Science - January 22, 2009

DISTANCE LEARNING IS ‘KIND OF COOL’

Listening to a lecture in bed or conducting a Wageningen computer practical in Ghana? It’s all possible with distance learning. The university has made this a priority and aims to invest heavily in it. The trailblazers are enthusiastic but they warn against hype: ‘You have to keep on evaluating and ask yourself, is the education I’m getting just as good?’

The virtual learning environment for Gene Technology.
Computer-assisted learning has arrived in Wageningen and the first digital practicals are up and running. One of the pioneers is Professor Ton Bisseling, whose chair group uses a computer-based practical in a course on Gene Technology. ‘Not for the sake of distance learning so much as from a wish to improve our own teaching’, says Bisseling. ‘Research has shown that this is an effective way of transmitting knowledge.’

The digital practical involves a role play in which students guide a virtual student through the practical. Bisseling describes this as ‘a powerful interactive teaching tool which prompts students to think more for themselves. They all have to answer the questions, whereas at a lecture it's always the same ten per cent who answer questions.’

Sixth-year student Maarten Ligtenberg is doing the ICT modules developed for the course in Molecular Development. ‘There is less interaction with the teacher, but that’s because the computer solves a lot of your problems. If you give a wrong answer, it says, ‘Really?’ And that makes you think again. And if you still don’t get there, you can ask the teacher. I think it’s kind of cool.’

The same practical is already being followed in Ghana. Bisseling says, ‘There are no facilities there for giving a real practical, so this is a good alternative. It’s not better than a practical, but it’s a lot better than nothing.’

This year a working group will look into what it takes to set up distance learning. In the group is Dr. Ab Groen, policy director in the department of education and research: ‘The idea is that education is no longer bound to place and time. This gives more scope to disabled students, and it makes it possible for students to get a job after their BSc and then do a part-time MSc later on. Also, we can offer whole degree courses overseas.’

Dr. René Kwakkel, course director of Animal Sciences, has three BSc courses that were specifically developed for distance learning. He thinks there’s plenty of scope. ‘One of the advantages is that you can screen foreign students and prepare them better for studying here. For example, they can make a start by following some courses on the internet.’ Dutch students will benefit too: ‘During an internship abroad you can still keep up with a course here, and avoid timetabling problems later.’

Students are just as keen. Take Annemarie Kueter and Maud Theelen, third-year students of Nutrition and Health, who did Human Pathology in block two. Twice a week, they did a virtual practical, looking at slides on the computer and answering questions on them in class. ‘An advantage of a virtual practical is that we could use human samples…’ But they didn’t think they could have done it at home. ‘There were two or three supervisors present, and we really needed them, to know what we were looking for. You have to understand what you’re looking at.’

Asked whether they spent too much course time at the computer, the students said no. ‘There was e-learning, but it was supplementary. It works well, too, because you have to answer questions yourself and to think about them. You get more involved and you’re less passive than in a lecture. But there are limits. It’s very intensive and half an afternoon is enough.’ Real practicals are still valued by the students. ‘Hands-on experience is important; a computer can’t replace it all. Trying to learn practical procedures just from pictures is no good.’

So there are limits to the amount of e-learning students can handle. And there are other hurdles. Developing these sorts of materials is very expensive. ‘It took a PhD researcher four years to develop this practical. On the other hand, we now save money on laboratory practicals, and the material will probably be usable for ten to twelve years.’

One wonders about educational quality and about the social side of academic life. Groen sees no problem here. ‘Don’t think in terms of either/or. The switch to ICT will happen gradually. In ten years’ time we’ll still have our own Wageningen courses and we’ll be offering part-time courses alongside them, through companies or the Open University, for example. Our range of products will be more diverse.’

For the time being it’s a case of exploration by a few trendsetters. That needs to change, says Groen: 'The development of e-learning is still very dependent on a teacher’s interest in it. We want to change that and to speed things up by offering better resources. Next year at least one hundred thousand euros from the educational innovation budget will be invested in e-learning pilots.’

Nobody is in any doubt about the fact the distance learning is on its way. But they are alert to the pitfalls. ‘You must keep on evaluating it, and ask yourself, is the education I’m getting just as good?’

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