E-learning is naturally suited to distant learning and its main philosophy is to be accessible from any place a student has the access to the network, to facilitate communication between students, to enable their communication, cooperation and to allow sharing materials and resources. This philosophy has a direct influence on the technological demands, especially on computer networking. A computer network consists of multiple interconnected computers communicating over a medium such as a
wire or wireless. There is a wide range of different types of networks, but the most important ones, from E-learning point of view, is the Internet. The Internet is a network of vast worldwide dimension. According to the server Internet Word Stats 1.2 billion users were connected all over the world to the Internet on September 30th, 2007. “The Internet is a confederation of thousands of computers from various sectors of society such as education, business, government and the military. Each individual system brings something different to the whole (databases, library services, graphs, maps, electronic journals, etc), and the end result is a vast accumulation of information” (Singhal, 1997).
Thanks to this wide extent of the network the Internet became the largest source of data including various learning materials such as texts, different kinds of media, on-line exercises or other applications designed for language learning.
Learning materials and resources
From the pedagogical point of view, the Internet is a rich source of materials and resources for both students and teachers. These materials differ in their contents. In fact, there are two main groups of materials available on the Internet. Websites containing texts, different kinds of text files such as word documents, PDFs, pictures, and flashcards, which all belong to the group of static content materials, while the other group of so called dynamic materials, whose content is changeable in time, contains, for example, animations, sounds, or videos. All of the mentioned materials can be used for various purposes such as presenting new language structures, making the meaning of unknown language more understandable and easier to remember, using video, sound or text for training comprehension or as a background for a piece of writing student should produce after watching, listening to or reading its contents.
On-line practice and testing
The second function of the Internet in E-learning is on-line practice and testing.
Both practice and testing are in fact the same web based applications arranged into exercises. Unfortunately, because of the web technology which doesn't provide as many programming facilities as other technologies for programming courseware, the web based exercises for practicing or testing, compared to courseware, are still limited not only graphically but mainly functionally. Given this feature, the typical appearance of a
web based exercise is of a very simple design, using typical web tools such as forms, boxes the user can type a text in or choose an option, tick the correct option or options or click on a button. Furthermore, thanks to their construction, these activities are very demanding with respect to accuracy of written answers. Each text field of an activity is strictly linked to unique specific record in a database of answers and any other answer which is not absolutely identical with the record is never accepted. This feature can lead to a low score even though all answers seem to be filled in correctly, which in turn leads to a distortion of testing results, in which case the student has no chance to correct the errors after submitting the test. That's why the websites proposing these exercises are equipped with wider database in which more than one record can be linked to any text field. Although these web-exercises are not graphically and mainly technically as refined as courseware applications they represent a very powerful tool for language practicing and testing. Their main advantage is, thanks to the fact that many exercises are freely available on the Internet, the availability. The Internet offers many different grammar exercises focused on miscellaneous grammar points, specific areas of vocabulary, and developing primarily reading rather than listening skills. As well as courseware, on-line applications provide necessary module for evaluation and providing help. As in case of courseware, the feedback comes immediately after submitting the test for assessment and includes the overall score, while this module also marks the correct and incorrect answers, shows correct answer or gives hints in case the answer is incorrect. Even though from the technical point of view the on-line applications don't belong to the most developed programs, their price and availability makes them one of the most powerful tools for learning a language.
Obtaining software from the Internet
From the E-learning tutor point of view, apart from the materials and on-line practice and testing, the Internet has many other possibilities of use. One of them is definitely the possibility of sharing and transferring data among all the Internet users.
These users include many professional software developers, and even language teachers focusing their activity in the field of Electronic Learning who present their programs, and the results of their work, on the Internet sites. This software is then available for public downloads, so that Teachers can get it and use it in their E-learning classes.
Networking as a means of communication – electronic classroom
The language is a tool people use for communicating between themselves. The networks as well as telephone or fax are means of transporting the language in an electronic way on longer distances. From an English teacher's or learner's point of view, it helps students to share their knowledge or better collaborate between themselves even though they are not present in one room. However, while telephones and fax machines are becoming slightly out of date, networking provides many modern ways of communication than can be also easily integrated into the E-learning lessons. There are in fact, two different approaches to communication available through the networks according to whether they involve a real life communication.
The first communication technology is called “asynchronous communication”.
Compared to synchronous communication the asynchronous communication is not the real time, face-to-face communication. It is based on different posting methods independent on time such as basic web based applications, for example email, clip boards, forums, etc. In a real life, this technology can be compared to faxing. User one sends a message to user two who reads the message at any time after receiving it. The question is, in what way is this kind of communication useful. Although the primary purpose of using a language is to be able to communicate in real life situation the asynchronous means of communication represent a great tool for developing electronic socialization and collaboration between students in the course (electronic classroom) entering the communication at different moments. It is main advantage compared with synchronous means of communication is the availability of all the posts. All the community members can read the posts at any time and take enough time to react and develop further discussion. All the posts remain available as a learning material for a long period of time. The asynchronous communication tools allow students to share their knowledge, to ask colleagues for help or advice, to cooperate in fulfilling collaborative tasks designed especially for collaborative group work. This messaging or conferencing doesn't involve only the communication between students themselves but also a teacher/students interaction which extend the range of possible uses to consulting, giving feedback or setting tasks.
While electronic posting represents a great tool mainly for distant learning, the synchronous communication, while its purpose is the same as the one of asynchronous communication, strictly requires at least two users communicating at the same moment.
That's why this method of communication is more suitable for E-learning lessons taking place in a classroom where the communication is demanded by bigger group of students. Tools such as Web-chats or instant messengers provide a real-time communication in text form, the messengers even in spoken form provided the necessary audio facilities are installed in the student's PC. Rachel Forsyth from Manchester Metropolitan University states: “For many users they will be just a fun way of communicating with other course members; the exchange itself may be fairly trivial.”
The on-line real-time sessions can be established regularly as so called “Virtual Office Hours” in order to answer student's quick questions.
2.6 VIRTUAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENT - INTEGRATION OF ALL