What is Learning?
There are numerous definitions of learning, eg:
“Measurable and relatively permanent change in behavior through experience, instruction, or study.” (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/learning.html)
“Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning)
For current purposes learning is defined as the process of transformation from a) not knowing X to knowing X, or b) not being able to do Y to being able to do Y.
Learning is effective when the thing learned is a) retained, and b) transferable beyond the context of learning (eg classroom arithmetic allows the learner to calculate customer’s bills and make change).
At a biological level learning results in a change in the structure of the learner’s brain.
Learning can be formal, ie via an educational course of study, or informal, as a result of life experience. It can be consciously planned (I’m going to enrol on ABC program, or otherwise learn about XYZ), or incidental (eg from casual Web surfing, TV viewing or chatting with friends).
What is e-learning?
e-learning is any form of learning that takes place wholly or partially via digital / electronic media (these days typically via the Internet).
The discipline of e-learning, ie the effective use of (digital) technology to promote learning, requires knowledge of both learning technology and instructional design.
What is Learning Technology?
Learning Technology / Educational Technology refers to the use of technology specifically to facilitate learning. The discipline requires knowledge both of the technologies and how they may be employed to facilitate effective learning.
What is Instructional Design?
Instructional design is the process of creating the conditions in which effective learning may take place. It includes the selection and sequencing of content, and the design of the conditions in which the learning will occur.
Why is e-learning important?
e-learning is important because the nature of society, of the world, is changing ever more rapidly due to the exponential growth in technological capability and availability.
Traditionally, learning took place in a lengthy block at the early stages of one’s life, typically before entering employment, and delivered through sitting in a physical classroom to a pre-determined schedule. Not so long ago a person could graduate from college or high school, enter a profession, and follow a well-defined career path for life. Once work began learning generally occurred infrequently and in small doses, but one’s initial education remained valuable for life.
Nowadays it is impossible to predict the nature of one’s work, even a few years ahead, and what is learned as a freshman is often obsolete before graduation. Hence the need for lifelong learning that is accessed frequently throughout one’s life.
Technology is both the cause in the changing nature of society’s learning requirements and, in the form of e-learning, the means of delivering those requirements.
As few people can afford the luxury of returning to full-time school every time they hit a gap in their knowledge there is enormous demand for affordable (ideally free) learning opportunities that can be accessed at the learner’s convenience in terms of time, place, method and syllabus; ie e-learning.
The Future of e-learning
e-learning is already seemingly ubiquitous, eg with MOOC providers such as Coursera, edX and others offering free learning material across a huge spectrum of topics on demand to anyone with Internet access.
However, it’s likely that most of e-learning’s full potential remains largely untapped. Some key areas ripe for development are:
- Curation of existing content. This concept is not new and has previously been labelled ‘learning objects’ and ‘OERs (Open Educational Resources)’. The Web is vast with quality content on just about any topic / level but a few clicks away, but in many cases instructors continue to re-invent wheels rather than adopt perfectly adequate or superior that already exists. There is huge scope for developing means of discovering and cataloging pre-existing content, and allowing it to be combined with instructor’s unique contribution to provide effective and satisfying learning experiences.
- Personalization. One feature / drawback of traditional learning was that every learner got the same experience, ie attended the same classes at the same time, got the same content delivered in the same way… With e-learning each learner can experience a unique journey through the content according to their particular learning needs / style. Learners can skim/skip bits they know, repeat or receive different presentations of difficult concepts, go into more depth with topics of specific interest, receive customized feedback depending on performance in assessment, engage with like-minded learners (and experts) in topic-specific communities…
- Connecting with peers and those with similar interests. Traditionally the instructor has been the sage on the stage, the sole source of knowledge, but often each learner brings a unique set of knowledge and experience to the process. Through asynchronous and synchronous communication technologies learners can learn from one another, forming networks that can endure long beyond the end of the formal course.