E-learning: looking back on a great future?

For the past ten years or so one of the big questions has been whether new online capabilities would transform the educational experience, and in particular whether a large number of students would in future choose to do their learning entirely online. Distance education was already a reasonably well established, if minority, product, with Britain’s Open University in particular having demonstrated that there was demand for it.  In Ireland similar (if more modest) moves were made by Oscail, the National Distance Education Centre. But in many ways the programmes offered in these institutions were quite traditional, though the Open University did make imaginative use of television as a teaching medium. But anyone with insomnia in the 1980s watching the lectures for some Open University course on BBC2 in the middle of the night will have noticed that, while the lecturer may have been standing in front of a camera, but what they did there was quite peculiarly old-fashioned.

Then along came the concept of doing it all online, and the idea of ‘elearning’ was born. Distance education providers started to use online tools, some inter-institutional consortia were established to pool resources and share a platform for online provision, and commercial elearning companies were formed. A decade or so on, the commercial product is well established, though not necessarily as a tool in the education system. But within higher education, the results of all that elearning enthusiasm have been quite modest. The early big-money initiatives have almost all failed, whether state-sponsored or inter-institutional. In Ireland various attempts were made to establish a shared platform for various providers, but none of them came to anything.

Given the speed with which new technologies have been adopted more generally in society over the same period, why has elearning not made more progress? First, many of those who have promoted it have done so on two flawed assumptions: (i) that it is cheaper than classroom learning; and (ii) that both faculty and materials could be transferred easily from the classroom to the computer. In fact, elearning – when it is done properly and to an acceptable quality – is expensive, partly because it requires very high skills on the part of those offering it, partly because both the hardware and the software are costly and in need of frequent updating, and partly because maintaining any sense of learning community across major geographical areas is difficult.

But more important still has been the failure, on the whole, to invest elearning with any real pedagogy appropriate to the medium. It is simply not the same as traditional teaching that happens to use technology. But because, apart from some educationalists who took an expert interest, elearning was often offered by institutions that had made no special effort to develop a pedagogical outlook, the whole thing was often strangely unsatisfactory. There was some sense of what population groups might benefit from online learning, but much less of what that learning should be like, that was different from traditional educational programmes.

In the meantime, the online experience has shot into higher education, but from an unexpected direction. What galvanised student interest was not the ability to do traditional learning online, but the arrival of social networking on platforms such as Facebook. The new online world that students inhabit is community-oriented and highly interactive. If elearning is to be a successful tool after all, this is where the pedagogy will also have to go. In fact, it is arguably time right now to go back to the drawing board and consider whether a new form of elearning, based to an extent on the social networking experience, is the way forward. And if this is to work, student communities will need to be involved in the design of the product.

I strongly believe that elearning has a future. But maybe not the one it had ten years ago.

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12 Comments on “E-learning: looking back on a great future?”

  1. Joe Griffin Says:

    Facebook and other social networking sites are really using the social constructivist pedagogy, learning that takes place in social groups. Moodle, which is the e-learning platform of choice at DCU and the Open University in England also use Moodle. So congratulations for being ahead of the game on this one.

  2. Wendymr Says:

    I completed a postgraduate certificate programme through online learning, and I’m currently taking an online management development course. I have to say that I agree in general with your comments on the platforms: the first course used WebCT, and the current one is using Angel (all community colleges in Ontario have switched to Angel). IMO, WebCT, for all its shortcomings, is a lot more user-friendly than Angel; I’m spending more time navigating back and forth in Angel than I am actually working in the software.

    These platforms tend to lead to a lowest-common-denominator of e-learning: here’s your reading(s) for the week, make a discussion post and reply to someone else’s, take an online multiple-choice exam and maybe write an essay or compile a report with a group of other students (which is generally a dismal experience). At the worst, this is what the courses consist of. However, better teachers can do a lot more with what’s available: much more imaginative use of discussion posts, use of PDFs and publicly-accessible (or college-licensed) electronic journals to expand the reading experience, group projects which build on expertise and require a bit more thought and analysis than ‘write a report on X’, encouragement to use utilities such as Skype and instant messenger programmes to work with learning partners and so on.

    At the bottom end, it’s too easy to get very high grades in online courses while doing very little work. With inspirational, imaginative teachers, an online course can be as academically demanding and as interactive as a classroom-based one. But it does, as you say, take a lot of effort on the part of the instructors, to set up, to teach and to maintain – a good e-course should never be the same from one year to the next. And that takes time, energy and resources.

    The other downside, from a resource point of view, is that, since online learning can be done at any time the student feels like it, there’s increasingly an expectation for instructors to respond at almost any time of the day or night. 24-hour on-call academics, anyone?


    • Thanks, Wendy, that’s a key element. Students who, if doing a ‘normal’ degree would never dream of approaching a tutor at night, do it all the time in elearning programmes, and will expect the tutor to be there!

  3. Vincent Says:

    Just a point or two.
    Whatever early hope was strangled at birth, mostly by the TelCos unwillingness to expand their line capacity. And as your main target for this product is the person living in what might be termed the Outback, for the basic idea came from the radio school of Oz. Remember the picture, a short trousered boy peddling like billy-o while his sister was speaking at a mic. Well, the persons living by upper Lough Corrib, Innisturk, Mullinahone or Meelin are the very ones who need it and are the very ones who cannot get it.
    However, a use could be made of a smaller version. If you had control of the student housing, had a fiber network and were tight on theater space. It would be simple enough to use a few Cams during a lecture.

    Your point about the expense does not really hold that much water. -This is given that all things work and where all that is left is the delivery.- The days of the Beardy Git before the camera and a crew of ten behind are long gone. A coordinated five year old could run a studio these days. However, whatever grip on mathematics I have is down to those chaps from Milton Keynes, BBC2 and the subversive fellow who put up the deflector aerial. I think if expense is involved it will come from the Texts necessary for course work and reading lists rather than ‘e’ part of it.

    The facebook idea.
    I do not know what type of Student you have on your hands. But what you are suggesting here is the group tutorial. Now, I attended UCG, read History and Classical Civilisations. It was a delightful time of my life. But the torture of attending tutorials where ten persons sat round a table and two students had anything to say was the only mar on the entire effort. I was not alone in this experience. The other non-trads (matures) said the same. At one point, it got to where we wondered if it was because of us. So we stopped speaking altogether for a while, just to see. There was no difference. And it will be the same with the facebook notion, two or three will do all the work while the remainder will sit there at their screens.

    I also strongly believe elearning has a bright future, but it cannot be seen as little more than another revenue stream for the Uni’s. As it stands at the moment it costs more to do an Open Uni’ course credit for credit than sitting swallowing up heat light and space in a University.


    • Interesting comments, Vincent. I don’t however agree with this: “I think if expense is involved it will come from the Texts necessary for course work and reading lists rather than ‘e’ part of it.” I have looked in some detail at the elearnming mechanisms, and the ‘e’ part is responsible for a very substantial cost, if it is done right.

      • Vincent Says:

        Yes, but isn’t the ‘e’ part of it a once off cost to you, in the main. A bit like building a hotel, and the texts will regardless of media have residual costs while the copyright exists.
        Still, it may be that we are looking at this from different positions.

  4. Aidan Says:

    I have had quite a lot of experience of both traditional classroom and eLearning methods of study. A few years back I did an MBA through an American university called Webster University. I took some modules on-line and others in the classroom. I have to say that their on-line provision was excellent, they had a great range of learning materials including using an interactive tool called Capstone which simulates a real business environment and we worked on teams to determine the best decisions. I regularly had to call classmates in different parts of the worls to discuss various issues. In all honesty the on-line course were more akin to the real world of my work than the classroom based ones.
    One area where eLearning is excelling is in the area of language learning. I have learned some languages in traditional classroom settings and others autonomously. In the past self-learning involved listening to a tape and following a text book but not any more. The podcast has changed everything for me. Right now I am learning Japanese through JapanesePod101.com and they have fantastic podcasts with supporting PDFs, flashcards, line by line audio, user forums etc. The amazing thing is that many Japanese learners are high school kids who are into manga and anime and they are tapping into sites like JapanesePod101 to learn the language. There are some great tools like Yabla where you can watch videos in French or Spanish with simultaneous text in the target language or with English translations. Words are linked to dictionaries and other contextual resources.
    As far as I can see most universities are behind the curve. There is a massive market for eLearning degrees but when you look at the provision it is limited. For instance I am looking into taking a degree in French and the London University External program is the only institution that offers anything like I want. I would be delighted if my local university in Leiden had an offering but unfortunately it doesn’t.

  5. iain Says:

    Lots of interesting stuff that could be unfolded here. I guess there are several aspects to the issue of ‘eLearning’, one of which is that some people conflate it with distance learning when in fact it is just a set of tools that can be deployed in a range of scenarios. As a means of brining ‘massification’ to distance learning, then as you point out it hasn’t succeeded, but one could argue from a different perspective that eLearning itself has been very successful since there isn’t a single university in the developed world that doesn’t now use a virtual learning environment. Students and staff alike treat such systems (whether it be Moodle, Blackboard or whatever) as part of the ‘furniture’ of modern courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Private companies make profits from such systems, user coordinated open source solutions set a challenge to market dominance, new features are brought out regularly, more and more types of media and ‘use-case scenarios’ are developed as the years go by. So that isn’t exactly a failure.

    On the distance side that’s another story but all that is happened, as you imply, is that institutions and more importantly, funders (and indeed it is the funding regime that shapes educational practice a lot more than people often realise), have realised that it doesn’t offer a cheap means of mass education, but rather any quality educational experience, whether or not it uses technology, is expensive because it requires a decent staff-student ratio, time, effort and formative feedback for learners.

    As for the social constructivist approach, just because the jargon is touted a lot doesn’t actually mean its an approach that suits all learners, nor indeed all disciplines and we should be wary of that. Indeed many people who use the term (fortunately not contributors to this blog) aren’t really fully aware of what it means in detail. The assertion that Moodle is based on this approach is simply that, an assertion, one made by the creator of the system and a shrewd marketing approach! Any elearning system that contains communication tools and associated resources can be used in a socially-constructivist manner or in a traditional-broadcast-information transfer mode. It’s what you do with it and the context in which it is situated that counts.

    Diana Laurillard wrote an interesting article in Educause Review about 6 years ago now in which she reiterated the point that the information-transmission model is so dominant in education that when any new technology appears it goes through a phase of potentially challenging the status quo, promising a revolution in teaching and learning, but then is quickly subsumed and incorporated within this dominant paradigm and ultimately acts to reinforce and continue the tradition. So perhaps we need to look more at the underlying philosophy of our educational intentions more than the machinery we use.

    As for facebook and education, well a good many keen and enthusiastic institutions have come unstuck when they’ve tried to harvest that approach. Not least of which is that social networking is used by students as a release from the pressures of education and simply because something is popular, addictive and sociable doesn’t mean that it can be used for education – otherwise we’d have tutorials in the pub and seminars in night-clubs. Oh hang on, I did give a talk on astronomy in a pub a couple of months ago..shot myself in the foot there? hah!


    • Some very useful comments, Iain – though I am inclined to say that because something is popular, addictive and sociable, it doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be used as an educational tool. Social networking has elements which, while used for different purposes, are not unlike community-based learning.

  6. iain Says:

    no you’re right – plenty of scope for sociability, and addiction in learning!! An interesting development is social networks developed specifically for enhancing learning and associated with personal portfolios, etc. Something such as elgg which can also of course link into the other more social spaces, twitter etc…


  7. […] Marzo 19, 2010 | # | 0 Etiquetas: e-learning, internet El que quiera ver a discusion en ingles https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/e-learning-looking-back-on-a-great-future/. En resumidas cuentas lo que dice es que las plataformas de e-leraning como Moodle o Skillfaktory, […]


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