eLearning: That & More 2: What’s the Good of It?

When the Internet began to increase in popularity in the mid-1990s it wasn’t hard to hear two loud, polarized groups within the education community. The non-adopters were stuck firmly in the past, tenaciously holding on to a correspondence-school model. In fairness to them, they had spent significant parts of their career in developing an effective correspondence model of education—carefully-constructed handbooks, mailing lists and distribution centres—and could not see how the Internet was going to make things any better. When suggestions would arise regarding the need to “move to the digital world” reasons like these would be brought forth to justify inaction:

  • The Internet is too slow and unreliable.
  • We have to provide equal access to all and the Internet is only something that a few people have.
  • We have excellent content available for print; much better than that amateurish-looking, hastily-constructed stuff on the web.
  • People won’t understand how to use it.
  • It’s too expensive.

Then there were the zealots. To them the Internet was the answer for everything and, thanks to it, education was about to change fundamentally. In a few years, schools as we knew them would be no more. The digital world would set us all free!

We can see now that neither group was right. In time, as the Internet grew in speed, reliability and, most importantly, popularity, correspondence courses were phased out everywhere in favour of web-based ones. As time passed hose clever but amateurish digital developers and teachers became seasoned, skillful and disciplined professionals.

Despite the zealots’ predictions schools were not left abandoned, and while homeschooling continues to be on the rise among some parts of the population, there are no serious efforts underway to eliminate so-called “bricks and mortar” (we use concrete, steel and wood in NL) schools as institutions.

Networked devices, though, are everywhere. Most students from grade 7 onward carry their own mobile devices (smartphones, tablets and “pods”) and even more have computers at home with Internet access. Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are present in a large fraction of our classrooms and most of them depend on the Internet for content. The use of multimedia sites such as YouTube is common. Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard™, Desire2learn™ and Moodle are, thankfully, finally starting to take root in our face-to-face classrooms (although not fast enough for my liking I might point out). Even some groups are coming around to the notion that social networking is not all bad.

That said, though, the question still remains: Has the widespread existence of electronic communication tools really transformed education or are current uses just extensions of methods that are really centuries old?

Think about it. Here are sentiments often expressed by many parents, educators and students:

  • IWBs are a waste of time and money. Many IWBs are not used in an interactive way. After all you can only hold the attention of a class for a few minutes when only one or two gets to participate at a time. Besides, truly interactive content is not as pervasive as you might think. As such they are little more than expensive projection screens that lie dormant most of the time.
  • Class time is boring spoon feeding. Much class work is done through PowerPoint-style presentations. While these are clearly superior to similar work done on chaulkboards or regular whiteboards, the methodology and philosophy are really not much different—specifically show students the ideas and expect that learning will take place as a consequence. Note that’s not to suggest for a minute that teachers don’t take advantage of more interactive methods—they do, but these don’t involve the IWB.
  • iPads and such are useless toys. iPads and related devices, while no doubt fun to use, are not often put to good use. They are expensive to obtain as class sets and, at the moment, rather hard to manage. That is, ensuring that the appropriate apps are installed is rather laborious. Besides they also offer the student an immediate on-ramp to distraction: unwanted social networking (again note that this is not to suggest that all social networking is bad. It most certainly is not! It’s only bad when it gets in the way of learning.) and irrelevant content. Besides, as was pointed out earlier, the content for pad devices is still in its infancy. Additionally while pads and pods are great tools for consuming content they are not always a great choice for creating it. In the end, at this moment, pad type devices are little more than easily-broken and rather expensive books and bad paper substitutes.
  • PCs are a waste of money. Finally we come to PCs. While there is no doubt of the power and usefulness of these devices, once again, much of that potential has gone untapped. While the tools for creating content, whether it be text, audio, video or some hybrid are powerful and affordable, the tools for interacting with content are still not great. Much of the available educational content amounts to little more than automated book page turners and videos—again a throwback to the sixties. Besides most of the computers found in schools are just donated leftover junk and rarely work properly when needed. When they do it’s really only at great taxpayer expense.

Well now, isn’t that a pile of negativity! Now, lest you walk away with the notion that I am anti-technology, let me state that those sentiments do not reflect my own experiences and opinions. How about letting me go back through the four bullet points, this time with opinions that are closer to my own:

  • IWBs are a waste of time and money. While they certainly can be a waste if misused or under-used the fact remains that a huge quantity of useful content exists and is freely-available if one takes the time to find it. Furthermore when given good content, students love interacting with IWBs. It’s important to realize that the IWB is only one of many useful tools that exist in modern classrooms so you should not expect them to be the only tool used. That’s the problem—too many make a fuss about them as if there are to replace whet was there before. No!  They are an addition, one that will take time to learn how to use effectively.
  • Class time is boring spoon feeding. Now that is just nonsense! While there are no doubt that there are teachers who insist on spending all of class time droning on, subjecting the students to “Death by PowerPoint,” these individuals are very much the minority! Besides, a well-designed presentation (clear and logical, containing good visuals and of the appropriate length) is a very effective teaching tool…one more in a large toolbox!
  • iPads and such are useless toys. Students love interacting with these devices and the amount of quality content out there is growing. Besides, class sets do not have to be purchased. Many students are happy to bring their own, so only partial class sets need to be available, and management software for this (which loads the apps as needed) is becoming more and more widely available. Some examples are here and here. Like them or not the fact is that for the modern child these are the books and magazines.  …and so much more so suck it up!
  • PCs are a waste of money. Nonsense! While, yes, there is a dearth of truly immersive courseware the composition and research tools freely available already justify the purchase. While there is some truth to the notion that many schools are technologically backward the overwhelming trend across the developed world is toward increased professionalization around the acquisition and support of classroom ICLT.

So what is it I’m trying to say? Yes, it looks like this is just a bunch of waffling. In one group of bullets one point of view was presented and in another set of bullets basically the opposite was presented. So am I just wasting your time? No.

Here’s what I’m saying: those who claim that computer hardware and software is (a) useless or (b) the one best thing are equally wrong. The whole issue of Information, Communication and Learning Technology (ICLT) is far more complicated than all of that. While modern day electronic computing and communications equipment has had a profoundly positive effect on all parts of society including, yes, education the fact remains that there has been widespread wastage of money and effort and, as of now, there remains much unexplored and unrealized potential.

But the work continues.

And as long as the focus is on teaching and learning and as long as people are willing to do the hard work required to get the procedures down there will continue to be real improvements.

Just be wary of the snake oil sales force—it’s out there.

Next: There’s a lot of jargon surrounding eLearning. Besides the expected BS there’s some good ideas wrapped up in many of the the new terms.


24 thoughts on “eLearning: That & More 2: What’s the Good of It?

  1. Thanks for the balanced review! To me the key word in one of the last paragraphs is “hard work”. I am freaking out then I read about “joyful” learning, “edu-tainment”, anything is easy-going and play 🙂
    BTW I have read several posts on education, MOOCs etc. on various blogs I follow. Is this education week?
    In order to turn the rants of comments I leave everywhere into something more balanced I started crafting a post of my own on education – I have been inolved in some teaching for a long time and also been sort of a part-time student. I should have some opinions. But so far I was not successful in making it balanced and sarcasm-free 🙂

    1. Hi Elke, while we’re having fun at MOOCs expense go have a look at this one I wrote back in November past. It sums up my fears about MOOCs.
      Oh, and again with balance in mind, I should also point out that this is just a cautionary allegory. I see a lot of good in MOOCs too–as long as the focus remains on teaching and learning and NOT on profit.
      Oh, and please do not take the sarcasm out of your post, please–it makes it much more fun to read :>) And besides–it lets you really say what needs to be said.

  2. All points well taken. You know Maurice, what it all boils down to is that no matter what the technology (or lack thereof), if the teacher isn’t motivated to motivate the students … very little can happen in the classroom. I’m sure you’ve seen this viral video … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQpStt3oeuo … Mr. Bliss makes some very good points. Lots can be done with little and little can be done with lots … it’s a matter of the synergy, the chemistry, between students, their teacher, and the subject. If the students are motivated and the teacher isn’t – ZERO. If the teacher is motivated and the students aren’t – ZERO. If neither the students nor the teacher have an inteterest in the subject – ZERO. I believe that some of the ancient tenets still apply. One needs motivated students, motivated students, and a subject which interests both.

    “Has the widespread existence of electronic communication tools really transformed education or are current uses just extensions of methods that are really centuries old?” This is the real question and I eagerly anticipate your take. I’m afraid my answer is that, except for a very few truly novel concepts … the electronic tools simply make our job as educators possible in a rapidly changing world.

    Just my two-cents … PowerPoint encourages teachers to be lazy.
    Just my two-cents … old fashioned blackboards are still a useful tool.
    Just my two-cents … teachers who know their subject are critically important.
    Just my two-cents … interest and motivation on the part of the student is critically important.

    The critical element is engagement and investigment. When those happen … learning is almost a side-consequence.

    Also … ‘correspondence course,’ … that went the way of the dinosaur … right


    PS: Sorry for the seemingly stream-of-consciousness feel to this comment … not running on all cylinders this morning.

    1. Your stream of consciousness is a rather thoughtful one, then :>)
      All points accepted with just two changes:
      Powerpoint encourages lazy teachers to be lazier. In the right hands and with the appropriate guidelines powerpoint can be great. Here’s my list of warnings: 1-slides can’t be busy 2-the presentation can’t depend on the slides; they must be an augmentation 3-the slides must be done in-keeping with good typographic and visual design standards. Check with a professional! 4–don’t be afraid to do a hybrid. The marriage of a graphics tablet to a slide can be a happy one. Some of the slide work needs to be done on the fly.
      Wait–can’t agree with the blackboards, though. I’m still getting the chaulk out of my clothes from 30 years ago. Now a GOOD IWB I can go with–brings the best of both old and new.
      Oh, and, heavens I do hope correspondence courses are truly gone.

      1. We have Smartboards here at school. I’ve never liked them because the stylus has always had a point which is too fat (even when on the finest adjustment). My letters all melt together. And also … the alignment always degrades after a bit and the writing then fails to fall right under the tip of the pen. Finally … sorry for all the typos in the original comment … written before I was fully awake. Your comments about PowerPoint are well taken … the problem is that the majority of faculty don’t take the time required to fulfill all of your requirements. Also … what the heck is MOOC? D

      2. I’ll touch on MOOCs in the next installment. They are online courses that accept MASSIVE registrations. The work is mostly self-paced. Right now, coursera ( https://www.coursera.org/ )is one of the major players. For a cautionary look at them look at the link I posted in response to Elke’s comment.
        On the whiteboard thing I have worked with quite a few of them over the past few years and have found that some are very stubbornly resistant to proper adjustment–the things you mentioned: going out of alignment regularly and jumpy pens that don’t write straight (it’s like your hand is shaking even if it is really not). We have often found that the root cause is ‘dirty’ electrical systems that (a) have ground faults or bad grounds and (b) interference from things like faulty flourescents. When those things are not faulty and are properly installed they tend to be rock solid. Sadly, though, there are quite a few out there that have un-diagnosed electrical issues that ruin the whole experience. Sadly, in some older buildings (and we have a few in my province) with old shaky electrical systems the boards probably can never be made to work optimally–too expensive to fix the electrical system.

  3. Great post – I personally believe that one who inspires in others the hunger for learning can educate no matter what tools are at their disposal and those who really ought to be pursuing a different career, can scarce hope to make a difference regardless of what tools you provide them with.

      1. But of course! 😀
        And the one about birds flocking…
        One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was “Nothing new under the sun” – too bad we have to constantly remember each generation! LOL

      2. I think so – playing Trivial Pursuit with him was a hoot – he would give 20 minute educational seminar while answering any question (expanding upon) – everyone else hated it, but I learned so much! 😀

  4. Pingback: Do I Have an Opinion on Education at Large and on MOOCs in Particular? | Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

  5. Mary

    As a school librarian, I’ve had the asolute luck and joy of working with a lot of excellent and inspiring teachers and some truly truly outstasnding ones and I agree with you and all those who stress the teacher’s promoting enthusiasm. – excitement as key – I’ve seen teachers transform ‘boring’ (for some students) Shakespeare f by having them actually perform it – (complete with swordfights sometimes:) and the same teachers working to have students incorporate Powerpoint into class presentations – or make YouTube Movies or create newsstories via Twitter using only 140ish characters – realizing these too are skills students will need as they go on – or even now.
    And , regarding your last post – I agree we cannot predict the future – but I really admire teachers who work so hard to incorporate evolving technologies = since as an oldster new tech stuff is something I really struggle to try to learn. Interesting posts!

    1. Thanks! See, we agree :>) Yes, it’s always about the dedication and attention to the needs of the students. Funny–the tools so often tend to be the focus when, in reality what really matters is the interactions we cause and, by extension, the wished-for transformations.

  6. Maurice i love technology and where it is heading. my children live in a small country town and the smart boards and interaction with other students from all over the world is astounding. Then there is the IPAD where would all those special kids be without it? My son is on the spectrum the ipad is our biggest learning tool! Not to mention if he asks for rain at night because he can’t sleep I down loaded an app that had rain. He needed the sensory action of smashing glass (a scarey interest, now gone) I down loaded an app where you smash glass. I can’t imagine our world without all these gadgets they are our lifeline and connection to our son. thanks for the detailed perspective into this amazing world of our future.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it in detail! I noticed also that in the cases you mentioned the technology was a natural extension and enhancement of everyday life. That’s the way it should be!

  7. Hmm. a few arguments and other comments here.

    1) I loathe powerpoint and presentations. Unless they are very techy and loaded with stats ie basically a medical presentation about clinical results I fall asleep
    2) IWBs sound fine to me if they work ok. But I liked blackboards so I see no difference in the concept
    3) Using iPads/tablets? dubious.
    4) Computers. Big yes. Not all computers are PCs I might add says Ms Apple User
    5) Correspondence courses – brilliant. That’s how I got my MBA, I would do it all over again.
    And therein lies my main gripe. Not everyone can cope with on-screen/electronic learning of whatever type. Some of us need print media. I wonder if some people are being disadvantaged with the lack of print learning?

    Just my latest dinosaur comment for the day.

    1. The most painful way to die: death by powerpoint! My general rules of thumb are (1) between 5 to 8 slides, no more and (2) keep it to about 20 minutes if possible oh, and (3) consider drafting a memo instead :>)
      I’d still take an IWB any day over a blackboard. Back in the eighties when that’s all we had I’d come home from work every day covered in chaulk. I couldn’t even get a comb through my hair! The one thing I still dislike about the IWBs though is that they are still really too small for my liking. Ideally a classroom should have several of the things but they are soooooo expensive. (Typically around $5000 to $6000 by the time they get installed).
      The one thing I’m always stuck with, though, is that these presentation tools really assume that teaching TO groups is the best way to do it. It’s not–my experience is that there’s no ‘best’ way since (1) we all learn a bit differently (me–best left alone to solve problems, no good in classes when I’m student; I clam up) (2) the method also depends on what it is you are trying to teach and (3) it’s best to mix up the methods a bit anyway so nobody gets bored and that everybody gets their best methods from time to time. All of these things have a place and in an ideal world we’d have lots of all of them. Too bad it’s not that way at all. Mind you if I had to choose ONE thing, like you I’d choose the laptop since it’s so versatile. Now making it so that everyone had one…well :>(

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