By Dr. Chrystalla Neofytou
Under the new circumstances, circumstances beyond our control, our day-to-day activities have changed. These new conditions have affected all areas of our activity, including school education.
Schools have been forced to close. Αs a result, the stakeholders of the educational process suggested – and demanded the implementation of – ways and teaching practices so that the school year is not lost.
Nowadays teachers and students have to attend their school lessons using computers, telephones, tablets, and any other available technological or non-technological tool that enables them to communicate and interact with their teachers but also their classmates either in ‘real’ time, i.e. having synchronous communication, either in a future time, i.e. asynchronous communication.
The latter is a key characteristic of distance learning which is of great significance because it gives the opportunity to students to interact with the teacher and the teaching content without any time constraints.
But before we talk about the characteristics and the available tools to carry out distance learning, it is important to clarify the concept and distinguish the difference between distance learning and electronic learning (hereinafter e-learning).
Distance learning is a method of education where teachers and students do not meet in a classroom, in the natural environment of a school classroom, but use every available means of communication – electronic and technology supported such as the Internet, e-mail, online learning environments and platforms – but also non-electronic such as the conventional mail, the radio, the telephone etc., so as the teacher will carry out his lesson and the students will attend and have access to the lesson and its content.
Distance learning can be applied with little or no physical and interpersonal contact between teacher and student. E-learning can be described as the educational process in which teaching is carried out when teacher and student are not in the same place, i.e. school classroom, and the Internet technology is used to achieve communication amongst them.
E-learning refers to the learning process which is fully implemented in an online environment, where Internet technology is used to facilitate communication between teacher and students. On the contrary, distance learning can be applied both in real time (synchronous interaction), that is when students and teachers ‘meet’ at the same time using an online learning environment (OLE), i.e. a virtual classroom, but also at a different time, that is, they communicate and interact asynchronously.
This is in fact the key feature of distance learning, the freedom of space and time that the student has outside the narrow constrains of a school classroom… In distance education, the learning process takes place in the student’s environment and through his own activity, while the student is called upon to take responsibility for the pace of his progress, since he has the freedom to choose what, when and how to receive the teaching content!
Thus, in contrast to the conditions of teaching in a conventional school, in synchronous and asynchronous distance education, teacher and students can communicate and interact beyond the limited school timetable. This promotes not only the active participation of the students but also encourages collaborative learning and personalized teaching.
The question raised by teachers in the last week -a question that still concerns many of them- is what tools are available to use for carrying out distance learning and online lessons?
The answer is relatively easy. A simple web search will return a long list of tools for synchronous and asynchronous communication that are available for free! Briefly we can mention Skype, iChat, Facebook Messenger, Zoom and OLEs such as Moodle, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Edmondo and a lot more, with which synchronous communication and interaction can be achieved in the form of group chats, video conferencing, web seminars and phone calls.
The same web search will return a similar list of asynchronous communication tools such as the e-mail, discussion and bulletin boards and blogs. What needs to be made clear is that the real question is how well trained teachers and students are not on how to use these tools in a school context -which is another issue of great importance that needs to be examined and discussed- but on accepting and using them as pedagogical tools.
Dr. Chrystalla Neofytou: Associate Teaching Staff – Special Scientist Open University of Cyprus, Department of Information and Communication Systems, Faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences, Lifelong Learning Programs, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and visiting Lecturer Neapolis University, Paphos, Department of Computer Science, School of Finance, Business and Informatics