Learning Electronics in an Online Environment
Describing the technological innovations that have shaped online learning, Anderson and Elloumi assert that distance learning has evolved through five technological generations. They argue that for the most part of the one hundred and fifty year existence of distant learning, distance education was characterised by ‘an infrequent postal communication between the student and the teacher’, but in the last quarter of the twentieth century, distance learning became online learning through the development and emergence of three generations of technological innovations. These were the mass media of television and radio, and the other two are possibilities created by the worldwide web; i.e. audio and video streaming and teleconference and computer conferencing. In addition, the beginning of the twenty first century has produced what the authors called the first visions of a fifth technological generation based on ‘autonomous agents and intelligent, database assisted learning’ (Anderson and Elloumi 2004).
From the foregoing, it is apparent that different technologies have been applied to online learning over the years, especially as technological innovations produce better interactive tools and possibilities. Unfortunately, because of the massive use of technology, essentially computers and the web, online education has been erroneously conceived of as “an innovative approach for delivering instruction to a remote audience, using the Web as the medium” (Khan, 1997) or ‘educational material presented through a computer (Carliner, 1999). As Ally (2004) noted, these definitions of online are very narrow, since online learning involves more than the presentation or delivery of learning materials on a computer or through the web; it involves a complex chain that subsumes the learner and the learning process. In this sense, the Blackboard Tip Sheet defines online education as an approach to teaching and learning that utilises internet technologies to communicate and collaborate, but Ally (2004) gave a more inclusive definition. He defined online learning as “the use of the Internet to access learning materials; to interact with the content, instructor, and other learners; and to obtain support during the learning process, in order to acquire knowledge, to construct personal meaning, and to grow from the learning experience” (Ally, 2004, 6).
There is no denying the fact that online learning has experienced dramatic growths in recent times. It is said that the population of students studying online is increasing at an average of about 30 percent per annum (CBS News, 2003), that there are about four million students now enrolled in one online educational programme or the other (Coleman, 2005) and that over 75 percent of traditional universities ad colleges now have online programmes an increasing number of courses (Coleman, 2005; CBS News, 2003). This increasing popularity and acceptance of online learning means that virtually any subject can be taught online. The purpose of this paper is to examine the challenges and possibilities of learning and teaching engineering subjects, especially electronics, in an online environment. The paper will first examine the stated benefits of online learning and the disadvantages highlighted by critics. It will also present an analysis of the relevance of traditional educational theories for online learning. Finally, it will consider the learning and teaching electronics online, as an example of engineering, present considerations relevant when designing online course material and then conclude.
Benefits of Online Learning
Online education has grown in appeal and acceptance tremendously over the last couple of decades; organisations are increasingly making use of online educational tools for employee training while most higher institutions of learning are increasingly moving towards the use of the web and internet tools for delivering educational materials to both on-campus students and distant learners. Ally (2004) argued that this rapid adoption of online learning means that online learning/teaching holds several benefits and advantages over the traditional classroom learning/teaching approach.
Several authors have highlighted the merits of online education over the traditional classroom approach; one of the most important benefits of online education is the flexibility that it brings. With online learning, learning knows no time zones, locations, race, gender or distance restrictions (Ally, 2004), thus students can ‘attend’ a lecture/course at anytime and from anywhere. Explaining the importance of this flexibility that online learning affords, the Blackboard Tip Sheet argues that students have varying schedules and effective learning time. While some students learn best in the morning, others prefer the evening. Also, students have different schedules, especially for older students that have to cater for family responsibilities (Blackboard Tip Sheet, 2000; CBS News, 2003). With online learning, learning can be done at the convenience of each student, without affecting the teaching progress.
Furthermore, online learning provides an unrestricted access to course materials. Course materials are available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day (Coleman, 2005). With such unlimited access to course materials, online learning allows students to read, re-read and complete course assignments at their convenience. Thus, online learning increases the learning capacity of students, since students can read and complete course work at their most productive periods (Blackboard Tip Sheet, 2000). Just as online learning allows for unlimited and unrestricted access to course materials, it also allows for the presentation of course materials in several formats and with different learning strategies.
It is a known fact that students have different learning styles. Online learning ensures a student centred approach to teaching. The tutor or instructor can easily satisfy the different learning preferences of students with an online course material compared to the traditional classroom approach (CBS News, 2003). For example, some students learn better with visual course materials, while some others ‘learn by doing’. In the traditional classroom learning, it would be difficult for a tutor to attend to the needs of these different learning styles, but with online learning, the tutor or instructor can produce a single course material with the implementation of a variety of resources so that students can make use of the course material in whichever way suits them best (Blackboard Tip Sheet, 2000).
Another important benefit of online learning is the increased interaction that characterises online learning. Web based learning has been shown to facilitate better student to student, student to tutor and student to faculty interaction. The Blackboard Tip Sheet assert that online learning provides a wide array of communication tools such as e-mails, chats, discussion boards etc. that enhances students’ interaction. It is argued that research studies have shown that the presence of these communication tools help improve students motivation and participation in class discussions and projects. Coleman added that since in an online learning environment attendance to class is measured by student’s participation in classroom discussion, there is increased student interaction and the ‘diversity of opinions’ as everyone gets a say. Kubala (1998) adds that the measure of anonymity that online discussion adds to communication ensures that students’ are more willing to participate in discussions, since the anonymity serves as a motivator, empowering people to be ‘daring’ and more ‘confrontational’ with the expression of their ideas. In addition, Coleman believes that participation in ‘class’ discussion is less intimidating in an online environment, compared to the classroom. The anonymity that comes with online communication provides a ‘level playing’ ground for all, thus students are not hindered by age, gender, race or seating arrangements. Also, students have a longer time to think about what they want to say before posting their comments in such discussion boards (Coleman, 2005).
Online learning provides unrestricted access to instructors and also removes the reliance on physical presence. In an online learning environment, instructors are more accessible and approachable. With the use of e-mails, chats and discussion boards, students do not have to wait for office hours that are not usually convenient. Students can communicate with instructors more frequently and more openly through internet tools than in a face-to-face situation. In some situations when students have to communicate with their instructor as a matter of urgency, such as when a question suddenly comes up during private studies, sending an e-mail to the instructor immediately will better solve the problem than waiting for the next office day to see the instructor. Again, online learning removes the reliance on physical presence, such as in the case of joint projects. The several methods of communication open to such group members means that better team work can be achieved and more effectively, through the internet than scheduling meetings or group discussions (Blackboard Tip Sheet, 2000; Coleman, 2005). The benefits of online learning will not be complete without mentioning the cost reducing tendencies of online teaching. It has been widely claimed that online teaching reduces the cost of producing, managing and distributing educational materials. Complete handouts, e-books, audio clips, slides, video presentation and other educational materials can be produced and distributed to a wider population at little cost. More importantly, updating such educational material proves to be much more cost effective with online teaching compared to the traditional classroom approach.
Criticism of Online Learning
Despite the overwhelming acceptance of online learning, it is not without its downsides, challenges and risks, as highlighted by critics of online learning. One of the most basic criticisms of online learning is from a philosopher’s viewpoint and is directed at the very foundation of online education: the argument that people can learn without being physically present with an instructor or tutor or with their fellow students. Arnone (2002) asserts that this contention is a modern legacy of the philosophy of dualism presented by Greek philosopher Plato and the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes. Arnone argues that the physical body plays a crucial role in learning and intelligence. He believes that without the physical body, people can only attain intellectual competence in skills, but cannot proceed further to mastery of these skills, because according to him, this requires the intuitive understanding of using the skills in real life situations that involves risks. The author argue that without the ‘emotional investment and visceral connections’ that come with classroom teaching and learning, people will lack the commitment to learn as much as they can. This argument is summed up thus: “ultimately, physical presence and action are the only ways we have to acquire skills, learn what information is relevant, know reality, and have meaningful lives” (Arnone, 2002).
Holly (2004) presents a similar argument. The author contend that because online learning materials are readily available and accessible, and easier to distribute, users and managers of online education do frequently hold the misconception that learning must therefore be easier in an online environment. The author believes that this misconception that online learning creates is one of the shortcomings of online education. It is argued that just like in traditional classroom; online education requires the same amount of commitment to learning, the same amount of efforts and work, and more effort in the beginning than would be required in the traditional classroom approach. This is because, not only is an online student learning a new course, he/she is also learning it in a new way.
Some author also believe that the benefits of online learning are often over hyped e.g. Rola, 2003 who assert that one concrete evidence against the failure of online education is the high drop out rates from strictly online classes. The author argued that while online communication tools, such as discussion boards, are useful in large class sizes where it is impossible to get to every student, such communication avenues cannot be a substitute or comparable to ‘talking to the professor’; attempting to make such a “substitute is where technology becomes problematic” asserts Rola (2003 p. 15).
Also, Holly (2004) contends that those who argue that online learning helps in cutting cost do often ignore the hidden costs that are associated with developing and managing online learning infrastructures and several illustrations were presented. First is the case of adjusting educational material content for the students. It is argued that it costs more and takes more time to adjust or modify the content of an online course material compared to a classroom material. In a classroom situation, an instructor can make adjustments to the learning materials ‘on the fly’ but with online course materials, the instructor must plan for such adjustments, which means increased development time, increased objects that have to be built and a longer delivery time.
Furthermore, it has been argued that motivation is an important aspect of learning, but unfortunately out of the three motivations that drive most people’s learning only two is reportedly met by online learning (Holly, 2004). In sum, critics of online learning holds that managers of online learning need to manage the expectations of online students, as unrealistic expectations, due to the ease and convenience that comes with online learning, constitute some of the most daunting challenges of online learning.
Educational Theories and Online Learning
Although there are several educational theories that have helped in understanding how the human mind works and how learning is achieved, there are three primary school of thought when it comes to learning. Explaining these schools of thought, Ally asserted that the behaviourist theories claims that learning is change in observable behaviour caused by an external stimuli in the environment, irrespective of whatever cognitive processes taking place in the head of the learner. However, in criticism of the behaviourist emphasis on behaviours and external stimuli, the cognitive psychologist believes that learning is an internal process. That the use of higher cognitive functions like memory, thinking and reflection play crucial roles in learning. Therefore they contend that the degree of learning depends of a number of internal factors like the individual’s capacity to process information, the amount of effort that is put into the learning process and the individual’s depth of information processing. From cognitive psychology, educational theorists have recently tended towards constructivism. The constructivist theorist argue that while higher functions are required for learning, each individual process and interpret what they learn according to their ‘personal reality’. They argue that learning is achieved by observation, processing, interpretation and finally personalising of the interpreted information into personal knowledge.
Ally (2004), contend that these schools of thought have several overlapping points that help reinforce online learning. The author explains that when the three schools of thought are analysed closely, each can be seen to play roles in the development of effective online educational materials. In this regard he stated that “the three schools of thought can in fact be used as taxonomy for learning. Behaviourists’ strategies can be used to teach the “what” (facts), cognitive strategies can be used to teach the “how” (processes and principles), and constructivist strategies can be used to teach the “why” (higher level thinking that promotes personal meaning and situated and contextual learning)” (Ally, 2004, p. 7).
Several educational theories have been propounded from these schools of thought, based on the understandings of each school. Five important educational theories that can be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of online learning include:
Gagne’s Conditions of Learning Theory which identified a hierarchy of intellectual skills organised according to complexity and which can be used to identify prerequisites necessary for facilitating learning at each level. The theory identified five major learning levels viz: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills, attitudes (Patsula, 1999). Online learning can be made more effective by organising learning materials to follow a sequence of nine instructional events defined by intellectual skills that the learner need to learn for the specific task at hand.
Bruner’s Constructivist Theory believes that learning is an active process in which the learner creates new ideas based on their present stage of knowledge. Fro this theorist’s perspective online learning can be more when learning materials are organised in sequence that allow learners to build on what they already know and to proceed beyond the information being presented to identify the key principles themselves.
Bandura’s Social Learning Theory is based on the behaviourist school of thought and it argues for the importance of observation and behaviours in learning. This theory argues that learning can be better achieved by modelling the behaviours and attitudes of the learner. From this perspective, online learning can be characterised by ‘modelling desired behaviours of functional value to learners and by providing situations which allow learners to use or practice that behaviour to improve retention’ (Patsula, 1999)
Carroll’s Minimalist Theory argues that learning is achieved better if the learning material is kept at a minimum so that they do not obstruct the process of learning; while the Vygostky’s Theory of Social Cognitive Development believes that social interaction play a crucial role in the development of cognition, and thus learning. Thus from the theorists’ perspectives, online learning could be made better if the learning materials are kept at a minimum and by increasing or improving on student to student ad student to tutor interaction.
Learning Electronics Online
Engineering subjects and courses appears to be one of the most difficult courses to teach online, apparently due to their practical nature. Fortunately, this is rapidly changing. Numerous engineering courses are now been taken online, thanks to virtual labs or virtual working space, simulators and lots of other technological breakthroughs (Mareels et al., 2001). Engineering courses and particularly electronics courses taken online provide a wide array of functionalities. While some are introductory in nature, providing online students with the basics and fundamentals of electrical engineering, considering the fact that most online students might not have a background in engineering; others are more elaborate and are designed for specialist engineering students with complete engineering education in mind.
Mareels are colleagues (2001) report the design and development of a virtual learning space, which was a completely internet based teaching environment for electrical engineering students, while Sheppard and others (2003) reported the development of a complete curriculum and learning materials for online electronic course. Mareels and others opine that designing online electronic course help to guide students to reflect critically on study materials and projects, in both individual and collaborative modes, since the online exercises, the experimentation designs and the possibility of instant feedback that the internet provides all help to foster independent critical reflection on the part of the student. A look at this project will suffice to examine the teaching of electronic online.
Sheppard and others (2003) report that the availability of software and other relevant materials and the impact of such software tools in providing a common flexible approach to online engineering teaching experience, together with the ease of data acquisition of the internet makes electronic teaching online more practical and convenient. These authors argue that by teaching electronic online with the aid of simulators and other software tools and by including design courses and instructions in online engineering courses, students are encouraged to do more than just run experiments, which is the case in the traditional classroom teaching of engineering courses, they are encouraged to apply what they have learnt, both in the lecture materials and in the simulated practical to applications that emulate engineering practice.
Besides, teaching engineering courses online tend to be more tasking and challenging, and coupled with the limitless possibilities and ubiquitous nature of the internet, students can learn at anytime, from anywhere and for how long they desire. The traditional classroom and laboratory approach to electronics, though could be said to be hand on, as students can physically practice what they have learnt, does not take into cognisance the different learning styles, and information processing capacities of individual students. Students who are not smart enough to grasp the full concept of a practical session often end up gaining nothing from the session. But with online teaching of electronics, the course materials are always there and so also is the simulated practical. The student can, at his/her convenience and pace, go through the course materials, make sense of the engineering concept and better processed the information required to apply whatever engineering concept was learnt from the course materials and simulations to real life situations/practice.
For example, explaining an online engineering course curriculum, Sheppard and colleagues report that the syllabus includes an initial two weeks of tutorial which is delivered through the internet, on each of the software that will be used for engineering practical and that is MatLab and Labview. Later Simulink is introduced to the students as the course progress. This gradual exposure of students to different software tools ensures that learning is achieved sequentially, so that students can build on what they already know and progresses from there.
Considerations for Designing Online Course Materials
Caplan (2004), posit that the possibility of delivering course materials online through the internet is a new alternative for several higher institutions for learning, as a result, the author opined; there is no standard definition for what constitutes an online course material. Examining the current internet based teaching that several institutions presently offer, Caplan proffers that there are two basic categories or definitions of an online course, though with a large middle ground. The categories are: one, courses that are primarily text based with the text being delivered online or by mailed hard copy and with computer mediated enhancements of the text; two, courses that are specifically designed to be distributed through the internet, that merge several smaller educational components into a single course of study (Caplan, 2004).
It is an obvious fact that for ant successful designing ad development of a online course material, several factors must be critically considered. For example, Davis (2004) assert that the first step in developing or designing an online course material is for the the institution to identify the learning outcome for that particular course, and also the learning approach and/or styles that must be employed to achieve that outcome. He stated that learning outcomes can then be translated into course content, resources and the approach to teaching and learning process that will enable the student to achieve the outcomes. He said once these have been achieved, the course developers “will share the responsibility of translating the theory and intentions into courseware and online learning functions to be delivered by the learning management system (LMS), which interfaces with the library and other digital resources, related services, and the student information system (SIS), through a secure server that can authenticate the student login.” (Davis, 2004, p.101). While from the student side, they should be able to connect to the LMS and the related services through a user friendly portal, so that with a single login access is gained to all related services (Davis, 2004). In addition, Caplan (2004) adds that an online course development team must be made up of five key roles, SME or author, graphic designer, Web developer, programmer, and instructional designer, though he stated that the team could be larger in large commercial institutions.
So far, this paper has elaborately discussed online learning, in general and the teaching of electronic in an online environment. The technological innovations that have helped shaped the present state of online learning, the theoretical inclinations that have been used to further enhance the efficiency of online learning the benefits of online learning over the traditional classroom face to face teaching and the challenges and/or identified shortcomings of online learning have all been discussed here. It conclusion, it is apparent that though online learning is greatly increased in appeal and acceptance, it does not constitute a risk or substitute for the traditional classroom learning. The interaction and behavioural tendencies of classroom teaching is one characteristic that will be very difficult to replicate online. Furthermore, practical course like engineering and electronics in particular poses more challenges for online learning and teaching. There is no denying the fact that engineering excellence relies heavily on adequate and effective laboratory practical which cannot be easily carried out on the internet. Although several technologies, like the numerous software tools that have been employed and the several simulations that have been used to replace laboratory practical, it is quite questionable whether the experience could substitute for hand on experiments that take place in classroom settings. It can only be hope that as technology improves better online learning and teaching tools will become available that will further improve the experience of engineering students online.
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