NKI Distance Education in Norway has developed a new online service for distance education. Starting in March 2006, NKI’s students have been able to choose to become learning partners; after a few months of operation, NKI has received many positive testimonials from its enthusiastic students.

Learning partners are online students who help and motivate each other. They are often, but not always, located in the same geographical region. They may communicate online, via the telephone and text messages, or meet in person if they prefer. Without any additional costs, NKI’s online students may search for potential learning partners among NKI’s 7,000 online students. NKI Distance Education and its learning philosophy NKI Distance Education is a non-governmental educational institution based in Norway, operating in both traditional distance education and large-scale integration of technology into distance education. NKI Distance Education offers approximately 230 study programmes and more than 470 courses at secondary and undergraduate level, as well as specialised courses in various fields. Each year, NKI Distance Education has around 16,000 active students, out of a Norwegian population of 4.5 million inhabitants. NKI has formulated a learning philosophy for online students, in which learning community and individual freedom are key:

NKI Distance Education facilitates individual freedom within a learning community in which online students serve as mutual resources without being dependent on each other. We build on adult education principles and seek to foster benefits from both individual freedom and cooperation in our online learning community.

NKI's learning philosophy is based on Professor Morten Flate Paulsen's Theory of Cooperative Freedom. A cornerstone in cooperative learning is that cooperation should be voluntary. Students who want to study alone should be allowed to do so. A survey answered by 2,356 of NKI's online students showed that 45% of NKI’s online students prefer not to cooperate with other students. Therefore, NKI respects their preferences and allows these students to study on their own. However, the Theory of Cooperative Freedom states that cooperation should be attractive, appealing and alluring. It should be offered as an attractive opportunity to those who seek cooperation. The challenge is therefore primarily to help those who are interested in cooperation to find suitable learning partners. For this reason, NKI has developed the Learning Partner tools within its LMS system. In cooperative learning, individual flexibility and freedom are essential. The theory suggests that the facets of flexibility that are of special importance are time, space, pace, medium, access and content. As shown by the red sector in the figure, NKI has made a strategic decision to be especially flexible in time, space and pace. This means that students may study wherever they are. Furthermore, they may start a course any day of the year and follow individual progression plans. Hence, all students are urged to register their individual progression plans in NKI's self-developed LMS system. Learning partners - Norwegian innovation The learning partner service was initiated by NKI’s Director of Development, Morten Flate Paulsen. He has presented NKI’s learning partner services at conferences in several countries and received a lot of positive feedback from colleagues abroad. Developing this service requires resources to prepare and follow up. The reason NKI does this is to provide the distance students with the best possible learning environment. According to Paulsen, NKI developed the new learning partner services because their surveys showed that many students wanted improved opportunities for cooperation. With this new service, NKI expects that student satisfaction will improve and, eventually, it will also contribute to increased enrolment. There is always an important question of privacy, a matter that has been taken into consideration. NKI stresses that it is important to handle privacy issues properly. First of all, the students enter their personal information themselves. Secondly, they decide which student groups may access the information. Finally, they have to confirm that they want learning partners. In addition, the services are available only to NKI students, since they are password protected. Creating a learning community To develop the largest possible learning community, NKI invites all of its students to enter a personal presentation. Each student selects whether his/her presentation is open to all NKI students or only to the students in his/her class. When students make a selection in terms of wanting to become learning partners, NKI’s learning portal automatically shows their postal code to illustrate the geographical region in which they live. The students can invite other students to become their learning partners. Those who are invited may accept or decline the invitation. The value of the learning community increases as more students enter their personal presentations and allow other students to access them. A large portion of students have already allowed all of the students to see their presentations and indicated that they would like to have learning partners. Satisfied online students The latest major evaluation among the online students at NKI showed a very high level of student satisfaction. 82 percent of the students were either very satisfied or satisfied with being an online student. Only two percent were dissatisfied. Similar evaluations from other providers of distance education, such as NKS Fjernundervisning (distance education provider, established in 1914), also show a large degree of satisfaction with the distance education provisions. Student experiences Cooperation accelerates learning, one student claims in an evaluation of the learning partner services. They were introduced in the middle of March 2006, and the first student evaluation was entirely positive. The students stated that they wanted learning partners for discussion of course content and assignments. Several students mentioned the benefits for newcomers, who can learn from more experienced students, and for senior students, who learn from helping junior students. It is a win-win situation with mutual benefits. It has been an enormous help for learning and has increased the course progression, according to one of the first students, who has experience with the learning partner services. Elin Ulven Refsdal has established good relationships with her learning partners in Trondheim, Norway. One of the NKI students, Elin Ulven Refsdal, says that, after a study break, she needed help and motivation to get started again. She happened to read about the new learning partner services, and thought that they were exactly what she needed. She invited three students in her local area to become her learning partners. Two of them accepted the invitation. The three of them have had much contact via e-mail and text messages, and they have also met in person. Their cooperation is a strong motivational factor and, even though they started their studies at different times, they are now progressing simultaneously. Having learning partners is almost like competing in study progress. It is very useful to discuss assignments and difficult concepts with others. Learning partners are more useful than online discussion forums, according to Elin Ulven Refsdal, as the main difference is that, in a discussion forum, there are many people and a lot of topics, while in a learning partnership, the students are dealing with the same topics. Elin Ulven Refsdal is a self-employed businesswoman, studying at home. She chose distance education because it suited her work and daily routines. Her accountancy course will give her additional competence in her business. In addition, she wants to keep the accounts in her company herself. Learning partners have become important resources for Trude Nordbø. She has just finished her final exam in NKI’s economy and management programme. This summer, she continued her business administration studies with the ambition of passing the exam before Christmas. With the help of the learning partnership, she was able to advance. She says that she was stuck when it came to cost and income analysis, and searched NKI’s web pages for help. She found the information about learning partners, and also found some potential candidates, including students who were at the same stage in the course as she was and senior students. These learning partners discussed a great deal via MSN and e-mail. Trude Nordbø enjoys distance education and likes to study alone, but her learning partners have added a new dimension to her studies. In some courses, this has been of enormous help both for her understanding of the topics and for her progression. She is so excited about it that she recommends additional services: graduate students could continue as learning partners for new students, which would also offer them an excellent opportunity to maintain their knowledge. For more information, please contact: Professor Morten Flate Paulsen, Director of Development, at: http://home.nettskolen.com/~morten A comprehensive case study of NKI Distance Education can be accessed via the homepage of the book entitled Online Education and Learning Management Systems, at: www.studymentor.com.

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