Skills Development Providers (SDPs) & Training Providers

The value of interface in distance learning

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    Hannes Nel

    Interaction is one of the most important components of any learning experience and it has been identified as one of the major constructs in distance learning. Interaction implies that learning takes place through a communication medium. The obvious and probably most used communication tool in distance learning is the Internet, or online learning.

    One cannot just superimpose learning materials used in contact learning on an online learning platform. The learning content should be the same, but interface between the student and the learning materials require professional structuring. Structure needs to be appropriate for the students in terms of level of complexity, the extent to which it satisfies the students’ learning needs and the extent to which it provides for student-student, student-learning content, student-educator and student-interface interaction. 

    The effectiveness of student-interface interaction depends on the attributes of the medium being used. Therefore, the student’s computer skills will influence success in distance learning. There is some evidence that students who see each other process information differently from students who do not see each other. The ability to see other members of the group may impact the quality of group decisions depending upon the nature of the problem. Group conformance and the ability to persuade may also enable the simulation of physical presence, that is, “the sense of belonging and being part of a shared environment”.

    A strong characteristic of online learning is that it is self-paced. Branching can be used to lend flexibility to the pace at which different students learn. Branching implies that students are allowed to continue with a next learning step by activating a prior response, i.e. the student must first do something, like successfully answer a question, before she or he is allowed to progress to the next step. Thus, individual students can select or be directed to different learning events depending upon the interest, need, or competency level. Different students may process information differently. What is needed is an online platform which allows students continuous access to educational and information resources. Therefore, learning efficiency can be increased if the instruction can be tailored to the individual requirements of the students.

    Interface can serve as a powerful motivating force as students gain greater control over content, time, place, pacing, and methods of learning. However, as online increases learning options, it might also increase confusion, making it increasingly more difficult to find meaning in a barrage of discrete bits of information. An important role of the educator in this self-directed learning environment is to guide the student through the learning quest, keeping students on track, fostering meaning-making, and providing support and motivation.

    The effectiveness of distance learning can be improved by maintain proper control over the communication between the learner, other learners, the educator and the learning materials. This is achieved by pacing the tempo and sequence of distance learning. We will discuss pacing next week.


    Smith, P.L., & Dillon, C.L. (2009). Lead Article: Comparing Distance Learning and Classroom Learning: Conceptual Considerations. American Journal of Distance Education. Routlege.

    Stein, D.S., Wanstreet, C.E., Calvin, J., Overtoom, C., & Wheaton, J.E. (2005). Bridging the Transactional Distance Gap in Online Learning Environments. American Journal of Distance Education. Routledge.

    Vrasidas, C. (2000). Constructivism versus Objectivism: Implications for Interaction, Course Design, and Evaluation in Distance Education. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications.

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    karen deller

    HI Hannes, we do quite a lot of e-learning and on-line lecturing and most of the students who chose this mode of delivery love it because it saves them time and travel and fits in with their life styles. student support is clearly the biggest issue and the provider needs a mechanism for identifying at-risk and non-engaged students (which we have). CHE and many SETA have embraced the concept of technology enhanced learning but sadly they have not all done so. SSETA is still in the dark ages on technology enhanced learning and can’t approve it they say (they say they dont have a policy for it yet). has anyone else experienced these systemic barriers?

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