Tuesday, June 14, 2011

E-learning, r-E-al learning?


As always when I write a post I write from my own experience and understanding. E-learning is many things to many people! I myself would differentiate between e-learning and online learning although I often see them used interchangeably. My perception is that e-learning is characterised by being e-mediated in some way and would include for example using resources and activities via a CD/DVD with no wider connection through the Internet. Online learning is a subset of e-learning and is characterised by using the Internet in some way. Both e-learning and online learning may occur in, either or both of, an asynchronous or synchronous environment. My own perception of:
  • the characteristics that define or describe “GOOD” e-learning¨
  • and also of the effectiveness of e-learning strategies
is influenced by my own experience of it as a learner and as a teacher. The Wordle below includes just some of the words that characterise good e-learning for me. Yes! I know it contains opposites – it can be used in so many ways to meet the needs of different learners that this is inevitable. Where am I coming from?

The context in which I teach, and thus use e-learning strategies, is a little different from that of most other teachers:
  • I am an adult literacy/numeracy lecturer working in the public vocational education and training sector
  • I live and work in a rural aream the Wheatbelt of Western Australia
  • My classroom is 115,000 square kilometres of sparsely populated country with a scattering of small towns and even smaller communities
  • Vocational education here in Australia is competency based so on the whole we don’t have formal tests with grades, instead we look for “evidence of competency”. This often involves collecting product and process evidence and combining these with observation and questioning to show that a learner has met performance criteria and demonstrated required skills and knowledge
  • My student group is highly diverse including Youth at Risk (as young as 13), mature aged adults, culturally and linguistically diverse students (Indigenous and migrants), many are unwilling to study but enrol to get welfare benefits
  • We have continuous enrolments and flexible learning so it is very rare for two students to be at the same stage of the course at the same time.
Going online was a logical step to increase the accessibility of our adult literacy/numeracy courses for our geographically distributed and highly diverse potential learners. It was a huge undertaking and we still don’t really have enough units online. However I have now been teaching fully online for some time and previously I was using a variety of e-tools with face-to-face students to increase engagement and enable more diverse ways for my students to evidence their competence. So I have many thoughts on what works and what doesn’t work for me and my students. I am also continually “tweaking” and changing both to deal with issues that arise and to try and make it all work better! The first half of the slide presentation “Who needs bricks & mortar” - my Keynote from last year’s Reform Symposium takes a look at some of the barriers encountered and solutions tried in initially putting my course entirely online. In the second half of the presentation I took a flight of imagination into the future of online/e-learning in a school context.

What makes "good" e-learning?

There is much discussion and debate about the choice of tools we use to support learning whether they are “tech/e-tools” or more prosaic ones such as a choice between lined and unlined paper. It isn’t uncommon to see people “put the cart before the horse” when considering e-tools ie they find a great tool and then make what they want to achieve fit the tool. They would never do this with the paper – on the whole if you want a child to draw you give them unlined paper, if you want them to write you give them lined paper. As in a “non-e” context the tool should support what we are trying to achieve rather than be used for its own sake.

Most of my involvement in e-learning has been in an online environment (both synchronous and asynchronous) and I feel that e-learning without an online component can be very static and one dimensional. Adding an online dimension makes e-learning much more dynamic and exciting. The lack of an online facet is less significant in a physical classroom situation where there are other students having diverse ideas and opinions with whom to interact and collaborate thus providing that extra dimension. What is “good” e-learning? I would suggest that “good” e-learning (online or otherwise) is not much different from “good” learning mediated in any other way. The technology we use is another “tool” in the toolbox. Effective learning happens when students are motivated and engaged. Online e-learning can provide:
  • greater potential for motivation and engagement by giving students opportunities to use e-tools to generate evidence that they are competent ie that they have achieved outcomes;
  • opportunities to reach a wider audience through Internet publishing and global collaboration;
  • amazing access to very up to date information, experts/enthusiasts in any field and peers in other parts of the world.
In my opinion if we are going to create good e-learning it is more important than ever before that we adopt an approach where students have to “do something” with information in a specific context rather than just regurgitate it! It is all too easy now for students to find the answers to any question and copy/paste without understanding. Adopting a constructivist approach allows learners to show their understanding through the use they make of information in solving problems and in their analysis and evaluation both of the information they gather and their own products. This is true even at the level where we are using a stepwise structured approach to scaffold learning for learners who have not yet developed independent learning, thinking and problem solving skills.


Our challenge as educators using e-learning tools and strategies is to design learning and assessment activities that utilise problem solving and critical thinking skills applied in a given context. This is not a simplistic task! Yes – the wide range of e-tools gives us a huge range of choice but this can lead to confusion and indecision. We always have to start with the learner and what they need to know and understand ie the aims and objectives of the learning!

Jo Hart is the author of the “E-verything” blog and is on Twitter as @JoHart tweeting constantly! She also facilitates regular weekly webinars in the Edublogs/Elluminate community partnership virtual room. Jo is a lecturer in General Education for Adults (Literacy and Numeracy) at CY O’Connor Institute. This is a regional college in the Australian public Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector based in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. Currently, Jo delivers entirely online with a blend of virtual classroom, Learning Management System and a range of other e-tools. Jo has also gained funding for and facilitated a variety of projects in e-learning and delivers professional development to colleagues.

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