The aim of this blog
This is one of several blogs that explore the question: is e-learning failing in higher education? (See Is e-learning failing in higher education?, and Expectations and goals for e-learning for the context for this question.)
Enhancing the quality of teaching and learning
This is the second of the goals listed for e-learning:
2. To enhance the general quality of teaching/learning.
I think this is the most questionable of the goals, for reasons that I will explain.
The main form of e-learning?
I will be the first to admit that it is difficult to find good data on the extent to which technology is being used to ‘enhance’ the quality of teaching/learning. The OECD 2005 study used the terms ‘web supplemented – ws’ and ‘web dependent – wd’, both of which might include the enhancement of learning. These uses include:
- course outlines, lecture notes, e-mail, links to external resources -ws
- online discussions, assesments, collaborative project-work, without signifcant reduction of class time – wd
I used to use data from surveys done by WebCT (2003) which clearly showed that the main use of WebCT was for ‘enhancing classroom teaching’. We have seen that fully online learning is increasing, so there may be some inroads being made into using technology as an enhancement. However, anecdotal evidence from LMS managers and data extracted from LMSs more recently suggest that enhancing classroom teaching is still the major use of LMSs. My belief, then, is that this is still the most significant use of information and communications technology in post-secondary education.
However, few institutions actually collect data in a way that enables the clear identification of different types of e-learning. If anyone has this data, or can point to published work that shows such data, please share this! After all, if it is the most frequently used rationale for learning, shouldn’t we know its extent, and whether it’s increasing or decreasing?
The choice of wording
The choice of wording here is deliberate. I was working at one institution on a committee trying to set down the key goals or rationale for their use of e-learning. One colleague suggested: ‘to improve the quality of teaching.’ This was rejected by other members of the committee, who argued that the quality of the teaching was already excellent – technology would enhance it, but not improve it. This point interestingly was also made in a comment by Tom Preskett to my earlier blog Expectations and goals for e-learning, when he wrote:
‘I don’t talk about improving quality because of the connotation that the quality isn’t good at the moment. It’s worth saying, however, that I think the social, informal learning offered by Web 2.0 can and should improve the learning for everyone.’
For me, this is the core issue around e-learning. Can you really justify the high investment in technology if it is merely added on as an enhancement to what we already do? For instance, I have noted recently that lecture theatres or even small seminar rooms now have at least three screens – one on each side at the front of the room, and one in the middle so the lecturer can see what students are seeing. Certainly this enables everyone in the room to see what is going on, but nothing else changes. The teaching goals are the same, the student-teacher ratio is unaffected, and is there any suggestion that students will learn more because of this? Lecture capture is another example. Can the investment of US$6,000 a classroom be justified in terms of better learning? All we are doing is adding cost without any measurable benefits.
The quality of teaching and learning
This is the big question. Is the quality of teaching in our post-secondary institutions already of high quality and thus merely needs to be enhanced with technology (the icing on the cake), or is there major room for improvement in how we teach? This is the big divide, and really determines whether e-learning is successful or not.
My position on this is clear. Universities and colleges follow a form of teaching that is largely historical in origin, and which has not accommodated well to the major shift that has occurred as a result of opening up access to post-secondary education. It has accommodated even less well to the opportunities (or affordances) that new technology offers.
In support of the first point, universities in particular had an excellent teaching model for an elite system of higher education, when only a few students attended, and when the resources were more than adequate for teaching in the old way. I’m old enough to belong to this model. When I did undergraduate honours psychology at Sheffield University in England in 1962, less than 8 per cent of high school students went to university in Britain. However, I had in my two final years an instructor-student ratio of 1:3: four tenured professors and 12 students. We had lectures, small-group seminars and occasionally one-on-one tutorials. I had an excellent personal tutor, who involved me in his research, during my last undergraduate year
Now in the UK, 40 per cent of high school students go to university and in Canada the figure is over 50 per cent. The instructor-student ratio is around 1:20 in the research universities, and 1:30 in two year colleges. Some undergraduate courses in first and second year have over 1000 enrolments, and lectures, often given by foreign graduate students, are to classes of 250 or more. Many professors pine for the old days, but these have gone. I believe it was the right thing to do to expand access (another blog needed to do this topic justice for sure), but we have not changed the teaching model. We have just added technology to the old model. But what we need is a new model, that builds on the strengths and opportunities that technology provides, and, incidentally, builds on the tremendous research advances made since 1962 in understanding how students learn, and how best to teach.
Using technology to enhance learning merely increases costs without any measurable benefits. It does not address the need to change a teaching model that poorly serves mass higher education. It does not make the best use of technology. However, it may be a necessary first step to engage faculty. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that this will lead to more fundamental changes.
In another blog on improving the cost-effectiveness of teaching and learning, I will suggest some ways in which the teaching model should be changed to make better use of technology and to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
In the meantime, I will be interested to know whether you agree that the current teaching model is inadequate, and whether you believe that enhancing the current model with technology is a poor use of scarce resources.