E-learning in the 21st century

The term e-learning is possibly one of the most overused phrases in education. In recent weeks we have been having several conversations with educationalists about the term; what has been surprising is the range of views we have encountered as to what e-learning actually is.
One superficial answer that is often given is that e-learning is our “Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)”. Scratch below the surface and very quickly it becomes apparent that in many instances all the VLE is used for is a document sharing repository where students can access PowerPoint slides or worksheets that have been used as part of an in class exercise.
I have received many odd looks when I have then asked “what part of your students learning takes place online?” The answer is inevitably centred around providing easy access to materials from any location, which, is clearly important but to my mind is a very small part of the e-learning picture and something that can easily be achieved without the investment in a fully deployed e-learning platform; after all even open source platforms such as Moodle need to be supported by a team of technicians which is inevitably costly.
E-learning in its truest form was originally pioneered by organisations such as Learn Direct. These providers delivered content solely in an online format where students were required to logon and follow the on screen instructions. The model worked well but inevitably many users had difficulty and as a result a number of “Learn Direct” centres were set up where users could go to learn “online” in a supported environment. This style of teaching can certainly be classified “e-learning” but in many ways current delivery methods seem to have regressed in favour of simply sharing documents.
To my mind e-learning is only beneficial if a student is able to get something from the electronic medium that they would not get through face to face contact. A good example is the use of a Twitter Wall presented using a website such as http://www.visibletweets.com. By using this technology the educator is able to get live feedback from students during a presentation, and the feedback can be shared amongst participants. The use of this technology does not require a “VLE” and as a result purists may argue that this is therefore not “e-learning” – I, however, would suggest that using tools such as this in a supported environment is e-learning in one of its most advanced formats.
A recent experiment was undertaken by a module leader at the University of Chester where a series of seminars were delivered entirely using FaceBook as a delivery medium. Students participated in discussion activities, skype calls and made extensive use of the chat function. Clearly document sharing was required element of the delivery but it was a relatively small part of the package.
As a result of innovations such as this it is evident that visionary educators are exploring alternative means of e content delivery which can be used to deliver distance learning or to enhance a blended learning approach – the industry does have to overcome a damaging misconception that seems to have become embedded into education that if the organisation has a VLE then without any further effort the organisation is allowing students to learn online.
Technology is moving at such a rapid pace that e-learning strategies that have not fully evolved are already being superseded.

About Steve Westgarth

MD @footsqueek. #developer #socialgeek who enjoy's making new cool things!

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