Learning from Learning -
Design of Distance Learning Systems


Peter Anderberg, M.S.E.E, PhD-student peter.anderberg@certec.lth.se
Charlotte Magnusson, Ph D charlotte.magnusson@certec.lth.se
CERTEC, Center of Rehabilitation Engineering Research at Lund University,
Box 118, S 221 00 Lund, Sweden

10th World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia
and
World Conference on Educational Telecommunications,
organized by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE),
Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany, June 20-25, 1998


Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Keywords
  • References

    Abstract

    For an increasing number of persons distance learning will mean that the process of a lifelong continuing education will become a reality. And for others it will be a complement and an added value to the existing education. But there is one group of people that have even more to benefit from the possibility to study from a distance and for whom this could mean a major breakthrough in the access to knowledge, namely people with different kinds of disabilities.

    Even though the physical accessibility today is improving (especially in the U.S. thanks to ADA), the barriers for disabled persons are still high, when it comes to having access to various parts of society. For these people the focusing on the individual and his needs that is possible in distance education, could mean a shortcut to the level where able bodied persons already dwell.

    At CERTEC, Center for Rehabilitation Engineering Research, we have tried do develop a concept of distance learning that would allow for people with different kinds of disabilities to partake in the course-work on the same terms as, and together with, non-disabled students.

    The challenge for us has to some extent been that we would like to use both the flexibility and individuality of the ‘learning on demand’ type tool, i.e. that a person should be allowed to go through the information when he likes and at the pace he prefers, but also to have the possibilities of getting in phase with his fellow students, through seminars and group-work. The place to be, we soon discovered, was the Internet.

    We started our attempts with distance education a few years ago. Initially we had a strong focus on the moving picture based versions (read:video). We tried to record lectures on video, and we tried to use videoconferencing tools. We abandoned the taping of lectures quite soon. It was simply too bad. The form of the lecture did not translate well into another media. In retrospect this seems natural. The change in format is to big.

    The videoconferencing tool, as well as the person to person videophone, had some value in creating contact but it was too bandwidth consuming. To make it work with bearable quality you have to have at least ISDN and this was not the case for any of our students. We wanted it to work with a normal computer and an Internet-connection at 28.8 kbit/s.

    The system we have developed, and are currently using in our classes in Rehabilitation Engineering, is possible to view with a normal HTML-browser, e.g. Netscape or Internet Explorer, and has the following outline.

    The lecture(s) each week consists of a 10 minute long overview of the weeks topic. It consists of a streaming audio file with the lecturers voice that also controls the automatic change of pictures, graphic and text in the four main frames of the screen. In one frame there is a picture of the lecturer that changes every thirty seconds. We have found that a voice and changing picture where you can see the eyes of the person speaking is a way of creating a contact that is similar to the one you get when watching a video-tape. And in this concept it is even better. Since a lot of other information is given on the pages it is less distracting.

    In another frame at the bottom of the screen, the lecture is written out in text in a fashion similar to the way you would do it in television. This enables blind, deaf and dyslectic students to follow the lecture in the same way as a non-disabled student would. Since you only have to start the lecture and then all changes on the screen is controlled automatically by the sound file, it is also convenient for people with motoric disabilities, not having to click through all the pages. We also provide a ‘text only’ version of the lecture, where you can go through the material in your own pace.

    After the ten minutes of introduction and overview, the program will put you on a webpage where you can find links to the mandatory and suggested reading that is connected with the weeks topic.

    The system we use is a real-audio streamer to send sound and control the change of pictures in the lecture, and different java script programming to enhance the graphics and the user interface. We also use a text based conference system called Webboard, to have seminars and group practice. This we use for the follow up of the lectures, and also for the students to discuss and arrange the homework.

    An additional feature is the laborations where the students have been able to try out different technologies, by using technology already available on the net, or by running java applets written specially for this purpose, e.g. a simple keyboard replacement that you can play around with, a typewriter for writing Braille signs and a demonstration of how people with cognitive disabilities sometimes perceive a clock, called the ‘flower clock’. These are examples of how we have tried to bring with us the best things we had in our classroom bound lectures into the net version.

    To us the concept of distance learning is not a ‘cheaper’ version of ‘real’ education. We strongly believe that our way of giving the courses in Rehabilitation Engineering today has an added value compared with the way we used to give it (traditional lectures). We have found that the ‘distance’ in ‘distance education’ in many cases has become closer in our present version of the course. We have been able to give the students possibilities to meet with lecturers and others, that would have been very difficult for them to get close to otherwise.

    An example; A few weeks into the fall quarter the students were studying ‘cognitive disabilities’. Through the Webboard they were given the possibility to have a seminar together with an autistic woman, and ask her questions about her situation and her handicap. This wouldn’t have been possible to conduct in any other form, since this woman does not function well in a group when physically present. But over the computer it was possible.

    The students have also been given an opportunity to communicate with a group of people with cognitive disabilities, who cannot speak, but communicate through pictures over the net. The students have sent them messages, an are now waiting for replies.

    Our motivation for doing this is dual. The first is the obvious, we want our students to have the best education that they can get. We strongly believe that the tools of learning we present them with in this concept, is a step in that direction. The second is that by giving a fully web based course, we can at the same time make it accessible for people with different kinds of disabilities, and giving them a possibility to study under almost exactly the same conditions as other students.

    We are currently in the midst of a continuous process where we are learning from observing how our students learn in this new environment. We are evaluating the tools as we go along, and hope for a more extensive study when the whole course is finished.

    The results we have had so far has been very positive. We had some initial fears when we started that putting it all on the net would scare a lot of the students off. But the drop out rate so far has been lower than the normal. Initially there were a few suggestions from students and some teachers as well, that maybe we should have at least some gatherings in ‘real life’. But gradually this has changed, and now the students are asking for even more active tasks to be performed on the net, i.e. more group work and laborations and seminars.

    It should be noted that the above mentioned activities may require restraints in time to create a feeling of really working in a group. A discussion, for example, where the students all participate during limited period of time is quite different from a discussion with no limits in time (like news groups).

    We have also discovered an interesting development in how rapidly the students are taking in new concepts and testing them while using the Webboard. Since seminars can be conducted during two hours with all the participants there at the same time, the students and the teacher can wrap their thoughts around each others and comment and amplify the things that interest them, much a in an extended and deepened e-mail exchange.

    From the teachers point of view the amount of work that is put in amounts today to somewhere between 3-6 times the work for a normal lecture. Initially the amount of work was much higher, but with experience, a properly worked through format and some development of software aids, we are cutting down the time for the production of the lectures. As the material is reusable, we will be using many of the lectures in other courses for other kinds of students, with or without modifications, and this of course lowers the overall time spent on lectures by the teachers at our institute.

    The overall impression of putting a whole course on the net is that it works very well and that we both as researchers and as developers are learning more from watching the students learning, than we ever could imagine.

    Keywords

    Distance, learning, education, disability, deaf, blind, Internet, lecture, accessibility, user interface, dyslectic, motoric disabilities.

    References

    http://www.arkiv.certec.lth.se/certec/staff/peter/mm/forelasning1/ (New URL: http://www.arkiv.certec.lth.se/lectures/peter/f1/f1_text.html )A demo version of our concept can be found at this address. (Alas only in Swedish so far). Inlärning och omvärldsuppfattning, Marton et al, 170 p, Stockholm: AWE/Gebers, Tionde tryckningen 1996, ISBN 91-20-04887-4

Last modified: 03-03-11