Distance Learning Challenges in Higher Education:
Supporting Expanded Programs and Access
The search for new knowledge and skills is a hallmark of forward-looking societies. In this context, higher education plays a central role, with systems and structures specifically oriented toward this goal.
Distance education has harnessed those systems and structures to become a rapidly growing option (and opportunity) for student populations that lack proximity to an institution of higher education or whose professional activities and schedules cannot accommodate a traditional program of learning. For this reason, universities all over the world have begun to focus on the affordances of distance learning methodologies.
More recently, the pandemic lockdown imposed an emergency reduction in face-to-face classes and mandated the widespread use of communications technologies for teaching. Those tools have facilitated interaction between teachers and students, among groups of students, and between students and course resources to continue their instruction.
The intense and recent use of these technologies merely simulated the mechanisms of distance learning methodologies with traditional practices adapted for this pandemic situation. The differences, however, are significant. Distance learning incorporates pedagogical models that typically include a combination of asynchronous learning strategies complemented by clearly defined synchronous, group-based activities. Such programs are designed specifically for a target population of students possessing well-developed autonomous work skills, as well as the motivation to persist. The courses include formative and summative assessment criteria suitable for monitoring student progress, providing opportunities for constructive feedback, and identifying areas of strength or weakness in the course itself. Evaluation of distance education programs relies on parameters unique to that environment, while also recognizing the difficulties of some instructional constraints, such as those imposed by laboratory-based learning, for example. Experimental learning requires extensive resources for distance education that can be addressed only partially, in most cases, with remote and/or virtual laboratories.
Distance education is becoming a dynamic instructional alternative in Portugal. Therefore, it is important that we highlight the specific values of distance learning, associating them with high-quality objectives, models, methods, and procedures, to ensure the coherence of our program initiatives for distance delivery.
This Conference is intended to address the attributes of current distance education practices in Portugal and the potential for their evolution. Internationally recognized experts in this teaching approach will provide insight on and guide discussion about redefining the conceptual and organizational framework of distance education in the Portuguese panorama.
Chairman of the Management Board of A3ES
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