e-Learning: Learning with the Internet

Professor A.N. Maheshwari

Chairperson, NCTE

 

Recent developments in information and communication technology (ICT) have ushered in the Information Age. The world is in the midst of an unprecedented information explosion. Fortunately, new solutions for handling information are also emerging which have made it possible to keep pace with the information growth. New hardware and software keep appearing in the market capable of handling order of magnitude bigger volume of information than what is possible with the existing machines. The new computers have faster speed and come at a price lesser than that of their earlier versions.

 

The most remarkable development that has changed the world since the invention of the printing press and the postal communication is the Internet.The world has been wired electronically. The Internet has already connected a sizable population of the world. Online contact between individuals within their countries and with equal ease with others, cutting across political and geographical boundaries, has become a reality and that too at near zero communication costs. People are sharing information by merely connecting their computers with the Internet by using a variety of linking technologies employed by their Internet Service Providers. Network uses satellites, radio frequency transmission, optical fibres, telephone lines etc., and new ways of accessing the Internet keep emerging on the scene. Gradually even those who are outside its reach today will be able to access the Internet and the digital divide will get bridged with time. The revolution in information and communication technology has changed life styles and influenced almost all human activities in the developed and developing countries alike. It is being used for almost all human activities. The prominent are e-governance, e-commerce, e-mail, education, and for offering different types of services such as banking, travel, payment of utility charges etc.

 

The challenge now is to use its full potential in education. Educational institutions so far have been using the Internet for putting up on the web their Homepage for giving institutional profile, courses and admission information, communication with the students, providing access to the Internet to their students and teachers and consultancy services offered by them. I want to point out that now solutions are available for putting on the web learning resources comprising text, visuals, and animations arranged for interactive learning. Software tools are available for preparing multimedia lessons that can be accessed from the web even with a low bandwidth Internet connection.

 

What is multimedia?

 

Multimedia is digital integration of voice, visuals, text and animations. In a multimedia lesson teachers would synchronise their voice with slides, which may contain pictures, mathematical equations, tables, charts, text etc. What is now needed is that our teachers develop an appropriate instructional technology and use it for preparing multimedia lessons. For this to happen software tools have to be made available so that even those teachers who are not media experts are able to prepare lessons by themselves without going to studios for audio recording of the lesson or taking help of computer professionals for tasks such as editing of audio files and for their conversion into web deliverable format. Teachers would be able to prepare slides themselves without depending on the support of media professionals and would be able to synchronise slides with audio track and reconvert sound files in a form that will let voice stream down even with low bandwidth Internet connection and make slides open up at pre-fixed times when the audio track is playing.

 

There are many ways of preparing a multimedia lesson and its delivery. I would like to share my experience of producing multimedia lessons and experiments of teaching using different technologies for delivery of the lessons to distant learners and of virtual classroom. In November 2001 I used the Direct Media Service (DMS) of the WorldSpace. The Asia Star satellite of the WorldSpace allows a low bandwidth streaming of digital data and CD-quality sound in a beam which has a footprint of 14 million square kilometre. The digital data can be received in computers with an antenna, which is only 10 cm wide and can be easily pointed in the direction of the beam coming from the satellite. Voice streamed down from the WorldSpace satellite can be heard using special digital audio receivers. In another experiment data was delivered using the satellite transmission but sound was delivered using the FM transmission of the All India Radio Banglore. In this experiment interaction of the students with the expert was arranged using phone-in. It may be appreciated that these approaches to delivery of lessons require a synchronous classroom. Another method of delivering multimedia lessons is to put them on a CD-ROM, which can be used for asynchronous learning. Yet, another method for asynchronous delivery of multimedia lesson is using the Internet. In the demonstration lecture I will present brief snippets of lessons, which were delivered using the WorldSpace, CD-ROM and the Internet.

 

Steps involved in preparation of multimedia lessons are the following:

 

        Expert

        Lesson plan

        Audio recording of lesson

        Editing of audio file (wave file)

        Conversion of wave file into Windows Media Audio (Microsoft WMA) file

        Preparation of slides based on the blackboard work of the expert (pictures, text, equations, charts, tables etc.)

        Synchronisation of audio file with slides using authoring tool software

        FTP transfer of files of the lesson on to the web

 

The key person in the preparation of web based multimedia course is the expert. What needs to be done is to make available the good teaching of the experts to the students many of whom might be learning without the benefit of quality teaching at their institutions. The other key to developing web based multimedia course are the authoring tools such as the EzeeNow and conversion of 8000 Hz 16 bits wave files into wma files. The wma files stream down into the userís computer from the Internet at the rate of 6.5 kbps, which indeed is a very low bandwidth Internet connection requirement. The full course that could consist of a set of lessons once put on the web would allow asynchronous learning. Interaction with the expert can be arranged in chat mode at pre-announced times. The text to voice conversion software now available can be used in arranging voice interaction of students with experts in accents of the users by converting text to voice software.

 

The task ahead is to take the help of teachers who are good communicators for preparing multimedia lessons and making available courses through the Internet and on CD-ROM.