30 December 02003

How boring is the e-learning market?

Having finally moved home and got Christmas out of the way, it's time for some not-very-seasonal, scroogy observations on the Future of UK E-learning Market event.

In 1997 the Internet was really getting under the skin of many in what was then called the Computer-Based Training (CBT) industry. The Net's limited bandwidth and generic browser-based approach threatened their investment in laser disc and CD-ROM media with proprietary viewer software. When we launched our Living IT online Internet fluency courses that year, many people whose opinions I otherwise trusted were doubtful that our approach, which assumed no more than a 14.4 Kbps modem, could work. Instead of packing the interactivity into flash graphics and video, we designed lots of communication activities such that learners interacted frequently with their tutors and with each other (thus exploting the Net's killer application: email).

I'd have liked to have seen this as having the same 'three-chord' immediacy and energy as punk rock, in response to the bloated production values of CBT. But, unlike punk, the response failed to stick. Why and how did the market re-establish itself with the traditionalists still in charge?

Some of the reasons are down to the rate of technological change. Internet bandwidth grew rapidly, as did the authoring tools to fill that bandwidth with flash, twiddly, 'interactive' bits. HTML was extended to make it possible for authors to 'break the browser' (e.g. by making it impossible for users to press the Back button, check the status of a downloading page etc) — and authors of learning materials immediately exploited this to turn browsers as much like TV screens as possible.

But the deeper factors are probably the institutional ones. The dot.com hysteria of the late '90s drew commercial and traditional educational interests towards the area, and CBT practitioners swiftly re-branded themselves as 'e-learning' professionals and followed where the investment was going. They moved quickly, and hats off to them for doing so.

But that leaves a situation where — to return at last to the 15th December E-learning Market event — the industry stages very predictable events where

  • publishers argue that there should be more emphasis on e-learning content;
  • software companies argue that there should be more emphasis on tools; and
  • learning theorists want to see more collaboration between learners and more attention on 'pedagogy' in general.

Big surprise! And when all this has been done, learners still aren't excited and motivated by what's put in front of them, so another discussion on 'learner support' brainstorms techniques for clearing up the mess that's left behind.

Other things that caught my jaundiced eye:

  • Diana Laurillard, in presenting the DfES's e-learning Strategy called for "every teacher to be an action researcher and reflective practitioner" and advocated exploration of 'Learning Activity Management Systems' — generic activity design tool with the potential to create new pedagogies (if you're going to dream, dream big!);
  • Europe Singh from Ufi presented work they have commissioned on a games-based approach to Basic Skills e-learning courses and argued that the game has to work as a game (not as a gratuitous add-on to a traditional course) — they have also commissioned research from the Institute of Education on this approach (my hunch is that game-learning hybrids may turn out to be as much of a dead-end as game-movie hybrids);
  • Donald Clarke was brave enough to challenge some of the emerging e-learning orthodoxies, arguing that "giving teachers new e-learning tools is not going to solve the problems affecting dropout in education" and that adult learners like to learn free from the trappings of teachers and institutions — he even had a go at the pedagogical theorists, suggesting that few if any of their theories have much basis in hard evidence (a fellow participant was cynical enough to suggest that Donald's attitude was calculated to demonstrate to us that he is successful enough to be able to court controversy with impunity).

One thing made me a little angry. After seeing a series of e-learning products and courses demonstrated (mostly by their makers), we were asked to vote on which was best and why. I spoiled my ballot paper because I feel that perpetuating the idea that you can review e-learning on the basis of a ten minute demo by its maker harms the market. This idea is exactly what encourages authors to produce materials that are superficially flashy but may offer unsatisfactory learning experiences to their intended users.

And that's as much I took in before I headed off at the tea break to complete my packing for the next day's move. I went along to check whether the e-learning market had moved on significantly since I last attended an event like this, and I went away with the impression that it's just got more entrenched and more boring. If you think I'm wrong, please comment below.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning, Reviews on 30 December 02003 | TrackBack

Interesting comment and very much on the mark. Most in the e-learning industry have their heads in the worng places - thinking of themselves and not their students. We have a forum in Aust that claims to have over 4000 registrants, yet less than 20 regularly contribute to the forum (Government sponsored) and if you post anything that challenges their "status quo" you are banned from the forum.

Self sustaining idelists :-((

remember - without the learner - there is no training - CJA 2001

Keep up the writing

Posted by: Chris Ainsworth on 1 January 02004 at 1:16 AM

As an experienced teacher who worked for two years developing and delivering Modern History online for two years (synchronously and asynchronously), I concur with your hypothesis. Successful online learning requires a combination of pedagogy, innovative use of new technologies, and most importantly human interaction that encourages and supports the learning experiences. Expecting to be able to meet all learners' needs by providing asynchronous online content (however flashy and "interactive") is demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the social aspect of learning and the variety of learning styles that already exist - let alone the new ones emerging as a result of elearning capabilities.

We found that the email element was a siginficant factor in student involvement. This was used for student-student communication as well as extensive teacher-student support - luckily we had small numbers so it was manageable.

In addition, Discussion Boards for both student-student contact and problem solving as well as required response to "hypotheticals" created and moderated by the teacher provided a vital human connection during the two year course. It was interesting to see communication sophistication grow as the students matured and felt comfortable with the new media.

Since starting my consultancy, the biggest "hurdle" I have found is convincing corporations investing in elearning that there is more to ensuring online learner success (and hence ROI) than "shovelware" - irrespective of how flashy it may appear. "Click and Flick" does not equal effective learning - or even thinking. Even content that has some real learning design is so much concentrated at the low end of thinking skills! There is very little elearning that requires learners to actively connect cognitively with the content and demonstrate interpretation and evaluation of the stimulus -and transference to new personal knowledge/learning.

Only by engaging the learner in real cognitive activity at a variety of levels and requiring them to demonstate new knowledge to others (social element) can we ensure that elearning is effective.

Posted by: Helen Hall on 12 January 02004 at 8:21 PM
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