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Feature - Education and the future: eLearning

Feature - Education and the future: eLearning


Image courtesy GridTalk

Computers and the web have transformed homes and businesses, and could do the same for education and training. Known as "eLearning," this can be as simple as accessing a school timetable online, or as complex as running virtual communities for sharing and creating knowledge.

eLearning is defined by the European Commission (EC) as 'the use of new multimedia technologies and the internet to improve the quality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services, as well as remote exchanges and collaboration.' The EC sees eLearning as an integral part of education and calls for member states to include eLearning in national policies; its Lifelong Learning Program, running from 2007-2013, includes it in schools, higher education, vocational training, and adult education.

Where do grids fit in?

Grid technologies help researchers worldwide collaborate, analyze data and carry out research. However, grids can also be used as a means to provide education and training, by providing a platform on which virtual research communities and organizations can share resources, information and ideas.

This use of the grid would allow eLearning to overcome many problems. For example, eLeaning is often based on technologies that are difficult to scale-up or share with multiple users. Current methods of eLearning also tend not to distribute computing power or storage, thereby making data-intensive fields - such as medicine - hard to teach.

The grid could help access the processing power and storage space of many learning devices, letting eLearning address tasks such as medical image processing, which requires significant amounts of computing power. Sharing resources would also aid mobile learning, where learners use portable devices with limited memory and processing power.

One-room schoolhouse. Image courtesy Robert Linder, stock.exchng

Applications of eLearning

In developing countries especially, eLearning can offer an effective way to provide the next generation with education and training. Following a study by ERINA, the EC-funded ERINA4Africa project aims to provide African and EU policy-makers with a way to exploit research infrastructures for use in eHealth, eGovernment and eLearning.

ERINA4Africa's objectives include:

• Create a virtual observatory, focused on trends and evolution of African e-Infrastructures.

• Identify the benefits of adopting African Research Infrastructures.

• Provide a series of virtual conferences and local meetings to promote and validate project results. The first of these was held in Rwanda in May 2010. The second will be in Malawi on October 2010.

Challenges

While eLearning offers many benefits, it faces numerous hurdles:

• Learners need to have the basic underlying skills required to use eLearning tools. This is a particular problem for grid-based eLearning strategies, as the grid is often cited as a hard-to-use technology. However, once users gain skills and experience with eLearning, they are a step closer to overcoming the 'digital divide.'

• The quality of the learning materials must be high: for example, easy to access, cost-effective, fulfilling its purpose, and accurate. But, defining quality further can be difficult, as it depends greatly upon individual perspective.

• Instead of just a means of spreading existing knowledge, eLearning environments should also take advantage of their innate abilities to foster the creation, development and discussion of new ideas in a collaborative environment.

• The technology needs to be available to all - a problem for developing countries. The ERINA and ERINA4Africa studies address this issue, and schemes in schools across the EU aim to provide students with the necessary technologies.

-Adrian Giordani for iSGTW. Excerpted from 'Putting the 'e' in education: eLearning and grid computing' GridBriefing by Manisha Lalloo of GridTalk.

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