Electronic is the commonest answer. Which is misleading. It implies the two go together when they don’t; electronic has nothing to do with learning. elearning requires a new pedagogy. An inherent problem is the way existing educational theories have been moulded to fit. They won’t. They can’t. Not only does face to face practice not sit well within virtual environments, to create workable online educational experiences is to accept the reality of elearning engagement is the diametric opposite to how elearning has been presented.
Conventional rhetoric tells us elearning has the power to transform. The HEFCE ‘E’ could well include easy, efficient, effective, extended, economic – effortless? I made that last one up but the promotion of elearning as the answer to reducing costs and doing more for less implies a seamless transition from the traditional classroom to a virtual one. The anomaly – and the true reality – is elearning means increased costs and doing much much more – in terms of the design and delivery of learning activities as well as the technical, administrative and professional support systems which are all part of an effective elearning framework.
What would I call elearning?
Enigmatic? Exacting? Exigent?
The complexities of managing online learning are enormous, even Elephantine – as in the problem of the Elephant in the room. The resourcing the time, space, place and skillsets – all essential components. The real costs of elearning are so big no one dare address them. You could call it Expensive learning. Without a dedicated team containing a blend of technical and pedagogical understanding of digital literacies, digital scholarship and digital ways of working, elearning will continue to appeal to a narrow student base, retention will remain poor and the quality of online resources be an ongoing cause for concern.
As if this were not enough, elearning privileges those with means of access and the capability of using that access appropriately. If you are limited by an outdated browser, run an old operating system, live in an area with a poor connection speeds or depend on assistive technology, elearning will be problematic.
Out of all the possibilities the biggest e of all remains E for EXCLUSIVE.
The joy of a digital education strategy is the potential to enhance teaching and learning. The recognition we are under-resourced to support digital engagement is welcome. The fear is the starting place. Blue sky thinking is visionary. Before looking to something out of reach, some brown ground work is needed first.
When the word transformative is applied to technology I get nervous. In the beginning, twenty years ago, transformative was common. HEFCE’s first elearning strategy (2005) promoted the ‘transformative potential of technology’, following government ambitions for the internet to transform society – no less. In 2009 HEFCE published a revised strategy. Transformative is still in there but the word enhancing dominates. Enhance is a better ambition. The TQEF of those times was aptly named – Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund. The university’s Best Practice Office, renamed Teaching and Learning Development Office, was funded through the TQEF and its Teacher Fellow Scheme a great example of how education development funds support innovative digital practices in teaching and learning, led by teachers not technologists, who sought to enhance not transform.
HEFCE have stuck to their 2009 definitions of ‘transform’ and ‘enhance’ in their triple ambitions for technology enhanced learning. They see TEL leading to:
- efficiency (existing processes carried out in a more cost-effective, time-effective, sustainable or scalable manner)
- enhancement (improving existing processes and the outcomes)
- transformation (radical, positive change in existing processes or introducing new processes).
I think we need to be positioned on the middle ground of enhancement where technology is an additional pedagogic layer – not a replacement. Virtual learning cannot automate the higher education experience. Blue sky thinking is not the way forward at the present time. We need to ground strategic thinking in what we have and what we know.
I’ve always worked where nervousness and excitement combine. Fear of technology is a serious condition. We should take more notice of it. There’s much to learn from resistance. Nervousness has many forms; you might not even see it’s there. Quite often, the realisation of how technology can support/enhance existing practice pushes the nervousness away. But like an addiction, it always back. In particular it strikes when you’re alone in front of the computer and something doesn’t work as you expected or you’ve forgotten what to do next. This is the point the technology gets put to aside and traditional methods of working re-emerge. Most people prefer the comfort of the familiar and the secure. The danger/thrill seekers are the minority. Digital practices are much less about the hardware/software/workshops – they are human and individual – and as such there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
A digital education strategy has to recognise the person behind the machine, the pedagogic differences between subject disciplines, the diversity of ways people use computers and access the internet and above all the nature of help. This is brown ground stuff. It’s the bottom line. The starting point. Unless we have empathy for resistance, digital divides can’t be seen. Unless we acknowledge the work to be done in encouraging, supporting and resourcing the late adopters, digital education will always be unequal and exclusive.
Universities must rethink their approach to student digital literacy in the Guardian Higher Education Network puts digital literacy training and critical reflection together in the same sentence. The word ‘training’ is a bit Pavlovian but applying critical thinking to Internet content and behaviours is an increasingly essential requirement. I’ve worked in higher education since 2000 and witnessed a growing need to be more proactive in addressing the digital literacies of students and staff, for example in the development of both graduate attributes and teacher education programmes.
When the first virtual learning environments arrived, the sector focused primarily on embedding technology rather than investing in the management of the cultural shift to virtual pedagogic practices. Today, the user-generated content and file-sharing nature of Web 2.0 style technologies, has increased the broader social impact of the Internet, while higher education is currently subject to market forces creating increased interest in online learning, for example the Collaborate to Compete Report to HEFCE. Research findings have raised concerns about levels of digital competence as in the JISC/British Library CIBER Report into the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future at and the NUS report to HEFCE Student perspectives on Technology. Key areas are still missing like enhanced quality assurance with regard to digital learning (covered in this blog post) and the means of ensuring the appropriate digital literacies, including awareness of the parameters of inclusion, are embedded into both the student and the staff experience.
Recently I spoken to several people who’ve been asked to create an online version of an existing course but without additional resources or support. This suggests something is still missing from strategic approaches to digital teaching and learning. Over a decade ago, the VLE came in on the back of promises of transformation of teaching and learning while increasing efficiency and cutting costs. In 2011, it seems nothing much has changed. The recent report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force (January 2011) Collaborate to Compete continues to associate quality and cost-effectiveness with engaging, flexible interactive online resources although there are two noticeable differences between then and now.
The first is the student voice which is suggesting early promises of elearning have not yet been realised. Comments in Student Perspectives on Technology (October 2010) include concerns regarding ICT competencies of teachers, variation and inconsistency in use of ICT and lack of attention to digital literacies as a whole institution approach. For those who have been bridging the gap between the technology and the pedagogy over the past decade this comes as no surprise. Attention has always been paid to embedding the technology within the systems rather than investing in appropriate training and support for those who will be using it on a day-to-day basis. Moving from face-to-face to digital delivery involves significant shifts in skills, attitudes and practices not least because teaching and learning are social activities. To achieve a successful online equivalent is perfectly possible but requires investment in human computer interaction. The problem with technologists leading technological innovation can be lack of empathy for the non-technologist. This barrier has to be overcome if digital education is to achieve its potential for inclusion.
The second difference is a notable shift in the HEFCE document from VLEs to OERs. Open Educational Resources have taken the VLE’s place as catalysts for change, ensuring cost effectiveness, high quality content and quality, flexible engagement. The only word which is new is ‘mobile.’ However, OERs remain the preserve of the technologist – the person with confidence and competence with working in digital environments – and therein lies concern of the gulf between the early and late adopters as well as those who have yet to get to grips with education in a digital age. Nevertheless, the report is hopeful. It concludes with recognition of the need for investment in greater engagement with the technical and pedagogical aspects of online learning. We have been here before and failed to cross the gulf between the technology and the pedagogy. Hopefully this time round those lessons will have been learned and appropriate and lasting bridges can be built.