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From home, by computer

Research investigates distance learning to confirm results and disseminate its use

RAFAEL JACINTO / VALORComputers at school: distance learning should not replace the conventional activityRAFAEL JACINTO / VALOR

Distance learning (DL) is a teaching methodology that has spread in Brazil since the 30’s, and its effectiveness has been confirmed as the years have gone by, all over the world. In the Brazilian educational system, this system was put into effect after successful experiments, such as the creation of the Basic Education Movement, which had the objective of starting the reading and writing process for youngsters and adults in the northern and northeastern regions, by means of “radiophonic schools”. The advance of technology, in particular in the communication sector, and the appearance of highly interactive systems made possible the improvement of the techniques of distance learning and the appearance of other systems.

The most polemical of them, perhaps for also being the most daring, is Computer Mediated Distance Learning (CMDL). This system is now very widespread in the United States, but in Brazil it is just at the initial stage in some universities, and still causes much discussion in academic circles. To investigate the CMDL technology and its proposal in the ambit of professional education, to develop and perfect its techniques, to consolidate experiments that worked out well and to confirm its effectiveness, Maurício Prates de Campos Filho drew up the project Research into the Computer-Mediated Distance Learning Methodology and Its Application to the Needs of Professional Training in the State of São Paulo, which enjoyed support from FAPESP.

Prates is an aeronautical engineer and a professor at the Integrated Faculties of São Paulo (Fisp). Since April last year, he has been coordinating ten teachers, who are receiving training to give distance lessons, to then develop new teaching programs. The research is being carried out in a partnership between the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas (PUCCamp) and the Paula Souza Center of Studies (CEETEPS). The first stage should be concluded in April 2003, and the second, which starts in May of that year, is forecast to be concluded in 2007. FAPESP financed part of the project – budgeted at R$ 60,200 – giving technical development grants for the students. “The first stage is practically concluded now”, says Prates. “The teachers from CEETEPS who were trained will act as multipliers of the system”, the researcher explains.

The CMDL methodology (now registered with the National Institute of Industrial Property, of the Ministry of Development, and in the National Library) is made up of a set of constructivist pedagogical methods with educational interaction at a distance, mediated and supported by computers. “The fundamental concept of this methodology is the Learning Unit (LU), a basis for the distant pupil to ‘learn to learn’ and to ‘learn to do’, instead of that purely cognitive approach which dominates the conventional processes of in teaching those present”, the professor explains. “The first official use of this system in Brazil will be carried out by the Paula Souza Center, when we finish the research”.

The polemics that the CMDL methodology still causes is due, to a great extent, to the criticism it makes of the conventional educational system. This new method sets out to discuss pedagogical efficiency in the system that is based on the exclusive use of the classroom, in a synchronized manner, requiring the simultaneous and physical presences of a student instructor. CMDL is based on asynchronous learning conditions, which can be partially combined with the conventional system. The student is the manager of his learning, and chooses the times and surroundings most suitable for studying. “But Brazilian academic circles show inordinate stuffiness when it comes to distance education”, he says. “In the United States, over a thousand postgraduate MBA, master’s and doctor’s degree courses are now offered at a distance or for semi-present students”.

In spite of this, the defenders of distance learning stress that this methodology should not – and cannot – be seen as a substitute for conventional education with pupils present, because they are two different modalities of one and the same process. DL shows as a differential the physical and temporal separation between the processes of teaching, and the challenge for the educators is to combine the action of one and the other methodology.

CMDL has yet another characteristic, which is the possibility of availing itself of modern technologies that allow several combinations of pedagogical tools. According to Prates, there are no disadvantages in its application. This system can even make a contribution towards making cooperative academic networks feasible, which can group together in one and the same course pupils and teaching staff who are geographically distant. “Our intention is to open up this methodology for use by CEETEPS, to develop it and to adapt it to technical schooling.”

In a good part of the world, in particular in the developed countries, there is growing adoption of the CMDL methodology. The biggest on-line university on the planet is American. The Electronic University Network comes from California and was founded over 15 years ago. Its some 300 courses have already qualified over 25,000 pupils. In Brazil, before this project was drawn up, specialized teachers have trained about a hundred other teachers at various points of the state of São Paulo. For this reason, there are now some university courses available with CMDL methodology.

Information technology
PUCCamp offers an option in this methodology in the disciplines of a master’s degree in information technology, aimed at the management area of information systems. The system was formally implemented in this course in 1998, and from then onwards the university has registered an increase in demand. This master’s course currently serves more than 150 pupils who live in different states of Brazil, and they have to show up n person at the university only three times in the school semester.

After the success achieved by PUCCamp, the Catholic University of Brasilia (UCB) implanted the system in its master’s course in Management of Information Technologies. At the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), there is now a postgraduate program with master’s and doctor’s degrees in Production Engineering that involves a statewide network of another eight universities, official and private. The Center for Information Technology in Health at the Federal University of São Paulo offers over the Internet educational programs in Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering.

The research that is being coordinated by Prates has as its main interest the implementation of this technology only in technical schooling in the state of São Paulo. “To start with, we have no nationwide ambitions”, he says. In spite of still being in the first stage of the study, the researcher says that it has already been possible to draw the first – and perhaps most important – conclusion from his analysis. “The CMDL methodology will make it possible for access to technical courses to be made more democratic”.

The project
Research into Computer-Mediated Distance Learning and Its Application to the Needs of Professional Training in the State of São Paulo (nº 00/11567-1); Modality Thematic project; Coordinator Maurício Prates de Campos Filho – Integrated Faculties of São Paulo (Fisp); Investment US$ 5,000