Page 4 of 6CURRENT PRIORITIES IN DISTANCE EDUCATION IN ASIA PACIFIC
A major conclusion of evaluation studies of DE in Asia Pacific has to with the need to upgrade the infrastructure for Internet-based education to enable educational institutions to take full advantage of it. It is ironic that the most fundamental problem of Internet-based DE in Asia Pacific - the widespread lack of Internet access - has received relatively little discussion. Hardhono et al. (2007) have attributed the neglect of this basic issue to a tendency on the part of some Asian institutions to adopt online methods ‘as a major symbol of their modernisation’, rather than basing the decision on the results of research and evaluation of e-learning accessibility.
Samaranayake et al. (2007) have shown that while most students in South Asia use computers, very few have Internet access. In Sri Lanka, 79 percent use offline computers in their educational institutions, and among those who have access to the Internet, 42 percent have online access at home, and 35 percent use Internet kiosks. In Pakistan, these proportions are lower in all categories, with 42 percent of students using institutional offline computers and 30 percent or less using facilities like email, Web-based training materials, and text-chat/instant messaging. In Bhutan, the figures are lower still: following an e-learning trial, 83 percent of the student users reported that they had difficulty using the online method due to poor Internet connections, insufficient time, the complexity of the method, and/or the need to travel far to get Internet access. e-Learning is proving more successful in India than elsewhere in the region, although primarily in the corporate sector where access is more readily available.
In an attempt to quantify the issue of Web inaccessibility, the 13-country PANdora network has conducted a study measuring the time taken to access webpages between major Asian cities. The finding: "In most of the survey conditions, browser loading times were noted up to four times slower than commonly prescribed as acceptable. Failure of pages to load at all was frequent ..." (Baggaley et al. 2007). The study also analyzed the routes taken by Web hits (i.e. attempts to access material from Web servers) at Asian institutions. All Web hits go through intermediate Web servers before reaching their target, and the more intermediate "hops" involved, the bigger the chance that the access attempt will fail. The study showed that whereas hits by students in Canada on Canadian Web servers may go through half a dozen hops, Web hits by Asia Pacific users commonly go through 20 or more hops and fail to reach their destinations altogether. In addition, the study found that Asian Web hits are commonly routed through countries such as Russia and the United States, for want of more direct local routes. In Cambodia, attempts to access material on a Web server in the next building are typically routed through Vietnam, adding to the time taken and the chance that the Web hit will fail. Improved local Web routes are needed to address this problem.
The substantial extra workload created for the teachers when online methods are considered for adoption also need careful attention. In traditional educational institutions, the use of pre-produced material does not require continuous preparation by the instructors during the academic semester. When online methods are used, the instructor is required to attend to the teaching-learning process constantly, or at least as regularly as in face-to-face instruction.
Meanwhile, most South Asian students have access to other media, such as radio and television, which continue to be used as major educational media by the Asia Pacific mega-universities. In adopting modern technologies in the educational process, Asia Pacific distance educators ought not to abandon traditional media, especially since these technologies are more widely accessible than the Internet and Web in all parts of the world.
One country, Vietnam, is proving successful in the development of e-learning owing in part to its detailed ICT and DE policies (Doung et al. 2007). These include specific policies about DE and the ICT applications supporting it (e.g. use of Open Source software), and a high priority given to vocational training and the education of remote communities.
In countries like Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka), Mongolia (Infocon Ltd), and the Philippines (University of the Philippines Open University and the Molave Foundation), the focus of e-learning innovations is the cellphone, which is the most accessible of all modern media in the region. Software is being developed to enable students to use their cellphones to request information from the University, and to allow educators to use cellphones in "pushing" information to students.
Librero et al. (2007) discuss four types of educational cellphone usage in the Philippines:
Ramos and Trinona (2007) have reported a positive response from the students and the public in Mongolia and the Philippines to the idea of developing cellphone techniques for educational purposes. Students can access learning materials on CDs and DVD, while using automated cellphone methods to interact with their teachers and University administrators on assignment grading for example.
In addition, teams in Mongolia and the Philippines are working with researchers at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, to develop software and LMS modules permitting audio- and video-conferencing over low-speed Internet connections, and a PANdora collaboration between Sri Lanka and Pakistan is developing online software for interactive student assessment (e-assessment) based on Asia Pacific needs (Baggaley and Belawati 2007).
In Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, Hardhono et al. (2007) have developed an online repository of "learning objects" (LOs) to enable course developers in the three countries to share course materials. The value of this approach in Asia Pacific has yet to be proven. Numerous attempts to create learning object repositories of this kind have been made internationally, with mixed results. On one hand, it is useful for DE institutions to develop digital course materials that can be shared online, and the Hardhono et al. (2007) project is based on the laudable goal of reducing costs by sharing culturally appropriate and compatible objects between different Asian countries. On the other hand, the costs of producing and updating digital materials may prove prohibitive in the Asia Pacific context, and it is by no means certain whether teachers will be willing to share the teaching materials they develop or to use those developed by other teachers. They may also be suspicious of attempts by large international organizations (e.g. publishing groups, commercial Web portals) to impose educational materials on them. Automated approaches to DE have been disparaged as "digital diploma mills" (Noble 1998), and as a cafeteria-style of education serving private sector interests at the cost of educational excellence (Moll and Robertson 1998). The "oligopological" control of information by a relative few reinforces such criticisms.
Many of the problems currently jeopardizing DE initiatives in the region can be addressed by adjusting institutional funding and management practices to make them more specifically attuned to DE and ICT needs. In conventional institutions based on face-to-face teaching and learning, funding needs vary according to student numbers and the demand for sufficient teachers and classroom facilities. For institutions where education relies on the use of ICTs, funding is less sensitive to student numbers and more influenced by the types of technology used. For example, synchronous support technologies such as audio/video-conferencing require more funding than asynchronous methods. A comprehensive set of examples of how DE administration is practised in several ODL institutions in Asia (i.e. at the China Central Radio and TV University system, Korea National Open University, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open Unversity, Universitas Terbuka, Virtual University of Pakistan, and Wawasan Open University) is given by Belawati and Baggaley (2008).