Sunday, May 15, 2011

e-learning isn't working...

Okay.  That's a bit controversial... right?  And, to be honest, if I didn't believe in the power and potential of learning in new and non-traditional ways (see how I skirt around calling it 'e-learning'?) then I wouldn't be working in this area.  But, I come across the same problems time and time again and it's making me wonder if the 'e' in 'e-learning' isn't causing a whole lot of problems for its potential.

Problem 1:  'e-learning is basically IT in education, so it should be part of the IT department'

This fundamentally negates the massively important 'learning' part of the word.  It relegates thinking about changing practices and experiences to second place whilst the technology pushes its way to the front.  Big problem when you want to talk about thematic ideas and approaches and instead find yourself bogged down with which version is that, which bug fix is that detail.  It doesn't move things forward, at best, it maintains.  It's the equivalent of lumping lecturers in the 'furniture department' since their work involves people sitting at desks and chairs.  It's not to say that the technology isn't important... but it isn't *the* most important thing.

Problem 2:  Most people who end up in e-learning didn't intend to end up there

Over the years I've come across so many people who have the appearance of having woken up and found themselves in a job and a career which they never really intended happening.  And on waking up, they sleepwalk through the rest of their job, never taking hold of the fact that to make something of it they need to balance the technical flair which often landed them there with some real educational experiences.  Teaching, training, studying... becoming a professional.  It isn't enough to 'help someone' develop something.  You have to *know* it inside and out.  You have to understand the implications of the decisions you're influencing and have a theoretical and practical foundation for your ideas.  You have to bridge the gap between technology and teaching - treading deftly between the two.  Translating and consolidating and not being afraid to stop once in a while instead of always chasing the next shiny bright thing.

Problem 3:  e-learning is seen as a quick, cheap fix to the problems faced by education

'I know!  Let's put the course online and we can bring in lots more students!!!' is the current cry...  'We can just put the lecture notes online... simple!'... and does this actually work?  Does it really make for effective education?  Sadly... and very very predictably... no.  It is the instructive 'pour the facts into their heads and they'll be educated' model of education.  It isn't real learning.  It isn't making the most of what you've got and lighting any fire of passion for learning.  And yet, so often this is how e-learning is viewed.  'At least it's a step in the right direction' is the defence for this abysmal practice.  How so?  When I was at university first, the boredom of the lecture theatre existed... but at least you had someone talking to you.  Put the lecture notes online and you remove the last element of interest from it and it becomes meaningless.  You don't offer opportunities to engage with and discuss... you document dump. It's pitiful.

Problem 4:  e-learning is some how perceived as being different to other forms of learning

When was the last time you heard someone talking about 'pen learning' or 'paper learning'?  When did you say 'I'm going to engage in a practical, experiential model of learning' as you followed a new recipe. You just did those things.  By separating e-learning out from all other forms of learning it is easy to become detached.  To be ignored.  Rather than an ingredient you may or may not use from many in your support of students and your support of their learning... it's a thing apart.

Problem 5:  In an academic world where the academic reigns supreme, e-learning is allowed to be a whim-based form of delivery

The model of Higher Education in the UK with its academic superstar structure means that poor teaching rarely gets challenged.  When it does get challenged it's in a 'come on chaps, don't you think it would be nice to...' manner.  Bowing and scraping to the potential for toys to be thrown from the pram and hoping against hope that reason might be heard.  Alongside the 'I'm too busy' arguments, attempts to develop new ways of teaching are batted away.  To consider, shockingly enough, that actually students might want to see that they're getting some value out of their hefty investment in their futures and to take a long, critical look at what's happening is to infringe on that precious academic freedom.  A freedom which seemingly extends beyond the freedom to explore a specialist field but apparently extends into how it might be taught too.  The academic not only knows best about their subject - but they know how best to teach.  And e-learning?  'Well.  It wasn't like that in my day and look how I turned out' comes the reply.

So, perhaps point 5 isn't e-learning's fault - but by allowing it to be a subset of an already maligned area - that of teaching in higher education - it falls even further behind in terms of true progress.

What would I like to see?  I'd like to see it drop the 'e'.  I'd like to see it become part of a true toolkit of approaches to learning.  I'd like to see the people involved in pushing forwards innovative learning become real experts and take ownership of their profession.  To experiment, research and provide an evidence base which allowed e-learning to be more than the small-scale innovator in a shed but to be commonplace and useful.

And I'd really, really like to see it supported institutionally - top to bottom, bottom to top, inside and out, side to side.  And not have empty words thrown at it in the hopes that words alone would be enough to bring about real change.

It isn't working.  But it could be so, so fantastic...
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