e-learning: The Threat and the Promise

e-learning refers to any learning process that partly or wholly uses computer technology for delivery and or support.

The concept of e-learning is not new. Psychology professor Sidney Pressey developed a mechanical teaching machine in the early 1920s. Numerous computer-based training (CBT) applications were developed in the 1980s to exploit the evolution of the personal computer. However, the proliferation of the Internet has fuelled the growth in both volume and scope of what is now known as e-learning.

Applications

There are 2 main applications for e-learning:

  • Distance Education – Distance education has been around a long time, eg The Boston Gazette carried an ad in 1728 for a correspondence course in shorthand. Being able to deliver learning materials online has benefits over shipping bulky packages around the globe. Tutorial support can be given via communal discussion forums and/or private e-mail.
  • Corporate Training – Traditionally as engineers and salespeople needed to be informed of new products they would be herded into training rooms. Shifting this instruction on screen allows staff to be trained at their, and the company’s, convenience, avoiding the need for trainers to repeatedly delver identical courses.

In addition, academic institutions are increasingly using e-learning to supplement face-to-face instruction (so-called blended learning) by way of an institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard. In many cases these serve as repositories of lecture notes and electronic notice boards.

Rationale

Educators adopt e-learning for a number of reasons:

  • Economic – Although upfront preparation costs can exceed those for on-campus education, once materials are created and delivery and support platforms are in place the running costs for e-learning can be significantly cheaper than for traditional instruction. By posting study materials online, instructors benefit from reduced learner contact time. By eliminating printing and shipping costs e-learning can be delivered cheaper than paper-based distance education.
  • Market reach – In addition to cutting costs, e-learning permits increased student numbers. Learners benefit from the flexibility of being able to study where and when they want. e-learning permits education providers to keep up with the ever-increasing knowledge and skill demands of the information age.
  • Improved quality – Some educators recognize and exploit the potential of e-learning to offer a better learning experience than more traditional methods of instruction.

e-paper?

There seems to be a widespread misconception that simply presenting information on-screen rather than as ink on paper somehow improves its usefulness for learning.

Though thoughts on the screen vs. paper debate vary widely from person to person there are many reasons why paper remains superior to screen. People tend to read slower from screen than paper, and prolonged screen use may cause eyestrain. A sheet of paper generally reveals more information than a single screen. Most computer screens are landscape-oriented whereas most paper presentations are portrait-oriented. This means reading from paper can give the learner a better sense of where the current study topic fits into the whole. Imagine your computer developing a fault the night before your final exams; paper doesn’t develop faults.

That’s not to say don’t present text on-screen, the many millions of publishers of tens of billions of Web pages can’t all be wrong. But if you present largely text-based study matter on the screen, at least give the learner a convenient means of printing it out.

The Threat

e-learning has its roots in the behaviorist approach to education. Learners are conditioned to produce appropriate responses to questions, and rewarded for doing so (like Pavlov’s dogs!) by being allowed to view the next screen.

However, modern education tends to favor a learner-centered, constructivist approach to learning in which learners create an internal model of reality based on their experiences.

There is a danger that in adopting e-learning to cut costs and/or increase market share the quality of the learning experience is reduced. In the worst case learners are treated as subjects to be conditioned in response to certain stimuli, with graduation as the eventual reward for pecking the right levers.

Too often educators are choosing e-learning to get their message across simply because it’s there and is seen as the fashionable to do. Even where the electronic medium offers no educational benefits, and might even be detrimental to learning. If the end-result offers nothing that couldn’t as easily be achieved on paper, then you’re probably better off doing it on paper – even if that paper is delivered as a PDF file.

e-learning is NOT inherently superior to on-campus instruction or even paper-based distance education. Indeed, a skilled teacher can transform a classroom into a theater of learning with highly effective results.

The Promise

The Internet is continuing to revolutionize every aspect of human experience – business, leisure, socialization, and education. Used appropriately, either alone or alongside more traditional methods, e-learning is capable of producing high quality, lasting, and transferable learning.

Some areas in which e-learning offers the greatest potential for positive impact are:

  • Individualized learning. Every learner is different; each has their own requirements, expectations, learning styles and circumstances. Effective e-learning adapts itself to the individual. From offering a choice of presentations, through adaptive learning in which delivery changes according to performance and preference, to individualized syllabi.
  • Hypermedia. Traditional learning consists of fixed, pre-defined subject matter. The Web is based on hyperlinks between related documents. e-learning need not be limited to a fixed delimited content set. Instead, learning material should be a launch pad for the learner’s journey through the Web.
  • Social Networking. The defining feature of Web 2.0 is the extent of user participation. e-learning done right encourages learner participation. Distance learners are often mature people and often bring a degree of experience of the topic under study, or at very least a degree of life experience. The superset of all learners’ experience is greater than that of ant individual. The challenge of e-learning (ie the facilitator) is to encourage the sharing of that experience.
  • Multimedia. e-learning is able to deliver much more than static text and images to the learner’s desktop. Audio, video and animation all have the potential to present learning material in a stimulating manner, appealing to a broad range of learning styles. Lectures and seminars may be recorded and digitized for online delivery extending their benefit to those unable to be physically present, and providing a review opportunity for those that were. Video can show natural phenomena or laboratory experiments to those unable to witness first-hand. Animation can demonstrate continuous processes more realistically than the discrete steps they must be represented as on paper.
  • Simulation. Active learning promotes the deepest understanding and greatest retention. Simulations allow learners to engage with scenarios, changing parameters and observing results. In simulations it’s OK to blow up a nuclear reactor, kill a surgical patient or crash a plane, and the impact of doing so is likely to remain with the learner.

While recognizing that educators are not immune from economic concerns, it is to be hoped that where e-learning is employed the resulting learning experience will be at least as good as that which went before.

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