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eLearning Today

There’s been an interesting discussion happening on the ALT forum recently about the use of the term eLearning. As a senior research fellow for elearning at Coventry Uni (actually I think I might be THE senior research fellow for elearning at Uni), I don’t actually have a problem with the term. Yes I know people have preferences for Technology Enhanced Learning, or Technology Supported Learning, but really these are just labels. As long as we all have a general idea of what we mean by the term, it’s trivial to get hung up on labels.

The more interesting debate though is … what exactly do we mean by the term? And also, do we really need it anyway? Ask most people and it’ll be something to do with computers and technology and education, that sort of overlap. It seems pretty arbitrary though which technologies are included. I’d put LMSes (or VLEs if you prefer, but I think the US label describes what they do better) in the category, and videoconferencing, but not word processing, or spreadsheets, or even photocopiers. And if you look at Vygotsky, Leon’tev et sec and their stuff on mediating artefacts, then they’d argue that anything, a blackboard, a book, even language, is a tool which we use. For a lot of people it begins and ends with their institution’s VLE. But I like what can be done with getting students producing video so would add that.But not watching video … unless it’s online and linked in to discussions or learning content … :-/ it’s a blurry line.

Looking at the distinction between which tech I mean when I talk about elearning, I realise that it’s no more a really strict defining criterion than “things that I didn’t use or see being used in a classroom during my PGCE”. Since I finished that in 1989, that’s a lot of stuff. One of the outputs of The 52 Group (a think tank of academics pulled together by Lawrie Phipps, though small enough for me to instead refer to it as a ponder pool, there were only 6 of us) was the concept of postdigitalism, that digital technology now is so commonplace that we should no longer see it as distinct from anything else. That makes a lot of sense to me.

And yes, there are a lot of other interesting innovations in learning that can excite people. Activity-Led Learning is taking off in a big way in my faculty, led by my erstwhile fellow Teaching Development Fellow there, Sarah Wilson-Medhurst. Some fascinating stuff, so eLearning isn;t distinct because it’s innovative.

The discussion then is, do we need a separate label for what is, really, just another form of teaching. Is there anything distinctive about eLearning or can we just dump it as a concept?

I think one thing we can agree on though is that the technology ultimately, is not what eLearning is about. At least those of us who do it can. There was an interesting debate at the Oxford Union on eLearning a few years back http://bit.ly/Ym2pAz 2009 to be precise, with Diana Laurillard  on whether eLearning can meet the needs for tomorrow. There did seem to be some confusion there about the term, with those arguing against believing that “The e-learning of today was not all things e and learning; for the majority, it was much more limited, it was e-courses for compliance and basic knowledge acquisition”. Errrm no, that may be the view in the private sector delivering computer based training (if you look at the magazine for the industry called Elearning today it’s largely appalling … lots of ads proclaiming “content is king”) but for the rest of us it’s about bringing people together, about find new ways to get them to think and to engage with material, and new ways to express themselves. Content is cheap, most places will give it away, it’s teaching that’s important. Dave White did a study looking at the optimum ratio of online tutors to online learners. Errm I can’t remember the optimum number, but I do remember the maximum was 30. The idea that eLearning provides a pile em high, sell em cheap solution is erroneous.

It still gets trotted out as a reason to do it, or not to do it though. On one project I worked on which was making academic tutoring accessible over videoconferencing, a tutor refused to take part, complaining that introducing technology was symptomatic of capitalist … blah blah blah, … he referenced self-service checkouts and god knows what else. The reality, that whether you’re delivering it face-to-face or over the internet, you still have a one-to-one interaction, so aren’t actually cutting down at all, completely failed to make a dent in his knee-jerk reactionism.

The other extreme from seeing technology as some sort of neocon bogeyman is seeing it as a solution in itself. The most difficult part of staff development in eLearning is people seeing you as someone who just shows them how to use the technology. a number of times I’ve met with a lecturer who wants to use a technology, I’ll have shown them how it works, then arrange to meet them to support them with their teaching. That meeting gets cancelled, they go ahead and use it, and when it all falls apart, because they haven’t realised they also need a new set of skills to make use of it they seem surprised and either reject the technology or make a big deal of learning from their mistakes. Errrm no, the bit you skipped is precisely what my role was. That’s the interesting bit.

And I think that’s why I think eLearning is a recognisable and distinct thing, and why it fascinates me. Because of that step in the process. Yes I agree that, ultimately eLearning is just a form of learning, the pedagogy comes first, in as much as that is the goal. I wrote about this nearly 10 years ago now in http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ldc/resource/interactions/celi/chap7/article2/childs which was originally titled “Is there an e difference?” (see what i did there?). But the skills that need to be learnt to use it effectively in learning and teaching, how accomodating and exploiting what technology does alters our practice, that’s what’s interesting. Josie Fraser makes an interesting point about the idea of putting the pedagogy first. Yes of course, she says, that’s ultimately what the point is of eLearning, but it’s not as simple as knowing what you want to do and then finding the technology to do it. Her point is that it’s a two-way street, understanding and knowing what the technology can do opens up new areas for learning.

And technology does change us, as we adapt to it as much as it adapts to us. It’s a mechanism for social, cultural, physical change more than anything else, (other forms of innovation notwithstanding). It has the specific forms of problems noted above (seen as bogeyman by some colleagues, and the change it requires in practice overlooked by others), it has a specific set of selling points to colleagues too (use of ICT always looks good on an OFSTED inspection), but I think it requires that adaptable, explorative and (I’m going to say it) transhumanist perspective to exploit if fully. And, really, to be honest, the bottom line is that it’s about playing with all the shiny cool stuff.

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One thought on “eLearning Today

  1. I don’t think the label is important either, it is about researching the use of technology for learning – that is the key. But throwing away ‘elearning’ is not what is needed, we still need to research and understand what technologies offer and yes I agree we co-evolve with the technologies, appropriate and adapt them for our own personal use. That is why I like Gibson’s term affordances, it captures that co-evolution for me. Also love Mediating Artefacts of course! 😉

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