Posted tagged ‘distance education’

Keeping universities traditional (2)

September 10, 2010

Last Sunday morning I was very struck by the discussion between the participants on BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘Broadcasting House’ (you can listen to the podcast here). One of the issues raised was that of how a university should be organised and structured; it became clear that the participants all felt that a ‘real’ university needed to arrange its teaching on a campus in a classroom setting.

It is perfectly possible that this traditional learning environment for university students has historically functioned well. It created a relationship between lecturers and students and allowed the students themselves to develop and be part of a community. However, demographic changes, the development of new technologies, different funding methods for universities and some new pedagogical insights have made it impractical to consider the campus/classroom model to be the norm, or at least the only framework for higher education.

It is unlikely that society will ever again be so organised that most higher education students will be school leavers who study absolutely full-time.  Many students will seek and engage in salaried employment during their studies, a significant proportion will be mature students, and new learning technology will facilitate and encourage distance education. The university campus will still have value, but we will have to be prepared to use it more flexibly. In that setting it will not be particularly helpful to suggest that those who are not full-time students on a physical campus are not benefiting from a proper university education. But the Radio 4 conversation also demonstrates that we have some way to go before key opinion formers understand or accept that. There is a task of communication to be undertaken here.

E-learning: looking back on a great future?

May 19, 2009

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.