Issues in the planning of a distance learning module including the use of multimedia to enhance the learning of EFL in the Cuban School of Medicine.

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Issues in the planning of a distance learning module including the use of multimedia to enhance the learning of EFL in a Cuban school of medicine.


By:  Eduardo Garbey Savigne

       Tania Galán Pacheco

        Mercedes Aluart Rodriguez


                                Havana, September 30, 2007



The aim of this paper is to provide the authors´ comments on the issues concerning the use and management of multimedia for a distance-learning module to train healthcare personnel.

The format of this paper will first provide general comments on the different issues involved in the distance learning and on-line teaching process as well as analyze the different human factors, the role and opportunities provided by the Web-based interaction, collaboration, and communication resources that extend the boundaries of the classroom and will provide a brief analysis of its present implications in a distance-learning course for Cuban healthcare personnel.

There is no doubt that Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and above all the Internet is shaping our societies, and no one doubts it is a useful tool for language teachers. Terms such as e-business, e-commerce and e-learning are taking over little by little. Lot of effort is being devoted to incorporate every line of business, professions and education into this fast emerging new world.

Technology has become wonderfully accessible to teachers, students, parents, and the entire general public in most countries. More exciting than technology itself is how it can be applied in different fields, especially in the field of foreign language learning.

On-line courses are becoming an exceptionally accessible, flexible resource whether your goal is gaining new skills, or building up your professional development. This accessibility has helped in the increase and potentiality of distance-learning courses with the use of multimedia.

The Internet gives access to a large amount of up-to-date material, and in the case of education, it provides on-line exercises that cannot be disregarded. It is a very common way to establish direct and virtual contacts with people through chats and websites. The teachers can keep direct communication links with the learners, other peer teachers and parents. It also enables the teachers to assign individualized tasks for learners. All the abovementioned interchanges can occur without moving from one’s home and at any time and it can be applied to any distance-learning course. Here lies the greatest value of a distance-learning course: communication exchange and interactivity in no real time.

Though, there is still a noticeable disparity between the slow speed of the EFL teacher’s involvement in the multiple uses of computer, Internet, video, audiotape, and videodisk technologies, CD-ROMs, DVD’s in classes and the fast development of all these media in the world. For those who have been somehow reluctant to work with multimedia, it seems these media have all come ‘almost at the same time’ putting some pressure on the users and the facilitators. But even if the teachers are capable of using multimedia reasonably and usefully, they will still lack time. The conventional lessons have always been running short of time. So why shouldn’t we all give a try to new ways of learning then?

The authors´ experience in the teaching of Cuban healthcare students and personnel  has shown that though there is a small group of young medical, dentistry and nursing students who do not see the need of learning English as a foreign language but they do their best ‘to attend lessons and  pass the exam’ and there are some who have been interested or motivated and have learned to communicate efficiently, the amount of hours allocated in the syllabus for English language training at present  is not enough. They just get a very general ‘barnish’ of the language. Time always run short. They need more, but there is no time.

Therefore, it is the author’s belief that we should all agree with Nunan, D (1988) as he stated in his Syllabus Design book that “not everything can be taught in class” and we should somehow support Harmer, J. (2002) who argued on on-line learning “to compensate for the limits of classroom time and to counter the passivity that is an enemy of true learning”

So, is it fair to believe that an undergraduate or postgraduate foreign language distance-learning course conducted completely on-line with no face-to-face class sessions will allow the learners to have the supplement they need to complete their education? Or, will a distance-learning course give the learners an opportunity to participate from their home or any computer facility links 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if they are really interested? If any of the answers is yes, the next question is: Is it really productive, beneficial and worthy?

To answer these questions let us briefly move around and see some of the issues that might exert some influence when deciding to implement a distance-learning course for foreign language learning.

One of the issues related to the distance-learning concept is the learner’s autonomy, which has sometimes been confused with individualization, as both are meant to meet the individual’s needs. Many people believe that autonomy means the learner working in isolation with no contact. Though Holec, H (1985) clearly emphasizes that “the term autonomy should be used to describe a capacity of the learner, (though) others began to use it to refer to situations in which learners worked under their own direction outside the conventional language teaching classroom”.

Another issue to have in mind is the interrelation brought along with the implementation of communicative language teaching, the findings on learners’ autonomy and the learner-centered issues. They are all much related in the sense it gives the learner the opportunity to monitor and command his or her own learning pace and that autonomy encourages the learners to look for the opportunities to study on their own and be away from the classroom management and the school bureaucratic procedures.

Then, comes the issue of self-directed learning. Here we find, Knowles, M (1975) whose ideas on self-directed learning as ‘the process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others in diagnosing their learning needs…and evaluating learning outcomes” may seem controversial depending on which age group is applied. Shall we let teenagers take their own initiative and decide on their learning?

In the case of the Cuban medical, dentistry and nursing students, and more recently health technology students, the following question might come up: are they ‘ready’ for conducting their self-directive learning? We believe they are not ready yet to stand an andragogical model in which the burden is on the learner-centered methods and approaches. The andragogical model states that the learners apart from being internally motivated- many of them are- should also bring to their learning situation a wealth of experience that most of them lack of.

Let us now look at the role the human factor plays in this distance learning issue. There are two main crucial parts and they might be seen as the main cast of a play or the key players of a game. These main actors are:  The teachers and the learners. They are the ones that largely determine how successful any distance-learning course might be.

Let us first deal with the teacher issue first because of his or her role in providing the input and the planning of the distance learning course and because the fact of achieving the teacher support and motivation in this venture is certainly not an easy issue.

The teachers in the language teaching profession usually have come with their own agendas. Most of the present teachers in the foreign language field were trained through different methods and approaches, which good or bad were all through face-to-face lessons, with the direct guidance or monitoring of the teachers. Even those who had the chance to work in language laboratories were somehow directly monitored and controlled by the teacher.

It is logically assumed that many foreign language teachers have their needs and intellectual biases, and they are as well now coping with modern ICT and Internet just at the same time or maybe rather behind than their own language students. While some of these teachers are eager to enhance their skills, a significant amount of them are somehow reluctant to change anything at all. They are still worried about issues of ethics, lose-face and management in the use of multimedia technology in their classroom.

To solve the abovementioned situation, the teachers, as one of the main characters in this play, must be given time to reflect, be instructed to work with the computer and become self-motivated. They need time to see the computer as a helping tool and not the ‘enemy’ equipment. They need time to familiarize with the multimedia and Internet. So, having the teachers ‘log on’ at least 3-4 times weekly and learn the basic IT skills, and getting some experience of email and the Internet is vital. Of course, they should not be let alone in this task. It is key those PC experts and nerds provide the necessary input and encouragement.

The teachers might feel threatened by shifting their role in the school as they will be acting more as facilitators, feedback providers, and resource providers (what might terrify most teachers is giving advise on issues they do not feel competent such as an answer to an on-line issue which might derive from a ‘technical’ problem). Even in the case of the English as foreign language learning, tough they might be providing some EFL instruction and the Website might be suitable for EFL learning, and the language of instruction is English, but no one doubts that participants might also use their own language (L1) in group discussions, and probably use their target language (L2) when performing the distance-learning courses tasks.

To be fully successful, all the course activities, tutor support, peer interaction and assessment should take place on-line. The use of multimedia for distance learning courses is the greatest medium teachers and learners have nowadays.

At present the learners, the other main character of the play or key player in this ‘game’, might routinely log on at least 2-3 times per week according to his or her own interest, their PCs availability, the internet access and the assignments provided; the learners are expected to participate fully in all required collaborative work and meet the deadlines in the course study guide.

To achieve the abovementioned tasks the learners (and the teacher) should be self-motivated and also be interested in the use of the new technologies to support learning and most important have basic IT skills, and some experience of email and the Internet providing they have access to working technology for the whole course (in the Cuban case, problems such as power cuts and blackouts might jeopardize this joint effort). The teachers’ and learners’ motivation usually increase their involvement in the learning process and direct them towards independent learning.

In brief, a possible scenario might be a rough attempt of the authors working on a “distance-learning course” for healthcare students and personnel. This course   is generally conducted according to a mutual agreement led by the tutor with little input of the learners. Although there are no "live" classes to attend, there are many ‘remedial’ and tutorial lessons scheduled. Instead, the on-line lectures, coursework, and discussions will all take place at the learner’s convenience.

The learners will choose their learning site (very few will select home due to the limited access to INFOMED) at a higher education institution – where they will likely have access to a computer, modem, and an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or just the services offered by INFOMED. They will surely get a good-quality instruction and the course content that is in the curriculum –with instructions half in Spanish and the other half in English, not facing the day-to-day obstacles that prevent other healthcare students from pursuing other goals in their continuing education. With the on-line distance-learning course, commuting to the university campus was in its path to history.

The distance-learning courses for foreign language learning are probably more effective at the intermediate or higher levels as learners are more conscious of their needs and interests while the lower level learners would be more induced to develop skills in repetition, intensive listening and speaking practice which are essential for them, and where the learners are mostly dependent on the language models provided for them

Among the distance learning courses features we might find that:

  • Better results are achieved if they are virtually taught, managed and maintained by a team teaching.
  • Proper advice must be provided to prospective learners who wish to enroll on the on-line courses or training programs.
  • It provides room to explore ways to help learners with little previous knowledge or skills with on-line learning programs complemented with some teacher’s input.

On-line distance learning should not be seen as a technical discipline. Teachers should concentrate on developing the communication, pedagogic and information handling capabilities that all on-line tutors need, and the best way to do it is through collaborative activity.

Developing a distance-learning course means to work with multimedia, with equipment, it does not mean treating people as machines. This is an issue that sometimes is forgotten when devising a distance-learning course. The distance-learning course learners are individuals and should be treated as such.  If this principle is important in face-to face foreign language teaching, when working on-line distance learning is much more important as it needs not only the coaching on the language skills but also on the PC management, providing a timely, clear and supportive tutorial feedback. Opportunities for live chats with the facilitator and team chats during collaborative projects or peer feedback conferences enhances and reinforces this individual treatment.  All projects will be exchanged by e-mail, and the teacher should provide suggestions, feedback and comments by replying the e-mails. These are personal issues that on-line distance learning courses sometimes lack of.

Learners progress should be assessed or monitored permanently by reading their web-based responses when completing individual activities or taking part in collaborative activities as most of the on-line distance learning course activities should comprise of two main types. Some activities will be for individual performance and the rest should involve some collaborative work. The teacher might arrange that each unit should take around 3-4 weeks to be completed.

All timetables and deadlines are outlined in the study guide which is sent to all learners taking part in the distance learning course at he beginning of the course – and they are all expected to meet the deadlines, and in case of failing to meet deadlines, this could mean that learners will not achieve a positive record or marking but they should be encourage to excel in other tasks.

When the course starts, the learners might also be provided with a portfolio template, which includes cross-referencing activities to the assessment criteria. As they complete the activities satisfactorily they paste them into the appropriate place in this portfolio. This means that on completion of the course they will have built a comprehensive portfolio, which will be ready to go through the assessment process.

The authors have tried to briefly outline the main issues in the implementation of a distance-learning course based on previous experience and literature review. Now, if we were to provide a preliminary conclusion of any multimedia distance-learning course, we might summarize the following:

Distance learning by itself is not the answer but it constitutes and immense support to learning, or as Harmer, J (2002) expresses when referring to self-access center “ A useful adjunct to classroom learning - or indeed and alternative to it “. There are issues such as time management that is really important in this issue and has become one of the main excuses for low enrollment in postgraduate and continuing education. The knowledge and skills in the use of computers needed to perform  are vital if we would like to achive some results.

It is the authors´ belief that sooner than later EMP teachers wil not have to worry much  on the content-based instruction as there will also be an  e-medic, e-dentistry, or e-nursing modules playing their role in society and multimedia playing its expected role in distance-learning courses   to have a major impact on most fields, especially in foreign language learning.

And if the teachers are not  well trained (and trained first) for coping with the e-learning issues and the proper use of computers, the teachers themselves will become the barriers to progress in  any scheduled  distance learning  module.


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