About e-learning: a second thought

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.

– – – – – – – – – – –
*)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.

4 thoughts on “About e-learning: a second thought

  1. And all this time I thought my own “Teaching is dead, long live teaching” was an original idea! Forgive me if you tried to point that out to me back in 2006.

    I’ve been lazily wondering about this phenomenon of polarisation online. Most obviously in BrExit, Trump and related political issues, but they’re not isolated incidents. We’ve seen extreme and hostile polarisation online before, even in the relatively timid networks of learning and education.

    I’m wondering if this phenomenon is predictable, actually, I’m certain that it is. All we need do is explore what is known about the darker side of humanity. There can be certain conditions in an online community, that to its members appears healthy and useful, but turns out to be the opposite. Group think, closed mindedness, hostility to new or alternative information, vulnerability to manipulation, group violence.

    This is not limited to online human behavior of course, but it might be right to say that when online, the consequences are amplified and impact-full.

    There’s even a new genre of TV thriller about it called Techno-Paranoia. Have you see the series Black Mirroryet? The stories in that series seem immediately relevant to our considerations of online culture and learning, but I haven’t seen anyone discussing its relevance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And all this time I thought my own “Teaching is dead, long live teaching” was an original idea! Forgive me if you tried to point that out to me back in 2006.

    I’ve been lazily wondering about this phenomenon of polarisation online. Most obviously in BrExit, Trump and related political issues, but they’re not isolated incidents. We’ve seen extreme and hostile polarisation online before, even in the relatively timid networks of learning and education.

    I’m wondering if this phenomenon is predictable, actually, I’m certain that it is. All we need do is explore what is known about the darker side of humanity. There can be certain conditions in an online community, that to its members appears healthy and useful, but turns out to be the opposite. Group think, closed mindedness, hostility to new or alternative information, vulnerability to manipulation, group violence.

    This is not limited to online human behavior of course, but it might be right to say that when online, the consequences are amplified and impact-full.

    There’s even a new genre of TV thriller about it called Techno-Paranoia. Have you see the series Black Mirroryet? The stories in that series seem immediately relevant to our considerations of online culture and learning, but I haven’t seen anyone discussing its relevance.

    Like

  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. E-learning should not be used to get rid of students on campus (while it is also true that many students enjoy when they can decide themselves where and when they study). Rather, e-learning should be used to improve the quality of learning sessions on campus, by allowing them to focus on discussion, reflection, analysis, networking, team working, research,creativity etc.., i.e., such activities. which promote learning the higher level academic skills and competencies which you name as the goals of a university. Lower levels, like learning facts and procedures could be supported with e-learning resources. Of course, this is not a black-and-white picture. Classroom learning can be used for them, as well, and gaining higher level goals can be supported with advanced and social educational tools. Yet, I think that in the pressure of more and more widely accessible and free online learning resources the universities should make focussed efforts to raise the value of on-campus education to students. We need to think carefully what is the added value of on-campus sessions and activities, and make this visible for students.

    Today I was following a demo of Primetime pilot in physics education at University of Jyväskylä. Students work in groups of 5 people weekly in the following order. They first study the topic principles and concepts from books/on-line resources on their own. Then they meet with the group to work with interactive online tasks, where they solve basic exercises with automated feedback, use simulations and visualizations to learn the topic more and apply what they learned from theory. In the next phase, they will work with more open assignments, where they (in a group) have to apply both theoretical and practical skills to address more challenging problems. They write a report and their solutions, which is submitted to the teacher. Finally they have a meeting with the teacher (once a week) to discuss the problem and their solution, and what they have learned. The time with the teacher is called prime time. I did like the concept, which combined e-learning and classroom learning in a very nice way. This could be one way to proceed in development of education.

    Liked by 1 person

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