Preparing students for online learning–the Oscail experience

MacKeogh, Kay and Lorenzi, Francesca (2005) Preparing students for online learning–the Oscail experience. Reflective practice in open and distance learning: how do we improve. pp. 101-109.


Distance education evolved as a major player in the educational landscape in the 1970s,as states increasingly adopted this method as an instrument of economic development. Itbecame widely accepted that distance education could extend access to education,particularly to adults disadvantaged by location, occupation, income, disability, or prioracademic achievement, in a cost and pedagogically effective way, as well as increasingthe skills and qualifications of the adult population. From the beginning, distanceeducation practitioners pioneered, of necessity, the use of a range of media to provideeducation to students who were unable to attend on campus. In the early 1990s, distanceeducation became very much the favoured approach to lifelong learning at EuropeanUnion level. However, by 2000, the term 'distance education' had fallen into disuse inEU documents, being replaced by e-learning. The received wisdom, particularly atEuropean level, was that distance education had been subsumed by the new technologies,and had now been mainstreamed (MacKeogh 2005). Nevertheless, despite the rhetoricand hyperbole surrounding the potential of information and communication technologies(ICTs) for extending access to lifelong learning, the reality is somewhat different. Whilenumerous pilot projects exist to demonstrate the potential of innovative newtechnologies, less progress has been made in removing the many obstacles to the widerintegration and adoption of these technologies for mainstream, sustainable distanceeducation programmes. Among these obstacles are the digital divide which forms asubstantial barrier for specific groups of students, low levels of ICT literacy among someadults, especially in the humanities, as well as strong resistance to the use of newtechnologies. Added to this is the need to identify appropriate pedagogical strategies tomake the optimum use of the new technologies.This paper provides a case study of how Oscail, the Irish National Distance EducationCentre has developed its strategy of using technology to improve learning opportunitiesat a pace which matches the expectations, access, and skills of its students. Since itsinception in 1982, Oscail has monitored new technological developments on a continuingbasis, while taking account of access to technology among its students. While ownershipor access to PCs and Internet are now virtually ubiquitous among Oscail students, otherdivides are becoming apparent, in terms of knowledge, expertise and attitudes(MacKeogh 2003). The paper briefly outlines the way in which Oscail has developed itstechnology strategy. We then summarise the outcomes of research on student readinessto learn using technology. This research has identified the need for programmesspecifically designed to prepare students for learning in the online world. The paper willconclude with some comments on the issues involved in supporting students in the newe-learning environments.

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