Twenty-first-century e-learning: are the dreams ... - Saffron Interactive

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Twenty-first-century e-learning: are the dreams ... - Saffron Interactive

e-Learning is the application of digital technologyto learning. There is a huge literature on the takeupof digital technology, of technology adoption,and much of this is simply ignored when it comesto the design of e-learning. It has been understoodsince the pioneering work of the TavistockInstitute in the 1940s that the mere physicalimplementation of technology does not guaranteebusiness success. The Tavistock socio-technicalsystems model identifies two further interactingdimensions in addition to technology and task(that is, business success). These are structure andpeople. Unless structure and people are consideredalongside technology, it will only be by chance thattechnology investment leads to business success.Yet we continue to find software vendors, systemsdevelopers and integrators who brutally ignore thesocio-technical systems model, falling back insteadon a naïve, linear, technology-fixated model oflearning design.Any dream won’t doI first used an online computer in 1971, connectedto the GEISCO server in Cleveland, Ohio. I wrotemy first e-learning application on risk managementusing that system in 1972, with its humble teletype.I dreamt it would transform education within adecade. It didn’t.In 1982 we developed a managementdevelopment software package on the BBC Micro.Complete with monitor, we fitted it into a coupleof boxes that could be taken home by managers. Itwas used for many years in some places, not leastbecause the software developers made it highlyengaging. Today we don’t have to struggle with theequipment; we have near-universal availability oflaptops. Yet even with constant access to the webas a learning platform, there is still not enoughcompelling content available for managementdevelopment.I proposed something in 1992 which I calledan ‘integrated learning environment’ whichwould have eight interacting modules for everymain type of learning collaboration. We thenstarted implementing it using web and intranettechnologies. 15 years on, we now have a varietyof commercial ‘virtual learning environments’(VLEs). Yet these are often used for little more thandistributing handouts and uploading coursework.What a bitter end to that particular dream –although the good news is that these type ofmonolithic solutions can be increasingly reverseengineered using cheap open source components.2 Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009


In 2007 I began a study of Second Life, dreamingthat it would have tremendous educationalpossibilities, which it could still have. But there aretechnical, governance and cultural flaws in SecondLife which mean that ultimately some other virtualworld platform is likely to come to the fore for bothbusiness and educational purposes.I have had a cumulative set of dreams abouteducational technology over four decades, butmany of them have taken years to come about,have been dead-ends, or even gone backwards.The physical worldThe actual term ‘e-learning’ is not only past its sellbydate, it is an increasing liability. The mere moveto electronic or digital is not in itself significant anymore. Much more important is the re-thinking oflearning methods and promoting innovation inlearning processes. These don’t depend on thephysical media.Some of the most exciting developments we havebeen involved in at the Cass Learning Laboratoryduring the last few years have involved index cards,post-its, magnets and large pieces of paper. Thereis no likelihood that digital media can or shoulddisplace all analogue media. My worry is that theunthinking application of digitalisation to learningcould turn off both learners and the funders oflearning and, in particular, drive out the currentminority of e-learning that actually represents amajor step forward.Strong evidence for the continuing importanceof the physical world – the counterpart being thevirtual world – is the failure of many attempts tocreate ‘pure-play’ e-learning universities, such asthe UK e-University, and UNext and Pensare inthe US. It is significant that what successful workthere has been on pure e-learning has often comefrom remote parts of Canada and Australia wherethere is a geographical imperative to offer distancelearning.Blended learningWe also need urgently to get rid of the terribleterm ‘blended learning’. This was cooked up bye-learning specialists when, at the time of thedot.com bust, it became clear that the supposeddisplacement of physical learning by e-learning wassimply not going to happen. So blended learningwas actually invented to give some credence toe-learning by linking it closely to physical learning!Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 3


Ever since an ancient guru used a stick in the sandto emphasise a point, humans have used whatevertools or technologies they could to augment thepurely oral dimension of learning. A classroomrepresents the blending of physical space with theoral. A class supported by prior reading blends thetechnology of the textbook with the oral. And soon. Great learning methods have always blendedthe physical world with the virtual world of ideasand imagination.The term ‘blended learning’ is also used torefer to the combination of face-to-face (f2f)and electronic delivery, which really shouldn’tbe anything special. You get that combinationwhenever you support f2f teaching with webresources (especially now that VLEs are more orless universal, for higher education at least) or whenyou build a meeting into something like an OpenUniversity distance learning course. Instead, whenwe talk about blended learning, it should be interms of combining formal and informal learning,or otherwise combining different approaches tolearning which meet different learning styles andstrategies among students.Rethinking the teachingand learning modelWhat we need now in adult education and trainingis to put our best minds onto the problem of howto deploy digital technology effectively. This willhappen through a combination of market-driven,entrepreneurial initiatives, typically through smallersoftware developers. It will also happen throughinvestment in research and development, notonly by government but also by large educationalproviders, media companies and inventors insideand outside of academia.We need to throw out the old models of computerbasedtraining, such as page turning e-books,symbolising the most extreme form of transmissivelearning. We need to focus instead on approacheswhich promote high-engagement learning,particularly those which can exploit the fullpotential of social networking and Web 2.0.This shift is also going to be driven by generation Yentering the workplace, with a completely new setof expectations of how to deal with information.We don’t know for certain, but generation Y’spropensity towards individuality plus the pressuresof a recession may well imply a new set of ideasabout the work/life balance and how e-learning forpeople in work might be deliveredAnother key issue is information literacy and ITskills within the workplace. How to encouragepeople to go beyond the first hit in Google orWikipedia is a really big issue for people interestedin information literacy in universities, and we getthe impression that many employers haven’t reallygrasped the importance of this. Employees needto develop more sophisticated skills in recognisingwhen resources are authoritative and in criticallyevaluating their context in order for technology tobe used in effective learning.The silver bulletOne of the repeated mistakes of technologicaldeterminism is assuming that simply becausea technology is invented or evolved or refinedor useful to a few people, then that technologyrepresents an unparalleled opportunity forinnovation and improvement. This mindset hasbeen common in education and training, partlybecause of the importance of education andtraining to society, their enormous budgets whenmeasured in aggregate, and the belief that thosebudgets are not always effectively deployed. Addin educational administrators and heads of training,who may not be the most technologically literatecadres, and technological innovators, who are asexcellent in sales as in technology (if not more so),and there is a recipe for expensive disaster.If anything, the lesson of technological innovationover the last 50 years has been that we should beconstantly experimenting with new ideas in thehope that at least some of them will serendipitouslyprove useful, because you can predict neithertechnology trends nor what technology will catchusers’ imagination.Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 5


Clive HolthamProfessor of Information Management,Cass Business School and Director,Cass Learning Laboratoryhttp://www.cass.city.ac.uk/experts/c.holthamAfter taking a Masters degree in management,he trained as an accountant and was YoungAccountant of the Year in 1976. Following sixyears as a Director of Finance and IT, he movedto the Business School in 1988. His research isinto management learning and into the strategicexploitation of information systems. He hasbeen an adviser to the European Parliamenton educational technology, and led a major EUproject on intangibles. In 2002 he was namedas one of the top three e-tutors in the UK, andin 2003 was awarded a UK National TeachingFellowship. He is author of a large numberof publications, and lectures, broadcasts andconsults in the UK and internationally. He was afounding member of the Worshipful Company ofInformation Technologists, the City of London’s100th livery company, He is currently on theboard of knowhownonprofit.org, exploiting theweb as a vehicle for informal adult learning.You can contact Clive at c.w.holtham@city.ac.ukAdvance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 7


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