Going the Distance for Education

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When you can’t make it to school in person, what do you do? For many students, children and adults alike, they just don’t go. However, this means no formal education, which can ultimately be the difference between getting or not getting a job for many people around the world.

In many locations, distance education, or distance learning, has become the answer to not being able to attend school. Distance education is the mode of instruction for students who are not physically present in a traditional setting. The most common kinds of distance education are online and video conference courses. Perhaps most popular right now are MOOCs (massive open online courses) that are popping up through different universities and companies like Coursera and EdX. Anyone can take these courses to learn a new skill or topic. However, in many remote regions of the world, distance education is offered out of necessity rather than convenience. Bon Education is excited about working with CISCO on a current distance education project in Saudi Arabia that will provide students in rural areas specialized training in math and science.

Below is a glance at a few distance education case studies from around the world.

Between 2003 and 2007, the Chinese government offered the Distance Education Project for Rural Schools (DEPRS). The government wanted to improve the quality of basic education in the more rural areas of the country, especially in the Western region. The Western provinces tend to be more underdeveloped and poorer than the Eastern region. This also means that there is less access to educational opportunities in the Western region for children and youth, as well as a shortage of experienced teachers and funding. The Chinese government decided that distance education was a cost-effective and adaptable way to narrow the social gap within the country. Distance education scholar Ding Xingfu said of distance education that it is “the only means by which high quality education resources can be conveyed from the eastern part to the western part. It is also the only means by which qualified teachers can be cultivated and retained in the West.”

DEPRS developed three program models that targeted different education levels: 1) low-level rural elementary schools, 2) intermediate schools, and 3) junior high schools. The program provided computers, DVDs, Internet, satellite technology, etc. for use in the courses. By 2007, the three models had been implemented successfully for the most part. However, surveys showed that the distance education technology may not have been utilized by teachers to its fullest potential. Regardless, DEPRS was seen as a positive step forward for the Western region of China because it offered students educational opportunities that they would not have otherwise had.

The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) is considered the “largest open schooling system in the world,” according to the NIOS website. It started as an “open schooling” project in 1978 under the Central Board of Secondary Education. In 1989, the government of India established it as the National Open School. In 2002, it became the NIOS with a mission to provide “sustainable inclusive learning.” The courses offered are all online, and they target secondary, senior secondary, open vocational programs and life enrichment programs. NIOS has regional study centers across the country, allowing students living in a variety of locations to access the educational offerings.One Laptop per Child image2

NIOS provides a number of success stories on its website, highlighting students who have completed degrees and programs at NIOS. Many students had dropped out of school before attending NIOS, but the flexibility of the distance education program allowed them to finish and move on to jobs or more schooling.

Similar to the NIOS in India, the African Virtual University (AVU) offers tertiary distance education. AVU is a Pan African Intergovernmental Organization that is supported by 17 African governments. The university began in 1997 and has its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. The courses offered allow students from more remote regions of the continent to have access to education despite their location. AVU considers its greatest asset to be “its ability to work across borders and language barriers in Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa.”

The MIT-Haiti Initiative is giving people in Haiti access to online resources and lessons. It’s a newer program and not a full-fledged distance education school; however, the MIT-Haiti Initiative is growing and providing much-needed modern support to the Haitian education system. Most importantly, the program uses Kreyòl as the language of instruction. Kreyòl is the common language spoken by nearly everyone in Haiti, and it encourages active learning in a way that programs using less-common languages do not.

Different Views
There are many other distance learning programs appearing in regions with fewer quality educational opportunities. As technology improves and becomes more widespread, the desire and ability for distance learning grows. Of course, there are growing pains. Many places have slow Internet connections or older technological resources, making distance education courses difficult to run. One blogger addressed the topic of open and distance learning in developing countries, asking if it actually is the solution.

While not everyone is convinced that distance education is the best route to take in providing quality education to people all over the world, I am of the opinion that it can certainly be a stepping-stone toward more opportunities for people who have no other alternatives in their remote locations.

What do you think about distance education? Do you know of any successful distance education programs?


Education Research and Journalism Fellow, Bon Education

Image available under CC License by One Laptop per Child
mage available under CC License by One Laptop per Child

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