I recently was asked in Facebook by my friend Di – “I keep mulling around the importance of the practitioner as the key defining resource in learning… feeling very ‘anti’ commodification of education blah, blah again – is this anything you would be interested in? do you hit on anything like this? Would be very cool to look at how manipulation of new learning environments can be linked back to the centrality of the teacher in the educational process? Possibly? Maybe? Has it been done?” It’s a good question – in the debate on VLEs (or I prefer the US phrase LMS since it seems more honest to refer to them as a way to “manage” learning) on an ALT mailing list someone said that a lot of the problems with Blackboard spring from it being designed by technologists rather than pedagogues. Probably true, but the thing that indicates that teachers are still at the centre of the learning experience is that, no matter how bad the platform a good teacher can produce a good learning experience, and a no matter how great the platform, a bad teacher will create a bad one. I’ll concede the tech helps one way or another, though. This is why criticisms of PowerPoint cheese me off. PowerPoint is a passive tool, if you use it well it’s great – it’s just that too many people (and I could probably own up to this myself) use it as a prop to avoid thinking too much about the learning experience. So they produce crap. And so they switch to Prezi because they think this’ll make them look hip, and for a while people are impressed until they realise it’s the same dull presentation, just with added motion sickness.
But Di’s central implicit point I’m sure is – is it fair to say that new learning environments have been exploited to commodify education. The answer is “yes” unfortunately. I’ve been at meetings where people who should know better talk about putting stuff online so they can bring in thousands of students really cheaply. I’ve just finished a study which indicates that – outside of a few rare contexts where they can work, MOOCs do not have a sustainable business model. Students want education that is free, but they also want education that is valued, and that means qualifications. But for qualifications to mean anything, they need robust assessment, and (there are a few specific exceptions) this means human intervention. Which is expensive. That’s a circle you can’t square. Some people like to study for its own sake, some people like to create learning materials for their own sake. In those scenarios MOOCs FTW. Otherwise, no way.
There is a school of thought that you can make the materials able to be worked through on their own, that people can read them and just pay to pass a test, and this will bring education to the masses, and everyone will be able to make money off it by stacking edcucation high and selling them cheap. This is the commodification that Di’s concerned about. It’s been the model in the private sector for decades. (Reality check – the division I’m about to describe is a generalisation, I’ve seen good and practice on both sides, but my experience is that this does represent the two positions of the two sectors on the whole). I’ve sat in presentations by private sector companies that think e-learning and computer-based training are synonymous. If you read the magazine “E-learning” there’s loads of adverts in there about how “Content is king” (usually accompanied by a pic of Elvis).
There’s that Oxford Union debate between Diana Laurillard and some private sector representatives about whether e-learning is effective or not, and the majority of it is taken up with talking at cross-purposes about what the word e-learning means. Because if you’ve been working in the field of e-learning in HE for the last 20 years you’ll think that e-learning is about forums, social media, wikis, annotated artefacts, virtual worlds, webinars. The actual content isn’t king, it’s a serf, in the background, called upon when needed, produced when needed, borrowed, shared, but ultimately of little value. That’s where the confusion in the Oxford debate arose. In the private sector there was some backlash against e-learning, with some commentators saying it didn’t work, because people need to be connected, they need tutors and contact with other learners; their definition of e-learning didn’t include those things. In HE learning environments, that’s the heart of what e-learning is. That’s what worries me about those conversations where people are talking about pushing out large amounts of content to people and letting them work through it on their own. It’s a retrograde step.
That’s not to say it never works. I went through an computer-training package last month on data protection. There were bits of videos, some MCQ tests, which were automatically marked, and then you had another chance to have a go if you got them wrong. I learnt quite a bit. So it worked. People have taught themselves by reading books, watching TV shows, working through MOOCs, but these are limited in subject matter, and/or limited to particularly special types of learners who can learn like that. But some stuff needs to be talked about to be understood, some stuff isn’t about being understood, but about being able to work with the ambiguity, some people just need the extrinsic motivation of being part of a learning set to get there. So we need two terms really for e-learning environments. One which is just content, and self-paced and about large numbers of students just learning facts. The other which is still about tutor-student, student-student interactions, and is participative and experiential and enables contextual and applicable information. We could differentiate them with qualifying adjectives, let’s call them crap e-learning and potentially good e-learning. Let’s hope that with the buzz around MOOCs kicking off the pound signs in the eyes of senior managers the one doesn’t get conflated with the other..