Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri
Efnissíða

HeimasÝ­a VMA Distance Education at Verkmenntaskˇlinn ß Akureyri in Iceland

Distance Education at Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri in Iceland

Country Profile - Iceland

Iceland is an island in the north Atlantic, bordering on the Arctic Circle. The name, indeed, is rather frigid and there are a number of quite huge glaciers scattered about the country, among them the largest one in Europe. At the same time Iceland is a very hot country still being formed by volcanic eruptions that occur quite frequently. Also hot water springs are very numerous almost all over the island, geothermal heat being used a great deal to heat houses, pavements and even streets, and also to generate electricity and warm hothouses where various southern fruit are cultivated.

Iceland was settled between 850 and 950 AD. The nation is of North-European stock heralding mainly from the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles. The language is Icelandic, which is the language formerly spoken in Scandinavia. It has remained to a great extend unchanged from the time of settlement. Great literature in Icelandic was composed in Iceland especially during the 13th and 14th centuries. The ordinary modern Icelander generally still quite easily reads these writings, apart from the lettering as such.

Nowadays Icelanders number about 280,000. They are an independent nation and a thoroughly modern one. Fishing is the main source of national income, but other industries are gaining ground, not the least in the fields of computers and especially computer software. Of Icelandic homes more than 60% are connected to the Internet, this number rising quite fast. The Icelandic education sector is highly computerised with all schools being connected to the Internet and computers being used increasingly in instruction at all educational levels and all over the country.

Status of Distance Education in Iceland

A Bit of History

Distance Education in Iceland does not have a long history. It started in the 20th century with the introduction of correspondence instruction using the postal service. This type of instruction went on for several decades with quite good results. During the final period of its existence, it was operated by the Workers' Unions and the Union of Co-operative Societies. Mingled with this there were experiments undertaken by the State Radio Service in offering courses in e.g. languages over the radio and later through the use of television. Ordinary mail was used both in handing in assignments and sending printed material to the students and by the students in returning their assignments to their tutors..

The experiments carried out by the State Radio Service were soon discontinued, and enrolment into the correspondence courses dwindled greatly during the 80's. The correspondence institution was finally sold to a private individual who still offers courses mainly in the traditional manner, but in a great deal fewer fields of study than had been offered previously.

The Present

Various small and large correspondence courses are still offered in Iceland, mainly by workers' unions. These in most instances are short ones dealing with various aspects of the workplace. Often the courses include face-to-face meetings of the students and instructors, the correspondence part being a follow-up to the instruction given locally. These short courses have been very popular. They have in many cases been linked with status and pay rises, which has given a great incentive to attendance.

The great shift in distance education in Iceland occurred in connection with the advent of computer technology and the creation of the first computer net in Iceland. A leading figure in the creation of the net was a visionary named Pétur Þorsteinsson, the headmaster of a primary school in a small sea-side village in the north of Iceland, named Kópasker. He started work on his net about the middle of the 80's and in a few years managed to connect all primary schools and also most colleges to his school net, which he named Íslenska menntanetið (the Icelandic Education Net). In his work he laid the foundations for all those who later started using the computer net in communication and instruction in Iceland.

During the 90's there was a great awakening in Iceland in the use of computers for instruction at a distance. At first the experiments were frequently linked with traditional correspondence methods. Thus a very note-worthy project in the training of working teachers, was started in 1993 by the Teacher Training School of Iceland, situated in the country's capital, Reykjavík. The project included face to face meetings of instructors and students each semester, while the internet and the postal service were used in communications between tutors and students. This project, which turned out to be very successful, has been developed greatly. At present face-to-face meetings are still included, but computer communications are used almost exclusively, along with the World Wide Web and computerised teaching environments, such as WebCT.

In 1994 a project was started at Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri (the Comprehensive College in Akureyri - VMA) in northern Iceland. In this project, which is the one that will be discussed in more detail in the main body of this paper, was - and is - based on computer communications only and can perhaps be considered the most progressive one in the country.

Icelanders, though being a nation quite open to new techniques, were rather late in making use of video conferencing in education. Not till about the middle of the 90's were there any real instances of the use of this technique in instruction in the country. Since then a great deal of work has been done in this field both by private institutions and organisations and by official bodies such as schools, colleges and universities. Nowadays many educational institutions, even down to the primary school level, are connected through video conferencing equipment.

The main emphasis in video conferencing in instruction has been at the university level with Háskólinn á Akureyri (the University of Akureyri) virtually leading the way. This university, besides being connected to universities within Iceland and abroad, now has outstations or study centres in various places all over the country. Other educational institutions at the university level have followed suit. Hence, there is now a lot of activity in this area with various institutions of higher education offering an ever increasing number of courses in various fields, making use of video conferencing and computer communications.

Also colleges have increasingly made use of video conferencing and computer communications in their endeavours to serve their communities. Thus there is quite a lot of activity in the eastern part of Iceland where three colleges co-operate in bringing instruction to localities in their areas. Also there is a project run by the College of North-Western Iceland through which educational services are brought to various localities in the western part of Northern Iceland. Then the College of Southern Iceland and a college in south-western Iceland are operating projects having the same aim, and finally two colleges in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland are running projects in distance education. Also should be mentioned a project started by the Icelandic Ministry of Education involving a number of schools at the primary and college levels, which have been given the status of leadership in the area of Information Technology. This project has been in operation for only a few years, but already quite positive outcomes are clearly visible.

From the above, though not complete, it is apparent that there is a great deal of activity in Iceland in the area of distance education using modern media and technology. From the work already done and the great interest shown by the general public evident in ever higher numbers in enrolment into the various courses offered, it is clear that the means of instruction and study now available because of advances in electronics, have been adopted with enthusiasm. This applies both to teachers and prospective students. It even seems as if the general public have been breathlessly waiting to slake their thirst for education and skills and are now rushing to make use of the opportunities technology has opened up to them. Teachers, in the same vein, have been eager in applying new means and processes in their work, making ever more use of computers and the World Wide Web in its various aspects in their teaching.

Thus the Icelandic educational system is not in any sense at a standstill. Quite the contrary, it is very much in the process of development with numerous individuals and institutions working towards the common goal of bettering and up-dating education in general and making it as far as possible accessible to the general public.


The Distance Education Department of Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri (VMA)

History

The Distance Education run by Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri (VMA) in Northern Iceland was begun in 1994. It sprang from an idea conceived in late 1993 by Mr. Haukur Agustsson, the author of this article, that computers and computer communication ought to be applicable to bringing instruction to people, who did not have direct access to traditional schooling. At this time the computer network mentioned earlier (Íslenska menntanetið) had grown to quite some proportions and was still virtually the only provider of computer connections in the country. Also, at this time there were no user-friendly postal programs, such as Eudora or Outlook, and of course the World Wide Web had not yet made its public appearance.

The idea was first discussed with the computer technician at VMA, Mr. Adam Óskarsson. He was immediately fascinated by the concept. It was then explained briefly to the headmaster of the college, Mr. Bernharð Haraldsson. He, too, at once found the idea interesting and worth trying and gave his permission that a trial run should be made in the spring semester of 1994.

Thus was started what is now the Distance Education Department of VMA. From its rather small beginnings with only one teacher, a technician and seventeen students taking two courses in English, the Distance Education Department of VMA has been steadily growing in all directions. This will be dealt with a bit more fully under the heading of Development.

Mandate

The Distance Education Department of VMA does not really have a mandate given by the educational authorities of Iceland. From its beginning it has operated under its own mandate formulated by the pioneers of the department in co-operation with the headmaster of VMA, Mr. Berharð Haraldsson. This mandate states that it is the task of the Distance Education Department of the college (VMA) to bring instruction in college subjects and at the college level to anyone, who cares to avail him/herself of its services, and who has the prerequisites, both technical and educational, necessary to do so. Also it is mandatory that the instruction given shall be at a level at least equal in both scope and quality to that given in the daytime classes of the college.

To give a more detailed outline of the regulatory statements controlling work within the Distance Education Department of VMA, the six main paragraphs are given below. These have been adhered to from the very beginning of work and seem to have proved their worth:

  1. All communications are as far as possible to be through computer connections only.
  2. The students' individual circumstances are to be as little disturbed as possible during their periods of study.
  3. Demands in technical ability and computer accessibility made upon the students are never to exceed what is considered to be within the reach of the general computer user.
  4. The subject matter in individual courses offered by the Distance Education Department of VMA is to be the same as in reciprocal courses offered in the daytime classes.
  5. The sending and handing in of assignments is to be regulated through given periods of time in order to assure that studies within the Distance Education Department of VMA fall within the semester as it is in the daytime classes
  6. Criteria in evaluation and testing of knowledge, proficiency and skill are to follow the same criteria as in the daytime school

Development

As the experiment, made in the spring semester of 1994, was really a personal one, embarked upon to find out whether the basic idea was in any way feasible, the two that undertook it demanded no pay for their work during this first semester, and, indeed, did not receive any. The subjects taught, as previously mentioned, were two courses in English and the students were only 17 in number. However the experiment turned out to be successful, so it was decided to carry on in the autumn semester of 1994, during which several subjects and more teachers were added.

Since this quite humble beginning the Distance Education Department of VMA has grown by leaps and bounds. During the present semester (spring 2001) more than 160 courses are offered in more than 60 subjects and the teaching body numbers between 90 and 100 teachers. The number of students studying has also risen quite dramatically. Now these number between 550 and 560, and indeed there could be more. Unfortunately the financial circumstances governing the number of students that can be admitted, are rather hampering to growth. Because of these, every semester during the last four to five years, between 100 and 200 applicants have not been able to gain admittance to the Distance Education Department of VMA.

Apart from the problems caused by the rather narrow financial circumstances mentioned above, there have been no great problems in the day-to-day running of the Distance Education Department of VMA. The lines of administration and running originally adopted at the outset have been for far the most part been adhered to and proved themselves valid. Technical aspects have caused no great problems, either. In fact, and, indeed, understandably, advances in computer communication technology and overall computer useabilty have eradicated various aspects that were bothersome. Admittedly, though, there remain some minor difficulties, especially in the use of attachments, as the VMA uses PC's only, and a few students have been equipped with Machintosh computers. Fortunately, these have in most instances been easily solved. Then small problems have occasionally arisen in the settings of individual computers and servers making receiving and sending problematic, but also these difficulties have been overcome in almost all cases.

Achievements

It seems safe to say that the achievements of the Distance Education Department of VMA have been quite note-worthy. In a comparatively short time a rather large, at least by Icelandic standards, operation has been put into a fully working shape. This operation, as formerly stated, has grown steadily in popularity. This is in spite of not much advertising or PR work being done. These have been minimised as far as possible, since, as appears from what has been said previously, only a limited number of students can be admitted each semester. In view of this, it seems likely that the increase in the number of applicants each semester, must to quite some extent be due to people having learned about the existence of the Distance Education Department of VMA from students having made or making use of it. These, apparently, have been quite positive in their judgement of the department's service.

Contrary to what rather frequently has been the case in distance education and learning, the courses taken within the Distance Education Department of VMA have in all instances been fully acknowledged by other colleges in Iceland. This has been proved numerous times and is not the least apparent from the fact that many colleges in Iceland make use of the offerings of the Distance Education Department of VMA. These colleges enrol their students for study in individual courses not available locally, thus in fact increasing the choice of courses open to their students. Also, already, many students have passed their final college examinations within the Distance Education Department of VMA and have been freely admitted into higher institutions of learning, such as universities, both in Iceland and abroad.

Finally, among the achievements of the Distance Education Department of the VMA, must be mentioned the most important one in the view of those running it. This is the opportunity opened by the department to Icelanders, living in remote places within the country and abroad, to gain access to education within the Icelandic educational system. Achieving this was the main reason for embarking on the operation of the Distance Education Program of VMA and remains the chief emphasis and basic idea in its work.

Operational Aspects

The Background

At the outset in the running of the Distance Education Department of VMA, only one computer in the college was connected to the internet. Fortunately this soon got better, so that the teacher in question (the author of this paper) could stop carrying diskettes between the computer he worked on and the one he sent and received through. Still, during the first semesters no user-friendly programs existed for e-mail, and no possibilities for sending attachments. The database used for the keeping of documents was a Gopher, and the e-mail program utilised was called Kermit. Pretty, though, soon in the development of the Distance Education Program, the e-mail program Eudora appeared and was almost immediately put to use. Then the possibility for sending attachments became available and a few years later the World Wide Web.

Throughout the existence of the Distance Education Department of VMA, the administrators of the program have watched closely all developments in computer communication technology. Each time they have evaluated new possibilities and then utilised them, when they have judged them in the first place practical and likely to enhance teaching and student work, and in the second place accessible to the general computer-using public. Therefore extensive and increasing use is now made of the World Wide Web for the posting of instructional documents, extra reading matter, interactive exercises and other course material. In some instances it is even the case that all material pertaining to a course, except printed and copyrighted matterial, appears on the Web. Besides this experiments are being conducted in the use of WebCT.

Still e-mail remains the main means of communication between teacher and student. This format has shown itself to be a stable one for interaction through computers, and, in by far the most cases and in spite of its limitations, a very good and sufficiently versatile tool for sending assignments and receiving student work. In quite a number of courses e-mail is used exclusively as teachers in those courses have come to the conclusion that this type of communication serves them best in their teaching and interaction with their students.

Some Points on the Teachers' Work

A teacher, starting work within the Distance Education Department of VMA, is given a short course in the basics of the methodology of the program. This usually consists of a few meetings with the administrator of the department in which the fundamental theory behind the workings of distance instruction as practised within the department is outlined, and pointers given about the work at hand.

The basics pertaining to the start of a course are simple ones and easily accomplished by any teacher that thoroughly knows the subject matter of the course he or she will be teaching. As a matter of fact it is a prerequisite for any teacher applying for work within the Distance Education Department of VMA that he or she is fully versed in his or her subject and has taught the course in question for several semesters in daytime classes.

The first thing a teacher does is to divide the subject matter covered in the course to be taught into packets, usually twelve or thirteen in number and of equal strength. The semester in Icelandic colleges is fourteen weeks, so the packets of instructions and assignments are to be at least one fewer than the weeks of teaching. The division of the course material constitutes the basis for the teaching plan, which is to be a part of the first packet sent to the students at the start of teaching.

Next the teacher is to write the first two to three letters of instruction and also the same number of assignment documents and other papers to be sent in the first two or three packets. The teacher is advised not to prepare any more teaching documents beforehand. This is because mistakes and oversights can appear in the first packets from which it is advisable to learn in the writing of the ensuing ones.

All courses taught have a listserv comprising all the e-mail addresses of the students taking the course in question, the e-mail address of the teacher and also the e-mail address of the administrator of the Distance Education Department. It is mandatory that the teachers contact their students through the computer in some way once every week of the semester using the listserv e-mail address. This is always to be on the same weekday. The teacher is to choose this weekday in the first week of teaching, and then stick to it throughout the semester. This applies in all courses; even those that have been put on the Web in e.g. the WebCT format. Thus a framework is created in the students' work, as they are to be able to depend on getting post from their teachers on the chosen weekday throughout the semester.

Another rule is that the teacher is to correct, annotate and mark a student's assignment and send it back to the student within twenty-four hours from the time the student sent his work to his or her teacher. This rule is adhered to as far as possible, but admittedly with some flexibility, since most of the teachers working within the Distance Education Department also teach in day-time classes. Therefore their work there can in some instances interfere with their work in the distance education. In cases, where teachers foresee delays of more than a day or two in handing back their students' work, they are supposed to send a note to them informing them of the circumstances. The reasons for these rules are that it is considered very important pedagogically that the student gets his or her corrected assignment back as quickly as possible. The aim is to create the feeling with the student that the teacher is ever present and interested in his/her progress, and also to enable the student as soon asd possible to learn from the teacher's work and hopefully eradicate mistakes and misunderstandings.

Further reasons for the emphasis on prompt return of a student's work are to be found in the view held on the teacher's work within the Distance Education Department of VMA. In the main it is considered to fall into two parts. The first part is the weekly sending of detailed instructions and assignments to the students, while the second one is the work done on the paper handed in by the student. Of the two, the latter is deemed to be the more important and indeed the most significant part of the teacher's work. In this part he or she is not only to correct mistakes, but also to explain them, indicate means to correct them and point out additional material, as need be, so that the student can improve his knowledge, skill and confidence in him- of herself and his or her ability.

The final and concluding part of the teacher's work is assessing his or her students' work during the semester. There are two main courses to choose from in this. One is the evaluation of individual assignments, giving each a percentage, which can be variable between assignments, and then calculating the final mark at the end of the semester. If this approach is the one chosen, the teacher must mark each assignment and send the marks to the student each time he or she sends back a student's work. Also, the various percentages allotted to individual assignment must be revealed in the initial teaching plan.

The other method of evaluation is through a final examination at the end of the semester. In this instance the final examination can be a 100% one, but more commonly it carries a lower percentage, while some parts of the student's work, identified in the teaching plan, make up the difference.

The written examinations are administered in schools and colleges as close to the student's home as possible. The arranging of examination places is not a part of the teachers' work, but falls to the administrator of the Distance Education Department. This aspect will be discussed in somewhat more detail further on in this paper.

In both the instance of ongoing evaluation and the one, where final examinations are used, the same lines of approach and criteria are used within the Distance Education Department as the ones applied in the day-time classes of VMA. This is considered to be of great importance in order to assure as far as possible that evaluation in the distance education courses is on par with the same within the college education stage in Iceland as a whole

On getting the worked examination papers back from the places, where the examination were taken, the teachers mark them and work out the final grades. When these have been given in each individual case, the teacher is to write an e-mail note to the student in question. In this letter he is to inform the student about the grade accomplished and also discuss as need be the main aspects of the student's work in the examination, thus explaining as need be how the final grade was reached. Finally in this part of his work the teacher is to hand in the marks given for registration into the college's student registry.

Stipulations on the Students

In most cases the weekly packages contain study instructions and assignments, the exceptions being, if the students are working on e.g. an essay, which is thought to need extra time. If such is the case, the teacher sends his weekly letter to the student to remind him or her of the work to be done, restating the deadline for the handing in of work and reiterating some instructions pertaining to the work in progress.

Ordinarily, however, the student is supposed to hand in his work within a week from the date on which the assignment in question was sent. Still, in most cases extra time is given, usually an additional week, as an ultimate limit. This is to account for unforeseeable things that can of course befall the student such as sickness, unavoidable absence and so on. If however the student overrides this outside limit, the teacher is at liberty to consider that the student has decided to drop out of the course in question. If, however, the student contacts his or her teacher or the administrator of the Distance Education Department giving an acceptable explanation for the delay, he or she is not removed from the counrse.

Indeed, a student never is struck off the student register, unless he or she has been contacted in order to find out, if, indeed, he or she has resolved to abandon his or her studies. The aim of the rules governing the handing in of work is not to get rid of students. Quite the contrary, they are intended to try to keep students working on their studies, and to motivate them as far as possible to finish what they in fact began by enrolling for studies within the Distance Education Department of VMA. Also, since, as mentioned earlier, the period of teaching and learning within the Distance Education Department of VMA, is the semester, the time limits applying to teachers and students alike serve to ensure that this objective is accomplished. Experience has shown that the discipline enforced by the time limits described has a positive effect on the students and gives the great majority of them the impetus necessary to keep diligently at their studies thus accomplishing the goal they initially set themselves.

The final demand mentioned here made on the students is that they adhere closely to whatever instructions the teachers give them on how to do their work. This applies to the way they identify themselves in their documents, how they work their assignments, the format they use in sending them to the teacher and so on. This is considered very important since it to a great extend ensures that both the student and the teacher do their work within an environment easily recognised and navigated, which eases their workload and hopefully makes for better results in the students' studies.

Admission Criteria

The period for general enrolment for studies within the Distance Education Department of VMA usually is two consecutive days early in the week immediately preceding the first week of teaching. Generally speaking the admission criteria of the Distance Education Department of VMA is the same as that for ordinary daytime classes in Icelandic colleges. Firstly, pupils, usually about 16 years of age, who have attained grades sufficiently high for enrolment into regular college courses, are freely admitted. Secondly, people 18 or more years of age are admitted irrespective of whether they have finished the requisite levels that apply to pupils progressing in a normal fashion in their schooling.

Sometimes young pupils, still attending primary schools, are admitted, though they still are studying on the level below the college stage. This is only done, if the school, at which the pupils are studying, applies on the behalf of the prospective student and certifies that the pupil in question is ahead of his class and is considered to be able to manage studies at he college level.

Students already studying within the Distance Education Department of VMA are given the opportunity to enrol for the coming semester at the end of the one they are finishing. The same applies in most cases to students in daytime college classes, whether at VMA or at other colleges. Other applicants are admitted on the lines discussed above and on a first-come-first-get basis. Still some extra considerations are frequently taken into account. This is done in the case of applicants having special circumstances, such as not being able to attend traditional colleges because of sickness, their being in hospitals or prison, or because they live abroad. The last ones are indeed frequently admitted before the period of general enrolment, as these students in most cases must have ample time to acquire texts and other materials necessary for their studies.

Administration

The sphere of administration falls into several categories. The main ones are treated to some extent below.

  1. The administrator of the Distance Education Program of VMA is responsible for keeping the student registration documents intact and up to date. At the outset of each semester he registers each enrolled student putting down his name and other necessary information such as social registry number, address, e-mail, telephone number and the courses taken by the student. This information is arranged in an Excel database of quite some proportions. In the course of the semester the administrator keeps this database up to date, erases students that drop out, changes registered information, if need be, and adds information about such things as the places for examinations, the names of persons taking charge of them etc. These aspects have to be attended to every day of the semester in one way or another.
  2. The administrator creates and maintains all the listservs used by the Distance Education Department. He gets all mail that is sent by the teachers on the listservs of their courses and arranges it under the names of the individual teachers. The aim of this is twofold. One is that in receiving all that is sent by the teachers on the listservs, the administrator can oversee their work and thus keep track on how teaching in individual courses progresses. The other aim is that since all the mail sent through the listservs is kept by the administrator, he can send any packet of teaching material to students, who for whatever reason have lost or not got the material they should have received. This part of the service rendered by the Distance Education Department is of great importance and must work both fast and smoothly. If it did not, many a student would be detained in his or her studies because of not having received material sent. Since the administrator usually stays at his computer all day long, he is the one who is the most readily accessible to students needing this service.
  3. The administrator undertakes to be a contact person between teachers and students in numerous instances. Students are supposed to contact him, if they are detained in some way in the handing in of their work. In such cases he forwards the information to the teacher in question. Receiving such messages makes the administrator acquainted with individual problems, whether they are personal, such as ill health, or caused by a breakdown in equipment. Also if a student encounters difficulties in getting his worked assignments to the teacher, the problem is quite frequently solved by the administrator, who then undertakes to receive the e-mailed work of the student and forward it to the teacher in question. In cases, when some discord arises between teachers and students, the administrator takes on the role of a mediator. Fortunately disputes have been very rare indeed throughout the time the Distance Education Department of VMA has been run. No student is struck of the distance education's register but by the administrator, and then only after the student's circumstances have examined with the view to, if possible, give him or her further chances to finish the task embarked on. Therefore the administrator contacts every student, who is in the position that he might be dropped from his course, in order to find out, if there are valid reasons for leniency, and if the student would like to have the opportunity to mend his or her ways. Also the administrator acts as a general advisor in matters brought up by the students concerning e.g. the choice of courses to be taken, the order in which to take them, the evaluation of study points gained at other colleges etc. and even at times in some technical matters. Finally the administrator acts as an advisor to the teachers on matter pertaining to methodology and the handling of various problems.
  4. The administrator seeks out and hires all teachers working within the Distance Education Department, most of which are working outside the VMA and some even living abroad. In connection with this part of his tasks the administrator maintains a roster of teachers encompassing various pertinent personal and professional information. He is responsible for gathering and processing information concerning courses taught and units to be paid for. This information is given to the financial supervisor of the college, who in turn works out the salaries of the individual teachers. Also, as mentioned previously, the administrator undertakes to be the contact party between teachers and students. Finally the administrator is responsible for the overall smooth running of the work done within the Distance Education Department. He therefore maintains a listserv comprising the e-mail addresses of all the teachers and another comprising the e-mail addresses of all the students and uses them sends out circular letters of various kinds in the course of the semester to both the staff and the students.
  5. As mentioned earlier the administrator contacts schools and colleges to arrange the written examinations taken at the end of each semester. This is mostly done through the phone. As mentioned previously the information gathered is collected and maintained by the administrator. In furtherance of this the administrator collects originals of examination papers from the teachers. He then oversees the printing of these in the number of copies needed and the posting or faxing of examination material to the various places, where the examinations are to be taken. The worked examination papers are sent back to the administrator, and he undertakes to hand them on to the individual teachers fofr grading.
  6. Finally at the end of the semester the administrator writes a report on the past semester based on the overall running of the Distance Education Department and information acquired from a questionnaire sent every semester to the students.

Understandably, the above is not a full account of the tasks of the administrator of the Distance Education Department of VMA. At present these are all done by one individual, the author of this paper. Admittedly they frequently entail rather long hours, but the organisation of the Distance Education Department of VMA is not a very complex one and most of the time it runs very smoothly indeed.

Financial aspects

As mentioned earlier, the financial circumstances of the Distance Education Program of VMA are a deciding factor in its operation. The educational authorities in Iceland pay for two thirds of the cost in running the program, but the fees collected from the students are to cover the remaining one third. The money allotted by the educational authorities in fact governs the number of students that can be admitted each semester.

The Distance Education Department of the VMA is operated on the premises of the college, so the cost of housing is a very small factor in the running cost of the program. Also, no special equipment has been acquired solely for use in the Distance Education Department. In this area, therefore, no extra cost has entailed from the distance education program run by the college.

The administrator of the Distance Education Department of VMA is considered to be one of the administrative staff of the college. He does not at present have any other tasks allotted to him but the administration of the Distance Education Department. His salaries are, of course, a part of the running cost of the department.

As the Distance Education Department of VMA is in reality an integral part of the college as a whole, the office staff of the college serves the department as far as needed. This involves among other minor things, telephone service, the initial registration of applicants, the photo copying of examination papers and the posting of these. Hence a low percentage of the total office cost of the college is accounted to the Distance Education Department.

Teachers' salaries are by far the ruling factor in the economics of the Distance Education Department of VMA. These are calculated on different bases as a course progresses in its development. As previously mentioned, the teachers are to write instructional documents and assignments in their courses. These in all instances are based on ordinary textbooks also used in the daytime classes at the college stage in Iceland. Still, this involves quite a lot of work, though less than in writing course material from scratch. Hence teachers are paid on the basis of different sizes of student groups during the development stages in the adaptation of teaching material to the media used. These groups are six students during the first and initial stage, eight students during the following stage, which is considered to be the polishing one, and then on the basis of ten students to a group giving full payment for teaching the course in question. Payments at each stage are worked out proportionally. This makes it possible to teach a course to very few students - even down to one student to a course, which occasionally is necessary, especially when an individual student has only the one course left to be able to graduate.

Methods used in teaching within the Distance Education Department of VMA are in constant development. It is foreseeable that as this process continues, it will become possible to increase the number of students in a group giving full payment. This stage has in fact been reached in a few instances. The increase in student number will be economically beneficent in the running of the Distance Education Department. It is in truth the only way to diminish the cost per student open to the department, unless its mandate and the general concepts on which the Distance Education Department is based be changed drastically.

In Conclusion

It seems apparent that the methods used by the Distance Education Department of the VMA have proved themselves to be eminently useable in serving those, who are not able to make use of traditional schooling because of personal circumstances that hinder them in attending classes at preordained places or times. The Distance Education Department of VMA aims its services at just this section of the population.

In reality the underlying idea of work within the department is the same as the one governing the pioneering correspondence schools of old. The idea was - and is - to bring education into the students' homes and to make their studies as free from a set place and the restrictions of schedules as possible.

Work within the Distance Education Department of VMA follows these guidelines. This very distinctly differentiates the methods used from e.g. those used in teaching through video conferencing. In these students must in almost all cases be at a certain place at a set time to be able to be avail themselves of the teaching. Considered thus, video conferencing teaching is really an extension of the traditional classroom. This, the service offered by the Distance Education Department of VMA, is not.

Admittedly, some limits, not present in the old correspondence schools, have been imposed. These have their reason in pedagogy, and also in facts easily observable by anyone who has contemplated either his or her own or others approach to work. It is in most instances true that people work better and more assiduously when they have a set aim to work towards within a set and not to long a period of time.

Swift computer communications have made it possible to add this factor to the basic methods used by the old correspondence schools. That it has proved its worth is apparent in small dropout rates, which are fully comparable to those in daytime classes, and a high percentage of students passing their examinations. Also, it is clear from responses given by students to questions pertaining to this that almost 100% of them feel that this factor is of great importance in motivating them in their studies.

In conclusion: We like to consider the Distance Education Department of the VMA as a modern and computerised continuation of the pioneering correspondence schools. Indeed, we think of our distance education program as a computerised correspondence school, based on the basic philosophy of education for the masses, which we consider to be no less relevant in the present than it was in the past.

March 2000
Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri
600 Akureyri
Iceland

Haukur Agustsson
Head of the Distance Education Department of VMA

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