There was a time when eLearning was the future of education, particularly for mature and professional learners. It offered so many advantages over the didactic, classroom based model in terms of accessibility and flexibility, and all you needed to take part in the Brave New World was some will, and access to a computer.
But eLearning got off to a slow start in Ireland. Some of the initial offerings were clunky, technical, and not hugely user friendly. Additionally, they tended to be CR-ROM-based (remember them?), which meant that they were not as immediately accessible as the learning public demanded. Then broadband arrived, and everything changed.
Thanks to wider connectivity and the higher speeds facilitated by broadband, eLearning is no longer exotic – and this is a hugely positive development. Indeed, just as e-commerce has become simply "commerce", eLearning is such an accepted part of the learning portfolio as to hardly warrant the use of "e" anymore.
What has certainly happened is that there have been huge advances in the delivery and content of eLearning programmes. For example, CMIT, the College of Management and IT, has recently launched a web-based solution, including instant messaging, quizzes, downloads and video, which it feels is more in-tune with what it calls the "Facebook generation". Additionally, CMIT has built a model which incorporates plagiarism software into its processes - and this must be something of a shock to the "Wikipedia generation" used to copying and pasting the majority of its academic output!
"Students were our priority when developing our eLearning system," said CMIT director Sinead O'Connor. "We were focused on creating a simple-to-use, interactive and effective eLearning system, which was centred around the learner and the tutor."
As a result of the integration of eLearning into the mainstream, many colleges have now embraced distance learning as an add-on to traditional courses, thereby further blurring the lines between classroom-based and internet-based lessons. And, indeed, this blurring works both ways – for example, CMIT has been active in incorporating full tutor support into its eLearning model, as well as completely integrating external quality assurance systems such as FETAC.
"Prospective students are dictating the methods of study that are being offered," explained O'Connor, citing the example of CMIT's direct "Tutor Messaging" function (which allows contact with tutors at any stage of the course), and its dedicated student support team, which is available to discuss course options and offer assistance throughout the duration of the programmes.
"Our Tutor Messaging System, Student Forums and Student Support Team mean that although students are not attending classes, they are never alone during their studies with us," she continued. "This is a vital part of our course offering, and we encourage all our students to use the messaging system and support team."
These sorts of advances and advantages are what is making eLearning such a viable route back to the "classroom", especially for those looking to take professional qualifications, or those looking to change career but who don't have the time to return to full-time college. But in a world which is more conscious than ever of accreditation and certification, there is also the fact that CMIT has FETAC accreditation, thereby rubberstamping the college's commitment to quality.
"We are very aware of the changing requirements of the market, and we regularly update and launch new courses to meet these needs," said O'Connor. "For example, CMIT has just launched a FETAC course in Advanced Web Design and Internet Marketing which is proving to be a very valuable and much sought after skill for 2011."
This is in addition to a new FETAC Level 6 Advanced Certificate in Management (BMANX), which is being delivered through fully tutor-supported eLearning over 12 months. This Advanced Certificate in Management is part of a new initiative which offers progression opportunities for learners to third level education - the Higher Education Links Scheme, which links specific Level 5 Certificate and Level 6 Advanced Certificates to reserved places on a variety of higher education programmes in colleges and universities.