November 2007

Applications of ICTs in virtual universities

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Distance education has helped many seek education when geographical distances prove to be a hindrance. Most institutions offer the courses in the traditional way by having contact centres at different locations. Most of the students who undertake higher education through distance education are working people who aim for higher positions at the workplace or those who do it to enhance their knowledge. As demands at work increase, people find it difficult to give importance to the courses. And moreover, the need to look out for the right faculty at all the local contact centres is a major task for the universities and institutions. In fact, this is a major problem faced by many students and institutions likewise, as there is a lack of skilled teachers for all the courses that the universities offer.

To overcome this problem, one solution can be the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). However e-Learning is no substitute for the traditional way of teaching. There are already experimentations going on in the form of National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning which offers courses via Internet and television to the engineering students across the country. When skilled teaching professionals are not available in all the locations, one can employ ICTs to reach wide student community. One main advantage of employing ICTs is that the any updates and changes in the course curriculum and content can be easily made. With a pool of skilled workforce, it is possible to provide rich media content with the help of multimedia technology. There are various tools of ICTs such as asynchronous discussion forums, email, synchronous chat rooms, teleconference, video conference, hypermedia, websites, CD ROMs, palm pilots, pod casts, web casts, blogs, Wiki, mobile learning, etc. e-Learning is a concept that involves any of the above technologies either as independent or in combination to provide the content.

Need for virtual classrooms

There are certain limitations to web based learning as it is asynchronous in nature and there is a lack of depth in interaction among learners as well as between learner and the instructor. To overcome this, a solution was thought about and the result was virtual classrooms. It is essentially a cyber classroom, where the instructor and the learners can converse in real time. The advantage of being anonymous while compared to conventional classrooms, the virtual classrooms increases the interaction among the learners. Simply put, a virtual classroom liberates the learners from geographical distance, discrimination and inhibitions.

The virtual classroom removes any discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race or colour as every participant is known only by his/her screen name. The factor that separates the students is only the opinion and comments on the subject being taught. This is really a positive factor and there is no inhibition among the students as well as the instructor. Even though other components of an online learning initiative cannot be sidetracked by virtual classrooms, including more online chat in the courseware explains, improves and strengthens the concepts that are laid down by other asynchronous components. Obviously, a web based learning initiative is incomplete without virtual classrooms.

The virtual universities across the world are into a sort of educational revolution which transforms the way education was imparted

The existing institutes offering courses in virtual mode are selected randomly since the overview is focused on the Information Communication Technologies used to disseminate the content to students. The current overview is about Tamil Virtual University,  IGNOU, Global Virtual University, UNITAR, African Virtual University and Netvarsity. Except Netvarsity, the rest of the virtual universities are run or supported by governments or global organizations such as United Nations. Netvarsity is a private enterprise and is offering the e-Learning courses for the past decade.

Tamil Virtual University

It was a desire to make Tamil people living in different parts of the world preserve their identity and observe their traditions and values and to maintain their familiarity with the Tamil language and be knowledgeable about their heritage. In order to meet the emerging needs of Tamil communities and others interested in Tamil studies, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu announced at an International Seminar on Information Technology in February 1999, that a Tamil Virtual University would be set up.

Global Virtual University

The Global Virtual University (GVU) was started under the auspices of United Nations University and is basically a consortium of universities that work together to enhance learning for environmental sustainability. Through a range of online study programmes and courses offered by partner universities, the mission of GVU is to increase people's sensitivity to and involvement in finding solutions for environment and development issues. The consortium acknowledges the importance of education for development and is particularly designed to meet the educational needs of the developing world.

African Virtual University

The African Virtual University (AVU) was established to serve Sub-Sahara African (SSA) countries. Since 1997, the African Virtual University (AVU) has worked to create a technology- enhanced learning network to increase access to quality higher education for those living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its current priority is to provide programmes in selected areas of specialisation, such as computer science, Information Technology, business studies, engineering, health and teacher training, that are critical to economic development in the region.

IGNOU

IGNOU was established as an act of Parliament in 1985. Today it serves the educational aspirations of about 1.5 million students in India, and many in 35 countries abroad through 11 Schools and an elaborate network of 58 regional centres, 7 sub-regional centres, 1400 study centres, and 41 overseas centres. The university has grown steadily and now it enrols 10 percent of the students who take up to higher education in India.

UNITAR Virtual University

Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR) is the Malaysia's first e-Learning, MSC-status and ISO 9001:2000-certified private university in Malaysia. UNITAR offers the best combination in its teaching and e-Learning methods by combining the face-to-face classes with the effective use of CD-based courseware and online tutorials.

Net Varsity

Net Varsity is the only private enterprise in this sample that is being studied. It is one of the highly successful e-Learning companies that deliver many hours of e-Learning to various corporate institutions across the world. NIIT Limited, the IT training pioneer, offers Learning and integrated e-Learning Solutions to individuals and global corporations. NIIT trains over 500,000 students annually for nearly 3500 centres spread across 33 countries.

Challenges

An organisation or institution needs to invest a lot on infrastructure and team of professionals to create the online content. For example, professionals like instructional designers, graphic designers, animators, video professionals and equipment like computers, software licenses, cameras and a host of other technical issues come up right from setting up the e-Learning division to running it.

Other technical issues might be problems with the e learning system while the course is on the go. The computer server may be down due to several reasons. Hence contingency plans such as mirroring the course site to another server should be used in case of such emergencies. A technical team needs to be trained on this for proper functioning of the e learning division and once again money and resources need to be planned well in advance.

The problems faced by the students who access the e-Learning content are mostly related to technical aspects and lack of Internet access in their respective towns. The students or learners need to be aware of the technical details that a course needs and must adhere to it. The technical issues might be due to various reasons that may range from simple ones such as plug in installations to complex ones such as hardware problems. They must be able to check for all available hardware and software required in accessing the course. In case of any missing software or hardware components, they must inform the support people or the programme producers of such difficulties. There must also be contingency plans in case the Internet connection fails or a software fails. They must be able to take help from knowledgeable people or access the course from an alternate location. There are several such other problems which the students confront which may be due the cultural and geographical differences which need to be addressed. With a combination of old school experience and new world technology, they are able to provide a synergy of both the old world knowledge and new world expertise.  

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