WikiEdProfessional eLearning Guidebook/An Overview/Attributes of e-learning/The flexibility that e-learning technology affords

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A key attribute of information and communications technology is its ability to enable flexible access to information and resources. Flexible access refers to access and use of information and resources at a time, place and pace that is suitable and convenient to individual learners rather than the teacher and/or the educational organization.

The concept of distance education was founded on the principles of flexible access (Willems, 2005). It aimed to allow distance learners, who were generally adult learners in full or part-time employment to be able to study at a time, place, and pace that suited their convenience. The goal of distance education was to free these learners from the constraints of conventional residential educational settings. They would not be required to live or attend lectures in locations away from where they may be living and working. The printed distance study materials, which each distance learner received, would carry the core subject matter content they would need including all their learning activities and assessment tasks. Students would be required to complete these tasks, submit their assignments and take their examinations within a set time frame. While these printed study materials allowed distance learners a great deal of freedom from time, place and pace of study, it had its limitations. For one thing, non-printed subject matter content and simulations etc. could not be easily represented in print form.

Access to information and communications technology changed all that as it offered a range of possibilities for capturing and delivering all types of subject matter content to learners and teachers in distributed educational settings. This meant access to subject matter content and learning resources via networked information and communications technologies across a range of settings such as conventional classrooms, workplaces, homes, and various forms of community centers (Dede, 2000; 1996). Contemporary educational institutions, including conventional distance education providers, often pride themselves in being able to meet the learning needs of their students and staff at a time, place and pace that is most convenient to them.

They have been able to do this with the help of information and communications technologies which afford learners access to up-to-date information as and when they need them, and also the opportunity to discuss this information with their peers and teachers at their convenience. This is becoming increasingly affordable and palatable with a wide range of software applications and computer conferencing technologies for collaborative inquiry among students and asynchronous discussion (see Edelson, Gordin, & Pea, 1999; Edelson, & O'Neill, 1994). These applications enable learners and teachers to engage in synchronous as well as asynchronous interaction across space, time, and pace (Gomez, Gordin, & Carlson, 1995; Gordin, Polman, & Pea, 1994; Pea, 1994).