Distance education different in Germany

February 23, 2006, vol. 35, no. 4
By Diane Luckow

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Post-secondary distance education in B.C. is significantly different from distance education in Germany, says Taiga Brahm, of the University of Kaiserslautern.

Brahm is a visiting distance education program director from the centre for distance studies and continuing education at the German university, one of the largest providers of post-graduate distance education programs in Germany.

She recently spent two months at SFU's centre for online and distance education (CODE), discovering how distance education is organized and delivered at B.C. post-secondary institutions.

Brahm is responsible for a two-year program in human resource development leading to a master of arts degree. She enrolls about 200 students each year and is responsible for about 500 students overall.

She was surprised to discover how prevalent distance education courses are at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in SFU's curriculum.

"It really opened up my perspective," she says, attributing the differences in part to Canada's widely dispersed population and to a desire to assist diverse groups such as working students and mothers with children.

At the University of Kaiserslautern, and in Germany generally, she says distance education is usually used to deliver an entire graduate program to a cohort group and often includes a residency requirement where students and faculty spend time face-to-face.

Unlike B.C. distance education programs, Kaiserslautern's doesn't use available textbooks and study guides. Instead, each distance education program contracts with the best professors in the country to write customized study books tailored specifically to the program. "Our model is to pull in the best resources," she says. Another difference - there are no university tutor markers. Instead she works with people in the field who are contracted as markers.

SFU's online teaching technology was also a surprise. "I really liked the connection of synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning," she says. "It's a lot more incorporated in programs here than in Germany."

For instance, synchronous software tools like e-live connect SFU students and teachers at the same time using voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP).

"It brings students into the virtual classroom so that they can talk too," she says, noting that at Kaiserslautern, technology tools like Web CT are used more as a learning management system rather than a classroom technology.

Brahm also noticed administrative differences with SFU's distance education system. She notes that SFU's faculty must undertake distance education courses on top of their regular course load. "I think it's sometimes hard to find people who are willing to do that," she notes.

As well, she discovered that CODE is limited to offering distance education to just 10-12 per cent of full-time equivalent students (FTEs).

"The quality of programs here is very high so I'm wondering why they wouldn't open it to more people and even try to market it," she says.

Brahm returns home with new ideas for improving her university's online instructional design and incorporating more technology like streaming video and audio files.

"I saw courses here that were so very well done," she notes. "The technology helps the teaching - it's not just for its own sake. That's one area where we can improve and make things easier for our students."

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