Downes, S. (2012) E-learning Generations, Half-an-Hour, February 11
In general, I try to complement rather than repeat what Stephen writes (which is just as well, seeing how prolific he is). However, I’m highlighting his latest post, because it brings together all in one place an overview of his views on the development of e-learning, and in particular the different aspects and approaches to e-learning that have developed over more than 20 years. Especially for those studying online learning and e-learning, this post of Stephen’s is a very useful ‘one-stop’ resource. Stephen’s overview is particularly strong on linking technological trends to their application to e-learning, and he also provides an interesting perspective on the technological and conceptual aspects of MOOCs.
History before Downes
My only advantage over Stephen is that I am older, and have been teaching online longer. So I would like to complement what Stephen has done by pointing out that e-learning has even deeper roots than those discussed by Stephen. In particular I would like to recognize the pioneering work of Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They developed a networked collaborative learning approach that they called computer-mediated communication (CMC), which they used as a blended learning model, using NJIT’s own computer network, i.e. it pre-dated the Internet (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). So the emphasis on interaction rather than content management was there right at the start of e-learning.
In the early 1980s the Open University in the United Kingdom developed an audio-graphics system called Cyclops that worked over the public telephone system for delivery through its regional study centres (McConnell, 1983). This enabled faculty at the centre to communicate in real time with distance students. This was the forerunner of teleconferencing technology such as Elluminate and Blackboard Collaborate (click here for more details)
The work of Turoff and Hiltz was reinforced by staff at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who in 1983 developed a text-based online collaborative learning tool called CoSy that worked over telephone systems.
The very first article in the then new Journal of Distance Education in 1986 was entitled “Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education?” (Bates, 1986). This argued that the use of IT for communication between teachers and learners was far more important than trying to use technology to manage learning in a behaviourist way.
In 1988, the Open University in the United Kingdom added a ‘massive’ online discussion forum to its Introduction to Information Technology: Social and Technological Issues (DT200), with over 1350 students from all over the United Kingdom linked online, using dial-up modems over the telephone system (Mason, 1989). As an instructor on that course, it was an unnerving experience dealing with over 1,000 students in the same discussion forum, and many useful lessons were learned.
Other experiments were also taking place at the same in both Europe and North America – the list is too long to continue (see Harasim et al.,1995, for more examples).
Communication or content transmission?
My point here is that the use of IT for communication between students, and between instructor and student, has always been a key goal of many working in education. The learning management system came afterwards. LMSs have many valuable features, above all by providing an organizing framework for online learning, and can include tools for online discussion and collaboration, but unfortunately, too often LMSs have been used mainly as a place to dump content, and have, perhaps unfairly, been associated with information transmission rather than communication.
The other key development is that we have moved away from the confines of text-based or even synchronous audio to rich, multimedia environments that support a variety of approaches to teaching and learning. We now have many tools that sit comfortably outside the LMS – or can be easily integrated with it.
What can we learn from the history?
Thus the main consequences for me of more recent developments in e-learning are as follows:
- the technology is much cheaper, more user-friendly and more reliable
- as a result, it is more ubiquitous, and no longer the domain of educational or technology specialists: it’s being used by everyone
- consequently, a great deal of e-learning is now informal as well as formal, and educators are still learning how best to work with this
- e-learning is not one ‘thing’, but an historical development and process that means different things to different people
- educational technology has moved from being something that supported classroom teaching and later distance education, to a force for radical change in our educational systems – but radical change based on the full potential of e-learning is something that still has yet to occur on any significant scale.
- the challenges for e-learning are no longer technological, but ones of desire, organization and appropriate application based on prior knowledge, experiment, and evaluation.
- we need innovative teachers and administrators, and thinkers such as Stephen and others, to continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, while at the same time not ignoring the lessons from history. As George Santayana wrote: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
In the meantime I strongly commend Stephen’s post. It is well worth reading.
Bates. A. (1986) Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 1, No. 1
Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995). Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching & Learning Online Cambridge: MIT Press
Hiltz, R. and Turoff, M. (1978) The Networked Nation Reading MA: Addison-Wesley
Mason, R. (1989) An evaluation of CoSy on an Open University course, in Mason, R. and Kaye, T. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford: Pergamon
Mason, R. and Kaye, T. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford: Pergamon
McConnell, D.(1983) Sharing the screen, Media in Education and Development, Vol. 16, No. 2