The term e-learning is close to 20 years old. In 2004, 12 years ago, I wrote somehow polemic text with the title E-learning is dead. Long live learning!”
I now read it and felt that I could update it with some new thoughts, although the original one is not a bad text as a such, either. The first part is so generic that it is all still relevant. To the last part I made some edits.
Memorizing or cultivating knowledge?
With the term e-learning most scholars, educational practitioners and technology developers mean learning that is facilitated and enhanced with information and communication technology. The little “e” – the electronic – is easy to define. However for many of us the other part of the word, the “learning” seems to be extremely difficult to conceptualize.
First of all it is important to recognize that there are different types of learning: starting from the classical conditioning and mechanical route memorizing to processes of meaning making and gaining skills to solve problems and to create knowledge. The results of different types of learning have different value.
A simple way to approach the value of learning is to think its usefulness. Nonetheless the kind of skills and knowledge that are useful to individuals, employers, society and humankind in general are often conflicting and difficult to combine. It seems to be that in the rallying point of the different needs are abstract things, such as theoretical and methodological knowledge, collaboration skills, values and ethics.
The conception of learning as memorization of facts and procedures is living strong in the western world. The two main supporters of the simplified conception of learning are the industry producing mass products for consumer society and the military organizations training millions of individuals annually. In both cases — in the industrial world and in military — the aim is to train people to behave as reliable pieces of the system.
However, the classical idea of an university is to carry out research and offer highest level of learning opportunities. The learning follows the research. The cultivation of knowledge is the primary task and the learning is based on it. In its practice the university is growing scientists, scholars and professionals with skills to adopt, cultivate, create and share knowledge.
Knowledge is cultural — so is learning
From studies of expert’s way of thinking we know that the knowledge that is useful in real world situations is hard to modify or cast in a way that can be saved to the hard disk of a computer. Experts’ knowledge is often called tacit knowledge. Experts know what to do when facing novelty in their field of expertise. Still it can be extremely difficult for them to explain why they did what they did. This type of expert knowledge is hard to make explicit, as it is strongly situated to the practices where it is used.
The best way to assimilate experts’ knowledge is to participate in the practices of an expert community. Participation means that the activity is dialogical: you read, watch, hear, comment, try out yourself and then present your interpretation of the issues under study in the community. There is a community that is reflecting and working on improving its cumulative and communal knowledge.
Knowledge is situated in the time and place where it is generated, modified, and exploited. In this way knowledge is cultural. We learn in time and place where we are collaborating with other people. Just like knowledge is cultural, so is learning.
Building the culture of learning online (and some other options)
In the late 1990’s I met with Manuel Castells who was one of the initiators of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), the world’s first fully online university. We discussed what are the possible consequences of Internet (WWW) and emerging network society for traditional campus universities. Castells was sure that most of them will face real challenges. According to him only those universities that do research will survive, because they will still provide value for the society. Teaching will all be online and globally available.(*
When designing e-learning services that builds on research, the focus should be on building communities, offering people spaces and facilitating their advances in the community’s area of interests. At the same time, the community should involve new generations, have them take part in its activities. Unfortunately in e-learning we too often pay most of our attention to such issues as technology, e-learning platforms, ready-made content, standards, management of learning and automated assessment.
Building a long lasting cultures in an online community is difficult. Just like in life in general, in an online community we also need leadership, common values, shared visions and mission, social norms, social ties and relations. When thinking about their e-learning solutions, universities should primary think how do they make their online learners to feel that they are part of the university community. Examples of the rights questions to ask are: Do you invite your online learners to the campus? Do they feel at home in the campus? Can they take part in the social events of the university?
I do not claim that building a culture of learning online is the only possible way of implementing e-learning. I am convinced — and actually we have done some research on the topic, too — that mobile tools can support (informal) learning that takes place in actual work operations (see the slides above). This is done by guiding people to share information with their peers and to help their colleagues. Furthermore the devices can provide access to information already available in the organization or online. However, the practice of sharing work processes and the information related to them requires an organizational culture that values openness, tolerates critics and respects individuals.
Play environments and games are another way of using computers in teaching and learning. People love to play and for many of us competing and winning is important, too. Also various forms of gamification in teaching and learning are proven to motivate people.
These different ways of implementing e-learning will result as different type of learning. Some of it will be classical conditioning and mechanical route memorizing when some will reach processes of meaning making, problem solving and knowledge building skills. All these forms of learning are needed.
Important is to choose the right tool for the job. It is also good to keep in mind that a skillful master never blames the tools, but rather is able to make her own tools.
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*)I remember this very well, because I asked then Castells that how much research people do in the UOC and after thinking for a while, he said: “some … they should do more”. I have understood that today in the UOC they do quite a lot of research, too.