has endured the test of time (apart from the British extremely well in managing their empire).

In fact, if one were to look at classroom constructs even in prestigious universities likes MIT, not much has changed in the past 60-70 years in terms of the pedagogy of teaching.AAEAAQAAAAAAAAS7AAAAJDFjZjVmODkxLWQ2ODEtNDFiYS1hYmUzLTc5YzhjZmNkOTc5Mw

The only possibly innovative thing we did was to introduce the concept of distance learning into our teaching systems. Sir Isaac Pitman started that with shorthand class through correspondence and the University of London started the first degrees through long distance.

And we have been able to marry the two methodologies beautifully in the current times – classroom and distance learning model.


The picture you see is a class in progress at a university in Nigeria sometime in 2013. Based on any accepted definition of the term “distance learning” I would wager that the students sitting on the back of the class (and esp. the chap in the circle) are undergoing distance learning albeit in a classroom.

Distance from last bench to teacher in a huge class in Africa is the same as the distance between that student and a professor teaching a class at MIT in the virtual world. The entire construct of learning and distance education has been undergoing a change thanks largely to the ever lowering cost of connectivity and access to the internet. There has been more innovation in the distributed education space in the last 10 years than in the convention classroom delivery model in the past 300 years. Advances in technology have made it possible for us to deliver education in an innovative manner.

The Khan Academy is being used as a means to tutor children at home with classes as a practical application platform. edX and Coursera point to a changing paradigm in education – a free quality product available anywhere, anytime and for anyone . Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment teaches us that children left alone with tech will learn on their own which kind of addresses the one big deficiency in the education system – lack of good teachers. Using the online, anywhere and always available channel, teachers have the ability to reach students in places and in numbers hitherto thought not possible. And students in turn are able to get quality education at their pace from the best teachers sitting in the comfort of their own surroundings.

Strangely enough, MOOC has significant traction with the older working population. They like it because has a “learn at your own pace” philosophy as well as spares them the embarrassment of sitting in classroom with much younger people without the same ability to match their learning curve.

Criticism against MOOC has been the low completion rates of the courses at 4-5%. The way I would read that is that many more people who are gathering skills; people who would never have gone to a class. Plus one cannot wish away the free nature and quality of the courseware of the MOOCs from the foremost universities in the world.

Schools and Colleges are learning and will soon learn to weave the online and offline models to evolve an effective learning experience for all. The discipline of a deadline coupled with the flexibility of studying anytime should prove to be a winning combination. Distance education needs to be moved in to the mainstream of education and delivered in an integrated manner along with other more accepted forms of education.

At a social development level, as part of its “Education for All” objective, UNESCO has identified ICT as an important method of intervention to address this gap to bridge the 770 million adult literacy gap across the world. This again calls for innovative thinking on content and delivery making the distance model an ideal one.

Some areas that should be leverage a variation of the distance learning model in India could be:

  • Skill Augmentation and Development – supplementing the existing ITIs and other institutes for vocation training courses
  • Literacy for All – helps deliver standardised education for all
  • Higher and Continuing Education using courses from top schools and universities across the world

The model of the future seems to be a hybrid of what we have been used in terms of the classical approach to teaching on the one side and then a bouquet of learning options across various media and devices that be a woven together to create a composite whole.

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