December 17, 2014

Some basic assumptions about e-learning challenged

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Guri-Rosenblit, S. and Gros, B. (2011) E-Learning: Confusing Terminology, Research Gaps and Inherent Challenges Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 25, No.1

Following its admirable policy of ‘publish-when-ready’, the Journal of Distance Education has recently released this article which challenges several of the assumptions often made about e-learning. In particular, it argues that:

  1. The development of a clear and coherent conceptual framework for e-learning research is hampered by the multitude of different terms that are used to describe the use of digital technologies to support teaching and learning.
  2. It is naïve and unrealistic to assume that the use of e-learning, however it is defined, in and of itself will transform students into autonomous and self-directed learners.
  3. There are substantial gaps in e-learning research, particularly at the institutional and system-wide level.
  4. Both e-learning research and practice face inherent challenges. We need to fully understand the benefits and limitations of implementing e-learning, in relation to costs and learning effectiveness, and the potential impact on access and the ability to improve or worsen the digital divide.

Although many instructional designers and distance educators will find most of this article all too familiar, it should be required reading for proponents of open educational resources. The authors take a strong, empirically-based research approach that challenges for instance the assumption that students will become self-learners merely by providing excellent content (the authors might also have looked at the assumption that students will become self-learners merely by participating in social media groups.). The authors argue for instance that:

putting the students in the center of the learning process, and assuming that the information and communication technologies have the power of turning them into self-directed and autonomous learners have turned out to be quite naïve and unsubstantiated assumptions. Most students, even digital natives that were born with a mouse in their hand, are unable and unwilling to control fully or largely their studies. Teachers should not be seen only as guides on the side. They have a tremendously important role in implementing the wide range of possibilities enabled by the new technologies. However, their roles are not self-evident. Materializing the potential of the technologies in learning/teaching settings does not mean just transplanting the practices of face-to-face encounters to the technological milieu.

The argument is really for betting training of instructors, taking account of not only new technology developments, but also many years of research into the effectiveness of learning through media. At the same time, it is also clear that we do not have enough wide-focus research on recent e-learning, its costs and effectiveness.

I will be doing a blog shortly about the need for and problems with research into the costs of e-learning.

Comments

  1. Hi Tony,

    I agree with the four points as summarised in your post. Particularly point three.

    With regard to self learning; I agree to some extent with the paragraph that you quote from the paper. Having said that I don’t think I’ve ever thought that just putting rich content online or placing them in a social media context will encourage students to be auto didactic. I’m not really sure how many people really think that to be the case.

    I would argue that overall higher education does very little to support auto didacts or encourage those who aren’t self learners to become so. I think that the inherently inflexible nature of higher education course delivery is what inhibits and discourages self learning, not really the quality of content or the social environment.

    Cheers

    Mark
    @marksmithers

    • Tony Bates says:

      Thanks, Mark

      Yes, I think that like many papers, there are some straw men in their arguments.

      However, working with some open content enthusiasts I think they do tend to underestimate the amount of learner support required for open content to be learned and integrated within an area of study. It’s not just a question of comprehending and memorizing content, but giving it context and meaning, and that is where teachers (and other learners) become essential for most learners.

  2. Hey Tony:
    As always another important insight about basic assumptions of elearning. I’m going to propose that the focus on content, oer etc., is a red herring.

    The ideas or arguments about access and openness characterize the recent 40 year of an ‘educational reform’ mentality that has influenced educational theory and practice and has reappeared in thoughts about elearning.

    The social reform approach to education was the result of post-wwII and particularly 1960s ideologies of civil rights, women’s rights, democratization of access. The social reform ideologies swept society in Europe and North America and naturally influenced as well education. Teachers and learners wished for, and in many case demanded ACCESS and more democratic forms of interaction, rejecting the authoritarian rule of the instructor. I am personally sympathetic and supportive of these principles in many ways.

    However, they do NOT form a theory of learning, nor a useful strategy. We need to move beyond and build a theory that is not merely anti-authority but which does present a productive and evidence based alternative theory and practice.
    Rejection of behaviorism in the 1970s became a rejection of learning THEORY, and the field of education became confused. A populist notion of educational constructivism was adopted and translated into ‘learning by doing’ or ‘self-learning’, which celebrated openness and lack of constriction or control in the name of democracy. Inattention to learning theory was arguably one of outcomes.

    Teachers and learners however felt lost, and arguably they did lose.

    Elearning has inherited some of these fundamental problems. If access to content was the KEY, then having a student sit for 4 years and read books in a library would constitute a degree or diploma that signified some level of expertise. Using the Internet or cloud computing to host and make available tons of content is NOT the answer to advancing education or knowledge.

    My research and study has emphasized the very important role of the instructor—who represents and demonstrates the processes of the relevant Knowledge Community–to students, at all levels of learning in K-12 but particularly higher ed.

    Open content is interesting but somewhat of a red herring. The key I would argue (in my theory of online learning) is that learners engage in and increasingly become fluent in the discourse of the discipline: how do mathematicians discuss and address knowledge problems? how do social scientists discuss and address knowledge problems in their field?

    The instructor introduces the learners to the knowledge discourse processes in that discipline and engages them in learning how to practice and become part of the knowledge community.

    Students learn to build the relevant content, not merely access it.

    The content stuff is not the key in 21st century Knowledge Society. Rather, how can learners better become apprentices to their respective knowledge community.

    This goes beyond Mark’s notion of open content and builds upon or expands Tony’s notion of instructor’s giving content “context and meaning”.

    Learning, whether f2f or online, is about learning how to solve problems within the discipline—building on the processes and knowledge of the respective Knowledge Community.

  3. A question to to Mark Smither’s about ‘self-learning’.

    Mark writes above that “I would argue that overall higher education does very little to support auto didacts or encourage those who aren’t self learners to become so. I think that the inherently inflexible nature of higher education course delivery is what inhibits and discourages self learning, not really the quality of content or the social environment.”

    Historically and, arguably genetically, humans are a social species and we survive and thrive by our abilities to communicate and collaborate. The collaborative nature of human kind has been argued and documented by leading scientists in social anthropology and cognition (Mothers and Others, etc.).

    Learning independently is necessarily linked to learning socially, and thereby made meaningful by how our learning relates to and enables our social existence.

    Hence I am confounded by your emphasis on self learning and auto didactics. I view personal learning as feeding into (and also extending beyond) individual life and the larger dimensions of work, community, family and ultimately social, knowledge-based and professional learning. Auto didacts as a term that I understand is most frequently applied to those who have been unable or unwilling to participate in formal education or a knowledge community. It covers those from socially-impoverished backgrounds without access to education, to those with cognitive challenges who are able to focus on particular areas but are unable to address more comprehensive learning. Self learning (informal learning) nonetheless does represent what we each and all do all of the time. Informal learning constitutes around 80 -90% of what and how we learn. But it is not formalized. Once it becomes part of a curriculum is is described as formal or non-formal (non-credentialled) learning.

    I do not understand why you propose that auto didactics as THE way to go for learning in general.

    Are you arguing that autodidactics should be a separate stream of education? Is it more essential than social learning? Or that it should be a sub-theme, and if so in what way? Or do you argue that individualized learning or self-learning is THE only way that learning happens and should therefore be privileged?

  4. Access to content is what frees the learner to learn what they wish to learn. The job of the teacher is to moderate the inquiry and help the learner to become a self learner. The learning should go where the learner wants to go….not where the teacher wants it to go. The teacher should accept the task of connecting the learners interest to the subject under study.

    Everything changed when access to knowledge ceased to be limited and passed from the control of the universities as warehouses and became open to all on the internet. It is a new dawn.

  5. Wow. There’s a lot here in the post and comments, but I have little time to respond now. Main comment I’d like to make is regarding the role of the many forms of online ed to the broader goal of learning through schooling. The tech is a tool, not a silver bullet. Creating motivated self-learners is paramount and different forms of tech can overcome some obstacles. What are the obstacles? I’m partial to H. Stephrn Glenn’s Significant 7 – http://www.capabilitiesinc.com/.

  6. I think your point right at the end that it’s about teacher training comes close to the issue, but I would call it teacher roles. The idea of what a teacher does in online instruction needs to change, both in general and with very specific respect to any particular subject matter. DE affords so many more interaction levels, that instructors can do a lot more to just get involved with a class, motivating students as someone with useful, transferable experience…rather than just a being guide on the side that isn’t expected to really lead a class with value judgments on the material/discussion. Sure, there’s something to be said for autonomous learning, but that’s not instructor led education. When instructional design is separated from the instructing in DE, it gives the role of instructors room to evolve.

  7. Scott Johnson says:

    One point that never gets discussed with e-learning and distance ed is the notion that they are the delivery method of, at best, second choice. Were I to live in the university town I grew up in and had access to in-the-flesh teaching I certainly would chuck the whole autonomous, self-directed mythical student model for being a genuine learner.

    I study online because that’s what’s available in my small town (could that be because I live in a culture that doesn’t value education?). I study in isolation without the benefit of interaction, except by discussion utilities that are said to be “participatory” but feel disembodied, delayed, un-synchronized and mostly like listening in on a conversation I’m not even sure I’m part of. I have to print off my own student records, search endlessly through multiple levels of password protected sites to access “learning materials”, pay tuition but have no student ID, counseling services, and on and on.

    What part of e-learning isn’t the poor cousin of formal education?

  8. Hi Tony and others,
    I have posted here on suggested Assumptions Theory http://bit.ly/eWuf4p

    Here I would like to share my views:

    I 1.The development of a clear and coherent conceptual framework for e-learning research is hampered by the multitude of different terms that are used to describe the use of digital technologies to support teaching and learning. If learning disregards the dynamic nature of interaction amongst learners, facilitators and artefacts, then surely a coherent conceptual framework is enough for e-learning. Is that assumption based on a static e-learning model?
    2.It is naïve and unrealistic to assume that the use of e-learning, however it is defined, in and of itself will transform students into autonomous and self-directed learners. Can we expect the use of e-learning alone could transform studenets into autonomous and self-directed learners? What assumptions have the authors made in assuming this to be the case? Are there any one who could make such a promise? Even with the classroom learning, there hasn’t been any transformation occurring in learning.
    3.There are substantial gaps in e-learning research, particularly at the institutional and system-wide level. There are always gaps in e-learning research. Again another great assumption. But what sort of research is required?
    4.Both e-learning research and practice face inherent challenges. We need to fully understand the benefits and limitations of implementing e-learning, in relation to costs and learning effectiveness, and the potential impact on access and the ability to improve or worsen the digital divide.
    We assumed that if we know all the costs and benefits, then we could fully implement e-learning. This is a very difficult to achieve goal. Why? There are so many assumptions here, and back to (1), that we may be convinced by the self-fulfilling prophecy – that PLE is not working, that e-learning is too expensive, and that we need to invest on teacher training, that may be too costly. And so we just wait for another decades for PLE and e-learning to be used in institution, based on those assumptions.
    We need to consider the risk management approach towards all these. Do we?
    Thanks Tony for the sharing.
    John

  9. I really like your blog, very interesting posts. I also do some distance education at the
    Uned, you should really check it out. I life far away from the university so it was the best option and it works very well.

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