Exploring What e-Learning Is and Is Supposed to Be
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As far back as 1985, Neil Postman posed the question: "Does television shape culture or merely reflect it?" and concluded that "The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become the culture" (p.79).
Fast-forward to 2003 and pose the same question about e-learning and you might reasonably reach an analogous conclusion. We have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater and issues that were ‘hot’ topics in the field of open and distance learning almost twenty years ago appear again with complete freshness in discussions of e-learning.
Surely e-learning is no more than a manifestation of e-living; should our questions not commence with trying to understand the socio-cultural dimensions of our technologically-enabled world, particularly the sense of immediacy and presence we have come to accept through ubiquitous communications devices? The developers of commercial e-learning platforms have certainly realised this and what is offered is a transactional environment – a ‘Learner Management System’ functionally suited and well-adapted to a world where we are now completely at home with all manner of online transactions. But surely there must be more?
Devices for a distributed cognition
Returning to ‘pre-e-learning’ literature, the ‘informating’ power of technology – a concept introduce by Zuboff is of particular relevance to educators. Salomon et al., discussed technology in a similar vein, referring to ‘distributed cognition’ where advanced devices and tools augment the human intellect, amplifying our capacity for information gathering and organisation, for thinking, modelling and ’tinkering’ and for extending discourse in a way that is unrestricted in space or time - what they refer to as ’person-plus’.
To take another perspective, educational aims (at least in higher education and professional training) divide into three broad categories:
· Knowledge (fixed) and skills aquisition: competence with tools and techniques;
· Socialisation - induction into the canons of particular communities, disciplines or professions (Bruffee, 1993);
· Development of intentional learning - making learning the goal; developing the individual as a self-organised learner; fostering critical thinking, reflective practice and active open-ended enquiry (Scardamalia et al., 1996).
The tactical decisions we make with regard methodological approaches reflect both personally held pedagogical beliefs and institutional values. Considered in tandem with familiar resource, organisational and other constraints, they determine to a large extent how we tend to deploy e-learning. We must therefore see e-learning as part of a solution and always in terms of discussion of educational practice and development that is grounded in the first instance in the individual discipline.
So where does that leave the current state of the art for e-learning? I pose three challenging questions and wonder where we stand at this time:
1. Ambivalence: ’Teaching’ or ’Learning’ with Technology?
We have the age-old debate regarding behaviourist or constructivist approaches to education. Learner-centredness has a very different meaning in the behaviourist and constructivist traditions. ’Interactivity’ or ’self-direction’ in e-learning environments is not always synonymous with self-organisation and is often identified with self-containedness, as students are left to their own devices to work with web-based resources that are often of poor graphic, content and pedagogical design. In the constructivist paradigm, self-organisation is allied to interdependence and the role of teachers, tutors and fellow students as mediators of learners’ activities assumes greater rather than diminished importance.
2. How interesting and engaging are eLearning environments?
Proponents of active learning will readily understand that the real fun and engagement is in the doing, but the e-learning ‘content’ developer may paradoxically deny that same sense of engagement to the individual learner. Fun and challenge in the making does not, unfortunately, always equate with fun and challenge in the using. Pitfalls in designing good eLearning environments are not new of course; Dewey, writing in 1916, had no time for adding “some feature of seductiveness to materials otherwise indifferent" (1966 ed., p.126) and Birkerts (1994, p.197) fears that "our electronic conditioning may leave us unfit for the rigours of stationary words on a page". Making sense of what we know, getting it organised in our heads takes time and reflection; Bruner (1996, p.129) remarks that the "enemy of reflection is the breakneck pace - the thousand pictures".
3. e-Learning - a technology ‘bandwagon’ ?
Have you ever noticed that we never seem to be able to get it right now, with today’s technology! There is always the need for another ‘plug-in’ or the next upgrade and broadband in the home is just around the corner! Technical considerations still tend to dictate the agenda for e-learning deployment to an extent that must make educators feel uncomfortable at times. Design compromises are often based on known technical performance characteristics. Clark, a long time commentator on educational technologies, wryly commented that ‘we reinvent the wheel constantly but inadequately’. Does the ‘what best’, in terms of content and platform, take second place to the ‘how best’ of the technology?
Finally, e-learning can make a significant difference when, learning itself becomes the goal and when students (and teachers) appropriate the concept of a community of learners. In such an environment, tasks are challenging and meaningful and are integrated with the subject area. Assessment reflects tasks and challenges of coursework. There is provision for meaningful support, particularly for the development of students’ metacognitive skills. If such a climate prevails, then it is possible to deploy eLearning in imaginative ways and to renew and invigorate curricula. References:
· Birkerts, S. (1994). The Gutenberg elegies: The fate of reading in an electronic age. Faber & Faber.
· Brufee, K. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
· Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Harvard University Press.
· Dewey, J. (1916,1966). Democracy and education. The Free Press: Macmillan Publishing Company.
· Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. Heinmann, London.
· Salomon G., Perkins D. and Globerson T. (1991). "Partners in cognition: Extending human intelligence with intelligent technologies". Educational Researcher, 20 (3), 2-9.
· Scardamalia M., Bereiter C. & Lamon M. (1996). The CSILE project, in McGilly K. (ed.) Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice. MIT Press.
· Zuboff, S. (1988). In the age of the smart machine. New York Basic Books.