In a state-wide learning environment of home-based child care trainees, Trudi encountered a dilemma which led her to enquire about access issues for the rural and remote learners. While some of these learners joined the centralized online programs, a significant proportion did not. The Australian Flexible Learning Framework (2003) conducted extensive studies into online learning, including research into access and equity for rural and remote learners. Trudi used this research and framed further questions for an e-survey among her university cohorts, then discussed these issues during a live-to-air university event.
This synchronous event demonstrated the same two learning platforms used in the state-wide Children’s Services programs. The event was facilitated via Centra Symposium and demonstrations of approaches using both Centra and a Moodle group were shared. In this way, it was possible to conduct some evaluation of these technologies with regard to the rural access theme. The topic was therefore discussed with reference to the event participants’ experiences, the results of the in-course Zoomerang survey, published research and the technologies being demonstrated during the event.
Aspects influencing access by rural and remote learners were gleaned from the research (Australian Flexible Learning Framework, 2003) and formed eleven factors:
1.culture and language; 2. affordability; 3. age; 4. degree of isolation; 5. level of education;
6. access to internet; 7. technology skills; 8. course design; 9. staff support;
10. peer support and 11. access to support resources.
The in-course survey results and event discussion indicated that access to internet was considered most crucial, followed by ease of use with course software and platforms. This outcome partly mirrored the research report (Australian Flexible Learning Framework, 2003) that identified key barriers as distance related technology and infrastructure costs. The report also acknowledged the diversity of needs for regional and remote learners as well as the need for community-based coordination of services and industry involvement.
Effectiveness of instructional design was also considered very important by the university course participants. This included providing limited text, effective use of friendly pictures and many opportunities for interaction, both verbal and graphic. The issue of course affordability was minimized as discussion related to contexts where learners were already highly subsidized. All eleven factors were considered to have some impact on learner access and engagement.
The synchronous and asynchronous platforms highlighted in this event afford users a range of opportunities for interaction and social learning. The extent to which these tools can enable learner- initiated activities for distant students would depend on the pedagogical approach and the impact of the eleven identified features above. Once distance learners become connected, the virtual classroom could be seen to simply replicate the ‘chalk and talk’ physical classroom if used in an objectivist way. However, the break-out rooms, collaborative mark-up tools, text chat and verbal interaction features, when used effectively, will support a social constructivist learning environment. The ‘any time any place’ learner-driven Moodle forums, blogs, wikis and resource sharing clearly support a connectivist pedagogy and allow the learner to take an active approach to group learning. The value of these technologies and approaches is recognized in the report, (Australian Flexible Learning Framework, 2003) and the recommended Commonwealth funds for projects supportive of rural and remote learners has been translated into current projects such as those currently sponsored by LearnScope.